How do you and your wife keep your marriage prioritized above ministry? What is your greatest challenge in keeping your marriage strong? What is and isn’t working in your church to reach couples and strengthen their marriages?
We asked a group of pastors these questions and more. What follows are their insightful responses, as these leaders give us an inside look at how they pursue marriage and deal with the inevitable struggles, as well as how they’re leading their churches to help build marriages. And we are richer for their experience.
Our Panel of Pastors
Derwin L. Gray is the founding and lead pastor of Transformation Church in Indian Land, S.C., and is considered to be one of America’s leading voices on multiethnic, multigenerational, missional ministry. Derwin has been married to Vicki (he calls her his best friend) for 21 years, and they have two children. Derwin’s new book, Limitless Life: You Are More Than Your Past When God Holds Your Future (Thomas Nelson), releases this September. Connect with him at the church’s website, transformationchurch.tc.
Benny Perez has been called one of the leading voices to this generation. After experiencing one of the greatest youth revivals to ever hit the northwest, Perez felt called to begin a church in Las Vegas. In 2003, he and his wife, Wendy, founded The Church at South Las Vegas, where nearly 3,200 people attend. He and Wendy have been married 14 years and have four children. Connect with him at his blog, bennyperez.org.
Jentezen Franklin is the senior pastor of Free Chapel, with locations in Gainesville, Ga., and Irvine, Calif., which each year draws more than 14,000 students to its annual Forward Student Conference. Franklin is a New York Times best-selling author, and his televised broadcast, Kingdom Connection, reaches millions in more than 120 nations. Jentezen and his wife of almost 26 years, Cherise, have five children and live in Gainesville. Connect with him at jentezenfranklin.org.
Rick Bezet is the founder and lead pastor of New Life Church in central Arkansas and is a founding board member and overseer of the church-planting organization Association of Related Churches. In 2001, he and his wife, Michelle, set aside Rick’s future as a professional golfer to follow God’s call to central Arkansas to plant a church. Now, 11 years later, New Life has seven campuses, an Internet campus and 18 total services. Rick and Michelle recently celebrated 25 years of marriage, and they have four children. Follow him on Twitter at @rick_bezet.
Let’s start by talking about one of the greatest struggles among church leaders and their spouses. What do you and your wife do to keep your marriage prioritized above ministry?
Benny Perez: Wendy and I always have an open relationship with a licensed marriage counselor. We’ve found that many couples are intimidated or hesitant to enlist the help of a third party, but for us the benefits outweigh the risks. We both know we need a safe place where we can be transparent with each other, and also another voice keeping us accountable for making our marriage a priority.
Derwin Gray: I preach often that my first priority is Jesus, my wife, my children and then the church. And every time I talk about it, our church family applauds that. Vicki and I sincerely believe that the greatest worship, discipleship and evangelistic resource we have is our marriage and that our marriage displays Jesus’ relationship to His bride, the church.
Rick Bezet: One thing that helps us keep our marriage first is setting aside one day each week for a “date day,” which works really well for us. Plus, day dates are more affordable because our kids have free babysitters (school), and you can see matinee movies, have a light lunch, etc.
Perez: We also have weekly date days. For us, going out at night wasn’t as effective. We’d get tired or just not want to make the effort after a long day. So we regularly get a babysitter and take some time to just be with each other. And probably once a quarter, we take a short overnight stay with each other—even locally. We’ve found it helps us communicate more effectively and strengthens our bond.
Bezet: We’ve also learned how fun it is to have something to look forward to as a couple. We love to dream about what’s coming up, milestones in our lives with our kids, etc. Right now, we’re excited that our youngest son, Tanner, is heading to college in the fall, and we just celebrated a huge milestone in our marriage: 25 years!
Jentezen Franklin: I think we have to remember that pastors are real people with real marriages, and all marriages have issues that take a lot of work at times. Many wonderful speakers have explained that you move out of the “in love” experience and realize the fact that love is a choice and it takes work. Whether or not you’re in a smaller ministry that may not be as complex as a larger ministry, you have to work together as a couple to ask what the priorities are. I don’t care who you are, every couple struggles with keeping that connection. There are so many distractions, pulls and challenges to closeness and connection. Since time is in such demand for us, my wife and I have to make decisions together about things that require time and together ask, “Would this be good or not good for our marriage? Is this good or not good for our family?”
