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3 Keys for Pastors to Build and Maintain a Strong Family

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Here are three “small things” I’d like to share with you. Even if things are going great in your ministry marriage. But especially if you know things could be better.

I grew up in a single-parent home. My dad left when I was 2 months old. My wife, Cindy, grew up in a big-time alcoholic home. Both of us are first-generation Christians. When we got married, we were new to our faith and brand new in ministry.  In short, we had a clear plan on how to have a crummy home. And that’s certainly where I was headed as early as our first year of marriage.

I was working full-time at a church, leading both the college and high school ministries. I’d be gone all day and multiple nights. Chasing important ministry “demands.” And of course, there were those two tournament softball teams I was on. Because I needed some exercise on Saturdays.

Cindy and I had a total of zero couple friends, and I didn’t see any great value in building any. On top of all that, I had also just started my doctoral program in counseling, meaning extra hours of study to all the ministry time. In one year, we moved further and further apart. That’s when Cindy served me something for breakfast that finally dropped the scales from my eyes.

Cindy’s father had been in construction.  Up early. Like her mother, she would always rise and have breakfast ready for me. But on that morning, what was on my plate wasn’t bacon and eggs. But a large textbook. An Advanced Psychopathology text to be exact.  It was from the course I’d just finished.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“This is our relationship.” Cindy answered.

After an extremely long pause, Cindy said, “Do you remember this book?”

“Yes.” I said, trying to figure out what she was saying.

“Remember last semester how many hours you spent reading this? Marking up almost every page? Really struggling to understand and grasp what was here?”

I nodded.

“That was you in our courtship. I felt like you were really interested in me. Really ready to dig in and find out who I was. What was going on inside me. Wanting to be alongside me. But then we got married. And it was like you had passed your final for that course. And now you’re on to your ministry and school and sports. They’re the books that are important to you. And where is this book now?”

I didn’t answer. Because I knew where it was. I was done with that book and was now using it as a doorstop to the bedroom I was using as a study.

My head dropped. My heart as well. I had come from a long line of broken relationships. I was a Christian. An Assistant Pastor. A seminary graduate. I was starting a counseling program no less. But the reality of my relationship with my wife, in crystal clear terms, was captured in a discarded textbook. Cindy was just someone/something meant to keep the door open for me to go do all those important things…

Ever been there? In ministry? With helping others? Committed to learning even more about how to do ministry well. But somehow, skipping that part about building attachment, and learning more about increasing caring and commitment at home.

It was in looking at that book that I feel God allowed the scales fall off. I picked it up. Finally looked up into Cindy’s eyes. Full of pain and tears.

“Cindy. I am so sorry.”

And after a long time, saying,

“What is ONE THING I could do to pick up this book – to pick you back up? To help you feel loved instead of discarded?”

I truly believe those “one thing” words came from a gracious, forgiving God, whose Holy Spirit breathed them into my thoughts. Cindy hesitated… then sat down next to me. She actually shared several “small things” that morning. Each one I began to take to heart. And so much began to change.

Here then are three “small things” I’d like to share with you. Even if things are going great in your ministry marriage. But especially if you know things could be better.

That choice for authentic living instead of image management

What’s an “image manager?” Our oldest daughter, Kari, and I train and certify life-coaches, ministry leaders and counselors in a tool we call LifeMapping®. We begin by getting people to look at their past. At their unique strengths and struggles. And we end with helping them map out a positive, prayed-over plan for a special future. But right in the center of that process is the key thing for people’s LifeMap.

That hinge-point is taking a hard look at how well we’re doing at being “fully human.” Fully available. It’s whether we’ve made the choice to look at those past hurts and pictures that block us from really being present to love someone today. To fully own who we are—and accept our spouse for who they are.

An “image manger” doesn’t deal with those hurts and blocks in their life. They’re more concerned with an image. They have a “public self” and a “private self,”but they’re not the same. 

What matters most to an “image manager” is the exterior. But that means working hard at maintaining two images. The one the public sees. But that’s a different one than those closest to us sees. And the more duplicitous we become, the closer we are to seeing the walls of our made-up lives come crashing down. Just like with King Saul.

Remember when Saul simply “couldn’t wait” for the Prophet Samuel to come and offer sacrifices before a big battle? Instead, he feared the people would be afraid—and so he offered them himself (1 Samuel 15). And then Samuel came and rebuked him. And as Samuel turned to leave, Saul grabbed and tore his garment. And Samuel said, “The Lord has torn the Kingdom of Israel from you today…”  But if that wasn’t bad enough, what does Saul do next?

