My wife Tammy and I first met while she and her family were missionaries in Germany. I later proposed to her in a little café just outside of Hamburg. Now 27 years later, we’ve been in full-time ministry together the entire time and have five kids. We’ve lived life—and ministry—together.
Just like any other married couple, we’ve had our ups and downs. But I can honestly say that other than my relationship with Jesus, my relationship with my wife continues to be the best part of my life. When others ask for our “secret sauce,” I give the credit to God, to Tammy and to the principles our parents taught and modeled in front of us. Amidst the many demands of ministry and family life, over the years five principles have become especially important in sustaining our relationship. On the next few pages, I share them, prayerfully hoping that these insights can help you make your marriage ministry-proof.
1. Understand and receive love from God first. I am completely convinced that my ability to love and stay faithful to my wife is a direct result of my love relationship with Jesus. Scripture tells us, “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19, NIV). Being unconditionally loved by Jesus gives us the capacity to love others. The more we know and experience His love, the more we must give to others.
Bottom line: If you can’t love a God who’s kind, gracious and perfect in every way, you can’t expect to love a person who isn’t. As Paul prayed, “May your roots go deep into the soil of God’s marvelous love, and may you be able to feel and understand ... how long, wide, deep, and high His love really is, and experience this love for yourselves” (Eph. 3:17-18, TLB).
This love relationship with Jesus requires us to lay down our lives to receive it. Daily I practice the discipline of “crucifying my flesh” because my old sinful nature keeps trying to rise up out of the grave. But that simple little discipline reminds me that, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20, NIV). The practice of dying daily (1 Cor. 15:31) keeps my sinful nature in its place, and that is always good for Tammy because dead men don’t get angry. Dead men don’t get jealous. Dead men don’t complain. And if Christ is truly living in me, then His nature comes out, not mine.
2) Divorce is not an option. When Tammy and I first got married, we agreed that the only condition for separation was death—till death do us part. Throughout our entire marriage, we’ve never even brought up the possibility of divorce. Murder, yes (just kidding). Divorce, no. It’s not on the table.
The kind of love God gives us is unconditional, agape love, which explains our definition of marriage: “an unconditional commitment to an imperfect person.” Someone once shared the two laws of married reality with me. No. 1, you married an imperfect person. No. 2, you’re not so hot yourself! So funny, but so true.
Great marriages don’t have fewer problems than not-so-great marriages. In most cases, they have more problems, which is how it may feel in ministry sometimes. The people in great marriages have just decided that they’re going to stay committed no matter what. Commitment means being willing to be unhappy for a while until we work it out. I truly believe you’ll never build a great marriage unless you throw away the option of divorce. Take it off the table.
3) Leverage your differences to make you stronger as a team. By God’s design, men and women are very different. Tammy and I could not be more opposite. If I feel hot, she’s freezing. If I want to spend, she wants to save. When I want to watch Dumb and Dumber, she wants to watch Pride and Prejudice. But we still love each other—probably even more than if we agreed on most things.
Our differences can either irritate us or entertain us. In ministry especially, they can either drive us apart or make us better as a team. It’s all in how we respond to our differences. Other couples often ask us how Tammy has managed her role in the church. I’m all for women leading in whatever capacity God has gifted them, but Tammy genuinely feels her primary calling is to be a wife and mom. She doesn’t desire to be on stage at all.
When we first got married, her greatest fear was that I was going to require her to be like the stereotypical pastor’s wife. Today, she often thanks me for letting her be who she is and not pressuring her to be someone she’s not.
In the same way, I am who I am and most people couldn’t live with me for a single day. Our family regularly reminds me that no one could live with me other than Tammy (thanks, family). But it’s true. I feel empowered to lead and fulfill the call of God on my life because Tammy appreciates me just the way I am, even though it’s very different from who she is. Just remember what Jesus said, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25).
4) Make marriage a priority. In the age of busy schedules and life’s demands, it’s easy for you to become like two ships passing in the night. But a healthy marriage requires both of you to make your time together a priority second only to your time with God. Marriage has to be a priority.
Tammy and I are as busy as any other couple, with five kids, a dog and a church that has grown very fast over its first 12 years. There’s never enough time to do everything. What this means is that somebody or something is going to feel left out and neglected. In his book, Choosing to Cheat, Andy Stanley insightfully writes, “The real question is not ‘Are you cheating?’ but ‘Who are you cheating?’”
The solution is simple, but applying it can be difficult. Make an appointment with your spouse and keep it. Put up a boundary around this most important relationship and then honor it. Literally schedule date nights and family times on your calendar, then refuse to move them. For 27 years, Tammy and I have been faithful to our date nights. Sometimes we didn’t have the money to do much, but we always did something, even if we just sat in a coffee shop talking and listening. For marriages to thrive, schedules must reflect the huge priority of each other. In other words, cheat at work if you must, but do not cheat at home.
5) Keep the romance alive. Romance isn’t just for Jane Austen books and Lifetime movies. It’s critical for a healthy marriage. I’ve always been amazed that when couples are first dating, they work so hard to impress each other, but as soon as the real relationship—their marriage—begins, they stop. Think of it this way: Who doesn’t enjoy a warm fire on a cold night? But that crackling fire doesn’t happen by itself. You have to remove the ashes, set the kindling, go outside to the log pile, brush off the snow, bring the wood inside and keep logs on the fire.
It’s a lot of work. And before you know it, the embers are burning low and you need to put another log on the fire. Too many couples have an unrealistic expectation that their love relationship should stay red hot. It doesn’t. Like that fireplace, a relationship takes careful attention and regular maintenance. Make the effort, and you’ll reap the benefits.
A few simple ways to keep the fire burning:
So how do you keep marriage alive and healthy through the demands of ministry? The bottom line is it takes work. Love is a choice, not a feeling. Love is getting up in the middle of the night with a sick child even though you don’t feel like it. Love is patient when your husband is uptight even when you’d like to ignore him. Love is kind when your wife is irritable even though you’d like to snap back. Love is giving a person what they need, not what they deserve. Marriage is a daily commitment to put your reactions aside and put on love: “And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col. 3:14).
Chris Hodges is founding and senior pastor of Church of the Highlands with campuses across Alabama. He is also co-founder of ARC, which has launched hundreds of churches nationwide, and founder of GROW, a coaching network helping pastors break barriers and reach their growth potential. He and Tammy have five children and live in Birmingham, Ala. He speaks at leadership conferences worldwide and is the author of Fresh Air.