In 1980, the Ashland Avenue Baptist Church ventured far out on a very flimsy limb and called a 20-year old junior from Michigan State to be their Minister of Music and Youth. On my first day at the church, Tanya and I went on a date together for the first time. Thirteen days later, we bought the rings. Six months later, in March of 1981, we married.
Convinced of a definite divine calling on my life since I was ten, on that very first date I explained to Tanya that I did not know where God would lead me, but I was committed to go wherever that might be. Though already certain that I would pursue a PhD after my undergraduate studies, I did not rule out serving the Lord in the jungle or some very remote place. Even from that first serious conversation she wholeheartedly and unreservedly said that she was on board and understood that the Lord came first in my life (yep, on the first date!). Though neither of us truly understood what that would mean, we were sincere in our desire to give the Lord our lives.
Wasting no time, we used our courtship and engagement, brief as they were, to make some key decisions. Tanya was working for a non-profit organization with special needs children at the time, and when the grant that funded her job ended in December of 1980, three months before we married, we decided that from that point on her job would be to help me in the ministry. She would plug into the church and work with students as though she were on staff. When we went on youth trips, she would be available to go. When young girls needed someone to talk to, she would have a listening ear and a word of encouragement. When summer camp rolled around, she would write skits, play softball, and love on kids with as much commitment as I, even though her name would never be on the paycheck. Whenever the Lord gave us children, she would stay home with them as well as continue to travel with the youth choir, teach a girls’ Sunday School class, and a thousand other things.
We made that decision when I was being paid $11,000 per year and living in a church parsonage. We had no idea how difficult it would be to maintain that commitment, particularly during the lean years in seminary, but neither did we know the harvest of joy and blessing it would reap in so many ways.
Now, almost thirty-three years later and with the perspective of history, we realize that no single decision we made as a couple bore more fruit or had greater impact than that one. Even more significant than my decision to go to seminary, more momentous than the calling to any church, with far greater effect than our move to Southern Seminary, our decision that Tanya would forego work outside our family and ministry was life altering. That single resolution shaped who we are as a couple and enhanced or actually caused all those other blessings.
I hear the gasps and protestations already.
Let me be clear: Tanya and I do not believe that Scripture forbids wives and mothers to work outside of the home. We know that a lot more is involved than a simple decision to live on one income. There are no shortcuts to sanctification, either privately or as a couple, and in many ways choosing to stay home will produce its own opportunities for conflict and spiritual struggle. A couple could make this decision and still be miserable and miss the will of God. We are not claiming that everyone who makes this commitment will find the fulfillment and contentment that we enjoy.
We are saying, however, that the benefits have far outweighed the costs. So much so, in fact, that we cannot think of any other choice we’ve made as a couple that has done more for our service to Christ, our holiness, or our happiness. We are convinced that this is a primary reason we are still deliriously in love, satisfied with one another, and delightfully fulfilled in ministry, even after so many years. That fact alone should merit some consideration from any young couple attempting to set priorities and a course of life that honors the Lord.
What It Has Cost
To be fair, this decision has cost us some things. Everything in life is a tradeoff; you just have to be certain that the trades you make are worth it. We knew that this decision would come with a price tag, and it did. First and most obviously, it has probably cost financially. Who knows how much money Tanya would have been able to make? In fact, this commitment has been challenged from time to time by numerous job offers. When I was in seminary and unable to find a job myself, on an almost weekly basis business owners at our church were asking her to come work for them. That scenario has repeated many times. With Tanya’s natural beauty, communication skills, and a winsome personality that always fills the room, she would have been an asset and could have succeeded at many things. Every time she demurred, she was telling me that her investment in my life and ministry and in our sons was worth more to her.
For the first 15 years of our marriage we only had one car. During my years in seminary she spent her days with two little boys in a tiny row house in an Arkansas cotton field while I drove to the other side of the Mississippi River and sat listening eagerly to professors I enjoyed talking about subjects I loved. While I was earning two Masters degrees and a PhD, she was spending her days teaching toddlers Bible stories, how to use the potty, and not to hit each other. At the end of the process I would be Dr. York and she would be, as always, Tanya. I do not judge our sacrifice to have been remotely equal. In fact, I would hardly use the word sacrifice for anything that I have contributed to this decision. Tanya, on the other hand, has sacrificed a monetary paycheck, a formal education, a certain social and peer approval, and any typical trophies of achievement. She has selflessly chosen the joy of seeing others fulfilled as her fulfillment.
What It Has Conferred
The greatest gift that our decision bestowed has been a constant, unwavering shared and unified purpose in life. Because of Tanya’s commitment to completely immerse herself in our home and my ministry, we have found it far simpler to present a united front in our parenting, pastoring, financial decisions, ministry opportunities, social life, and missions commitments. Married couples who have separate careers may indeed still accomplish that, but surely with far greater difficulty.
