Ever met anyone who opened your eyes to something that revolutionized your life? For me, that guy is my ministry friend, David Smith. More than 20 years ago after a game of golf, in casual conversation David unknowingly introduced me to an idea that ever since has been a game changer in my marriage.
Anyone who meets David for the first time quickly discovers he’s married—happily married. David talks about his wife Linda all the time—even on the golf course where many men seldom talk about their wives. I’ve always admired that about him. When I spent time with him, he constantly complimented Linda and went out of his way to build her up in front of others.
He talked about how beautiful and caring she is, how much he liked her cooking, how good she was with the kids, how much he looked forward to going home to her in the evenings, how lucky he was to be her husband. No matter what topic we discussed, it seemed he’d find a way to bring Linda’s name into the conversation, always in a kind way. It was no different when the two of them were together. They complimented each other incessantly and never put each other down. It was obvious they were crazy about each other.
At one point, I remember thinking, David is the only guy I know who has a better marriage than I do. Karen and I had a wonderful marriage at the time, but still I foundmyself jealous of their relationship. I often wondered about his secret.
One day after a game of golf on the way to dinner, David mentioned in passing that he and Linda would soon be leaving for their vision retreat and that they were looking forward to it.
“What’s a vision retreat?” I asked.
He seemed surprised. “You mean, you’re the ‘marriage guy,’ and you’ve never heard of a vision retreat?” he asked half joking.
David explained to me that each year he and Linda went away alone for several days to seek God’s vision for them as a couple. They called it their “vision retreat,” and it was a non-negotiable component of their marriage.
During their vision retreat, they used the time together to seek God’s guidance, to pray together, talk through issues that needed to be discussed, and make decisions about their family, marriage, careers and anything else going on in their lives. He told me that he and Linda had been doing a retreat this for years and that it had done more to strengthen their marriage than anything they had ever tried.
I was fascinated by the idea. As a pastor, I knew how important it was to have a vision for my church, and a lot of my time was spent praying and seeking God’s guidance for our congregation. Our pastoral staff would meet regularly to discuss our church’s vision, and we even had a detailed vision statement we had crafted years earlier. We’d refer to it often and read it aloud in meetings to make sure we were on track and staying there. All of us wanted to make sure God was at the helm when it came to making decisions for our church and community, so we spent many hours in prayer, seeking God’s guidance and direction for our fellowship.
So why not implement that same principle into our marriage and family? The idea made perfect sense to me. Honestly, I was a little embarrassed I hadn’t thought of it earlier.
I couldn’t wait to tell Karen about the idea and immediately began planning our own retreat.
Our First Vision Retreat
That weekend, I made arrangements with friends to borrow their lake house just outside of Dallas so that Karen and I could get away for a few days and relax and spend time talking about our vision statement. It was a beautiful and private location, with a great front porch and miles of trails where we could get away to walk and talk. It was the perfect place to be alone and seek God’s guidance.
Karen and I had long since overcome the struggles of our early years and I’d had a very strong marriage at the time, but there was still tension in a few areas. It was the mid-’80s, and Karen and I had young kids at home. My career as a pastor and speaker was demanding, keeping me away from home far more than either of us really wanted. Money was also tight, which always leads to friction. So we had some issues we needed to work through. We committed to using this time productively.
In hindsight, that weekend away did more to strengthen our marriage than anything we had ever done, just as it had for David and Linda. It was only four short days, but at the end of that time we felt closer than we had in years. Not only that, but we had a clear direction for our marriage and family—a written set of goals and promises we were committed to carrying out.
Money and finances had always been a source of tension with us. We usually avoided the subject altogether. I’ve always been a spender and never worried much about budgeting or saving, while Karen is extremely thrifty and cautious about spending money. We’ve always been extreme opposites in this area, which through the years created a lot of conflict. We didn’t fight about it very much—only because we didn’t talk about it. But during our vision retreat, we spent time praying and discussing our finances and came away with a clear plan of action—a compromise we both felt good about.
Suddenly money was no longer a topic we avoided. We had a written plan, and we both committed to sticking to it. Afterward, finances were no longer a point of tension. We simply stuck to the plan that God had given us and stopped worrying about it.
The same was true when it came to my career. When we committed it to prayer, the fact that I had been spending too much time at work and would probably face burnout soon became obvious to both of us.
So we drafted a clear plan of action for my schedule. It took work on my part to stick to the plan, but I committed to listening for and heeding God’s voice and staying the course.
We also were able to discuss some important issues related to raising our kids—a subject that always creates tension and difficult challenges between couples. Karen and I were no different. During our weekend away, we made decisions about schools, how we discipline and family times. Once we sought God’s vision for our family, it became clear what we needed to do in several areas that had been hanging over our heads, often causing frustration.
Afterward we never argued about these areas of marriage and parenting again. We simply stayed true to the vision God gave us and moved forward.
A Non-Negotiable for Our Marriage
Since that time, vision retreats have become a regular, non-negotiable part of our marriage. Every year, we plan quality time away to seek God’s guidance. It’s clearly one of the best decisions we’ve ever made and has honestly made a dramatic difference in how we relate to each other as a couple. Like David, I can say that our vision retreats have proven to be one of the greatest strengths of our marriage.
When you don’t have a clear vision of where you’re going, it’s impossible to stay together. If you have no idea about your destination, then how do you know when you’ve arrived? How do you know when you’re on the wrong path?
The great thing about going to the Lord and getting His vision for your marriage is that it’s absolutely stable. You go through a discouraging or difficult time, and that vision stays before you as a testimony that God has a purpose for your life and marriage.
We also began promoting the idea as an integral part of our ministry to married couples, and we even created a manual to help couples plan their own vision retreats. We’ve helped thousands plan and implement vision retreats in their own marriages. The feedback from couples has been phenomenal.
If vision retreats aren’t a regular part of your marriage, I can say firsthand they should be. And if you have any areas of sensitive or recurring conflict, I suggest you plan one sooner rather than later. Like us, you’ll probably wonder why you didn’t think of it earlier. One final word to leaders: Don’t let the vision for your church be the vision for your marriage or come before your marriage. Keep your marriage first by keeping your vision fresh, clear and unified.
After their first few vision retreats, Jimmy and Karen Evans wrote the 40-page booklet The Mountaintop of Marriage to walk couples through the vision retreat process step by step. For more information on how to plan a vision retreat, visit marriagetoday.com/visionretreat. Excerpted and adapted with permission from Lifelong Love Affair by Jimmy Evans (2012, Baker Books).