How to Prioritize Your Marriage While Overseas - Radical

How to Prioritize Your Marriage While Overseas

Was William Carey qualified to be sent as a missionary when he left for India? Can I ask that question? You probably know that Carey’s wife, Dorothy, did not want to move to India. Carey set off for India with one son, fully resigned to go without his pregnant wife and other children. Plans fell through, however, allowing Carey’s party to briefly return home to persuade Dorothy again. She only changed her mind at the last moment after John Thomas, William Carey’s ministry partner, pleaded with her.1

Most of us know the rest of the story. William Carey is rightly praised as a pioneer for world missions and the standard for language learning, gospel proclamation, and perseverance on the field. We thank God for the way that he used the Carey family to lead many to serve on the mission field, yet the sacrifices the Carey family made undoubtedly contributed to Dorothy’s intense mental instability. 

William and Dorothy Carey’s story raises many questions. In 1 Timothy 3, we learn that elders and deacons ought to set a godly example for believers by managing their households well and possessing a good reputation with outsiders. In Ephesians 5, husbands are called to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. Was Carey in line with Scripture? Should he have waited until his wife was fully on board in order to honor the Lord in both process and outcome? There are no easy answers.

Yet sending churches and missionaries must ask these questions. After all, we want to be faithful Christians. How can a missionary prioritize his marriage while overseas so that he loves his family well and obeys God’s Word? Knowing my own weaknesses, and desiring to learn from others, I asked fellow missionaries whose marriages I respect. Their responses can be summarized as intentionally asking and creatively answering two questions: “How can we pursue side-by-side ministry?” and “What will unify our marriage?”

How Can We Pursue Side-by-Side Ministry?

One of my former pastors emphasized the different kinds of ministry a couple enjoys: back-to-back ministry (generally separate), side-by-side ministry (together), and face-to-face ministry (to each other). He taught me that it’s important for a couple to have all three. If we’re honest, it is much easier to engage in back-to-back ministry and neglect the other two!

A blessed marriage will bless others.

Yet, in all our busy activities for God’s Kingdom, we must not forget the power of a husband and wife’s side-by-side ministry. A blessed marriage will bless others. We must not merely think in terms of “my ministry” or “my spouse’s ministry.” In what ways can you minister together and so present the gospel of Christ united to his bride? Can you begin language learning together? Can you invite those you are evangelizing into your home for dinner? I know one couple serving overseas who took biblical counseling courses together and then sought to put their learning into practice as they counseled together.

Of course, the most important way this side-by-side ministry comes out is the parents’ ministry to their children. Godly fathers must resist viewing their primary ministry as “outside the home” and his wife’s primary ministry as “with the children.” Jonathan Edwards considered his home “a little church,” and his busy schedule did not get in the way of his family receiving his complete attention for some portion of every day. Edwards made time for family worship, and he and his wife prayed together for the kids. How can you pursue side-by-side ministry with your spouse?

What Will Unify Our Marriage?

Without relatives nearby to watch the kids, missionaries often find it difficult to plan date nights. Yet it is vital for a missionary couple to get face-to-face time together to discuss the daily stress points that come with living overseas. Missionaries are learning, growing, and being shaped by a variety of new experiences. For a couple to grow together they must process together.

How do you enjoy face-to-face ministry with your spouse when life is crazy and date nights are impossible? Creatively consider other ways to unify your marriage. Perhaps you spend 20 minutes each Sunday evening discussing the week ahead, demonstrating that you value your spouse’s time. Maybe you can plan a weekly lunch date while the kids are in school. Consider taking morning and evening walks, running errands, or cooking dinner together so you have opportunities to communicate.

I spoke with one missionary who exhorted couples to, “have fun together!” While hobbies may look different than the ones you pursued in your home country, you can adapt or seek out new ones: game nights after the kids are in bed, planting a balcony garden, or reading a book out loud. Intentionally and creatively plan time together so that you grow together and remain unified.

Which Title Comes First: “Christian” or “Missionary”?

Given William Carey’s marriage difficulties, should he have been a missionary? I cannot honestly answer that question with the historical complexity it deserves. No doubt, God used William and Dorothy Carey in remarkable ways despite whatever flaws they had.

Yet, in thinking about married missionaries today, I cannot help but add one more question to the two asked above: Which title comes first for you: “Christian” or “Missionary”? I’m thankful for the advice I received early on: you don’t have to be a missionary to be faithful to God. You don’t have to be a missionary to glorify God. God is honored and glorified by our faithfulness as Christians. Thankfully, God is honored and glorified in us because of Christ.

Sometimes faithfulness means a family perseveres through significant challenges on the mission field. It certainly means remembering that your marriage is your first and most important ministry, and therefore making whatever adjustments to weekly life are necessary to appropriately prioritize it. But sometimes it may mean giving up the title “missionary” to care for your marriage and family faithfully. So, how do you prioritize your marriage on the mission field? Remember, that you are first and foremost called to be a Christian and then secondarily called to be a missionary.


  1. James R. Beck, Dorothy Carey: The Tragic and Untold Story of Mrs. William Carey, 82.

Matt Tyler is the Lead Pastor at Bangkok City Baptist Church in Thailand. He is married to Emily and has three children.


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