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How to Survive Marriage to a Youth Minister

It’s 7:30 p.m. and he’s not here… Again.

I wonder what it is this time? The meeting ran long, a student’s in crisis, or he’s got to get the budget numbers ready for the elders. I’ve heard it all. And all of it feels like it’s more important than me. And yet I feel guilty for feeling this way—I know that whatever his excuse is, my husband’s ministry has eternal value.

I’ve been a ministry spouse for almost 25 years, so I’ve learned to toughen-up and trade in my fainting daisy routine for a little steel magnolia. But that doesn’t excuse my spouse from giving me the courtesy of communication, and for ordering his priorities so that are marriage is strengthened, not weakened.

The truth is, I don’t want to just survive as a married couple in ministry—I want us to thrive. But for that hope to translate into reality, we’ve had to learn intentional habits in the way that we communicate our needs to one another.

Shooting Myself in the Foot
So where is the balance between my marriage and work that has “eternal implications”? Which promises take precedence: the ones we make to God or the ones we make on our wedding day? What’s really most important at any given moment of the day? And how do we survive the highs and lows of a life in ministry?

When I met my husband in college, I had no idea what effect ministry would have on my career. I’d always aspired to be the brightest and the best in my chosen field. But in my first year of marriage, I quickly realized that my career conflicted with the demands of his ministry. I had a serious choice to make. If I wanted to have any connection to the passion that was consuming all his time, I’d need to sacrifice everything I’d worked so hard to achieve in my career. Darren never asked me to make this choice, but I desperately wanted to connect with him in the everyday flow of his calling. I wanted to love the things that he loved. And that left no room for career-climbing.

So I quit my job and my career. I chose ministry instead. And I was miserable for a long time. That’s because I never fully explored my “third options,” and I never gave Darren the opportunity to compromise. Because I simply “decided,” based on my isolated assumptions, I cut off discussion and communication in our marriage. We’d both would pay for the decision later.

A Train off the Tracks
We spent a lot of years fully consumed, 24 hours a day, in ministry. We made ourselves completely available to anyone who needed us. Of course, this was not my “dream life,” but at least we were in it together. I loved being with my husband, and it was inspiring to experience his “fire” for reaching teenagers. We had the time and freedom to fully engage in ministry, and we positioned our entire lives around the needs of those we served.

That lasted right up to the day our children were born. Then reality turned a sharp corner. The life balance that I’d sought by quitting my career now surfaced as an issue again. Babies aren’t pliable when it comes to time and attention. In those early years, my kids often asked “Where’s daddy?” as I tucked them into bed after a day away from him. It was heartbreaking to know that my own kids had to sacrifice what they needed most from their dad while he was investing in other people’s children.

When it was just me shouldering the sacrifice, I could handle sharing my spouse with his ministry demands. After all, I was sacrificing for the sake of eternal impact. But my children just didn’t understand. They didn’t know how important ministry was to Darren’s calling and identity. They wanted their daddy. They wanted a third choice.

I knew things had to change the day I started having contractions with our last child. Darren was gone on a mission trip. He’d changed plans and decided to take an in-state trip just in case I had issues with the baby. When the contractions started, I waited to call him because I knew what he was doing was “important.” So I called a nurse friend instead, and she came over to help time my contractions. As they got closer, I knew I had to call and “interrupt” Darren’s ministry priorities.

When I told him what was happening, he responded: “You can’t have that baby today—I have to finish my trip!” Obviously, not the response I was looking for. I’d already given up everything for the sake of his ministry. I felt frustrated and offended, and even though my contractions stopped shortly after that conversation, our deferred discussions about compromise could no longer wait. Darren’s ministry model was unsustainable, and our marriage was suffering. That day marked a permanent change in our life, and in his ministry.

When Darren returned from his trip, we both knew that our “best-laid plans” had jumped the track. Years of fuzzing the line between faithfulness to ministry and faithfulness to family had grossly distorted our marriage. Our life and priorities were completely upside down. We were doing all the wrong things for the right reasons.

