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Building Ministry Marriages That Last a Lifetime

By Gary J. Oliver

“Until death do us part.” You probably made this pledge when you were married. You have also performed weddings where the couple made the same commitment. It is a great idea because it is God’s idea. Unfortunately, the tragic reality is this: many ministry marriages do not last a lifetime. Marriages that last, however, do so because of characteristics such as endurance and resignation rather than the love and fulfillment God wants His children to enjoy.

I grew up in a strong, conservative, Bible-believing, evangelical church. In 15 years, our senior pastor had taken the congregation from several hundred members to more than 2,000 members. He loved the Lord. He taught the Word. He spoke out clearly against sin. People in our community and denomination lauded him.

In my junior year of high school, the church asked him to leave because of an adulterous relationship that had lasted several years. A year later the church asked my youth director to leave because of his extra-marital affairs. At the time, I did not understand it. It confused me. How could someone who loved the Lord, taught the Word, and pastored a church have such a lousy marriage that he needed to lie, cheat, deceive his spouse, and betray the sacred vows he had made before God, family, and friends?

While attending Bible college and seminary, I continued to hear about failed ministry marriages. In my first few years of ministry, I learned that some of the people I had gone to seminary with were getting divorced. I then began to hear of nationally known Christian leaders whose marriages had crumbled and were getting divorced.

What’s the deal? If Christ cannot make a difference in those who have devoted their lives to Him and have proclaimed His message, why should anyone believe Christ’s other claims — salvation from sin and eternal damnation? Granting salvation seems much harder than helping someone have a great marriage.

In more than 30 years of ministry, including more than 15 years of teaching and training pastors, many of the most miserable and unhappy marriages I have encountered involved Christian leaders. These same leaders declared with great clarity and conviction that Jesus died and rose again to save people from the consequences of sin. They invited people to receive the good news that could change their lives forever. They taught that Jesus wants to make a difference in our lives. They said that Christ came to give us life and give it more abundantly. They taught that Christ is able to do “exceedingly abundantly beyond all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20, NASB).1 Then they went home to a mediocre, mutually endured, and sometimes miserable marriage. The only things exceedingly abundant are the fear, hurt, frustration, loneliness, isolation, discouragement, and anger husband and wife experience from living as married singles and from knowing they are living a relational lie.

For more than 10 years I traveled coast to coast training thousands of pastors to use the Taylor Johnson Temperament Analysis counseling assessment. As part of the training, participating pastors and their spouses took the Taylor Johnson and assessed themselves. In the second or third year of my teaching I began to notice a disturbing pattern in the hundreds of sample profiles I had seen. Many of the pastors’ wives had profile patterns similar to the suicide profile. I asked my mentor, H. Norman Wright, if he had noticed the same thing. With a sad look on his face, he told me the problem was much greater than most people realized. Loving the Lord, teaching the Word, and being in ministry does not guarantee you will have a good marriage. Good marriages and godly marriages do not just happen, especially if you are in the ministry.

Satan does not want any marriage between two Christians to thrive. But the evil one brings out his biggest and best weapons for his attacks on the marriages of Christian leaders. Having a ministry marriage, however, does mean that Satan will consistently attempt to drain, discourage, deflate, depress, defeat, and destroy you.

I am convinced that one of the critical factors in a successful ministry is a healthy marriage, not just a surviving marriage. (See sidebar, “The Private Side of a Successful Ministry.”) Preaching well, good administration, and wise management are important, but the ultimate apologetic for the truth claims of our Lord is when they make a difference in the most important human relationship we will ever have.

I agree with Joe Aldrich: “The two greatest forces in evangelism are a healthy church and a healthy marriage. The two are interdependent. You cannot have one without the other. It is the healthy marriage, however, that is the frontlines weapon. The Christian family in a community is the ultimate evangelistic tool, assuming the home circle is an open one in which the beauty of the gospel is readily available. It is the old story: When love is seen, the message is heard.”2

Carrie and I were married 27 years. We started out with the normal share of bumps. God gave us three boys. We were busy doing the things young married couples with children are supposed to do. But our marriage was mediocre. We began to realize that we were not experiencing the kind of marriage God desires His children to enjoy.

Over time, God helped us develop a good marriage. By God’s grace, we spent our last 15 years together cultivating a Christ-centered marriage. On July 2, 2007, my beloved bride went to be with the Lord after a 2-year battle with metastatic pancreatic cancer. I thank God that we spent our last years together living, enjoying, and modeling the difference Christ can make in a marriage.

Based on many years of observing ministry marriages — including my own — and more than 30 years of teaching, training, researching, and doing marriage ministry, I have discovered some key aspects to cultivating a ministry marriage that will not just last, but flourish and grow for a lifetime. It involves the factors that books on marriage (including some of my own) discuss — good communication, conflict-management skills, and good financial management. But in this article, I will highlight some unique factors that characterize a healthy, vibrant, God-honoring marriage.

