You've Been Called Where?

Some changes of ministry strain the family more than others. Here's how one family dealt with a difficult move.

Bob Maddox grew up in Seattle, and he could feel at home in a big city. But his wife, Brenda, hailed from the Great Plains — Rapid City, S.D., to be exact. In their 15-year pastoral journey, Bob and his family had served in rural Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota, so Brenda relished big sky, small towns and just enough people to take a liking to. Most important, Brenda had almost always been near her family.

But six years ago, the Maddoxes' world changed. Bob, then 41, was called to serve Northwest Assembly of God, a congregation in Mount Pleasant, Ill., that averages 675 in worship attendance. Both he and Brenda felt God directing them to this church in the northwestern suburbs of Chicago, and they moved in December 1990.

For Brenda, then 38, it didn't take long for loneliness to set in. During the first year she assumed she was experiencing the emotional trauma that normally comes with change: the sense of loss, the reluctance to close one chapter of life and start another, the lingering anxiety that comes with feeling out of place.

But three years of increasing loneliness followed. Brenda got along well with people in the church, but the fast pace of the big city seemed to prevent her from forming the kinds of close-knit friendships she knew from the previous ministries.

The distance from her childhood home compounded Brenda's loneliness. Busy church schedules and at least a 14-hour drive kept her away at holidays. When a beloved uncle died, she couldn't travel home for the funeral. Even at her own father's death, she got home only with enormous difficulty.

Separation from family, lack of close friendships, the deaths of loved ones — all combined to make Brenda's fourth year in the Chicago suburbs a dark one, the worst she could remember.

Transitions tax people in any occupation, but vocational ministry, with its fuzzy boundaries between duties to church and family, can make a heavy burden even more unwieldy.

Transitions tax people in any occupation, but vocational ministry, with its fuzzy boundaries between duties to church and family, can make a heavy burden even more unwieldy. Where can you or your spouse turn when you are hurting over a move? Usually not to others in the congregation. How can you tell people in the church that you don't like the region or, worse, that you're not too fond of them? How does your family accept and even embrace a new ministry that seems like anything but an ideal calling?

After almost six years in Mount Pleasant, Brenda still battles occasional waves of loneliness and regret, but for several reasons things are improving.

A Changed Man

First, Bob has been a great support. He is a heavily involved with the family. When they decided to come to Chicago, Bob made his wife and children the priority in his life. It hadn't always been that way, and Bob recognizes that Brenda's initial struggles in their new home resulted in part from that history.

"In Chicago, things that were rooted in previous experiences came to a head," he says. "In the past, when we moved to a new place of ministry, Brenda was responsible for the family and I focused on getting ministry geared up. That hurt her. When we moved here, it was hard for her to believe that I had made a mental change, that my family was more important to me than the church. I had lost credibility, and I think I'm still regaining it."

Now Bob is careful to be home for dinner each night, and the table talk often lasts for an hour or more. At the office, Bob has instructed his secretary to interrupt when a family member phones, even if he is in counseling or conference.

Their children, aged 9 to 19 at the time of the move, responded in different ways. The oldest, Nikole, was already in college, so the move did not affect her much. But it was a tough change for the second child, Nanette, who was 16. She started attending a large high school in the middle of her junior year. "She basically sat alone at school for a year and a half," Bob recalls. "That's why we had to become her best friend." Bob drove her to school and brought her home each day so they could talk.

"Nannette was Daddy's girl," Bob remembers. "She knew she could say what she had to say to someone who loved her and would accept her. She could get her frustrations out of her system, and then she'd be okay."

Thirteen-year-old Zach found his own way to make new friends: He just hung around the kids in the church youth group until they included him.

Stephen, the youngest, "struggled immensely," says Bob. "He never took well to change. He had nightmares; he couldn't find friends." Bob and Brenda decided they had to be patient, to let him cry, to "just keep holding him." Eventually, Stephen did make new friends and is now happy in his new home. He told his parents to plan on staying at least until he graduated from high school.

"The family had to become everything for a time," Bob says, "until other people could become part of the children's lives. The move made us very close friends."

A Tough Commitment

Keeping family first is not easy. Recently Bob flew home from an overseas trip, arriving at 5:30 in the morning. Then he drove four hours to attend an annual denominational business meeting — only to return home that afternoon to see Zach inducted into his high school's National Honor Society. When the ceremony was over, Bob made the four-drive back to the denominational meetings.

Keeping family first is not easy.

Bob goes to these lengths because he loves his children. "I would quit tomorrow if I thought my kids would be damaged here," he says. "I don't feel that this church is my all-in-all."

But he also makes these sacrifices for his wife's sake. Bob regards sharing Brenda's priority — the children — as an extension and expression of his love for her.

In addition to reordering his priorities, Bob supports Brenda by learning to be a better listener. "I've tried to give Brenda more of my ear," Bob says. "By comparison with my past habits, I'm listening a lot — but it may still need to be more."

Brenda has helped her husband understand that careful listening is important to her. If something is important to her, she wants it to be important to him, which means listening when she expresses her feelings with respect.

"Sometimes I don't feel like listening. I don't know if I'm helping her," he confesses. "She speaks her mind more, so I know better where she's coming from, but sometimes she speaks of things I cannot comprehend."

Nevertheless, Bob is determined to keep listening. He doesn't always have answers, but that's not what Brenda wants.

"I know Bob can't fix everything for me," she says. "Some of it must be worked out in my own heart with the Lord. The most important thing to me is to know Bob loves me."

A Better Perspective

In addition to getting support from her husband, Brenda is getting on the good side of this move by working out some things in her own life.

For instance, she has learned to accept some measure of homesickness. When a friend told her that "everybody has a special place in her heart for where she grew up," Brenda understood that her bittersweet longing for home was natural. For her, Rapid City will always be a special place.

But homesickness doesn't mean a new and strange locale cannot eventually have the cozy, familiar feelings associated with home. In fact, despite her lingering loneliness, Brenda says, "There is no other place I'd rather be right now. As much as I love South Dakota, I no longer want to live there. This is now our home. I don't regret moving to Chicago. I love our church. The people are precious, wonderful people. I wouldn't trade them for anybody."

Most important, Brenda is able to see more and more the good that God is accomplishing through this change — beginning with herself.

Her relationship with the Lord has matured. When she looks back, she says she was a "teenager" in the Lord before making this move. Now she is more of a spiritual adult, and she feels good about that. She would like to make week-long visits to South Dakota every six months or so, but now she can see beyond those short-term trips. "It's not where you are so much as where you are in the Lord," Brenda says. "It's not a place; it's the Lord."

Taken from Pastor's Family magazine, Oct./Nov. 1996.
Article copyright © 1996, Craig Brian Larson.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
Used by permission.

Craig Brian Larson serves with Lake Shore Assembly of God in Chicago and is a contributing editor to Leadership journal. He and his wife, Nancy, who have been married 22 years, have four sons.