Apprehension and excitement grip Bart Millard as he stands at the threshold of his most important appearance of the day. One more breath before the critical moment — and one more step before everything changes.
Bart is moments from "re-entry."
Hours ago, the frontman for MercyMe was performing alongside his bandmates for a nationally televised miniconcert in New York City. High-profile media interviews and a 3 a.m. sound check comprised his schedule.
But once he enters his home, Bart exchanges titles like singer and songwriter for husband and dad. Re-entry is a term he and his wife, Shannon, coined years ago.
"It's a challenge walking into a life that has never stopped moving," Bart says. "You have to jump on board and try to fit in."
Bart is keenly aware of the dedication it takes to nurture a marriage and raise a family. And while his job as a music artist requires spending time on the road, Bart knows his marriage to Shannon is "more important than anything else in the world." Throughout the years, the Millards have worked hard to keep their marriage a priority amid the demands of a music career and the needs of five children.
In the beginning
In 1988, Bart and Shannon met in a church youth group when she was 13 and he was 15. They married nine years later. Almost every step of the Millards' marriage has coincided with MercyMe's journey. Both the band and the couple have grown considerably. The Millards are now a family of seven, while MercyMe has enjoyed sustained success with multiple gold and platinum albums.
The band has had 15 radio singles hit the No. 1 spot on Billboard's Christian airplay chart and has been named Billboard's Christian Songs Artist of the Decade. And forget about counting the mountain of music industry awards. MercyMe has performed at prestigious venues across the United States and even appeared in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. And to top it off, 2018 saw the release of I Can Only Imagine, a motion picture based on Bart's life, and his memoir of the same name.
The band's longevity and continued ascension have meant a lot of re-entry moments for Bart — and life adjustments by both Bart and Shannon.
"For about 15 years, I was always trying to find a routine in the midst of all the stops and starts and finally just surrendered," Shannon says. "I've talked with other musician's wives, and it's so comforting to know they haven't figured it out either."
Creating a flawless re-entry process is still a work in progress, but some tweaks have been a hit.
"When Bart used to come home, [the family] would expect him to be there for us right away, but he was depleted," Shannon says.
The solution? The first day is a freebie, a "day of rest for dad." After that, everything is full speed ahead.
Away from the spotlight
There's no marquee or spotlights in the Millard home; no one gets special treatment. With children in different stages from grade school to high school, the days are filled with home schooling, shuttling kids to extracurricular activities and managing a household.
"When I'm back, it's less about ‘celebrate [because] Dad is here' and more ‘let's regroup and have time together,' " Bart says. "My goal is to do everything [for the band] on the road so I can be fully present when I'm home."
Family time is at a premium, so Bart and Shannon intentionally schedule shared activities. But the fun is also balanced with work. Yes, the Millards have a chore chart. The entire family lists everything they love — and don't love — to do. Then weekly tasks are organized and assigned to each family member.
"There's less complaining because everyone is doing more of what they enjoy," Shannon says.
For example, Shannon isn't a fan of wearing the chauffeur hat, but Bart gladly sits behind the wheel — even on that first day home.
"I love driving. It's actually one of my greatest joys," he says. "The kids and I get to hang out and talk."
Also, don't be alarmed if you see Bart wandering around town at night. "I love grocery shopping, so I signed up for that task," he says. "But I'll go at midnight when nobody is there and just put my headphones on."
Although it's not listed on the chore chart, the couple have a plan for handling one of the biggest hurdles in marriage. "Shannon takes care of the bills," Bart says. "She's amazing at it. We'd probably be in prison if I was doing them."
"I'm the saver, and he's the spender, but after 21 years, we've worked on that," Shannon says. According to Bart, the two were "dirt poor back in the day." Years of tackling budgets and better money management have made a big difference — with some exceptions. "Shannon spends on necessities. I end up spending on the dumbest things possible," Bart says. "Luckily, my wife is good at returning things."
Another challenge is making sure they spend enough time together. The schedules of five kids and Bart's responsibilities with MercyMe can put romance at risk.
"Sometimes our kids hear, ‘Mom and Dad need some time with each other. We love you, but we'll do something with you later,' " Shannon says. "There are seasons we do well and seasons we kinda fail, but we're always trying."
"We're affectionate with each other in front of our kids," Bart says. "I know they're watching, and I know that plays a part in how they'll treat the person they'll be with."
Date nights are a priority, but they've seen those go from once a week (when they lived close to family) to roughly once a month. They've learned to be creative when time is limited. Some favorites are grabbing coffee and getting lost on a backcountry road or a lunch rendezvous when dinner isn't feasible.
No matter how busy life gets, Bart and Shannon create their own annual marriage retreat. "We set aside time without the kids, get away, regroup and fall in love again," Bart says. "I wouldn't trade those moments for anything."
"The kids know it's our week to renew our marriage," Shannon says.
Bart and Shannon's commitment to each other has stood through the toughest of times. Their oldest child's Type 1 diabetes has challenged them as parents. Shannon's brother's death in a car accident rocked them in 2004; Bart's ensuing period of depression left him feeling as if he wanted to leave the band; and at times Shannon felt as if she and Bart were living separate lives.
Bart's travel was hard on the children, too. "Our kids tended to be more angry with Bart because he was gone on the weekends," Shannon says. "Even if I tried to fill in, you can't replace Dad."
"I couldn't do it anymore," Bart says. "I looked at Shannon and said, ‘It's time to fix what's broken. I'm doing ministry, and I'm doing family — but family has to win every time.' I had to be home more."
Bart and Shannon have taken drastic measures to put family first, including moving from Dallas to Nashville five years ago. The change allows Bart to be closer to the music industry and his bandmates so he doesn't have to leave town as much. Plus, the band has cut their touring schedule from nearly 250 dates a year to no more than 60.
A new song
Just because MercyMe has fewer touring dates doesn't mean the band is slowing down anytime soon. Their latest album, Lifer, has led to another avalanche of acclaim and national recognition. But now the Millards' marriage has more time to thrive, and so does their robust family of seven.
"Anything worth doing is hard," Shannon says. "It takes work, and you have to fight for it. But there is such a beautiful gift on the other side."
And during those long hours on tour, when another re-entry is still days away, Bart does whatever he can to stay connected to his wife. "Even on the craziest days, I'll at least call Shannon — even if it's 3 a.m.," he says. "I can't go to sleep without telling her 'I love you.' "Patrick Dunn is a visual media producer for Focus on the Family.
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