Jill Savage: Under Construction

Building her marriage hasn't always been easy, but it's become a labor of love for Hearts at Home founder Jill Savage.

JILL SAVAGE'S white farmhouse stands out in vivid relief against the sudden expanse of sky and land that perches just past the suburban sprawl of Bloomington, Illinois. I pull up the drive, dust clouds announcing my arrival, while two of Jill's children—Evan, 11, and Anne, 13—excitedly bounce on a large trampoline parked in their front yard. Jill's at the door, welcoming me with Austin, now 2, all bright eyes and wiggle, in her arms. Inside are Erica, 8, and Jill's husband of 15 years, Mark, the family life pastor of Eastview Christian Church. After we make our introductions, Jill, 34, takes me on the tour, happily pointing out the considerable rehabbing she, Mark, and their kids have done in the few months they've lived here. For the Savages, being under construction has been a way of life.

As we sit to talk about Hearts at Home, the burgeoning ministry to stay-at-home moms that Jill, a former music teacher, birthed in 1993, I feel compelled to confess that I work part-time out of my home. When I signed up to attend their Michigan conference last November, I wasn't sure if I'd feel in my element. But to my surprise, I tell Jill, I left that weekend recharged about the task I take most seriously: mothering.

And that's exactly the goal behind Hearts at Home, whose roots trace back to "Mom to Mom," a small group Jill formed in 1989, shortly after she and Mark moved to Bloomington. She and eight other moms started meeting weekly to encourage each other in their task of parenting young children and creating a godly home life. By 1993, 150 moms attended the group, and several had caught Jill's vision for "professionalizing" motherhood. Hearts at Home sprang from that vision and held its first conference in Bloomington in 1994.

Today, Hearts at Home is an independent ministry run largely by volunteers. "Moms enter data or help with mailings during nap times, evening hours, whatever works for them," explains Jill. "We're big on 'family first.'" Annual weekend conferences are held in Minnesota, Michigan, Chicago, and Bloomington, Illinois, with a conference on the drawing board for Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the year 2000. The Bloomington conference alone draws more than 5,000 women yearly. The worship, workshops, and speakers at each conference provide women with the tools and inspiration they need to enhance their mothering skills and to affirm them in their role. Along with publishing a monthly newsletter, Hearts at Home also maintains a data base of moms groups across the United States. Women who call their office receive help in connecting with a moms group in their area, or networking information on nationwide support organizations for mothers at home.

It's obvious Jill's passionate about encouraging moms. But there's a deeper motivation behind her passion—a desire to help women develop stronger, Christ-centered marriages—the true foundation, she says, of any successful parenting. It's something Jill's struggled with firsthand. Yet with diligent labor—and God's grace—she and Mark have transformed the often rough-and-tumble framework of their marriage into a strong and loving relationship. In this exclusive interview, Jill talks openly not only about her ministry to moms, but about how the tough times in her marriage have impacted her and the women she wishes to reach.

I'm intrigued by the concept of "professionalizing" motherhood. What do you mean?
Motherhood is a career, and we want moms to think of themselves as professionals, to take pride in the job they do—especially because society doesn't often value it.

I fell into being a stay-at-home mom by accident. I always thought I'd be teaching, but four years into our marriage, Mark felt God's call into the ministry. We relocated so he could go to school, but I couldn't find anything in my field. After holding down a night job and running daycare for a while, I made the commitment to be home full-time.

When I was preparing for the teaching field, I attended professional conferences that pumped me up to be better at what I did. When I began staying at home, I missed the way those conferences revived my passion for my job. Since I was going to be doing this motherhood thing 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, I wondered if there was anything out there like that for me now.

Obviously there wasn't!
Right. So I went to my pastor and shared with him my concept of developing a professional conference just for moms. He was very encouraging. Then I asked our moms group at church if anyone was interested. Fifteen women joined me every Sunday night for an hour to pray about the idea. We prayed for several months—and suddenly saw lots of doors open.

