All of life is a learning experience.
Throughout the course of my life I have participated in learning experiences that have been of a formal, non-formal and informal nature.
Some of my best learning opportunities have occurred in the less intentional informal moments in the school of life. In these experiences, learning has taken place through observing people who unexpectedly created a teachable moment for me in the high calling of married life.
Three memorable encounters that occurred in earlier years of my ministry brought to my attention the importance of Leaders’ Marriages – A Priority of Highest Order.
INFORMAL LEARNING EXPERIENCE 1 – DONALD McGAVRAN
Donald McGavran was the father of the Church Growth Movement and I happened to attend the memorial service of his wife, Mary at the Fuller Seminary Chapel. Donald and Mary had been married for 67 years and Mary was affectionately called his “right hand”. Theirs was a joint calling in which they complimented one another in their amazing ministry as cross-cultural missionaries and then their work to create the School of World Mission at Fuller.
But the greatest lesson for me came when I learnt of the way Donald gave himself totally and ceaselessly to his wife in the final months of her ill health. So much so that he kept a bedside vigil in her final days and chose not to attend to the painful cancer that was developing in his own body. He suffered silently at her side.
It was said of Donald McGavran, a multi-talented man, that he played a “one string guitar” in his focussed attention to the Church Growth Movement and following his wife’s death, he continued his writing and research until his own death at the age of 92. During that time he stubbornly refused to take pain killer medication so that he might write with a clear mind.
Donald McGavran’s life spoke to me of his focussed commitment to his two God given callings, his wife Mary and his passion to see souls won for his saviour Jesus Christ at the expense of his own well-being.
INFORMAL LEARNING EXPERIENCE 2 – AN UNKNOWN WORLD VISION LEADER
A sobering experience regarding the married life of a leader came to me when I read an article by Graeme Irvine, a World Vision leader, as he shared how a colleague became aware of the grave injustices he had committed against his wife in the name of God’s work.
“……..the real issue was whether I loved my work more than I loved my wife. Though I denied it, Peggy suspected that she came in second. The ministry had clearly come between us. I had never imagined that a call could become a seduction that would destroy a marriage. Nor had I been aware of how subtly a ministry could give one an inflated view of his/her own importance. How sinister that I could be deluded into believing that it was somehow alright to neglect my wife at a time when her needs for companionship and support were great. What is worse, that I would set her up for spiritual alienation at the same time.
…….it is becoming clear to me that a call of God, rightly followed, does not cause or allow me to do hurtful things to my mate. Ministry must be subordinated to the greater call of loving my wife as Christ loved the church. I am learning that my ministry can be a powerful seductive love. What is even more dangerous is the case of confusing love of my work with my love for God. These are clearly not the same.
…….my deepest regret, however, is that my growth has come at such a high cost and at such a high cost to the loving person God gave me for a life’s companion. Perhaps during the following years I will learn how a man called to serve God in the city can be faithful to a higher call to love first and best in the home.”
This informal learning experience came as a timely reminder to me as I was “advancing in the ministry” not to find my identity in what I do, rather to live with integrity and to love my wife as Christ loved the church. I was reminded of the words of John Maxwell who said that when he was 39 years old, he was prompted to rewrite his definition of success. He said that “Instead of acclaim or achievement, I decided that for me, success means having those closest to me love and respect me the most. From that moment on, my success depended on putting my family first. If you want to truly succeed in this life, you need to ask yourself a question: Is your pursuit of success drawing you close to – or farther from – the most important people in your life?”
INFORMAL LEARNING EXPERIENCE 3 – DR. ROBERTSON McQUILKIN
My third informal learning experience came from a published letter written by Dr. Robertson McQuilkin, the former President for 22 years of the highly respected Columbia Bible College and Seminary in America. Dr. McQuilkin had recently resigned his position to care for his wife who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
“My dear wife Muriel, has been in failing mental health for about 8 years. So far I have been able to carry both her ever growing needs and my leadership responsibilities…..but now it is clear to me that she needs me now, full time.
Perhaps it would help you understand if I shared with you what I shared at the time of the announcement of my resignation in chapel. The decision was made, in a way, 42 years ago when I promised to care for Muriel ‘in sickness and in health…..till death do us part.’ So, as a man of my word, integrity has something to do with it. But so does fairness. She has cared for me fully and sacrificially all these years; if I cared for her for the next 40 years I would not be out of debt.
Duty, however, can be grim and stoic. But there is more. I love Muriel. She is a delight to me – her childlike dependence and confidence in me, her warm love, occasional flashes of that wit I used to relish so, her happy spirit and tough resilience in the face of her continual distressing frustration. I don’t have to care for her, I get to. It is a high honour to care for so wonderful a person. There are other people in the world who can successfully lead CBCS. There is only one who can successfully care for Muriel at this point.”
Robertson McQuilkin was a timely reminder to never forget the marriage vows that we make before God and our friends and to live in such a way that our love relationship grows deeper as we grow older.
I write this as a timely reminder that a leader’s marriage is a priority of highest order. Perhaps for some reading this article it is a timely reminder of a priority in need of restoration. It is never too late to set a lifelong goal that “success means that those closest to you love and respect you the most.” Could there be anything more important that we could model to those we are called to lead?