Cindy Nicholson is a born-and-bred New England Yankee from Darien, Connecticut who has found herself for three decades living by the shores of Lake Michigan. After graduating with a degree in music from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, she worked as an editor and admissions office staff member at Harvard University before moving to Chicago to marry Steve, who at the ripe old age of 25 had just planted what became the Evanston Vineyard. Together they planted a second church (now Urban Vineyard in Chicago) in 1981, and together they have trained and sent off dozens of planters within the Chicago area and to places as near as Detroit and as far as Istanbul. We asked Cindy to share her thoughts about how marriages can thrive amid the intensity of church planting.
Church planting is not one of the easiest things you could ever do with your life, and it is certainly one of the most challenging things you can do as a married couple. But in my experience, nothing beats—short of birthing or adopting babies—being right in the middle of seeing a new community of faith come into being, grow strong, and start to impact the wider community around it. It can be one of the most glorious things that a couple can ever experience together.
CE: What are some of the unique challenges that church planting couples face?
CN: Well, there’s a degree of buy-in that both spouses have to have regardless of who is playing the lead role, or whether they both are. The only profession that requires a similar level of buy-in is the medical profession, where they are going to be on-call a lot. And possibly there’s a degree of buy-in that someone who is in a business where they are going to be posted oversees, whether they are with the government or with a company.
But if your spouse works at Bank of America or the local hardware store, the effect on the private life of the couple is at least somewhat controllable and fairly voluntary. In ministry, it’s not so. Even if you keep a good grip on things like evening meetings and days off, you are going to have a lot of people in your life all the time to an extent which is not true of most other professions. While it is not necessarily true that if one spouse is in ministry, both spouses are in ministry, the reality is that regardless of what role each decides to play, there’s no healthy way to keep a rigid boundary between the church and the family life.
CE: Talk about how this plays out in decisions about how to spend time.
CN: It is really helpful if communication about time starts early and continues regularly. Steve and I started communicating about it before we got married, in the same way that we talked about expectations for time we were going to spend with our extended families. Or which way we rolled the toilet paper, if anybody cared. Because no two couples solve the time question the same, some of it will depend on the wiring of both the husband and the wife. Does being with people energize them or does it drain them? What is their daily or weekly need for “cave time” or “just the two of us time”?
Newly married couples have theories, college experiences or family relationships to give them clues about communicating. One of the funny and painful parts of the first year of marriage is figuring out how those theories relate to reality. I always thought I was way introverted until Steve and I were invited to a goodbye party for a group leader who was leaving. We were sitting out in the car in front of a party and Steve said, “I want to be here half an hour and then I want to start saying our goodbyes and getting out of here.”
I looked at him and thought, “I will hardly have my coat off in a half an hour! I’d actually like to talk to these people! I like some of these people! Why are you being so cranky?” We hadn’t been married long enough for me to realize that he had hit his quota for the week. It was Friday, he’d had umpteen intense conversations, and a half an hour was as much grace as he had. And he did that half an hour beautifully. He engaged, he was warm, he said, “Goodbye, God bless you, this is what we saw in your time here that was so valuable to us, we know you’ll be great in this next setting,” and he was done. I could’ve kept going for an hour and a half.
We had to learn how to communicate about that. It becomes more interesting as you change roles over the years, as spouses are working and then they are not working, when you add children and the isolation that can come, or the busyness that can come if you are doing both roles. So, communicating about time requires regular upkeep and management. It’s not a conversation you have once.
It’s also important to be aware that in those first two years of planting, you are living outrageously. You are living in a way you can’t sustain and don’t want to sustain past that amount of time. It’s really important for the couple to talk that through thoroughly enough so that neither is living in any state of unreality about what life’s going to be like. It is hard even when you are both on the same page. It is not uncommon that the spouse not taking the lead hadn’t really bought into it completely, and at about nine months in, turns on the church planter. So the work on the front end is so worth it for planters, especially because of that dynamic.
CE: Does the expectation need to be communicated in specific terms, like nights per week, hours per day, days per month?
CN: The more intuitive types don’t exactly do it that way, but they end up in the same place. They just do it the same way people who cook by feel and texture and taste do. They just know when it’s right, and they can communicate “ah ha! this is just right, right now” or “this feels really bad, we need to refigure things.”
CE: Another way in which planting presents unique marital issues is when there are conflicts within the church. Especially when it is smaller, they can feel much more dramatic for the couple. How does that play out in marriage?
CN: There are a few things. One of them I definitely learned the hard way. I never realized the degree to which people would try to get to Steve through me. They would try to send little messages through me, because they did not want to have the straight-out conversation with him. They would say, “Cindy, can I talk to you?” and I would think, “Oh! I’m so honored that they would talk to me.” They would go through the whole thing with me and all their objections, and sometimes they would flat out say, “Will you just talk to Steve about this?” Sometimes they wouldn’t even necessarily say that out loud, but I would still go back to him.
The problem is that I would go into that conversation with their load in my voice. Now, not only is Steve having a difficulty with them, but he’s having the same difficulty with his wife and doesn’t know why. This is not a gendered issue. I have seen settings where the husband and wife co-pastor the church or where the wife pastors the church and people will do the same thing with the husband.
