Failing and Flourishing Part I

Growing together as a couple in ministry. 

That is what I was asked to write about during this month of love. Looking back, I think our 12-year journey has looked a lot like a three-legged race. We’ve remained bound to one another the entire time, but there have been times of dragging, tripping, running out of sync, skinned knees, jumping over obstacles, blaming each other, and carrying each other.

Here is the beginning of our race. 

I had met him once the previous summer. It was a quick introduction in the camp dining hall. He had been flocked on either side with fierce looking teenage girls, eyeing me up and down as I shook the hand of their youth pastor. I would come to learn that a lot of people felt protective of Aaron, not just his youth students. 

The moment when I really noticed him though, was a year after our introduction. We had never had a full conversation, it was my twenty-first birthday, and he was there in the back of the chapel. His hand was on his scruffy chin, supported by a crossed arm. He was frowning and nodding, the look of an intense listener. The tech guys talked and waved their arms and gestured. Aaron just listened and occasionally asked a question I could not hear, and it was at that moment I thought I might like to get to know this tall, quiet listener. There was a reason people close to Aaron felt protective of him; some even felt a sense of ownership over him. That kind of thing happens when you’ve walked through a trauma alongside someone, when you’ve seen them broken, emptied out, torn up in grief. Their heartache becomes your pain.

When Aaron graduated high school, I was ten-years-old, living in the wreckage of freshly divorced parents. When Aaron married his first wife, I was a junior in high school, the year my parents married other people. When Aaron’s first wife died, I was a freshman in college. In fact, on the precise night of her tragic car accident, September 11, 2006, I was journaling and felt an instant and urgent need to pray for my future husband. It was so intense and felt so important that I jotted the prayer down in my notebook, wondering if maybe the man I would one day marry had lost someone in the 9/11 attacks five years ago, wondering why I felt so desperately moved to pray for his heart, for his grief on this exact day. I still have that journal.

When Aaron caught my eye at the back of the chapel, I was simultaneously intrigued by him and intimidated by him. Older than me or any boy I had dated, a widower, a pastor. I felt young, foolish, broken, and in general, unworthy of love. 

Our youth groups became cross-state besties. The kids in my Wyoming group loved the kids in his Colorado group. We would try to get them together outside of summer camp to throw parties and have lock-ins. It was after a Labor Day lock-in that Aaron asked me out. I was the first girl he had dated since his wife had died. While I was all insecurity and doubt, he was sure that I was the woman he would marry. He proposed three months later, and we were married three months after that. I was smitten!

The dating days, the engagement months, all of the head-over-heels giddy can’t get enough of each other is wonderful, but for us marriage really started when we opened the door to our cabin on our honeymoon. We were staying on the island of Roatan in Honduras. Our tropical little cabin was nestled amongst the trees by the ocean. Inside the cabin was a bed, a few chairs, and a bathroom. A bathroom with only half a wall. As in, you could chit chat with someone sitting in the bedroom while simultaneously using the restroom. It’s easy to think only wonderful, sweet, I’ll never get annoyed with you thoughts until you’re spending a week with someone in a cabin with an open bathroom. 

Another opportunity for getting to know each other on a deeper level came when we went snorkeling. I grew up in land-locked Wyoming. I had never seen the ocean until our honeymoon. Our Spanish-speaking boat driver took us far, far from the shore, rattled off some instructions we couldn’t understand and then made a diving motion with his hands, as in, “Ok, get off my boat now, bye!” There we were, bobbing in the ocean, wearing flippers and snorkels. Aaron told me to simply put my face in the water and breathe. My brain told me WE ARE GOING TO DIE OUT HERE. Panic set in. I was crying. I thought I might drown so I stood on the coral reef and Aaron yelled, JEN YOU CAN’T STAND ON THE REEF; IT’S AGAINST THE LAW. Cue more tears. 

We did not die. 

We also did not snorkel. 

We got home from our honeymoon miraculously still crazy about each other and ready to jump into living regular life as a couple. Aaron was a phenomenal youth pastor and I couldn’t wait to lead alongside him. 

The role of the second wife was not easy for me. As someone who has always struggled with feelings of not being enough, I found myself in constant fear of being compared to Tami, Aaron’s first wife. Cooking, decorating, grocery shopping, family relationships, church interactions, my height, my weight, my hair color, all of it was tangled up in my mind with, “What if Tami did this better?” 

Unfortunately, there were some who would tell me that Tami did in fact, do so many things better than me. The church where we were serving was operating in a lot of dysfunctional ways. There were very high and unrealistic expectations on Aaron. There were issues with gossip, slander, and anger. There were comments made to me about my personality and all the ways I was disappointing others. Church hurt cuts in a unique way. It can affect your very identity, make you question your calling, and even question the Truth of God’s Word. Our time at that church ended badly, with much of the conflict unresolved. We left quietly and heart-broken. I told Aaron as we drove away from our last event, “I never want to do church again. I think you need to find a new job.” 

I’ve learned over the years, and especially in that moment of hating the church, that God can handle our rage. He can handle our doubts, our anger, our frustrations. That’s essentially half the Psalms, am I right? We were angry. We were hurt. And God faithfully led us to a place where we experienced years of deep healing and patient wisdom. We did not quit church. We limped in and discovered all churches are broken, imperfect, and flawed. And yet, God works in spite of our shortcomings. Yes, even in churches we have been hurt by. Aaron and I can look back at our early years and acknowledge what went wrong without holding onto bitterness. We can see where we messed up right along with the ones who hurt us. And we can choose to extend grace to them and to ourselves. 

We had experienced more than scraped knees and hop-alongs in our leg-bound (heart-bound) race thus far. But our steps were beginning to feel more synchronized, our hearts more healed, and our faith more sure. God was preparing us for what He would call us to next. 

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About Jen Hulbert

Jen Hulbert lives in Flagstaff, Arizona with her husband and favorite coffee date, Aaron. They serve together at Calvary Bible Church, where Aaron is the lead pastor. She homeschools her three boys and loves sharing the beauty of God’s creation with them by hiking the trails of the northern Arizona forest. Jen met Jesus at a young age, and as she gets to know Him better, discovers more of who she was intended to be. Creating the perfect playlist, well-timed puns, and all forms of organizing and categorizing are a few of her favorite things.