In what ways?
With facility space. Dates. People for workshop speakers. Finally, we got to the point of saying, "You know what? It's time. Let's go forward with it."

Our church holds 1,100, and we thought we certainly wouldn't need that much space for our first conference. But we had one woman on our leadership team who kept saying, "What if we have 1,000?" And we'd say, "Mary, we're not going to have 1,000. We don't know what we're doing here. It's the first time."

How many did you expect?
Five to six hundred. We got on the telephone and literally called every church we knew of within a three-hour drive. Needless to say, it was very grassroots.

But when registrations poured in, that first year we had 1,100 registrations from 10 states. And it was all word of mouth!

Why do you think the response was so large?
I think it was the first time women saw something specifically for the career of motherhood. The mother is the heartbeat of the home, and our goal was—and is—to help her to understand her worth in Christ, what God says about being a wife and a mom, and to equip her with the skills to be the best she can be.

Do you worry about making women who work full- or part-time feel guilty?
My original vision—and the vision of the women who prayed with me—was to professionalize motherhood. We've prayed about expanding it, but we felt the vision God gave us initially—to encourage mothers at home and those who want to be—is what we're called to do. And in 5 years we've had more than 20,000 women on our mailing list—mostly through word of mouth. That alone says we're obviously meeting a need.

We do find a lot of working women attend our conferences. They're certainly invited to attend because they can benefit from it greatly.

When I
stopped
pointing the
finger at
Mark—and
started
pointing it at
me—our
relationship
improved.

We often hear about how a woman's approach to motherhood, to the way she operates as a wife, totally changes after attending a conference. In fact, we've actually received letters from some husbands who say, "My wife can come to Hearts at Home as often as she wants because of the change it's made in our family."

What type of family did you grow up in?
Any time the church doors were open, our family was there. So it made sense that I accepted Christ as a child. But in high school I rebelled—partying, drinking, dating non-Christians—while still going to youth group. In fact, I was president of it!

As a mom myself of two teens, confessions like that make me nervous.
I know. I was definitely living a double standard—acting one way at school and another at home.

Your parents had no inkling?
When I was 16, my mom found out I'd been sexually active, and it disturbed her and my dad greatly. I remember lots of tears and struggles. My father told me he'd seen me smoking in the car once as I was driving down the road—but he never confronted me. My parents aren't the confrontational type, and I don't think they really knew the depth of my rebellion.

What triggered your rebellious streak?
I've questioned that myself, especially since our daughter, Anne, is now a teen. I guess that, although I knew what I was supposed to do and not do, I just didn't understand the whys—the biblical principles behind the rules.

During the teenage years, many people chuck their childhood faith for good. Why didn't you?
I started feeling empty; I became tired of the facade.

I met Mark the summer before I went to college, and during my freshman year, we started going to church together on Sunday nights. Mark had accepted Christ at a Billy Graham Crusade shortly before we met, but he still didn't understand all that meant. Mark had been into the bar scene and had had lots of one-night stands. And I'd had lots of relationships that were merely physical. We both felt there had to be more to life than this. I knew God was tugging at my heart to come back.

One night at church, soon after Mark and I married in 1983, less than a year after we met, we both felt moved by the sermon to go forward and rededicate our lives to Christ. We wanted our hearts to be sold out to the Lord. And we've never looked back.

You and Mark didn't wait long to marry!
Actually, Mark asked me to marry him after we'd known each other four months. Both of us had played the field; when we met each other, we were ready to settle down.

Were you and Mark sexually active before you married?
Yes, I'm sad to say we were. But halfway through our dating, we realized we shouldn't be. So we backed off as best we could and tried to abstain before our wedding. But our sexual pasts definitely played a significant role in some of the problems we've faced in our marriage.

Such as?
Most of what Mark knew about sex had been learned from pornography. His exposure to pornography started at an early age and continued until we were married.

