This week Pam and I celebrated our 36th wedding anniversary. On November 29, 1980 we recited our vows before her father in the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church of Bamberg, South Carolina where he served as pastor and began the journey together as husband and wife. It was Thanksgiving break at the seminary where we were both students and we had only three days before semester exams, but being young and in love we didn’t want to wait until the following summer to be together. I wouldn’t recommend that, by the way.
But somehow things worked out. The wedding was awesome. Pam was beautiful and gloriously happy. Friends and family came from all over to be with us. When we returned to school we even passed our exams. Eighteen months later we graduated and moved to our first church.
Pastors’ marriages are the same as everyone else’s with one notable exception. Our home life and church life are so intermingled that it’s often hard to tell one from the other. What that means on one level is that our family rhythms are usually determined by church services and events. On a deeper level it means that our congregations are well aware how the principles we encourage them to live by in their marriages are being worked out within our own, for better and for worse. The interplay between those two dynamics can sometimes make you feel like you’re living in a fishbowl.
Pam and I knew the risks when we moved to a rural congregation near Aiken, SC. I served as pastor while Pam worked as a chaplain at a nearby hospital in Augusta. And like all newlyweds we soon ran head on into challenges. I threw myself into my ministry, determined to become a successful minister. Pam worked hard in learning the difficult job of ministering to people in extreme situations. We didn’t have much money so paying the bills from week to week brought stress. Before long Pam was pregnant with our first child.
Looking back on those early years, I realize how poorly I responded to the pressures of marriage, children, finances and a beginning career. Like many young husbands I minister to now, I felt overwhelmed by the responsibilities that come with that season of life. In fact, the peculiar stresses Christian husbands face in the early years of marriage is one of the main themes I talk about with young couples when they seek counsel. No one is exempt from them, not even pastors.
We grew through those early years and in 1985 moved to our second church in Charleston, SC. The next seven years turned out to be the most blessed and the most difficult of our marriage—maybe that’s how it always works. When husbands and wives live by faith, the challenges you thought at the time would overwhelm you turn out later to have been the source of your greatest growth.
We had our second child there, and our two children have turned out to be our greatest blessing. But between the two births we had several miscarriages. Like many other couples who have been through that experience, we still wonder about those children. What would they have looked like? Were they boys or girls? Will we meet them again one day in heaven?
Hurricane Hugo swept through Charleston in 1989 and devastated the community and our church. A year or so later our congregation went through such a traumatic conflict that I didn’t know if I’d be able to continue in ministry. At the same time, there were amazing evidences of God’s hand at work with people coming to faith in Jesus in the middle of the turmoil and friendships being forged that last even until today. Sometimes for all couples—pastors and lay people, mature and immature people alike—you weather the storms and just hang on as best you can, believing that God blesses those who persevere.
In 1993, our second decade of marriage, we moved again. This is the way pastoral ministry operates—you get accustomed to one place and invest in the people there then the Lord steps in and gives you another assignment. We went to eastern North Carolina and settled in for what would turned out to be an extraordinary fourteen years of marriage and ministry. Our children grew up in the church there and will tell you today that it was a golden time for them.
It was for Pam and me, too. Our congregation was filled with people with children the same age as ours, and we were fortunate that all our kids grew up together in the same neighborhoods, schools and church. That’s a luxury in today’s lifestyle of frequent relocations, and it gave that group of children a sense of stability and security that in large measure determined their later success. It’s no accident that many of them went on to do great things.
Our marriage was transformed in those years. The combination of working side by side in helping our children negotiate their childhoods and teen-age years then go on to college, enjoying the people in our church, and loving our community moved our marriage into a new season of grace.
It’s fascinating to me, though, when I meet people now who lived for a time in that community. They will often say how much they disliked the place. More than one has told me that the city was the armpit of the country. Their complaints have to do with how little there is to do there or how much it’s devoted to the military or how parochial the people are or even how ugly it is. For us it was none of those things; instead, our experience was rich and full of love.
Couples must understand that every place you live, every challenge you face and every season of life you go through will be good or bad, blessed or cursed, productive or destructive, according to your choice. You make it what it is.
In 2008 our youngest child went off to college and Pam and I entered into yet another season and moved to the church we now serve, a great congregation in a suburban area of the capitol of South Carolina. In these last few years empty nest has been quickly followed by our children’s marriages. Before we could turn around, grand-children started arriving. Then our aging parents required more care. The pace of change has accelerated faster than we could ever have imagined.
Yet nothing has changed. In fact, there’s a sense that we’ve come around to where we began, only better. Our marriage today is deep and true and I love her more than I did at the beginning—and I loved her then so much that at times I couldn’t breathe. Marriage works that way, I think, when it’s lived in the shadow of the cross. You grow and change, die and are reborn a thousand times but each time you move closer to Jesus and to one another. Yes, pastors and our marriages maybe go through that journey with a different nuance than lay people because of the peculiar visibility of our marriages, but it’s the same journey for all of us.
Poet T.S. Eliot’s celebrated ending from “The Four Quartets” captures the experience I’m trying to describe. He was a Christian and understood better than most how faith leads us through every season of life, especially in our marriages:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.