Marriage as a Minister in the Family of God
After several wonderfully rich years working in full-time student ministry as a single woman, I married my husband, Steve, in June. Like most couples, we have had our fair share of squabbles regarding whose furniture gets to stay and whose gets sent to the curb. There have been tear-filled nights (mine) when I have felt the need to make a Pinterest-worthy dinner after a full day in the office, resulting in experimental roast chicken at 10:00 p.m. Accommodating one another’s morning routines has taken some getting used to, as I prefer to sleep as long as possible, while Steve is up and out with the sun. We are un-learning the independent patterns of single life in favor of the interdependence marriage requires.
The biggest adjustment to married life, however, hasn’t been homemaking, sharing our time and space, or the division of chores (all challenges that we laugh about and renegotiate quickly). Unexpectedly, the most nuanced change in joining our lives has been applying our newfound interdependence to our roles and relationships at church.
It was our mutual love for Christ and for our church, where Steve has been a committed lay leader for more than ten years and where I serve as youth pastor, that drew our lives together when I moved to town two years ago. We love serving together and our sweet church has cheered us on throughout our engagement and now these first few months of marriage. Still, sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between the personal and the professional when two people’s lives are so deeply tied into the same blessed institution.
The lead characters of NBC’s hit series Friday Night Lights, Eric and Tami Taylor—Dillon High School’s head football coach and principal, respectively—are so relatable in this regard. The show’s five seasons chronicle classic high school triumphs and heartache in the one-horse town of Dillon, Texas, where football is the lifeblood of the community. Like the Taylors in their small-town high school, Steve and I occupy this complicated, joy-filled space of leading together in our church. Being married has made me appreciate even more keenly the Taylors’ (mostly) admirable marriage as they work together to care for teenagers and townspeople, and also try to give one another the elbow room to lead.
The last episode of the show’s third season finds Tami in a conflict of interests as she faces an upcoming school board meeting to determine the future of her husband’s head coaching position. Her boss, Paul, gives her the option to excuse herself from the meeting. “These contract negotiations can get heated,” Paul reasons. “It might be difficult to stay objective under the current circumstances.”
Tami replies evenly, “Well I actually have a lot of confidence in my ability to stay objective and professional and to do my job as principal.”
And can I just tell you—as I watch that scene unfold, I want to be Tami so badly. I want to be professional. I want to stay objective. I just want to do my job (as youth pastor), to be competent and capable and levelheaded about whatever conflicts of interest come up between my marriage and the ministry to which God has called me. But you know what? It’s pretty tricky to do that when you’re in a one-flesh relationship with someone, when all my successes and failures, victories and struggles, are bound up with his. It’s impossible maybe. Or at least that’s what I’m finding as my husband and I serve together in our own small town.
Commitment to one another in the context of marriage is right and good, demonstrated by the creation mandate that the man should “leave his father and mother and be united to his wife” (Genesis 2:24), which both Jesus and Paul affirm (Matthew 19:5 and Ephesians 5:31). But like all good gifts, marriage has been subjected to the curse. It is twisted in our sinful desires to elevate self, which cause us to hold on more tightly to this earthly gift than we ought, often to the exclusion of others.
As a newlywed, I am unnerved by the fact that I can no longer hide my biases; they are on full display to me and to everyone else in my marriage to Steve. This is unsettling and vulnerable because as a single person, I maintained the guise of being a free agent, unattached and autonomous as I worked among God’s people. Now there is no longer any question where my deepest earthly loyalties lie. And being married has caused me to realize with startling conviction that my lack of objectivity in ministry is not new. It’s been there all along in my friendships and deepest relationships—just with less glaring obviousness than marriage supplies.
Perhaps this is why Tami’s measured insistence that she can be objective regarding her husband is so attractive. We like to imagine that our hearts are pure enough to hold our human attachments at arm’s length. Instead, the thin veneer of her professional demeanor betrays both a misunderstanding about the nature of marriage and a subtle blind spot to which we are all vulnerable.
Whether we sit around the boardroom table trying to make a decision about someone’s spouse, or about someone else’s fellow small group member of 25 years, conflicts of interest abound in the church and despite our best efforts, we can’t be purely objective. Some of these are more obvious than others because in our humanity, we experience certain relationships with more intensity and warmth. The best course of action for all of us, then (married or not), is to acknowledge our subjectivity and put all our conflicts of interest on the table in service to the family of God.
We sense this invitation when we observe the pattern of Jesus, who upon hearing that his mother and brothers were trying to get close to him replied, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice” (Luke 8:21). The nuclear family, then, is radically redefined by the adoption of sinners into a new spiritual family through Christ. Jesus invites us to live out our redeemed humanity such that brothers and sisters in the church become our closest kin. Ultimately, our sorrows and our victories are all bound up together, not just in earthly relationships like marriage, but in Christ’s suffering and victory.
Marriage helps us to recognize the spiritual tension between our earthly relationships and our eternal, heavenly ones by pointing to the coming Wedding Feast. There, we “neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matthew 22:30) because Christ and his Bride will have finally come together. This understanding should free us to do ministry together as couples or families or roommates because we know that our affections for one another are a gift from God, and yet we also know that they are not ultimate. In Jesus, we find the needed resource to hold together the good gift of marriage and the hope that one day our feeble human tendencies will be replaced by perfect union with Christ and one another.
This is the third article in our series, “The Phases of Youth Ministry,” in which we explore the blessings and challenges of ministering to students during various seasons of life. Read past articles in this series here.