They’ll just go for the one they think will give them a softer reception. I had to learn to stop them and say, “Wait a minute, I think you credit me with more responsibility in this situation than I have. This is a conversation that you need to have directly with Steve.” If they start up again, I would have to stop them and say, “No, I am sorry, really, I cannot listen to this. It’s not going to serve any useful purpose. Here’s the number at the office. Please call Steve. He’ll listen to anybody.”
CE: There are a lot of different ways a husband and wife can relate as leaders of a church. They can be co-leaders or one can take the lead, and in a model where one takes the lead, there are a lot of different possible roles for the other spouse. Can you talk a little bit about how to figure that out?
CN: It is very helpful for both spouses, when they are thinking about church planting, to do some work to figure out what they are made for, what their passions are, what their gifts are, what God has spoken to them about, where they have experienced success in ministry, what gives them satisfaction, and so on.
If they have done this groundwork, they will be less easily forced into being somebody they are not. Granted, in a church plant everybody is a utility player, and you end up doing a certain number of things that you are not particularly good at just to get off the ground. But, someone who doesn’t exactly know what they are for can end up getting stuck in roles that become forced on them as the church grows. They have a hard time getting out of it and it can lead to resentment.
Not every church planter is married to someone who is a leader. To have that person be handed the expectation that she or he will lead things is damaging. If he or she is clear about gifting and calling, is content in that, able to articulate it, understands how that complements their spouse, and how it helps the team, then both of them can articulate it over and over again as the church is forming.
For instance, Steve’s parents took over what was, for all intents and purposes, a church plant. My mother-in-law was very clear and her husband was behind her—and this was in a church setting where the expectations were pretty darn rigid—she said, “You do not want me organizing your Sunday school, and I am not the best person to run your women’s ministry. But, I play piano and I play organ and if you don’t have a choir director, I will be happy to organize the choir. I can do that with my eyes closed.” So she did. And because she was clear and because her husband was clear, people fussed and fumed for a few weeks and then they got over it. She was an incredible choir director, she was happy, and their family life was happy because she wasn’t spending hours every week doing something she was terrible at and feeling bad about herself.
CE: What are some of the challenges and opportunities for some of the spouses who are co-leading, doing it together as equal partners?
CN: Some couples are uniquely wired to do this very well. It is the way that they tend to do life, run their home, and parent their children. They are happiest when they are teamed up together like that. Often they are people who process externally, although not always. They really like talking about church and it doesn’t feel like a drain on their family time to be talking, strategizing, and dreaming together. They are really good at knowing and being protective of each other’s weaknesses and making room for each other’s strengths. They tend to be good at complementary things.
It is very difficult for two very highly catalytic people who need to be the vision casters to do this together. It is not that they don’t both cast vision but that they aren’t both vying to cast THE vision, if you will. Unless they are totally on the same page, that gets really hard.
Another one of the challenges is knowing how you work together. We have friends who planted a church in England. Her passion and gifting relates a lot to social justice and care for the poor. They knew that they wanted to plant their church in such a way that right from the start included a night shelter for homeless men and women and then a discipleship house for any of those people who came to know Jesus in the process. So right from the start, he was working on the pastoral leaders for the church and she was identifying and recruiting and training the leaders for the project that was going along the side. They were both talking to their leaders and helping them understand how these two visions worked together. So there was twice as much leadership training going on. There were two people with their eyes out there all the time trying to identify and recruit new leaders, and they were talking to each other about it all the time.
CE: There are a number of single people thinking about planting churches. What are some of the key issues if you are going to plant a church single?
CN: Churches have been planted by single people since day one and there is no reason for that to stop. A single planter will need a strong supply of people who aren’t relating to them as the pastor because, especially in the first stage while the church plant is growing, it is very confusing to date people in the church plant. That is a position of unequal power.
A church planter also has to have emotional support. One of the things that makes planters fry out before they have gotten the church planted is that they don’t have anybody with whom they can do fun stuff that replenishes them, and they don’t have people with whom they can speak unguardedly, who can pray for them, or who can say the hard things to them that they can receive knowing that they are loved and not judged. There ought to be enough of them that if life circumstances take a few of those people out of action, the planter won’t be out there hanging by their thumbs.
The advantage for the planter, if they are not married, is that their time is more their own. They don’t have to have the aforementioned conversation about how to spend family time. The caution is that they do need to think about replenishment and have a plan for it. They are not going to have a spouse there making sure they do their plan, so they have to be a bit of a self-starter in that area. It also means that their coach and friends need to stay on them about it. We had a couple guys plant out of our church while they were still single and Steve would say to them over and over, “Are you taking your day off?” Without somebody there to start climbing down your throat if this is the third week in a row you haven’t quite gotten around to taking your day off, it is really easy for someone who is single to let that go. So that is something they and their coaching friends need to keep their eye on.
CE: Is there anything else you want to say about church planting and marriage?
CN: I know that we have been discussing some of the things that are intrinsically hard on a marriage. Church planting is not one of the easiest things you could ever do with your life, and it is certainly one of the most challenging things
you can do as a married couple. But in my experience, nothing beats—short
of birthing or adopting babies—being right in the middle of seeing a new community of faith come into being, grow strong, and start to impact the wider community around it. It can be one of the most glorious things that a couple can ever experience together no matter how they have divvied up the job descriptions. There is just nothing like it. It is one of the unique privileges of getting called to church planting as part of your life’s work.