For years, Cathy and I have been talking with youth workers about their ministry and their marriage. I do realize all youth workers are not walked down the aisle, but most will be married at one time in their life. I also find that most youth workers struggle with juggling their ministry and marriage. So I thought for the next few months in this column I would move quickly into meddling with your marriage.
In June of this year my book, Creating an Intimate Marriage, will be released and I have been doing a lot of thinking about the subject lately. Juggling our ministry and our marriage may just be one of the key issues of our lives and ministry. Here is our story:
Cathy and I have been married for over 30 years. I truly am a fortunate person. God knew what He was doing and I didn’t. We describe our relationship as a high maintenance marriage. This means we have to constantly work at keeping our relationship healthy. Marriage doesn’t come easy for us. We have felt, at times, like hypocrites speaking and writing on the subject. At other times we’ve wondered if our message and strategy for an intimate marriage would work for anyone else like it has for us. To be perfectly honest, I never set out to write a book on marriage or speak on the subject.
Several years ago my good friends at Youth Specialties asked me to do an 8-hour Ministry and Marriage session for church leaders and their spouses at a national convention. At first I turned them down. I told them I had never spoken on the subject for more than 20 minutes, let alone 8 hours. I was definitely not an expert. They had access to any marriage expert in the country to give the seminar, so I encouraged them to find someone else to do it. They came back and said, We still want you. In a weak moment I said, Yes. Basically, that first 8 hour session was filled with information about issues that Cathy and I struggled with in our marriage and offering some very simple and practical ideas for refreshing their marriages. It wasn’t the most articulate seminar and frankly, it wasn’t all that well researched. I was the most surprised person on the planet at the incredibly positive response. I was struck with two thoughts after the first conference: 1) Cathy and I weren’t alone when it comes to having a high maintenance marriage; and 2) people were struggling with figuring out a practical strategy to make their marriage work.
Cathy and I came to a major turning point in our marriage at the Salt and Pepper Diner in Orange, California. The 24-hour restaurant was a breakfast served all day, wipe your own table down, greasy spoon kind of place which for some reason had become sort of a hang out for Cathy and me to unwind late at night at least once a week after our Wednesday night youth group meeting. I can’t remember why we chose it, but it was cheap and right around the corner from our apartment.
Four years earlier, Cathy had graduated from college and one week later, she walked down the aisle to marry me. After a wonderful 10-day honeymoon, I started a new job as a youth worker at a great church in Orange County, California. Some people have easy first years of marriage. We didn’t. I can still remember arguing all the way to the church youth group where I was going to speak to the students on The Beauty of a Christian Home. The whole time I was speaking, I was wondering if I hadn’t made the biggest mistake of my life and I’m sure Cathy was thinking the same thing.
We made it through that very humbling first year of our marriage and moved to Princeton, New Jersey for my graduate school degree. We continued to work on our marriage with some days of success and other days of questioning our sanity. After graduate school, we came back to California to work at a church as a youth pastor and Cathy taught preschool. Everything looked great on the outside, but inside, we both still struggled with our relationship. We had decided that divorce was not going to be an option for us–murder maybe (just kidding sort of). Our youth group took off and grew from 4 kids to over 100 in just a few months. The kids liked us. The parents liked us. The church loved us and even doubled our salary after the first year. (Some people who work in churches would put doubling a church salary in one year on the same level of miracles as Moses parting the Red Sea! Don’t be too impressed; it was still a very small salary!) Cathy and I were very busy with the success of the youth group, her job, and our relationship with friends and family. Being the insensitive male, I didn’t even realize that we were investing very little energy on our own marriage relationship. She was my best youth group volunteer, my job was fulfilling, we had a lot of fun with friends and we regularly had sex. Wasn’t that all there was to marriage? My idea of a date was going to a high school football game together and then I would spend most of my time talking with students from the youth group, leaving Cathy alone to watch the game by herself.