What an impact on an adolescent boy!
Yeah. Mark was the age our son Evan is now. The images of pornography became so ingrained in him, Mark didn't know there was any other way to relate sexually. In addition to that, the only way he learned how to deal with conflict and anger was rage.

Then there was my home—the total opposite. Growing up, my parents were so quiet, I rarely saw conflict. So when I married a man who went into a rage, I didn't know how to handle it.

You had no hint of that when you were dating?
I never saw it until we were married. The first time it cropped up was when I was pregnant with Annie, and we were driving somewhere, arguing about something. He picked up my purse and threw it across the car. I thought, Who is this person? But Mark's rage was never directed at me; he just didn't know any other way to express his feelings.

How did you respond?
At first, I'd try to talk quietly, but he wouldn't listen. So I actually found myself being drawn into the shouting match.

Erica doesn't remember the shouting; Evan doesn't talk a lot about it. But Annie remembers. Here was this little seven year old saying, "It'll be okay, Mommy." I'd cry a lot, and then she'd be the comforter. I hated her being thrust in that role. Austin, thank the Lord, was born into a whole different family dynamic.

What prompted the turnaround?
While Mark was going to Bible college, a fellow student sat him down and said, "I've struggled with some of the same things you're struggling with. I'd like you to know the healing I found. Would you consider going to a counselor?"

So Mark went for counseling for two years. Then, when we moved to Bloomington in 1989, we started counseling together. What we learned was eye-opening!

For example, even though Mark's pornography use stopped as soon as we got married, we never realized the extent of its effect on him. Mark's sexual demands of me were so unrealistic, I could never meet them. So I withdrew. I had three small children at the time and felt as though I had physical demands on me all day—which even in a healthy marriage is hard to handle.

I remember the day our counselor said to Mark, "Do you realize the pictures you saw aren't real?" And Mark said, "Yeah, they're real people." And she said, "No, they're airbrushed. They're made to look the absolute best they can. They're not real. It's all a lie." That was news for him. Even though Mark hadn't seen pornography for seven years, the pictures, the stories, were still in his head. So he had to begin the process of clearing them out and replacing them with God's view on the sexual relationship.

And what about you?
I realized I was seeking refuge from a marriage I didn't like by focusing on my role as mom. I had to learn to be a wife to Mark first and a mother second.

I also discovered my view of sex had been tainted by my premarital activity. I think one of the reasons I was sexually active before marriage was because you weren't supposed to be. Now that I was married, it lost its thrill. I used to tell Mark I could go the rest of my life without sex. And he believed me!

It wasn't that I didn't have a desire for Mark; I just felt I could do without the pressure of the whole sexual relationship because of my exhaustion as a mom and the baggage we brought into it.

I had
to learn to be
a wife to
Mark first
and a mother
second.

And, like my husband, I didn't have good conflict resolution skills—because I'd never seen them! So we began learning them together in counseling. I also became friends with another mom of small children who helped me with the moms group; she became my confidante.

Wasn't it scary to open up?
Yes! I'd been keeping our situation a secret so long—outwardly, we looked like a young Christian couple who had it all together, while inside our four walls things were falling apart. I finally reached the point where I was dying inside; I had to talk it out with her.

About a year later, I realized I needed to share my situation with the 15 or 20 women who attended our moms group. I needed to admit, "I may look good on the outside, but I'm hurting on the inside."

I remember the exact day and moment when I opened up. There were lots of tears, but I said, "This is what we're working through. God's being faithful. But it's really hard."

And the reaction?
The floodgates opened. From that point on, I've had women knocking on my door, because it's happening in many homes. It paved the way for them to say, "I'm struggling with that, too." That's when our moms group started to take off. People really respond to honesty.

Did you ever feel like throwing in the towel?
Oh, yes. But we knew God's Word says he hates divorce. So we were committed to working through our problems.