Someone once said that a slow leak, not a blowout, causes most marriage failures. In my experience, that statement is true 99 percent of the time. Great ministry marriages need core relationship skills, but also involve several core choices that make an important difference.

Perhaps you have acquired, even mastered, some of the core relational skills that contribute to a good marriage. But the following choices can take your marriage to a new level.

Choose To Cultivate an Intimate, Passionate, Growing Love Relationship With Jesus

A great ministry marriage does not start by focusing on your marriage. It starts by focusing on yourself, your love relationship with the Lord, and the degree to which you daily allow the Holy Spirit to help you “become conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29, NASB).

In John 21:15–17, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” That is still the big question. To what degree do you daily choose to cultivate an intimate, passionate, growing love relationship with your Lord? To what degree are you in the Word, not just to prepare a message, but also to discover the manna your loving Father has for you?

Remember the hymn, Jesus, Lover of My Soul? Is the greatest desire of your heart to have Jesus as the lover of your soul? For much of my ministry that was not the case. I was so busy helping others with their relationship with Him that I failed to cultivate my own relationship with Him.

In their book, Marriage Made in Eden,Alice Matthews and Gay Hubbard state, “God’s case for marriage is not about a prescription for thrills and feel-goods. It is not a game plan designed to produce soul mates whose overarching achievement is personal, emotional fulfillment. God’s case for marriage is based on His goal of the transformation of His people into faithful image bearers. But Christians discover (often to their surprise) that once they buy into God’s program, personal fulfillment at an undreamed-of-level comes as an unlooked-for-by-product of old-fashioned obedience and willingness to fit into God’s plan.”

Choose To Apply the Psalm 139:23,24 Principle

Do not start by asking, How can I have a better marriage? The better question is: How can I become a better spouse?

After thousands of hours providing marriage counseling, I discovered that every person is an expert on how his partner could be more kind, thoughtful, and loving. If he would only be more patient and listen better, it would solve their marital problems. It seems our fallen human nature is to focus on how our spouse could improve and how he could be more positive.

Note that this passage does not say, “Search my wife, dear Lord, and know her heart,” or “Try my husband, dear Lord, and know his thoughts.” Rather “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxious thoughts” (emphasis added). According to the well-known spiritual, it is “not my mother, not my father, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer” (emphasis added).

Ask God every day to help you more effectively love, give, forgive, serve, encourage, nourish, and cherish those whom you love, starting with your spouse.

When I began to pray Psalm 139:23,24, I realized that having a great marriage started with me owning my own stuff. Seeing my own sinfulness helped me understand how much I was like everyone else — broken, longing for love, prone to blame, yearning to be understood, self-deceived, and desperate for mercy and grace greater than all my sin. Once I became secure enough to allow God to help me acknowledge that I was a sinner, I became free to enjoy God’s grace. I also did not need to fake it, or feel threatened that I might be wrong and lose an argument, or worry that Carrie would learn that I was nothing more than a redeemed sinner. In fact, she already knew that and still loved me.

Do you spend as much time thinking and praying about how you could better love your spouse as you do thinking about how he could better love you? How much time do you spend asking God to help you love your spouse “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”? (Ephesians 5:25). After all, the greatest apologetic for the truth claims of Christ is love (John 13:34,35; John 17; 1 Corinthians 13).

Choose To Understand

In the early years of my marriage — and with most of the couples I have worked with — one of the first responses to a conflict is to try to help our spouse understand our point of view (which we know is the correct point of view). We believe that if they understand things as clearly as we do, they will agree with us. How many times has this worked for you?

When two people spend most of their time trying to get their spouse to better understand them, neither one walks away understanding much of anything. A critical dimension of a healthy marriage is for couples to spend more time trying to understand their spouse’s heart than they do in trying to make their spouse understand theirs. The Bible has much to say about the power of seeking understanding. Proverbs 4:7 says, “Though it cost all you have, get understanding” (emphasis added).

The next time you have a disagreement with your spouse ask God to help you set aside your desire to enlighten your beloved with the reasons for your perspective. Invest that time listening, asking questions, seeking clarification, and trying to understand his perspective. If you do this consistently for a month, you will be amazed at the results.

Choose to Pray

Pastors are aware of how important prayer is, but most ministry couples spend little time in prayer together.

Prayer is important. I have written on prayer. I probably have 30 books on prayer in my library. But Carrie and I spent little time in prayer together unless someone was sick, there was a crisis, or a problem with our children. Prayer, for me, was often a preamble or a conclusion. Even though I grew up in a church where we had prayer meetings, most of the service was a Bible study with 5 minutes of prayer at the end. No one was vulnerable in his prayer requests or prayers. We prayed for our missionaries and Aunt Bertha’s bunions — all the safe things. No one asked: “Would you pray for us because we’re struggling in our marriage? Tonight, my wife said she didn’t like me. And you know what? I don’t like myself.” Or, “I’ve been grappling with depression and feeling like a failure.” That would have been too unspiritual and inappropriate.

