By Randy Hamm
My colleague was burning out. Ministry had been his life, with countless hours poured into the lives of others. He had a powerful and effective ministry, serving so many alongside his ministry-minded wife. What I didn’t realize was that the ministry wasn’t all he was burning out of. Their marriage was also dead.
This probably isn’t the first time you’ve heard a story like this. It wasn’t my first time either. Though it was a lot closer to me this time. Close enough that I might have been able to speak into the situation and offer the everlasting life that Jesus proclaims for us.
If I could go back, what would I say?
What could they do differently as they started into ministry?
What is needed for a marriage to thrive in the midst of ministry?
First thing I’d say is this: Conflict is a Gift
When I asked a group of workshop participants what the difference between an authentic marriage and a Christian marriage was, I received some interesting answers. The temptation we, especially pastors, fall into is to believe that a Christian marriage is one with minimal conflict, close to perfect intimacy (spiritual, physical and emotional) and abounding in selfless love. We are all on a journey toward these ideals. Though we have to admit, even as Christians, we are not near as far along that journey as we’d like to be.
When we said our vows, we really had no idea what challenges would lie ahead as we wrestled with the tensions of joy and struggle as we seek to live and love authentically.
Mike Mason, in The Mystery of Marriage, says “To keep a vow means not to keep from breaking it, but rather to devote the rest of one’s life to discovering what the vow means, and to be willing to change and to grow accordingly.”
If we are willing to say, “wow, I’m not getting this marriage thing right, I have a lot to learn,” two things happen.
- We offer an incredible gift to our churches. As they struggle with their marriages, they no longer feel alone. They realize that even the pastor and their spouse have these struggles and need to rely on God. In my work with couples, I’ll mention something that I learned when we saw our counselor recently and they will stop me confused: “Wait, aren’t you the one we are learning from?”
And I’ll respond, “aren’t you glad that I’m continuing to learn too?” If we can learn to live humbly before our congregations, what an example we offer them. Instead of perpetuating the lie that they too can have the perfect marriage like we do, we can offer them a much more realistic view of marriage.
- When we are humble, we truly rely on God and are willing to learn, change and grow. If we can get past the lie that we don’t need help, that we shouldn’t need help, then we can actually get the help we need. We can turn a good marriage into a great marriage. We can face hidden conflict with the help of a district supervisor or counselor. We can ask for prayer from our deacons and friends. We can request to go on a marriage retreat. And more than anything, we can talk with our spouses about the reality of our marriage and seek God’s wholeness together.
Psychologist and author Dr. John Gottman has learned that 69% of the conflict we experience in marriage is perpetual. The majority of differences originating from our family of origin, personality and preferences cannot be merely resolved. We must learn to love each other in the midst of these particular tensions and conflicts, mutually submitting as Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:21. Though this research can initially cause much frustration and discouragement, in the end it leads to freedom, growth and joy. We no longer have to strive for that perfect conflict free marriage, but can learn instead what God is doing in us through it.
This leads me to the second thing I’d suggest: Don’t Expect Your Spouse to Make You Happy
I love officiating weddings. The highlight of every wedding is when the couple offers vows to each other. Unfortunately, more often than not, couples are commenting on how the other fulfills them or offering to fulfill the other. We often fall into the trap that this person will be the one who fills up the emptiness within us. When they inevitably do not, we are confused, hurt, frustrated and can get quite angry.
As a child, I remember watching the film Love is a Decision by Smalley and Trent (also a great book). The image of a cup with water being poured into it came on the screen. They teach how we can often look to our spouse as the one to fill our cup. Yet, through their little or big actions and lack of fulfilling our expectations, they often end up drilling holes in our cup. They go on to talk about our hope that kids will fill us up. Of course, they can drill even bigger holes.
My people have committed a compound sin:
they’ve walked out on me, the fountain
Of fresh flowing waters, and then dug cisterns—
cisterns that leak, cisterns that are no better than sieves (Jeremiah 2:13)
I’m not encouraging you to call your marriage a broken cistern, not on a date night anyway! But remember that there is only One who truly fills us. God calls us to live an authentic life of seeking that fulfillment in Him. Of course, that could mean some hard honesty here as well, admitting that we are dry, confused, empty and asking for help. I’ve found that having a Spiritual Director helps so much: one who encourages me to look at what God is doing through all areas of my life. The more we learn to receive our identity and love from the One who can truly give it to us, the more we can offer that to the one we love, instead of expecting it from them.
Finally, See All of Your Marriage as a Gift From God
Of course, we all believed this when we got married. That was when we were overjoyed that this person loved ME! Tim Keller tells us, “The reason you get a thrill, it’s your ego. Someone I like is responding to me. That’s not love. It’s ego….When someone you admire, admires you, the praise of the praiseworthy is the most satisfying of all. It’s sexy.”
I’m sure that you still see your spouse as a gift to some degree, but perhaps some of what they offer you’d rather not receive. Perhaps some of that sexiness has worn off.
There is a wonderful complexity to marriage that is often messy and confusing. We see our spouse as a gift to us but do not realize that this gift includes disappointment, frustration and hurt. If we are to truly live a fulfilled life, we need to learn to receive the gift of journeying alongside someone who is fallible, broken and learning to love. In the midst of our shared hurts and failed expectations, we may find that we are also accepting each other as we are, and learning to love without the conditions we first brought to our marriage. This not only mirrors God’s love for us (true covenant), but it enables us to become more like God, to be more whole and holy.
How the two of you work together in ministry will often include balancing out your own weaknesses with the other’s strengths. Of course, we must be willing to admit them first. In no other relationship do we have the pressure of being with someone 24/7. We thought that was the gift of continual loving companionship and support, and though we do receive that, we also come up against the frustration of our egos, when we are not loved the way we think we should be. In ministry this can even be worse, when they are not supporting us like we think they should. If we are open to see what God is doing in us through that frustration, we might be able to see what God is truly doing in our spouse.
This work is deep, but can be done in us through the gift of our marriage, if we are only willing to receive it. As Gary Thomas, author of Sacred Marriage, likes to say, “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?”
Expecting Conflict, Not Expecting Our Spouse to Make Us Happy , and Seeing Our Marriage as a Gift From God, will enable us to continue in ministry as an authentic partnership with our spouse. Yes, I do believe these tools are helpful in saving marriages, as well as thriving in sustainable ministry. Much more than that, I believe that viewing our marriages this way opens us up to God’s wholeness in amazing ways and allows us to live out the Kingdom of God more fully.