There’s no instruction manual for this:
How To Be Married To a Church Planter
By Cindy Nicholson, with interviews by Ellen Jacobs
You’ve probably seen them: lists of certain qualities that consistently make for a good church planter. But, as far as we know, there aren’t many comparable lists for a church planter’s spouse. But there probably should be. In what follows, Cindy Nicholson draws on her twenty-five years of ministry and church planting to offer a few thoughts (along with the thoughts of a few other wives and husbands of church planters) of what such a list might look like.
Thankfully, in the twenty-five years Steve and I have been married and pastoring churches – and, along the way, talking to hundreds of church planting spouses-I’ve noticed one really encouraging thing: the success of the church plant does not seem to depend on whether the spouse is an active “co-pastor”, or a “behind the scenes” kind of person, or one who simply brings in the family income in the early days, or who has an active, engaging career, or who is taking classes toward an academic degree. All of these models and approaches seem to work. The key thing seems to be this: that both husband and wife agree how they are going to do things, and are active in supporting (and defending!) each other against the criticism of those who want them to adhere to a particular mold. When this is in place, both the church and the marriage seem to thrive. Doubts from within and criticism from without – not the actual model of how a couple mixes ministry and marriage – are the biggest threats.
Knowing Who You Are (and Who You Aren’t)
When I was a brand new church planter and a new bride, my mother·in·law told me a story that was a priceless treasure to me. She and my father-in- law had already done itinerant evangelism and planted a church in southern Colorado before they came to pastor a small church in Montana. She said, “Right from the start, I told them, ‘look, I play the piano, I sing, and I play the organ and accordion, too. I will play every Sunday, and I will lead the choir any time you want me to. But I’m no good at teaching Sunday School, and I’m not going to do it.” She said they were a stunned: in their minds the Pastors Wife Always Taught Sunday School. But once they got over it they were fine – and the church grew steadily. That simple story gave me so much permission to figure out what my gifts weren’t and to not do those things, in addition to playing to my unique strengths and temperament.
For some spouses, what they do in the new plant is just a continuation of what they were doing quite happily in the sending church. Paul Nash, whose wife, Lois, planted a church that two years ago became the Open Door Vineyard in Jefferson Station, New York, had been running one of the Sunday School groups at the South Shore Vineyard. As soon as they began talking about planting, he immediately said, “I’ll work with the kids!” As the plant has grown he has trained Sunday school teachers and helpers, and is currently teaching children to pray for each other and to lead worship. Says Paul: “We knew Lois was supposed to pastor the church, to cast vision and preach, and that I was supposed to work with the kids. But we needed more pieces than that. So Lois talked to Randy Larson, the pastor of the South Shore Vineyard, about one of the young couples at the church. The husband is a gifted worship leader and his wife is wonderful with hospitality and benevolence. Randy encouraged us to ask them, and now we have a team of four who are each working in their areas of greatest strength. Already, even as a small church, they are seeding the vision for planting more churches and they are all already training people who can lead in a new plant.
Emilie Sampson and her husband, Matt, are planting a Vineyard in Saratoga, California while raising two small children. She notes that the very same things that are strengths and weaknesses in their marriage tend to carryover into the church plant. She is, she says, a “big idea” person, while her husband is a natural at taking big ideas and turning them into tracks for people to run on. Once they learned that dynamic in their relationship, it became a strength for them in the church.
Megan Pool, who is planting the Royal Oak Vineyard in Michigan with her husband Jim, is an adept Hospice nurse. “I had been the primary breadwinner the first year of our marriage (while Jim was doing a church internship) and I was comfortable with that. I saw that as a way to support Jim. When we moved to Detroit I intentionally looked for a job that had no weekend requirements and no ‘on call’ hours, which I found fairly easily. The job carried a lot of responsibility – I was the manager at the nursing center. But in most respects I had the ideal job, Monday through Friday, 7-3 pm. We both wanted to be available at the same time every day for the most part, with our nights open.”