It was exhausting. But God began replacing more and more of the lies we'd been following with his truth. And we intentionally developed relationships with people who encouraged and mentored us. My friend helped me keep on track, kept me focused on God's promises.

Mark and I've been on this spiritual journey together, and it's been wonderful to see how God's knit our hearts together through it all.

What's your relationship with Mark like now?
Mark's my best friend, and I love that feeling! We're still learning what oneness is all about. Do we still have struggles? Yeah—but now we have the tools to work through them, and we're both coming from the same biblical view.

We've had to learn how to serve each other. What we've discovered is that when you place the needs of the other one first, your own needs are going to be met. And we've learned to trust. God's so good—he's restored what we knew could happen. But we had to work really hard to get there.

But many women aren't fortunate enough to have a spouse committed to change …
I see that all the time. I'm a firm believer that if your marriage contains physical or even severe emotional abuse, you may need to separate yourself from that relationship for a time—especially for your and your children's safety.

But what I tell women who aren't in an abusive situation is this: Focus on the Lord. If you keep your eyes on God and his Word and allow him to work in your heart, your situation may change. What I discovered was when I stopped pointing the finger at Mark—and started pointing it at me—our relationship improved.

Instead of praying, "God, change him," I began praying, "God, change me." My issues of pride, judgment, and unforgiveness were doing just as much damage to our marriage. As God began to change me, I backed off Mark's case. He didn't have to spend as much time defending himself and was able to work on the changes God was asking him to make.

How do you handle the topic of sex with your kids?
Growing up, I always heard, "Don't have sex." In other words, don't and sex were always in the same sentence, which made it more alluring to me as a teen. So we're telling our kids God created the sexual relationship—that it's beautiful, it's wonderful—but it's created for marriage. Now that Annie's 13, we're talking about the whole dating relationship. We've focused on the difference between showing affection in a relationship and foreplay. There's a thin line there.

I wish I'd have known that as a teen! I'm trying to help Annie understand the way God wired us—and that we can get in trouble when we head down the road of impurity.

While my parents instilled in me a strong Christian upbringing, in my own home, I'm taking it a step further. I want my kids to see the Bible as their guidebook for life. I want my kids to open it every day. I want them to see me open it every day— and see me turn to it for my answers when I struggle with something.

The tough times—have they been worth it?
Definitely. God gives us free will to make choices, and certainly some situations are of our own making. But I believe that when we're willing to be used, he takes tough experiences and allows us to minister with them. Our struggles—and our willingness to be vulnerable about them and to make ourselves available to others—have been the crux of our ministries.

What kind of impact do you see through Hearts at Home?
We had more than 250 women come to the Lord last year at our Bloomington conference alone! Because we focus on motherhood, our audience isn't necessarily all Christian; there are lots of women there merely seeking encouragement and information. While we don't offer a formal invitation to accept Christ, we always try to communicate the message that through Jesus' death and resurrection, you can become part of God's family. We introduce women to their need for Christ; in the end, it's in him they'll find their true self-worth.

What's the greatest challenge facing women today?
Women have so many opportunities available today that they didn't have 30 years ago. It's tempting for us—myself included—to become so busy that we're pulled away from the four walls of our home and from the people who need us most—our family. That's a struggle—and I think it always will be.

I guess you could say your own four walls—literally and figuratively—have been under construction in the last several years.
Interesting. I guess you could. You know why? Because when we bought this house, it was run-down and dirty, but we envisioned it as something beautiful. It was the same way with our marriage; when things were ugly, we could still envision it being better. And we operated from that vision. But we're still in the refining process.

That's why I'd love to be able to sit down with every woman who comes to a Hearts at Home conference and tell her that her emotions, her struggles, are normal, that she's not alone—and that ultimately, through God's power and the encouragement of others, she too can experience the fulfillment I've finally discovered.

For more information, call 309-888-MOMS, or write to: Hearts at Home, 900 W. College Ave., Normal, IL 61761. Their Web site is www.hearts-at-home.org.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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