Through a series of circumstances, God began to convict us about our lack of prayer. We began to ask, “Lord, what would it look like for us to become a man and a woman of prayer? What would it look like for prayer to be a distinguishing characteristic of our marriage?” If there is a secret to a strong marriage in terms of love for God, love for each other, and passion, it is daily choosing prayer.

Concerning prayer, Richard Foster says: “Prayer catapults us onto the frontier of the spiritual life. It is original research in unexplored territory. Meditation introduces us to the inner life, fasting is an accompanying means, but it is the discipline of prayer itself that brings us into the deepest and highest work of the human spirit. … To pray is to change. Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us.” If you want to experience transformation, choose to cultivate the habit of meaningful, regular, spontaneous, faithful prayer.

Prayer does not need to be a big production. It is more important to pray often than to pray for hours at a time. We began to pray on the phone, before we said good-bye, or we would send a prayer by e-mail. We started our day with prayer. Whenever we had a crisis, we would not simply say, “I’ll pray for you.” We would pray. We would pray in the middle of a conversation. Often when I would land at an airport, Carrie would have left me a greeting and a 30-second prayer. Prayer became a part of our daily living.

In our book, Mad About Us, we share how making prayer a normal part of our lives had a transforming effect on our ability to understand each other. This led to an increased sense of safety, trust, and intimacy. God used praying together to transform our marriage and our love life. We discovered that prayer provides several relational nutrients that are essential to a healthy marriage. (See sidebar, “Three Nutrients for a Successful Marriage.”)

Choose a Growing Marriage, Not Just a Lasting Marriage

What is the difference? If you choose a growing marriage, you will have a healthy marriage that will last. If you strive for a lasting marriage, you may end up with neither. (See sidebar, “Characteristics of Healthy and Unhealthy Ministry Families.”)

I will never forget the first time I saw the elderly couple that came to me for counseling. They were trying to avoid divorce. When I looked at their information form, I was shocked to discover that they had been married more than 50 years. As I became acquainted with them, I learned that while theirs had been a marriage that lasted, it had been an exercise in endurance and learning how to deal with denial, disappointment, discouragement, and unfulfilled desire.

Choosing a growing marriage acknowledges that there will be ups and downs, springs, summers, falls, and winters. The fires of passion will not always burn with the same intensity. But whatever the season or situation God is using, the iron of our relationship will sharpen the iron of our lives. God will use our spouse as the key tool to help us become conformed to the image of His Son. This makes all the difference in the world.

In a growing marriage, we begin to experience new levels of intimacy we never dreamed possible. What is intimacy? “Intimacy is the place where we experience and enjoy all that God created us to be and become. It is the place where we feel safe to express our deepest longings for significance and security. It is the place where we can gradually let down our barriers and masks. It is a place where we can celebrate our strengths and expose the weaknesses and fears and doubts that plague us. It is a safe haven of encouragement where we want to listen and can bask in the warmth of someone who wants to listen to us. It is a place where the presence of Christ becomes very real to us through the presence of another person.”3

Conclusion

In this article hopefully one or two things have stood out to you. Perhaps the Holy Spirit prompted you to take note of them and strongly impressed them on your heart. I cannot count the times I have read an article and said, “I’m going to work on that,” only to end up doing nothing about it — the tyranny of good intentions.

If you want a better, stronger, and healthier marriage, let me make one final suggestion. Reread the five choices that God has used in my marriage and in the marriages of many other couples to increase understanding, safety, trust, and intimacy, and deepen relationships in His love. Does one of these choices stand out to you? Do you sense God’s Spirit drawing you to consider a choice? Then go for it.

Before you move on to the next article in this issue, pause and ask God to help you make this choice for the next 30 days regardless of what your spouse is doing or how he is treating you. Make this investment in your walk with the Lord and in your marriage. You may be surprised at the difference.

GARY J. OLIVER, Th.M., Ph.D., is executive director of The Center for Relationship Enrichment and professor of Psychology and Practical Theology at John Brown University, Siloam Springs, Arkansas. He is the author of Mad About Us: Moving From Anger to Intimacy With Your Spouse.

Notes

1. Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission (http://www.Lockman.org).

2. Joe Aldrich, Lifestyle Evangelism: Learning To Open Your Life to Those Around You (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah Books, 2006), 20,21.

3. Gary J. Oliver and Carrie Oliver,Mad About Us: Moving From Anger to Intimacy With Your Spouse (Bloomington, Minn.: Bethany House, 2007).

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