Jentezen, how do you keep your marriage strong when you travel so often to Free Chapel’s sites in Georgia and California?
Jentezen: We try to travel together as much as we can. I don’t accept any invitations that are detrimental to my family life and would interfere with birthdays, family functions, etc. Without sounding oversimplified, find time to talk, have fun, show love and be more accepting that marriage is about forgiving each other’s flaws. No matter how much my wife and I have disagreed about something, we try to keep respect in it and find a way to work with each other.
When you work hard, you need to play hard. My wife and I know the value of taking several trips per year as a couple and as a family away from the hustle and bustle of ministry life.
What are some insights and practical suggestions you’ve learned from other leaders and mentors that you’ve implemented in your own marriage?
Gray: Early in our ministry as itinerant evangelists, I thought preaching was my first ministry. I would come home tired and totally ignored Vicki and my kids (they were young at the time). Thank God our mentors, Alan and Mary Bacon, set me straight. Alan told me, “If you’re too tired to minister to your family, then you quit preaching, because the greatest sermon you’ll ever preach is loving your wife and children.”
Bezet: We are incredibly blessed to have Brother Larry and Melanie Stockstill as our pastors and mentors. Michelle and I have tried to follow the example they set. One of the most important things they taught us, and modeled in everyday life, is the value of integrity. They are both extremely mindful of how they counsel the opposite sex so as to always be “above reproach.” For example, they taught us the importance of not riding alone in the car with someone of the opposite sex; not talking about relationship issues with someone of the opposite sex; and in every way possible, living a life that is above question.
What is your greatest challenge in keeping your marriage strong, and how do you navigate it?
Gray: Forgetting that my identity is not found in the success of the church. When I forget that Jesus defines me, I tend to overwork and not be present in the midst of family life, or I’m too tired to engage with my family. For Vicki, what makes her a great leader is that she’s task-oriented, but when her task orientation is not fueled by the gospel, she can tend to become a workaholic too. We realized this fairly quickly, while we attempted to plant a church from scratch.
Bezet: Sometimes your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness. As our kids have grown up, it seems like the issues they face are more complicated, and often Michelle and I want to parent them differently—definitely a challenge. But we have learned to ask each other, “Are you saying no just to say no, or are you hearing from God?”
Perez: Communication. Early on, we realized we could say the same thing and hear it two different ways. We’ve used methods from Love and Respect, our favorite marriage book. We also get elementary in our approach at times. We are intentional at repeating back to one another to make sure we’re on the same page. Some might find it laborious, but it’s a lot better to communicate during the foundation than to build a whole house and realize the visions didn’t match up.
How soon did you and Wendy realize this was a challenge?
Perez: Probably the first day after the honeymoon! Let’s be real: Marriage takes work. And then once you’ve kind of got it figured out, you or your spouse changes! It’s an ongoing growth process for every couple.
Franklin: We realized it was a challenge right from the beginning too. When you come down out of the clouds and your feet hit the ground after the honeymoon and you start living life and solving life’s challenges, you start seeing that it’s not so easy. Cherise and I know that to stay connected, we have to keep mindful and on task. To stay close you have to find time to talk. Not just surface talk, but to go a little deeper. For men it takes work to do that, but it’s a necessity.
How does your church reach out to and minister to couples? In your experience, what really works? What really doesn’t?
Gray: Our church offers premarital and marriage counseling led by trained lay leaders. We also have professional counselors who are involved in ministering to marrieds.
First and foremost, we preach and teach couples the gospel! We believe that when a heart is ravaged by the gospel of grace, married people will begin to grace one another. I think we spend too much time teaching people pragmatic principles that are Christ-less and lifeless. Teaching marriage principles has no power to transform a heart; only Jesus and His gospel can do that. Don’t get me wrong. Learning to listen and discover your spouse’s love language is very important, after their hearts are overflowing with Jesus’ abundance of grace. When a person grasps the reality of the gospel, it’s hard not to serve and forgive and love your spouse. I know I have become a better communicator and listener because the gospel softened my heart to pay attention to the needs of my wife; and the same for Vicki. We’re trying to teach that at our church, and it seems to be working.