Fighting for Balance
The impossible “third option” was now back on the table, and our discussions moved into uncharted territory for our marriage. We knew we had to compromise for the sake of our marriage. We pinpointed what was really important to us, and brainstormed which priorities were worth sacrificing. Balance was the goal. The next day, Darren spent time at work translating our conversations into a battle plan—he came home early and handed me this list, promising to follow these priorities for the rest of our ministry life (and he has):
• Where do Katie and the kids rank on my list of top five priorities today? And where would they rank themselves on my list?
• Katie understands that I have to make sacrifices for ministry, but when was the last time that I sacrificed something that was ministry-related for her and the kids? Do it more often.
• Am I as excited about my relationship with Katie and the kids as I am about my youth ministry? If not, why not?
• Where am I prioritizing my personal relationship with Jesus? How would Katie describe the spiritual “temperature” of our relationship?
• Where am I investing the best of my heart, energy, and effort?

As Darren began to re-order his day his new habits cleared space for me to pursue, for the first time, a career that I loved. I finally had an outlet that was just for me. And my career responsibilities leveraged him into spending special time with our kids—we called it “Daddy-time.” He kept those moments focused by turning off his phone. He gave them the undivided attention that only his ministry had previously enjoyed, and they were soon thriving because of it.

The Surprising Fruits
As we both began to erect boundaries around our ministry commitments, we experienced a host of unexpected benefits. Because ministry had to continue during stretches of time when Darren made himself unavailable, he was forced to expand his volunteer base. He developed strategies to engage a wider swath of people in ministry, making it less dependent on him. Our commitment to protecting the “greenhouse space” for our marriage and family paved the way for many other people to take on significant roles in his ministry. They rose to the occasion and filled the gaps that were left when he wasn’t available to do everything.

When inevitable ministry emergencies surfaced during family time, we developed a litmus test to help us decide what was worthy of interruption:
• Does the issue have eternal value?
• Can another leader in the ministry handle the issue?

We used these two simple questions to protect Darren from endless phone calls about sleeping bags the night before camp and late nights spent crunching budget numbers for elder meetings. And his small group leaders were more motivated to connect with their students on a deeper level. Our two-question filter helped us focus on the issues that were truly worth our sacrifice. They allowed us to thrive in ministry AND marriage. And his ministry was actually better than ever.

Learning From Failure
In retrospect, I wonder what would’ve happened if we’d discussed family/ministry/career balance all those years ago. If we’d worked together to craft a schedule that gave space for my career and allowed him to serve the needs of our family, it would’ve radically changed the dynamics in our marriage and his ministry. [tweet_box design=”default” float=”none”]Prioritizing our marriage over church demands didn’t adversely affect his ability to serve students. Instead, it paved the way for the most productive, impactful ministry season of our lives.[/tweet_box] The “accidental outcomes” of our decisions became the bricks of his ministry foundation, enabling him to persevere long-term in student ministry when many of our peers have not.

Paul urges us to “run our ministry race” with the intention of winning it (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)—that requires discipline and training. When we started out, Darren and I made aimless sacrifices for the sake of ministry. We had no discipline, and quickly fell behind in the race. But when we began to live within our boundaries and consistently communicate our needs to each other, we found a pace that propelled us back into contention.

We’re athletes who are called by Jesus to “run so as to win.” And we exercise discipline to win an “imperishable crown,” only possible because we refuse to “run aimlessly” or “shadowbox” in our ministry. I no longer feel guilty when I ask Darren to come home at a decent hour after a long day at work, and he no longer resists when I ask. We both understand that the eternal value of his ministry emanates from what happens in our home. [tweet_dis]The key to thriving in marriage and ministry is knowing how to make the right sacrifices, at the right time, in the right places. [/tweet_dis]

Katie is a three-decade veteran of the ministry life.

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