“Hi, I’d like to meet with you because I’m feeling called to plant a church.” I probably get that phone call or email four times a month, and if the person is married, my first question is always the same: “Does your spouse feel the same way?” “Yes, he/she does,” they say. Then I say, “Ask them again.”
Church planting is not for the faint of heart. Launching a new church can be all consuming. You are the prophet, priest, and king, plus the children’s minister, worship leader, head chef, and chief bottle washer all day, every day, until new leaders come forward, and that is never soon enough.
For those of you who are married, this unique leadership role is inevitably very taxing on your marriage. It’s taxing regardless of whether you plant with a core group of several hundred people or in a living room with a handful of people. The pressure to “not fail” is huge.
So my question to you is this: How is your marriage going to survive or even thrive when you are doing all you can just to keep the church plant going?
Here are 4 brief, practical thoughts:
1. Remember that God’s calling on your marriage is greater than your calling to ministry.
God called you to be one with your spouse, and your marriage will be your greatest source of sanctification. Your spouse sees and knows all your strengths and warts, and loves you because of them, not in spite of them. But if you don’t tend to the calling of your marriage, if you don’t see a God-sized scale with a weight on one end that says your spouse’s name, you will give such weightiness to your ministry that your “pastoring” will tip the scales disproportionately. Ultimately this will lead to bitterness and burnout, not only in your ministry, but in your marriage.
So how do you keep the scale balanced?
Here are few simple ideas.
Set regular times to be with each other where you do talk about ministry woes; don’t ignore them, since the ministry is part of your marriage. But be sure to set regular times to meet where you say nothing about your ministry woes at all.
Try not to talk about the church plant as you are going to bed. Your marriage is more than the church plant. So find ways to put the ministry to bed as well.
Lastly, try to say “no” to everything in your life that is not a clear “yes”! One way I think about this is to remind myself that God will never give me more than I can do in a week. So if I have more than I can do in a week, it is not from God. More than likely, I have said yes to too much.
2. Communicate unspoken expectations with grace.
We all enter into marriage and into ministry with expectations that are good, godly, and yes, even unhealthy and unholy. I can’t tell you the number of times that my wife and I were frustrated with each other early in our church plant because I had expectations that I kept in my head and assumed she would “figure out.” When she didn’t, I got frustrated and would resort to passive-aggressive behavior by saying, “I’ll just figure it out/do it myself.” Your spouse is not a mind reader. He or she doesn’t have a crystal ball that tells them what you want, need, or desire.
For example, if you have an expectation that your home be clean and tidy and your children in perfect order before your parishioners come over to talk, but you never share that expectation with your spouse, you can’t expect your spouse to “just know” what you expect.
If you become frustrated when you arrive at home to find a tornado has hit directly inside your living room and the children are possessed by a demon, and you know your guests will arrive in five minutes, is there enough grace left in your tank to love your spouse despite your expectations being unmet, spoken or unspoken? Could you share with the people coming over, “Welcome to what a family looks like. I just got home and things are a little crazy, but we’re so glad you’re here. Let me help get a few things in order, make yourself at home.” When you know you have expectations that you want to see met and your spouse can help, share those openly and honestly. Let your spouse have a say, too. He or she might say, “I hear you, but I’m not able to do that right now because _________.” Then you can talk about it and come up with reasonable expectations that you both can be aware of. Maybe meeting the church members at the coffee shop would be better that afternoon and save you and your family from exhaustion? Your expectations may well be holy and God-centered. Or they may be from Satan, your people-pleasing nature, or some other flaw deep inside you. Talk out your expectations, seek guidance and your spouse’s insight. Your marriage and ministry deserve that kind of communication.
3. Seek peace through prayer with one another.
One of the things everyone agrees we should do for our marriage and for our church plant is to pray together. Yet few of us give it much more than a cursory, “God, help! God, provide! Amen.” I have yet to see any great work of God, or any great marriage in Christ, that were not deeply committed to prayer. However, with that said, it doesn’t need to be that big of a deal. But it does need to be daily, consistent, and thoughtful.
Honestly, my wife and I have struggled with this. Early in our marriage we tried to pray for an hour or more together. I can’t tell you how many times we tried, and failed, to keep this consistent. Where we landed was this: We each have a list that we are petitioning God with, some of which are the same and some different. In the morning before we get out of bed, she lays in my arms and we pray for our day. It may take 3 to 5 minutes. Then, throughout the day, we have carved out individual time to pray though our lists, and additional desires for our church and family. She has a longer, private time to pray, while I typically pray during several breaks in my day. Then at night, we pray together, giving God thanks for our day. Again, it may be long or it may just be five minutes. I think it is more about consistency than anything else. It is in that prayer time that I hear her desires and fears, and she mine. I am softened to her heart, and she mine.
4. Lastly, get away and keep intimacy alive in your marriage.
There are many marriages, including those of church planters, that harbor great pains, hurts, trust issues, and fears surrounding their sexual relationship. If this is you, I highly recommend seeking help from a professional.
With that said, one of the best things you can do for your marriage is to get away alone at least one week a year where you and your spouse let go of everything. Go far enough away that you can’t get back quickly, but close enough that you aren’t traveling days to get there and back. Take the first day and a half just to sleep, rest, and restore. Bring a book, turn off your email, and only respond to emergency phone calls or texts. Then make space and time to rekindle the romance in your relationship. Remember what it was like to date and fall in love. Kiss, hug, touch each other, sleep naked if you can, know that your bodies aren’t perfect but God gave each to the other. Pray, eat, and yes, enjoy intimacy with one another, or at least try.
Sometimes our week away is just what I described above, and sometimes it is “fight week”—usually due to unspoken expectations (see point #2). But use the time to offer each other grace. Chalk it up to exhaustion and seek counseling help when needed. But above all, don’t give up trying. You both need it more than you can imagine.
Brannin Pitre planted Grace Pasadena Church in Pasadena, California, in 2008 and serves on the Advisory Board of Fuller’s Church Planting Program. He is married to Tanya and they have three kids. Brannin received his MDiv from Gordon-Conwell and provides leadership to the City to City North America church planting organization. He also recently launched the togetherla.net website to resource churches and ministries across LA.