Perez: Three things: 1. We are huge proponents of professional counseling! As consumers, we will have no problem buying the latest pair of designer jeans and then not want to invest in ourselves or our marriages. Some of us are actually investing more in coffee than in our marriages. There are excellent tools that can turn your marriage around, and sometimes it will take an investment. But investing in these tools can reap incredible fruit in your future and for generations to come.
2. Small groups. Maybe your marriage isn’t a 911-emergency or you absolutely do not have funds for one-on-one counseling. We believe that small groups are an incredible way for couples to debunk myths (you’re not alone or the only one to have faced these challenges) and learn from others’ experience. It’s a great way for experienced couples to mentor others. Or for younger couples to feel supported and encouraged.
3. Premarital counseling in small groups. What doesn’t work is just telling a couple to tough it out and pray more. Praying obviously helps, but we need to also equip our people with tools! And then allow God’s grace to empower us to use those tools.
Bezet: We also have three main strategies for ministering to couples: life groups; marriage classes and retreats; and marriage counseling.
We believe that getting people plugged into biblical community works! Many couples attend church week after week but never develop deep, transparent relationships. An isolated couple will struggle with many common issues, but without friends and mentors to encourage and pray for them, their struggles turn into make-or-break issues. We have seen over and over that married couples who are connected to one of our life groups will thrive in all seasons of life. During the hard times, they have the support they need to weather the storm. And in the good times, they’re the ones offering strength and encouragement to others.
We also offer marriage classes and retreats a few times a year. Many of the people who ask for help with their marriage are not connected to anyone in the church. They don’t have friends in the church or are not in a life group. We invite them to attend a class or retreat and then connect them into a life group. The hope is that the class/event will not only help their marriage, but also help them build friendships in the church.
For marriages that need help with a very specific issue, or are in a desperate state, we connect them to a couple in the church who has been trained to counsel. Even if there is incredible, miraculous improvement from the counseling sessions, our ultimate goal is to connect them to a life group, to friends and to a leader who will take care of them.
Franklin: We have seen a great response to our One Marriage conference events in California and Georgia. We also have many small groups that are designed to provide growth opportunities for couples. We even have a small group designed for couples threatening divorce and separation. It has really helped for us to encourage people to get involved in a small group. That is the interesting thing about our campuses. Small groups like these seem to make a large church much smaller. You need people involved in your life to encourage you that God will help your marriage; tell you that marriage is worth working on; and sometimes even tell you when you’re going down the wrong path. Couples today are challenged with more ways to get themselves into trouble. With Facebook being a popular way to socialize, people are being led down the primrose path to affairs and inappropriate relationships.
Good point. How are you dealing with these cultural challenges at Free Chapel?
Franklin: Some of our small groups focus on issues that couples currently deal with, such as a spouse struggling with pornography or learning what the Bible says about counter-cultural issues like open sexuality. Our speakers at the marriages conferences stress that the Bible says we should be satisfied with the wife of our youth and flee from the destruction caused by sex outside of marriage.
I would encourage churches that waiting until you feel you church is large enough to do something for couples doesn’t work. Start small, but you’ve got to start somewhere. We may not be able to do everything, but we can do something.
What are your suggestions for leaders of churches that may not have the budget to hire a marriage and family pastor but do recognize the great need to minister to couples?
Perez: One way to minister with fewer resources is to recommend existing, trustworthy community outreaches already available in your area. We don’t employ professional counselors at our church, but we do have a trusted list of local Christian counselors to give to those interested in professional counseling.
Also, get to know churches in your area. Maybe another church has great marriage classes. Recommend those! We recommend another local church for small groups addiction recovery. They are doing it so well that we prefer to partner with them.
Franklin: We recently had Jimmy Evans come to our 2013 One Marriage conference, and he has created a great group study called Marriage on the Rock. Our couples small groups do studies like this to build and strengthen marriages. I would encourage under-resourced churches to start small and build on at least one thing. Humble beginnings seem small, but God just needs people that are willing to persevere, be faithful and to dare to dream about doing new things.
