In February of 1997 I was an idyllic 19-year-old college freshman who was writing vows of love to my college sweetheart. He consumed my thoughts, my time, and my future plans. Falling in love feels good; it’s accompanied by a hopeful optimism that feels easy. However, love is quickly tested after vows are exchanged because committed love doesn’t always feel good. Committed love is sacrificial.
When Herbert and I said “I do” in December of 1997, we didn’t realize how much we would have to work to experience a thriving marriage. Fast forward five years, and our marriage was tested after we moved to a new city to plant our church. While marriage is good and being married in the ministry is doubly good, it also can be doubly challenging. In our 18 years’ pastoring a church together, Herbert and I have learned valuable qualities for a thriving marriage. While it’s easy to teach others about marriage, knowledge alone isn’t effective; we must walk the talk to experience the blessings.
Below are three qualities Herbert and I have discovered about a thriving marriage in ministry.
Marriage is a covenant relationship. A covenant marriage isn’t a contract to be completed; it’s a commitment through good and bad times. A covenant spouse is committed when you’re at your best and at your worst.
Ministry puts people on a pedestal. Such unrealistic expectations can weigh heavily on a person, especially when he’s new to ministry. Do all you can to love your spouse just as he is, not as others, or you, want him to be. Reassure him that you love his whole person, not his ministry role.
Ministry can make people feel alone. Communicate to your spouse that you are a safe person for her to share her pains and frustrations.
Be a safe place for her to confide and confess. Extend grace. Listen, and then listen some more. Prove yourself to be a trusted friend. Don’t automatically suggest solutions when she shares her heart; instead, extend support and love.
Marriage is a living relationship. Living things are in constant flux. They flourish and grow, or they falter and die. If you want your marriage to flourish, you must feed it life-giving nutrients. If we’re not careful we can give more power to the frustrations and pressures of ministry than the blessings.
Intentionally feed your spouse words of encouragement. Compliment him. Build him up in private and in public. Be sensitive about when and how to share advice or constructive criticism. Appreciate his acts of kindness, no matter how small. Learn how he feels loved. Serve him. Help lighten his load. Show gratitude. Send a kind text during the day. Surprise him with something he enjoys. Start nurturing your marriage today.
Marriage is an active relationship. Your marriage won’t thrive simply because you want it to; it will thrive because you spend time with your spouse and seek restoration.
During our early years of church planting, I believed the myth that after a particularly busy season of ministry ended, I’d have more time. That’s false, and it’s a trap. There is always more to be done. People’s needs never stop, but you should. It’s vital that you actively spend regular time with your spouse. Intimacy grows, trust is deepened, and connection is strengthened with time.
Many ministry marriages are hurting due to unforgiveness, emotional and physical exhaustion, and unrealistic expectations. Begin the work of healing your marriage. It might be painful, but you can choose to deal with your pain and find restoration, or you can live in the despair of a declining marriage. Thankfully there is hope and help. Jesus will meet you at your point of need. Many trusted pastors and counselors will feel called to help, too. Act by seeking guidance from Jesus and others so your marriage can thrive!
After 22 years of marriage, Herbert and I continue to grow in all three qualities of a thriving marriage. It takes hard work and humility, but my love for Herbert is greater today than it was as a college freshman. If I were to rewrite my vows, my list would reflect a deeper love that has been tested and remains fully committed.
Herbert and Tiffany Cooper are the founding and senior pastors of People’s Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. People’s Church has become known as a life-giving, diverse, multi-generational, and multi-site church. They serve on the ARC Lead Team and have a passion to plant churches around the world and see people’s lives changed by the power of God. To learn more, visit peoples.church.