In the case of Tom and Adrienne Wassink, who planted a Vineyard in Iowa City, Iowa, it was Tom’s invitation to take a medical research residency at the University of Iowa that brought them to town. Their intention was not, at first, to plant a church – but slowly a diverse group of students, artists, doctors. residents, farmers and professionals gathered around them who longed for a kind of church that didn’t yet exist in that city. Adey is gifted and experienced in team building, vision-casting, and mentoring leaders-all of which church was needed for the development of the fledgling church. She is also a gifted preacher, as is her husband, Tom who runs a research lab and has regular responsibility at the hospital. Together they raise and homeschool five children. Through it all they remain both passionate about the church and about each other.
Says Tom: “People kept waiting for me to choose one career or the other. not realizing that I was called by God to psychiatric research and pastoring. While Adey and I do much of the church leadership work together, she is the primary on-the-job overseer of our leaders, ministries. and the affairs of the church. and we feel tremendously blessed that God has put the two of us together in a way that enables us to mutually pursue God’s call on our lives.”
Involving the Kids
“Church planting has been a family affair for us,” comments Jacquie Chase, who planted the Vineyard in Barcelona, Spain with her husband Randy. They now pastor the Framingham Vineyard in Massachusetts. “We told our kids, ‘This is something we are doing as a family. It is not just mommy and daddy-it’s all of us.’ So they feel very included.”
At its best, church planting is like one continuous party for the church planters’ children, with adults and other kids around them constantly. For those who have left home and family to follow the call, this can be a great comfort. On the other hand, there can be a cost to the children, as well. Knowing your children and affirming both positive and negative emotions about their experience is part of extending to them the same grace you try to give yourself. They need to be able to be their own persons, and contribute to the church plant in the ways that are unique to them. “We took our daughter out of a growing youth group into a new situation where she was the only teenager,” reflects Belle Ettlin, planting the North Peninsula Vineyard in San Bruno, CA with her husband Eric. “It’s been exciting to see her begin to enjoy listening to her father preach and catching a vision for the lost, but it’s still lonely for her.”
What if I’m an Introvert?
I am an introvert. I like lots of space, lots of quiet. A room-full of people overwhelms me quickly. If the “job description” for a church planter’s spouse includes “Must get energy from being with lots of people,” I would never have been hired. Mercifully, God likes all the kinds of people. The way I tackled our church plant was the way you eat an elephant-one bite at a time! I do really well with individual conversations; I pay attention to one person at a time as though they were the most interesting person in the world (because at that moment, they are). We had enough extroverts on our team to have enough games, parties, small groups and large groups to make everyone happy. I, on the other hand, was drawn to intercession, to one-on-one discipleship, to simple acts of kindness. I am the poster child for how you don’t have to be an extrovert to plant a church-so long as you bring a few with you!
Emilie Sampson said that, in the beginning of the church plant, “I was afraid of people’s expectations. I’m not the hostess, I hate to entertain-it gives me anxiety! I thought the ‘pastors wife’ had it all together, the Proverbs 31 woman who doesn’t have piercings, dye her hair two colors, or wear flared jeans like me. I never want my personality to come between someone and their relationship with God, but actually it has been a good thing for people to see how different I am from what they expect.”
Dealing With Expectations
That brings up an interesting point – where do we get those expectations? Spouses of church planters tend to have a little tape running in their heads that says, “You must be upbeat, you must be able to organize programs and lead groups. You must never look disheveled, sad, or angry. You must raise perfect children who adore being at church all the time and never had a bad or disrespectful moment.” (None of this is in the Bible, by the way!)
One of the greatest gifts a church planter’s coach (and the assessment team) can give to a couple considering church planting is to get them to focus their attention not on what “everybody else” thinks they “ought” to do or be, but on what strengths they bring to their team – as well as what kind of complementary core team they need to bring other needed gifts. Liz Davis who, along with her husband and John and Kate Reichart planted the Vineyard in Hopkinton, MA, speaks about the strengths of a team approach to planting a church: “When we planted in Hopkinton, we were fortunate to have two of us supporting each other as pastor’s spouses. We had a lot of freedom from both our husbands in that they didn’t say what we should or shouldn’t do.”
The Care and Feeding of a Church Planting Marriage
“Gain a church, lose a marriage”-that’s the night mare of every church planting couple. When Steve and I were planting the Humboldt Park (Chicago) Vineyard in the early 1980s, we discovered how easy it is for the plant to take over your private time. Your core team tend to be your primary social relationships, so it ‘s hard to avoid every conversation looping back to church-related talk. Plus, the same neighbors you wanted to talk to about Jesus on Friday knock on the door on Saturday – just when you were counting on a little downtime by yourselves.