Bezet: The greatest resource any pastor has is the people in the church. In Ephesians, we read that the fivefold ministry exists “to equip the saints for the work of the ministry.” At New Life, we try very hard to do this very thing! Many of our pastors are not paid staff. Our pastors lead lay leaders who lead life group leaders, and much of the work of the ministry is done not by the apostles, teachers, pastors, evangelists or prophets, but by the saints.
Gray: As a church plant, we learned early that desperation produces innovation! We didn’t have enough money to paint the walls of the warehouse where we hold our weekend gatherings, let alone hire a marriage or family pastor! I deeply longed for our church to operate as a local body led by the priesthood of the believers, so we made an intentional commitment to leadership development in our church. In three years, God has really blessed our efforts to have a strong team of premarital and marriage counselors led by lay people.
A lot of leaders long to see their lay people take that kind of ownership. How have you approached this at Transformation?
Gray: First, we’re theologically convinced that God’s people are a “royal priesthood,” therefore, our congregation must be equipped by the pastor-elders to live out their calling. Second, we prayed for God to raise up gifted people within the congregation to be a part of this marriage ministry team. Third, we developed systems, processes and intentional training so they could be unleashed.
How would you rate the importance of marriage ministry in the church to grow a church of spiritually mature disciples?
Franklin: We recognize that keeping marriages strong is a must to making future disciples of future generations. If you can help a couple get closer to God and experience His reconciliation power, then you’re influencing multiple future generations.
Bezet: John 10:10 says that the enemy comes to steal, kill and destroy, and we rarely see so much joy, peace, energy, purpose and legacy stolen as we do when a family is under attack. When a family is dysfunctional, it hurts the members of that family in tragic ways. But it also robs the church of the potential ministry that families would be engaged in if they were walking in God’s purposes for their marriage.
Healthy, thriving families will help other families, who will turn around and help others, thus making disciples.
Gray: This question hurts my heart deeply. As Christians, we’re not doing so well with marriage. We have to minister the life-giving gospel of grace to married people. Graced people grace one another. Our discipleship strategy to everyone is intentional. We want to equip our people to see that all of life is worship. We want to connect them in a small group, to serve on a ministry team, to see their vocation as serving the world, to live a life of financial generosity and, to live an inviting life of being on mission with Jesus.
Perez: At our church, we talk a lot about our personal marriage journey. We let them know it’s OK if your marriage isn’t perfect. It’s OK to need help. We focus on God’s grace and His sufficiency in us and through us as our power to keep loving, keep respecting and keep going.
What fruit have you seen from keeping marriage a front-burner focus in your church and your own family?
Frankin: Well, we’ve seen God do a miracle restoration in many marriages that were once heading for divorce. We have even seen couples call off divorce after the papers had already been filed.
God has blessed Cherise and me with almost 26 years of marriage. We‘ve had rough times like others, but the work has paid off. We still hold hands, and we still have fun together. Our kids know that their parents work on their marriage, and that has given them a sense of well being. They may say, “Oh, gross!” when they see us kiss, but inside they’re happy about it.
Gray: When we started, a couple came to one of our services on the verge of divorce. Now they’re serving on the pre-marital/marriage counseling team. Because we attract a lot of non-Christians, we’ve seen a lot of couples in our church who were once shacking up now getting married.
Perez: Our fruit is our kids. We love our church. We love our city. But the most important people and our first church are BJ, Bella, Benaiah and Bébé. They are astounding kids. They love church. Love Jesus. Love the ministry. Nothing is more important to us.
Bezet: The greatest challenge is the magnitude of the need. Marriage in our culture is under attack at every level. But we know that the darker the room, the brighter the light! Many of the most miraculous marital turnarounds we’ve seen have developed into the greatest lay pastors and leaders!
When marriage is a main focus, the healthy marriages influence and attract those who are struggling. When someone is forgiven much, they love much. When a couple is healed and given another chance, they run to the hurting marriages they see. Like most churches out there, we definitely aren’t the best church when it comes to marriage ministry, but we are always trying to learn from other churches, and at the end of the day, we are 100 percent committed to helping marriages in our church and community stay healthy.
Lindy Lowry serves as general editor of Ministry Today.