In the last issue of the Movement, we talked to J. Allen Thompson about church planter assessment. We also interviewed Esther Cabinte on her experience on the assessment as a church planter spouse.This month, we caught up with Church Planter Spouse Shari Thomas to find out about her church planting experiences and the development of a new assessment profile for the church planter spouse.
Think about a pastor's wife and you might get an image of the smiling woman sitting at the piano behind her husband, who is preaching at the pulpit. Or maybe she is leading the children's choir in a special performance at Easter. Or maybe you don't see her at all, but she is behind the scenes, busy with filing and printing documents for the next service.
But, however important these jobs may be in a church, the church planter spouse is a greater part of the equation than the traditional jobs suggest. Her role is essential for the well being of the church as well as herself and the planter. As such, she is an equal partner in the planting effort, and like the church planter himself, requires specific qualities and competencies.
Just ask Shari Thomas, who began serving in church planting endeavors some twenty years ago with her husband John. By now, she is something of an expert, with her own experiences in addition to growing up surrounded by church planters - aunts, uncles and parents. As a church planter spouse, Shari knows all about the standard 'spouse duties' of supporting a budding ministry. She also knows the importance of assessing both the call and the competencies of the spouse in addition to the church planter himself.
New Standards for a New Profile
Several years ago, Shari began assessing church planter wives and their role in new churches. She found that, while church planters benefited from research-based profiling and a growing interest in assessment, there was little being done to address the role and qualities of a church planter spouse. Assessment for the spouse did exist, but, as Shari describes it, the profile was a good educated guess. It covered only four to five competencies and tried to assess the spiritual life of the spouse.
But the categories were too general. More importantly, Shari found that they did not comprehensively reflect all the competencies that needed to be considered. Based on her experiences, Shari knew that there was a strong correlation between assessing the competencies of the spouse and building a healthy church plant. She also knew that, given the special demands of church planting, the wife's readiness would greatly affect her marriage and family life.
It was too risky just to assume that the wife would be ready if the church planter was qualified and that she would fill-in wherever she was needed. Shari wanted to more accurately identify these competencies and measure them so that the spouse could recognize areas of strengths and growth. Armed with these standards, the spouse and the church planter could better determine her readiness for the challenges ahead.
"There were such failures in our first church planting efforts! We were so focused on externals. My whole identity was wrapped up in how successful the ministry was, not who I was in Christ. My spiritual life was based on my efforts of trying harder rather than resting in my identity as a beloved child of God. The cost was too great to both the church and my own family. So this new process came out of my own brokenness," Shari reflects.
"Also, I heard too many stories about struggling marriages due to the stresses of church planting. I started asking myself, 'What is going on here?' We shouldn't have to sacrifice our marriages for the churches. I knew we needed to find better measurements. Partnering in the gospel and the call of church planting is critical – not optional – if the plant and the marriage are to succeed."
So Shari set about doing research to identify critical issues spouses face in church planting. In the summer of 2003, she finished the first goal of the research by completing the current spousal profile, one that measures twelve competencies with indicators specific to matching the talents of the spouse to the intense needs of planting a church (see spouse competencies). The twelve competencies fall into one of three categories: Personal (being), Interpersonal (relating) and Professional (doing). Under each competency, the profile also identifies both positive and negative indicators. This profile was designed for mainly North American cultures, although she would like to investigate profiles for other ethnicities in the future.
Sharing the Ministry Vision
The spouse attends the four day assessment event at the same time as her husband. At first, the need for such a rigorous spouse assessment may seem strange, even counterintuitive. But people soon understand what the purpose is: to find out if church planting is a good fit for the couple.
"It's not about how spiritual you are, or if you are a good Christian," Shari reiterates.
"It's about confirming your call and competence for this type of start-up ministry. If it's not a good fit, you would be crazy to do it! Some are just better suited to more established ministries, and they need to be affirmed in that."
Of the twelve competencies, Shari quickly points out the most important one based on the research: Effective Church Planter Partner (#10). The wife's call needs be the same or in line with her husband's. Without this alignment, both the marriage and church plant could be in danger.
"If the wife is one with her husband on the vision, she won't say, 'Hey, I never wanted this, and I thought it would be over sooner," Shari explains. "It's realizing that even when you want out, this is the call on your life. Pulling out emotionally is not an option when things get tough (and it will!). You need to cling to Christ."
Sounds like common sense, but Shari emphasizes that church planters need to approach this point with honesty. "Some have not thought about this together, as a couple. This competency recognizes the dynamics of marriage. In ministry, there's always a temptation to 'super-spiritualize' everything. But you have to look at how your partner fits in. It's about honoring one another. Period."
Shari also comments on a few other competencies. On the spouse competency Resilient Self-View (#4), she highlights the need for the spouse to understand her identity in Christ and the discipline to preach the Gospel to herself. As the wife, there is the tendency to carry the criticisms or offenses of her husband. But her identity cannot be wrapped up in the church nor in her husband.
"Personally, the first time my husband had to let a staff member go, several people left the church," Shari remembers. "This included a close friend. I wanted them to be more spiritually mature, and I was hurt. But I needed to forgive and let these people go. I had to recognize that God would heal and work in their lives and mine, in his timing rather than mine. This offense was not mine to carry. Although this process took time I had to keep taking the criticisms of my husband before the Lord. My self-view has to be tied to what Christ thinks of me and what Christ thinks of my husband, not what others think about how well we are performing."
Also, the competency Contextual Adapter (#12) indicates that the spouse needs to realize that the church plant may be totally different than what she is used to. Flexibility to change, an appreciation for a new culture, as well as the willingness to accept risk are vital to responding to the call. For most wives, change is difficult. But sometimes, it's just a matter of recognizing that there will be change.
Partnership and Roles
There's a misconception that the more involved the spouse is, the more supportive she is. But partnering doesn't mean that the wife need work directly in the ministry. She may be in another career or be involved in other activities. Depending on the stage of her family, she may devote most of her time to her children. So it's not her role or job that matters, but her call and attitude toward the needs of the new ministry.
Partnering in this sense removes any limitations placed on the spouse that are not biblical, and opens up doors to what a woman can do. The wife can play a big role in the vitality of the church in the areas that she is specifically called and gifted. This differs from the more traditional expectations of the wife. When the partnership is not recognized, often the spouse is just a default 'volunteer' in the nursery, children's ministries, music, cooking, organizing or office work.
But Shari warns against this: "Be careful not to load un-wanted jobs onto your wife. It's not wise to pawn off the secretarial work on her just because no one else will do it.
"Decisions for involvement in the ministry need to be shared and mutual. And these decisions need to be re-evaluated at every stage of your family life," Shari advises. "It's key for the husband to care for his wife and understand the partnership idea. Society at large doesn't understand the church planter wife's role as a profession. They ask, 'Who is this person?' It's not esteemed, and if husband doesn't esteem it, it can be crushing path."
Church planters need to make sure that their wives re-assess where they are on a regular basis. This also helps to affirm their value in the planting effort. There is not really a 'right' or 'good' profile as there is a growing ability to walk in these competencies. The point is not achieving perfection, but a commitment to growing in the competencies once her call is confirmed.
Words to the Husband
Shari offers a last word to church planters from a recent conference on church planting and how it affects marriages:
"One thing that has helped us was daily time to interact with difficult issues of the day. We save our concerns for this time when we are committed to hear one another. I recommend this! This will help you connect in a deeper way. Spend some of that time praying. If your wife knows that she will be heard today, she can trust you for tomorrow.
Many times a church planter will commit to others first and to his family second. But he needs to make his family and wife a priority. They need to see spiritual humility at home, not just in public."