I’m convinced that no church planting couple should get started without three things: at least one person or couple in whom they feel utterly safe confiding and to whom they are committed to “tell on themselves”; a commitment to keep one day a week as a pastoring-free Sabbath; and a list of cheap places they both enjoy where they are highly unlikely to see anybody they know. Some of my fondest memories from our church planting days are the escape plans we hatched! We walked distant woods with kids in baby backpacks. We explored city neighborhoods. We discovered the cheap pleasures of splitting a lunch entree and then sitting ons some hotel’s veranda (for free), reading books and talking. Often I was the guilty one who would introduce some church related topic, and Steve would wrinkle up his nose and say, “Not for another three more hours. Not thinking about it. Not talking about it,” followed by the magic words, “I just want to be with you.”
After all, it’s important to still like each other once the church is well planted with deep roots and sturdy structures. (If you can’t remember why you liked each other to begin with, you’re in trouble.) You need to keep on finding that person under the layers of responsibilities and challenges and pull him or her back out into the light.
Paul Nash echoes this. “The kind of role I play in Lois’ life us to notice when things are getting out of balance or when she seems unhappy. When she comes home after a hard day, I like to get her to talk about the problems of the day, really listen to her, and support her. Beyond that, I figured out early on that two things I should insist on was the once a week, usually on Mondays, we take an evening and go out for dinner and a date. On one of the weekend days we try to do the same thing. In addition, I told her, ‘You have to have a hobby.’ I hike and canoe and make stained glass and read books. Lois does pottery and paints watercolors. If we don’t do those things, we fall apart when the stress builds.”
Interestingly, Paul remembers as little boy asking the pastor of his church whether he talked to other pastors. “No,” the man replied. “We really don’t know each other.” So in 1963 he began to pray for pastors-that they would learn to talk to one another. Today Lois goes to what they jokingly call her monthly AA meeting with the other pastors in the town of Jefferson Station-mostly for prayer, fellowship, and occasionally some fun with their families. “That time she has with the other pastors actually takes some of the stress off the family time,” Paul says.
Why Do We Always Plant a Church and Have Babies at the Same Time?
I don’t know what it is, but even people who didn’t intend to have babies until their churches get fully planted end up getting pregnant when they start planting. Maybe it’s God pouring out his abundant blessing! Whatever it is, adding babies to an already pressurized period of two or three years is a recipe for a lot of,let us say, maturing of one’s character.
Our first-born arrived about 18 months into the get those expectations? Mercifully, she was a very sociable little person, and liked nothing so much as to be passed around from one set of arms to another. What I didn’t count on was how irrationally angry I could get at the number of hours Steve had to be gone in the evening, doing wonderful stuff involving healing and training and evangelism – while I was trying to get a nine-month-old to bed at a decent hour and sleeping through the night. In my more noble moments, I knew I was doing the smart thing: creating a predictable routine for the baby that made up for the frequent times when we threw her schedule up in the air to take advantage of some God-made opportunity to advance the Gospel or build community. In my worst moments, however, I felt like my contributions were so unimportant that it didn’t matter whether I was there or not. It’s not a rational train of thought, but it sure is easy to buy on the third night in a row when you are falling asleep to Kermit the Frog singing the “Rainbow Connection”.
My very wise husband did something very simple and wonderful that got me through those days. He really couldn’t do much about the evenings, but once a week he gave me a morning, to do with as I liked. Sometimes I did ministry. Sometimes I visited friends and got replenished relationally. Often I would take my journal and Bible and go to the closest pancake house, where they would feed me a good breakfast and pour me endless cups of coffee while I sat and read and wrote and prayed. Those times gave me the precious gift of perspective.
You Know You Have Learned Something When …
When someone asks me, “Would you and Steve plant a church again?” I say, “I don’t know about Steve, but I would say yes in a heartbeat!” I know how hard it is. I know how much work it is. I know that you never know for sure that the plant is going to ‘take’. But I remember that time as so rich, so full of moments of romance for us as a couple, so good for our family. that I would do it again and do it gladly. It’s good for the Kingdom, and it can indeed be good for couples and families. You just have to know a few things .