Back to the Salt and Pepper Diner. After a particularly good youth group meeting, Cathy and I were sitting at the diner as we did most Wednesday nights. After we ordered, Cathy looked at me with THAT look. Her lip began to tremble and I knew this was not going to be a comfortable meal. The lip tremble thing still gets me and now my three daughters have the same lip tremble. I think it is hereditary! Cathy blurted out, I don’t know if I want to have children. I just stared at her in disbelief.. This came out of left field and was what kids today call random. What are you talking about Cathy? I just don’t know if I want to have kids. Cathy, we talked about kids on our first date! You teach children! Your degrees are in early childhood education! You are the finest person I have ever seen with children! What do you mean you don’t want kids? It’s just that our lives are so busy, and you and I have strayed so far apart. She went on to say, I have been resenting you and the constant negative drain from your work for some time, but now, I am even resenting God. Why would our relationship be suffering so much even with all the good things that are happening with your work? She continued, Don’t get me wrong, I also see God’s hand on our ministry. Even tonight I was so aware of all the kids who are being helped and reached. Nevertheless, all this busyness and lack of focus with our marriage is causing me to question if we should even have kids of our own. They would never see you, and the strain of your work is straining our marriage.
I mentioned a few paragraphs above that this conversation would be a turning point for our marriage. She might as well have socked me in the stomach and taken all the wind out of me. I knew she was correct. I didn’t have the answers and frankly, we had very few role models to figure out what was the right thing to do. I then just blurted out these words, Cathy, I am having an affair. I quickly qualified it to say it wasn’t an affair with another woman! Or a man, for that fact! My affair was with my job. My mistress was this church youth group that was taking all my energy and attention. My love affair with my job was causing me to only give Cathy my emotional scraps. My low self-image needs were being met by my job and I was running toward it, causing a strain in my relationship with Cathy.
That night sitting in a booth at the diner, we came up with three priorities. They were simple but I would surely not be able to write this book if it wasn’t for the three action steps written on a paper napkin, and making them a priority in our life many years ago. I wrote:
- A nonnegotiable date night each week
- Away from home only 3 nights a week
- Cathy to have veto power over my schedule
Sitting across from each other that night we made a commitment to go out on a date every week. It didn’t have to be expensive and when little children came along, we had to trade some baby-sitting with others in the same situation. Sometimes the date was a cup of coffee and a walk at the harbor near where we live. During the date, we tried not to talk business. We made it point (and still do) to focus on each other. It is a time to renew our love for each other and court each other. It means we can’t come to the date emotionally spent on everyone else’s problems so that we have nothing to give each other. Sure, we miss a date or two in a year, but it is very, very rare. I find that the average couple has a desire to have special dates but they just don’t make it a priority. I have never heard of a couple who has said that a regular date together is not a very positive addition to their relationship.
We also decided that we couldn’t maintain a healthy marriage relationship if we were gone from our house too many nights. In a recent survey, I read that the average minister in America is out an average of five nights a week. I was out at least that many nights. Cathy and I decided that three nights away from home a week would be our priority. Even if that meant I needed to quit my job, we would still only do three nights a week. Do you know that almost immediately our relationship changed because we spent more time together and didn’t live such a frantic pace? There is no magic about three nights, it just meant for our high maintenance marriage we could handle three nights. What’s amazing about cutting back was that we actually seemed to still accomplish most of what we used to get done in fewer nights. Too many couples take on more responsibilities than their marriage can handle. Your marriage and your family need times around the dinner table. The reason God made day (light) and night (darkness) was to remind us that we don’t have to work ourselves into the ground. Too many activities away from the home will damage the home relationships.
The veto power choice was a pretty major decision for us. Some of our biggest arguments had happened because of our runaway schedule. That night, almost like an alcoholic who would finally claim he had no control over his addiction, I said, Cathy you can have veto power over the schedule. This didn’t mean that she was put in a position of being the bad cop all the time. It simply meant I would bring night, weekend and travel schedule issues to her before making a decision. By giving her veto power, I began to include her in my life. Today we may together grieve our schedule or a decision that we made about our calendar, but we don’t argue or blame each other because we both had a say in the calendar. That night, our marriage changed for the better because we did radical surgery on our relationship. But even more than that, I now understand that those decisions brought emotional security to Cathy. I wonder what decisions you need to make to enhance your marriage which will improve your ministry as well.