Is Your Marriage Deep Enough to Support Expanding Ministry?

Leading a Level 5 Church Starts With Growing a Level 5 Marriage

Almost three years since Exponential introduced the five levels of church multiplication, we continue to discover new dynamics that lead to Level 5 multiplication. Married 40 years, Exponential leaders Larry and Deb Walkemeyer are connecting the dots between Level 5 church culture and Level 5 marriages. When you develop a healthy marriage and work to see it multiply into other healthy marriages that are learning from yours, you’re more readily positioned to multiply churches as well. Here the Walkemeyers identify five levels of marriage to help you assess where you currently are and where you want to be.

Many years ago, we heard a speaker say, “Marriage is two becoming one. This starts as an event but happens as a journey. The question is, ‘How one do you want your marriage to be?’”

We believe this is the priority question for couples: What level of “oneness” are you working toward in your marriage?

Over the years, we’ve come to realize that the health of a pastor’s/leader’s marriage nearly always reveals the health of their soul and also impacts the health of their church or ministry. After studying our marriage and walking with hundreds of couples, we’re confident in saying that if a couple aspires to lead a Level 5 church, they probably will not succeed unless they build a Level 5 marriage.

While every marriage is sacred, commissioned to be involved in the specific ministries God calls a couple to do, there is something unique about a marriage shaped by daily ministry responsibilities. A “ministry marriage” comes with extraordinary challenges, responsibilities, opportunities and blessings.

We believe (and have experienced firsthand) that every ministry marriage can travel from its current level to become a Level 5 marriage. We’re the first to say the journey isn’t easy—far from it. A Level 5 marriage requires each person to learn, grow and rely on the Holy Spirit.

First, the couple needs to discern where they are in their marriage. Much like a GPS that relies on a current location to calculate the route to the destination, until a husband and wife know and acknowledge where they are in their marriage, they will never get to where they want to be.

Level 1: The Consumer Marriage

Just like the Level 1 church, the Level 1 marriage is in decline, existing in survival mode and slowly losing any intimacy and impact it has had. We define it as a marriage where the spouses, like consumers, do a lot of taking but little giving. Consumers want to receive goods or services from their decisions. Level 1 marriages have specific characteristics:

A toxic environment. The wife feels misunderstood, unloved and either unappreciated or underappreciated. The husband feels disrespected and disillusioned. He doesn’t know a “love language” exists. She doesn’t even want to speak his.

Emotional and physical distance. Communication is impersonal, distant or accusatory. Sex is either nonexistent or practiced on a solely physical level of using the other person to fulfill personal desires.

Ministry as an escape. Long hours away are excused under the guise of “doing the Lord’s work.” Teamwork is nonexistent. Often only one spouse is active in church while the other distances themselves physically or emotionally from church ministry.

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Level 2: The Convenient Marriage

The Level 2 marriage is a plateaued relationship built around what must get done to get by. It exists as a convenience in life, usually held in place by ministry, kids, bills, jobs, people’s opinions, church, friends, the house, cost of living—or some other reality that makes it more convenient to stay together than to separate. Level 2 marriages usually revolve around an often undetected or unconfessed question and rationale: “Is life better for me with or without my current spouse?” Characteristics include:

Conversations of convenience. Level 2 marriages use communication as a utilitarian tool to get the job done: Who’s taking which kid where? When is this bill due? Deep talks about personal feelings, spiritual passions, fears and dreams are either absent or rarities.

Sparse spiritual interaction. In a Level 2 marriage, prayer together as a couple happens mostly before a meal or at devotions with the kids. Spiritual conversations are substituted with ministry conversations to “get ’er done.”

Lack of intimacy. Busyness that crowds out intimacy is often a hallmark of Level 2 marriages. Aspirations of educational, vocational, parental, church growth or ministry success keep the marriage focused on the to-do list instead of on the “us” list.

Ineffective ministry. In a Level 2 marriage, ministry happens but is mostly barren. Level 2 marriages reflect few conversations about ministry passions or dreams. The couple maintains the ministry image, but the fire is gone.

Level 3: The Committed Marriage

A Level 3 ministry marriage is a good marriage—a solid, devoted relationship marked by kind and authentic, albeit underdeveloped, togetherness. The Level 3 marriage has moved beyond much of the self-centeredness of Levels 1 and 2 and is dedicated to the well-being of the marriage. However, Level 3 marriages fail to live in the rich intimacy and multiplicative impact God intends for marriage. We suggest couples ask themselves what can be hard yet important questions: Have we settled for just good enough? Is this the marriage God dreams for us? How do we take our marriage from good to great? Characteristics include:

A lack of vulnerability. At Level 3, we still see a lack of deep vulnerability. Spouses either do not understand their own hearts, are ignorant of how to share deeply or just don’t feel the safety they need to talk candidly.

Service out of duty. Level 3 marriages clearly have signs of serving one another. However, there is an ineptness at seeing things from the other’s viewpoint and a reluctance to apologize deeply.

Inward-focused ministry. What we see at this level centers on motive. Level 3 marriages tend toward helping each other succeed for the sake of each other’s reputation as much as for the cause of the mission.

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Level 4: The Collaborative Marriage

The Level 4 marriage has moved into most of God’s idea of oneness. The intimacy of the marriage is producing ministry impact. No longer is one mate only helping the other succeed in their ministry role (Level 3). Together, they’re now working in their strengths toward a common goal. Characteristics include:

Kingdom multiplication over ministry. In a Level 4 marriage, the couple yearns to make disciples in every way possible. New disciples, leaders, ministries and churches are the reproductive result of their marriage.

Viewing each other as an equal. The Level 4 marriage is marked by an unselfish desire in both spouses to help each other become whom God created them to be as both a person and a minister.

Serving each other out of love. Level 4 spouses find delight in serving one another. In the collaborative marriage overflowing with humility and love, acts of service are treated as a privilege, not a chore.

Deepening spiritual maturity. Each spouse has an intimate spiritual relationship with Jesus independent of their partner. And they regularly share their individual spiritual lives with each other.

Level 5: The Communion Marriage

In the communion marriage, couples seek a deeper fellowship with the Spirit of Christ and the spirit of their spouse. It is the self-giving—this earnest communion of life and daily surrender to the best interests of one another—that most clearly defines God’s idea for marriage. Level 5 marriage characteristics involve:

Self-sharing love. Level 5 marriages live in the centrality of the cross. Yet it’s the grace, humility and love found at the cross that bridge the gaps between the partners and intertwine their hearts together.

Self-giving intimacy. God’s version of sexual intimacy is a giving of body, soul and spirit in a communion based on monogamous, lifelong commitment.

Self-giving communication. The words “communion” and “communication” are inextricably linked. Level 5 marriages understand that every marriage rises or falls on the quality of the couple’s communication.

Self-deflecting ministry. In Level 5 marriages, the ministry has become a natural outflow of the love and values shared as a couple. Ministry is not only something they do; it’s also an intrinsic part of who they are together.

Whatever level your marriage is today, we can say without a doubt that God has more for it. In fact, his dream for your marriage is bigger and better than your dream for it. You can have a Level 5 marriage.

This article is based on the new free eBook Flourish: Growing a Level 5 Marriage by Larry and Deb Walkemeyer. In it, they identify five vital heart habits for cultivating a Level 5 marriage. The Walkemeyers are joining ministry couples Brian and Amy Bloye and Geoff and Sherry Surratt for a marriage-focused Equipping Lab at the upcoming Exponential East conference in Orlando. Learn more at Exponential.org.