When both marriage partners work they inhabit separate worlds, usually to a great degree, during a significant portion of the day and week. They develop different sets of friends and acquaintances with whom they forge significant relationships and share powerful emotions and experiences. They struggle and succeed with others, they confide in others, they rely on others, and they relate to others in a sphere that a spouse can only share in the third person, never the first.
In contrast, Tanya and I have closely shared the same sphere of life and work. She not only knows everyone I work with, but is closely connected with them through church or seminary life. She is as invested in my church as I am. She has enough margin in her life to expand and enlarge my ministry and influence largely because she is not occupied with budget reports, attending trade shows, or protecting profits in a business. She can take the time to meet with the wife who has fallen into sexual sin and walk with her on a road of brokenness and repentance, dealing with intimate issues that would be dangerous for me. She can spot a potential relationship challenge and prevent it from becoming a full-blown problem. If she owed that time and energy to another job, my ministry would be far more limited and my weaknesses far more exposed and vulnerable. What she contributes, precludes, prevents, and provides is incalculable.
Most of the couples I counsel who have experienced a breach of trust or infidelity have done so because of work relationships. To be very candid, that is almost always the case with women who fall into sin (though Facebook and other internet sites have added additional opportunities for sin as well). I could not trust another human being any more than I trust Tanya, but I have also been grateful that she has been spared the inappropriate attentions of other men or a cause for temptation herself that she might have had on a regular basis if she worked outside our home. I realize that some might interpret that as fearful and jealous, but I can honestly deny that. I am not a jealous person, no doubt largely because Tanya has always been so obviously and passionately devoted to me, but I am also a realist and regularly exposed to lives shattered in very familiar patterns, patterns which I am glad we avoided. Equally true would be that Tanya's close and frequent presence in my ministry has also protected me from undue temptation.
That avoidance of temptation was not merely the evasion of opportunity, however. Because she stayed home, Tanya has taken the time to become a true student of the Word. Every day she spends significant blocks of time in the Word of God, gaining a strategic grasp of the Scriptures which shape and direct her walk as well as her discipling of other women. I’m sure she would have grown in the Scriptures regardless, but I am confident her knowledge would not be as deep and insightful. Seeing her spend time with the Lord thrills and gladdens this husband’s heart.
I know I must say this delicately, but I do not believe that Tanya and I would have the unfettered intimacy and closeness we enjoy if we had done it differently and she had to face a separate set of anxieties and difficulties in addition to those we share. At every marriage conference we’ve ever led and in many counseling situations we’ve seen, being too tired for intimacy and too busy for relationship development emerges as a common major factor. Separate schedules, separate and independent goals, separate standards of success in life, and separate job demands all take a costly toll. And because many of those separate challenges can only be solved individually rather than as a couple, a subtle independence creeps in and drives them apart.
If rearing children becomes the single shared purpose of a husband and wife, then they might do alright in the first half, but they will not the second. Tanya and I loved rearing Michael and Seth, but it was never the only thing or even the main thing we did together. During the early stages of parenting it certainly demanded more time, but we always realized that one day those little boys would grow into young men and leave us, just as God designed. We knew that if our home centered around them, we would find that we were each sitting across the table from a lonely stranger, lamenting the way things used to be.
If Tanya had chosen a career in addition to the busyness of parenting and being a pastor’s wife, I am convinced we could not have cultivated the relationship we have. It might still be good, fulfilling, and even Christ-honoring, but I cannot conceive that it would be this free, joyful, and inextricably interwoven. As a result, when the time came for our sons to leave home, it took us less than ten minutes to get over empty-nest syndrome. I cried for a few minutes and then moved stuff into their closets!
I could easily go on. When I get an invitation to travel to preach or minister somewhere, she can go with me. It’s not unduly stressful to have church members or students in our home. We never had to worry about daycare, or additional wardrobe. Our sons always had a parent accessible to them. In fact, if anyone wanted to verify the veracity of my claims, I would simply point them to my adult sons. Ask them if their mother’s decision made a difference in their lives and in our marriage. They truly arise and call her blessed.
In the first half, Tanya sacrificed and devoted herself completely so I could have sons, get an education, pastor great churches, and pour into students’ lives. She studied the Word intensely so she could disciple and teach others. She made our home the sweetest place on earth.
In the second half, I want to intentionally give her a greater return on that investment. I want her to reap the emotional and spiritual equivalent of a lifetime of wealth. I want marriage to me and service to the Lord to be so rewarding that she never even questions if it was worth it. I want to serve her, spoil her, bless her, delight her, cook for her, take her places, and make her a more radiantly beautiful follower of Christ than she already is.
By God’s grace our marriage enjoyed a good first half, so the challenge for us is to remain intentional and focused, to refuse to coast and content ourselves with having made it this far. I don’t know if we’ll get a full second half or not, but if, by God's grace, we do, I know what I want it to accomplish for the glory of Christ.