Fred and Ingrid De Jong speaking at the 2014 Flourish conference in Orlando, FL.

Building a Marriage to Survive Church Planting

by Fred and Ingrid De Jong

Church planting is really hard work. And it’s hard on marriages. Ours almost didn’t make it.

Our story is sweet, bitter, and sweet again. Ingrid and I decided to share our story to help couples struggling in their marriages while working in new (or established) churches. We want you to know you’re not alone, to hear something that connects with your reality. Above all, we want to provide hope that you can care for yourself and thrive in your closest relationships while enjoying church planting!

There was a time that we weren’t sure, and sadly, we hardly cared. Our 13-year marriage had crashed. Not “crashing.” Crashed. Looking back, we could well have been one of the statistics we heard Randy Weener mention at a church planters’ gathering. He said that of 300 failed church plants he had surveyed, 11 percent did so as a result of competency issues. A whopping 89 percent collapsed because of character failure.

Ingrid and I started ministry with great energy. In 1994, after three years in a more traditional church, we were called to a help a church plant restart in Naperville, Illinois. God blessed the growth of Christ Community Church from 30 people to 550 over a period of 15 years. What happened to us in-between, however, nearly did us in.

When we started at Christ Community, we had been married eight years. With three small children, a small church needing lots of attention, limited income, and a marriage that already struggled with conflict, we were headed for trouble.

I had grown up in a Canadian Dutch immigrant home that stressed hard work and keeping up appearances. I didn’t want anyone to know we were struggling, and rather than dealing with growing tensions, I chose to escape into long hours of work

Ingrid grew up in an immigrant home as well, learning from her early years not to process her emotions publicly. Still, she was frustrated with my anger and absence, and pulled away to protect herself.

Both of us laid emotional bricks between our relationship, building a high wall as we argued, distanced ourselves, and escaped into our own worlds. We were very involved in our new church, but that only provided more fodder for dissension and frustration. We were headed for a crash, and both of us felt justified in our behavior because the other person wasn’t meeting our needs.

A few years into our time at Christ Community, Ingrid remembers being at a park with the family. I was so crabby that she told me it would have been better had I not come. Around that time I recall finding alcohol hidden in the kitchen and wondering if Ingrid was drinking when I wasn’t around.

In the meantime, the church had quadrupled in size and we were struggling to keep up with the momentum and needs of ministry. It was easier to focus on a growing church than a shriveling marriage, and the wall between us grew higher.

In June of 1999, five years into our time at Christ Community, the wall came crashing down. Ingrid entered rehab to deal with alcoholism. The elders asked me to step down from all ministry activities for the summer to work on myself and our marriage. Our kids went to stay with family while we got in touch with reality.

Thankfully, under wise guidance from our leadership team, we were helped to get counseling. It was hard to accept at first, but we came to see how much we needed it. We entered a confusing and painful process of learning to listen, communicate, work through childhood issues, and lay a foundation to build a marriage where once the wall had been. Many times we were unsure whether we would make it, and our kids suffered through the insecurity and change. By God’s grace, with hard work and a supportive family and church, we made it!

Some would say we survived a close call, but we know it was God who was merciful to protect a marriage we had all but given up on. Changes slowly came. Arguments became less frequent. Expressions of affection returned. We started to be a couple again, and a family. We reengaged in ministry life, but with better boundaries and perspective, all the result of hard work.

Today we’ve been married for 28 years, have three terrific adult children, and are in the best spot our marriage has ever been. And we are really busy enjoying a church plant in its fourth year! The difference is that we know ourselves better and have changed our approach to marriage and ministry.

I realize that my workaholism tendencies stem from a desire to prove myself and gain affirmation. I have learned to surrender the church to Christ, and use spiritual disciplines to center my identity in Christ. Ingrid understands her people-pleasing tendencies and has learned to find her identity and happiness apart from people (including me). Together we’ve learned to walk in grace with each other’s weaknesses, highlight the positive, deal with issues quickly, and appreciate the gift the other person is. Our differences are no longer attack zones. We laugh together, tease each other, and get over ourselves quicker. And we pray together.

Looking back, we missed one of the safeguards that could have prevented the crash. We needed a support network for ourselves and our marriage. The church provided a few people who were available if we needed to talk, but they didn’t probe us, and we weren’t about to share our struggles. We were disciple-makers who were not being discipled. Worse, we were sure we didn’t need it! Our years of intense counseling (yes, years) are behind us, but today we both still have friends who ask good questions and keep us accountable.

If our story stirs something in you, we urge you to do something. We learned the hard way that time heals nothing without proactive attention. If you’re wondering where to start, here are a few questions to consider that we now wish some friends had asked:

  • Is the church plant helping or hurting you, your marriage, and/or your family?
  • Can you identify with any of the symptoms you’ve just read, or think of others that are at play in your relationship?
  • Is there a common theme to your conflicts in the last six months? Where are you experiencing the greatest stress?
  • Individually and as a couple, what is the Achilles heel that the devil is exploiting?
  • Who will you share your answers to these questions with, and trust to walk with you through any areas where you get stuck?

The last question is the most important. Pride, busyness, and avoidance motivate us to bury our relational issues in the hard work that a new church requires. Read that question again. Choose the better path. Carve out the time you don’t think you have, and do the work you don’t want to do.

Your marriage is worth it. And God calls you to it, before he calls you to be a church planter. As for Ingrid and me, we are so glad we finally did. We thank God for the changes our crash led us to make and the life we enjoy as a result of doing something. Our wish for you is this: do something sooner than we did! You’ll be glad you did.