Today would have been my parent’s 61st wedding anniversary.
Mom passed away from complications due to Alzheimer’s two years ago and significant dates always trigger reflection on her life and her marriage to the wonderful man who is my dad. Today that reflection centered on the fact that while their marriage was traditional in some ways, it was also a very egalitarian marriage. Here are some things I learned from their example.
One’s Path in Life is Not Dictated by Gender Roles
My parents had a traditional marriage by choice. My mom’s parents owned a series of restaurants, including the Yale Café and the Sherwood Inn in Southern California. Having grown up going from school to the restaurant each day and being the primary caretaker for her little sister on the weekends, Mom was determined that her children would have a different life. She committed to being a full-time stay-at-home-mom until her children were out of the house.
My dad’s mom had worked as well, including doing the bookkeeping for her husband’s gas station business and working as a school district secretary. But Dad fully supported Mom in her commitment not to work outside the home. (Later she did work in the public school system and in the home design business.) I believe Mom’s choice was motivated by a personal calling, not a role mandated by her strong Christian beliefs. Never once did either of my parents teach us that a woman’s place was in the home or that we should get married or have children.
Marriage is about Supporting Each in Ministry
I was six weeks old when our family packed up and moved to Pennsylvania so my dad could attend Eastern Seminary. My first sister was born during that time. Two years later he took an associate pastor role at a church in Kansas, where my brother was born. When I was seven years old our family of five moved to Japan (Okinawa, specifically) to be missionaries. During our time there my baby sister was born, completing our family.
Never once did Mom suggest that her highest calling was to be a mother, though that was a role in which she excelled and she loved being home with us kids. Throughout her life she demonstrated that serving Jesus was the priority – she was a “missional mom“. A talented vocalist, she sang at evangelistic campaigns and on radio broadcasts for the Far East Broadcasting Company, and served as music director off and on at various churches. One of my favorite memories of our time on the mission field in Japan is of going with her to an African-American church service on a military base. I was mesmerized as my white, red-haired, freckled mother danced up and down the aisles with the black choir, singing “Through it All” by Andre Crouch.
Giftedness and Calling are Better Ministry Qualifications than Gender
Dad worked with various Japanese congregations as part of his church planting efforts, so my parents decided that the rest of the family should attend an English-speaking church. As a result, I have more memories of Mom being at the pulpit on Sundays, either leading worship or using her talent as a vocalist to bless the congregation with special music.
We did occasionally go to church with my dad, where I observed him partnering with both women and men leaders to advance the cause of Christ. One of my favorite pictures is of Dad with a group of church leaders, including two women pastors. Since he had a somewhat flexible schedule, I also have memories of him making breakfast, doing laundry, and what seemed to be his favorite household chore, vacuuming. Gender was not the basis for the division of labor in our home or in my parent’s ministries.
At Times One Partner Sacrifices Ministry for the Sake of the Other
Mom loved her time in Japan, but she did not always relish the role of pastor’s/missionary’s wife. At times it was like living in a fishbowl and she resented some of the unreasonable expectations a congregation can place on pastors.
During our missionary years, the demands of church planting meant that Dad was often gone several nights a week. There was even a season when Dad was gone every weekend, flying to a remote island to serve as interim pastor. This left Mom on her own in managing a household with four children in a foreign country and limited her own ministry availability. I won’t say she never complained because she was good at articulating her emotions and we always knew when she wasn’t happy! But she also believed in Dad’s calling.
Dad had the chance to reciprocate later on when they had to decide whether or not to renew their commitment to the mission field. My mom felt compelled to return to the States, and although it was difficult for Dad, he realized it was the best thing for Mom and set aside his own personal ministry aspirations to bring us all home. In retrospect, it was a good and wise decision.
From this, I learned there are times in marriage where one partner puts a hold on their own ministry in order for the other to flourish.
Mutual Submission is the Marriage Ideal
About twelve years ago Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Over the years as her mind slowly degenerated, I watched my dad make one sacrifice after another so that he could be her primary caregiver. Having already retired from full-time ministry, he resigned from his part-time job in order to give Mom the controlled, stable environment she needed to maximize her cognitive functioning. Then, one by one, he gradually gave up his other commitments (missions committee, Sunday School teaching, and more) to be available to provide the physical care she needed. Until finally, Mom became his full-time ministry, so to speak. I will never think of foot-washing in the same way after watching him lovingly and gently wash Mom’s feet.
I think my dad was an amazing church leader, pastor, and missionary. He has the spiritual gift of teaching and is now using that gift again in a variety of settings. But he was outstanding as a father and as a husband as he cared for my mom in her last years and modeled for his children and grandchildren what it means to be a servant. As is typical in advanced Alzheimer’s, Mom did not recognize or call people by name in her last months. But she would point at Dad and say “that’s my husband!” until her final days, astounding the hospice care staff.
As I supported and observed my parents during this time, I realized that this was Dad’s ultimate call to ministry, to care for my mom physically, emotionally, and spiritually in those final years of her life. As I watched him submit to her every need, I realized that the model of egalitarian marriage described in Ephesians 5 was being played out right in front of me. I am blessed to have had them as my example.
Photo Credits: Vaughn Family Archives