He’s more concerned about being caught then being contrite. And he actually begs Samuel to walk back with him in front of all the people.  He’s not broken over what he’s done. Or what he’s lost. He’s worried about his “image.”  He wants Samuel to walk back with him so it will look to those on the outside that all is well. Even though he’s just been confronted with the authentic reality that his life is falling apart.

Your spouse sees your private self.  If you haven’t realized it yet, your kids are like God’s little spies. It’s so important to be real with them. Humble. Teachable. Honest about your strengths AND struggles. And to RUN from anyone (especially your boss in ministry) if they say (as one now fallen pastor said often to his staff), “You need to have two selves. A public and a private one.”  That’s a lie and a terrible invitation to blow up your marriage and ministry. 

The importance of having an exit strategy out of an argument

Second, a powerful way to be authentic and keep loving your spouse and family well is going to the food court. Or it was for Cindy and me for eight straight years. Why a food court?

Cindy is half-Irish and half-Italian, meaning she’s fairly verbal. I wrestled in college and step towards conflict. Meaning the two of us could move from almost any issue (like “save-spend” or “should the kids be allowed to do A or B”) from talking to arguing. And it was a short step from there to attacking the other person verbally for their daring to approach the decision different than we would.

If we were not careful, then there is that third step people in ministry often don’t talk about. That’s when, after getting off the issue, and attacking the person for so long, you finally begin to question the relationship. That’s when you say deep inside, “If these are the kinds of issues we’re having, and if you’re this kind of person, then what in the world am I doing in this relationship?” And before you know it, even the smallest issue, can become grounds for walking away from a loved one.

That fact led to a commitment Cindy and I made to each other. If we got to “level two” and started verbally attacking the other person (“You’re just like our mother!” “If you were really a good steward!”) – we’d stop right there and point out, “Hey, we’re off the issue. We’re attacking the person.” We committed as well never to get to that third stage of questioning the relationship.

Instead, I’m not sure which one of us came up with the idea, but we decided we’d go to the food court on Tuesday nights.

That became the night, for eight years, where we overpaid a college babysitter to come to our house for ONE hour. She’s show up and we’d jump in the car and drive the few blocks to a local mall. We’d sit as close as we could to the same table each time. And we’d hold hands. Then we’d talk about whatever the current “issue” was. (There’s always something that’s an issue around our house in a week’s time). Only at the food court, we would discuss the issue without the volume level going up, and we’d ask forgiveness if we’d been angry or unkind. We’d commit to seek Godly counsel if needed and to set up another time to talk if we still weren’t agreed. Then we’d pray and rush back home like our baby-sitter would turn into a pumpkin if we weren’t on time.

Without realizing it, we were building into our relationship an exit strategy out of an argument. We had started going there just because it was harder to lose it there in front of others, than at home.  But it became, for us, a time to commit again. And again. Instead of just that constant, unhealthy battle of who had to win, we had to keep choosing to love more like Jesus.

Here’s one more thing for ministry couples that’s we’ve found to be crucial:

That thing you do BEFORE you walk in your door

Cindy was a public elementary school teacher for most of our marriage. She had the demanding job of teaching English as a Second Language to a room full of first-graders. Talk about challenges from the day coming home with her.  

I was in ministry. Custommade for all those huge, pressing challenges to walk right in the door as well. I was coming home, but I wasn’t really being present emotionally or physically for Cindy or the girls.

That’s when we started making a habit of something we call “Palms down, Palms up” that we learned from a Policeman friend. He’d stop his squad car on his way home from work at a grade school parking lot very near their house. With the kids already gone from school, he was alone.  He’d turn off the engine. Then he’d put his palms down on the top of his legs, and dump out or “empty out” all those tough things from his day. The difficult pictures. The shift changes he didn’t get. The demands that were still surrounding him after a challenging day. It was a time to go through the day and do “Out with the bad.”

Then he’d turn his palms up. He’d pray that Jesus would help him walk into his house with something different than those challenges. He’d pray that the “Fruits of the Spirit” would be what filled him up as he walked in the door. “Love, joy, peace, patience…” He’d go through the entire list in Galatians 5 . He knew he’d need them all with young kids and all the energy that would be there. It was a time to get centered. To go home to serve, not just hide or be half-hearted. To be mindful in a Christlike way of who he was in Christ. And more ready to live that out.

Do whatever works for you. Be people committed to authentic living, and keeping “issues” at the issue level, as those who often make a habit of pushing back the chaos and challenges of the day. They’re the one who are seeing strengths and love grow in their home. Palms down. Palms up.

It took being served a textbook for me to start doing small things to strengthen my marriage. May the Lord give you the encouragement you need to take those small steps in maintaining and building a strong family.

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