I’ll tell you right up front: this is not going to be a carefully balanced discussion of whether or not husbands and wives should serve together. I will tip my hand right now. If you have the chance to do something meaningful together as a couple…do it! Based on our experience, you will accomplish more, you’ll have more fun and, even better, your relationship with your spouse and with God will grow deeper.
The first part of our marriage was lived in parallel, in terms of vocation and service. We supported each other fully but the fact was we spent most of our energy and gifts independently. We worked separately – Sharol as a TV news anchor and me in Christian higher education. We served at our church – separately. We served on boards and committees – separately. We participated in and led international mission trips – separately. We volunteered in the community – separately. We led Bible studies – separately. It was 20 years into our marriage before we first served together. Our pastor asked us to lead a marriage retreat for the church and more out of respect for him than anything, we agreed. I hope the couples that came to that event enjoyed it because it wasn’t much fun for us! Now, twenty-two years later we are working together fulltime, leading FamilyLife Canada and loving it. Here are a few things we have learned along the way. I really do want to encourage you to serve together and help you do it well.
Do something you both care about. If you want to build a great partnership working together – professionally or as volunteers - build it around something you both really want to engage in. Don’t choose to work or serve together simply to humor your spouse or to manipulate them for a favor of your own. Do it because you both see value, purpose and potential in the idea or project. If you don’t, wait for God to give you and your spouse a common passion for that thing or else lead you both to something different. Don’t force it. There is plenty of need and opportunity and many ways to serve.
Start where you are and do what you can. One of the biggest hurdles that keeps couples, or individuals for that matter, from doing something for the Kingdom of God is excellence. Excellence can intimidate us into inactivity. Because I can’t speak like Andy Stanley or write like John Ortberg or don’t have a great story like Lou Zamparini I won’t even try to say or write or do anything. But I say just start where you are and do what you can. Look around. Pray for opportunities. The ones that come to you may not be particularly big events or projects but that could be great. You’ll have a smaller corner to experiment in, to see what works and what doesn’t, to figure out if you actually can serve together and stay married! You will get better at working together and enjoy it more as time goes by, but first you need to start. (If you are looking for options to do some ministry together as a couple, talk to the leaders in your church or check out familylifecanada.com)
Articulate a clear, shared purpose. Some candid conversation prior to jumping into a project will save you hours of repair conversation later. Trust me. Sharol and I typically have pretty strong convictions about the way things should get done. Sometimes we even agree. More often we have differences. We have learned that it is helpful to express to each other, in the plainest language we can manage, why we are doing this and what we hope to accomplish. We aim for a high level of agreement on this. We also invest time clarifying who is going to be responsible for what. If we can’t come up with some plan for sharing power and responsibility, we’re not really working together are we? And if we proceed on unspoken assumptions, well, if you have been married for more than a few days I am pretty sure you know how that turns out.
Craft some clear boundaries. Because we really care about what we do and because we are empty nesters, Sharol and I could pretty easily lose our marriage in our work. Here are three things we try to do that really help:
o We only talk about work at home by mutual agreement.
o We don’t talk about work in bed or when we are on dates
o Either one of us can end the work conversation by saying “we’re starting to talk about work” if we feel a boundary is about to get swamped.
Don’t work together as a strategy for fixing your relationship. Serving and working together has indeed helped us grow in intimacy, trust, respect and appreciation for each other…but first it challenged all those things! We are living proof that you don’t need a flawless marriage before you can work together but we can also tell you honestly that if you are locked in a relational power struggle with your spouse or harbor unresolved anger and hurt, these things will surface under the pressure of serving and working together. Your life together will get more complicated not less. Serving together is an awesome growth experience but it is not a repair strategy.
Don’t quit doing your own things with your own gender. One of the down sides of serving together, especially if you do it vocationally like we do, is that it can get a little claustrophobic. It can be awkward to say to your spouse “Honey everywhere I turn, there you are…and that’s not a good thing right now! I need some space.” I have heard those exact words! In a solid marriage, there should be some people and experiences you enjoy as a couple but each of you still needs some important friends and activities that belong to just you. Serving together should breathe some fresh air into your relationship, not suffocate it.
Two verses have really guided us through the ups and downs of our life together – our working life and our marriage in general. The first is probably the best marriage verse in the Bible: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:27). When we put this teaching into play, our marriage and our working together is sweet. When we don’t, it is not. Open and shut, plain and simple. The second one is Genesis 1:27 – “ So God created humankind in his image, in the likeness of God he created them, male and female he created them.” Somehow we are the same and we are different. This is a deep mystery but certainly it means that when we live and work together - male and female - we can know God more fully and reflect Him more completely. After 42 years of marriage, Sharol and I celebrate the fact that when we combine the gifts and talents entrusted to each of us we really are better together. But don’t just take our word for it, discover that for yourselves.