They were the two people least likely to end up a married couple.
At least that's what Eric and Jennifer Garcia would have said when they were students in the same high school. Jennifer had frizzy red hair, braces, and sang with the Songbirds. Eric was the good-looking, popular jock. Though they'd known each other since the fifth grade, they moved in very different circles.
Only after they'd graduated from different colleges and returned to their hometown did Eric and Jennifer come to appreciate all they had in common—especially shared values and a deep commitment to God. Those elements formed a foundation that has sustained their 15-year marriage through the upheavals of career changes, four children, and eventually the daunting task of founding a ministry organization—the Association of Marriage and Family Ministries (AMFM).
Knowing each other well made for few adjustments in the first years of their marriage, when Jennifer was teaching school and Eric was working as a consultant for faith organizations such as Promise Keepers and Moody Bible Institute while running his own distribution company.
"We didn't have a big learning curve," Jennifer recalls. "Nothing rocked our boat. Until the kids came along."
When they'd been married three years, Jennifer quit teaching to stay home with Hudson, their first child. "I was home taking care of the baby and Eric was having fun slaying the giants," says Jennifer. Depending on the season, he could be working up to 16 hours a day.
With Eric consumed by his job and Jennifer's days filled by the baby, they had to work harder to connect with each other.
"I'd call Jennifer several times a day," Eric says, "so we could touch base about how things were going. That way when I'd come home fried from a long day, we could wind down together, not unload on each other."
"I knew I could phone him any time and he'd take my call," Jennifer adds. "He never made me feel I was bothering him."
But Eric's intensifying work situation over the next two years put an increasing strain on their marriage. Much of his time was being eaten up by speaking engagements, and the evenings he was home were flooded by calls from clients. Jennifer, now pregnant with their second child, was frustrated, and Eric was feeling burned out.
"I was alone all day—and many evenings—with the baby," Jennifer recalls. "I grew inwardly resentful of the constant interruptions whenever Eric tried to help with Hudson or we attempted to have family time. I hated what our life had become."
"I felt disconnected from Jennifer and empty inside," says Eric. "I was standing at a huge evangelistic event I'd helped plan, looking down into a stadium of 63,000 men, seeing guys going forward in droves to dedicate their lives to Christ. Yet all I could think was, I wonder who my next client will be and how big we can do it? That's when I knew I'd been drained and my priorities were totally out of whack."
Realizing things had to change, Eric began praying for God to show him what to do. One day at work, he heard clearly God's answer: Go to Alaska.
Eric had fallen in love with Alaska years before while on a fishing trip near a church-supported youth ranch. Decimated by a recent fire, that ministry now needed to be rebuilt. Eric knew that Alaska's slower-paced lifestyle would give him the chance to rest, reconnect with his family, and redefine his priorities. Leaving work early, he headed home to talk to Jennifer.
"I told her I was toast," recalls Eric. "I said I thought we should chuck it all and go to Alaska."
"Initially, I was shocked he'd come home early—something he never did," Jennifer says. "But when he shared what he was thinking, I wanted to jump up and down and shout, 'Hallelujah! I'll finally have my husband back. Let's go tomorrow!'"
Through God's leading, they decided to stay put for one more year while Eric wound down things at work and for their daughter, Erika, to be born. Then they packed up and moved their family from Indianapolis, Indiana, 4,450 miles northward to the small community of Kasilof, Alaska, population 470.
Navigating the desert
Once settled, the Garcias fell into a routine of spending half the year (the summer months) at the camp in Alaska, ministering to families. Then, during the colder weather, they'd return to their house in Indiana, which they'd kept, and where Eric had maintained a limited consulting business.
"Eric and I call that time our desert experience," Jennifer explains. "It was when we got our priorities straight. It was about family. About us."
In Alaska, their days were spent building cabins and running a portable saw mill. Their house was 30 minutes from the nearest town, and they received only two television stations. Neighbors dropped in unexpectedly to chat, sometimes bringing dinner leftovers to share.
Since Eric's office was now in their home, he was always available. Which meant plenty of opportunities for spending time with Jennifer and the kids.
"Jennifer got a new husband," observes Eric. "It was a chance for me to remove all life's distractions and get to know God, my kids, and my wife."
He built a deck around the cabin, hammering side-by-side with 2-year-old Hudson. As a family they played games, took long walks, and went fishing, while he and Jennifer reserved one night a week for just the two of them.
The slower pace gave them time to rest and renew their energy, and they became more intentional about doing everything together. "We were getting healthy again," Eric says, "detoxing from Western culture."
The atmosphere was so healing personally and to their marriage, Eric and Jennifer were eager to help other ministry couples experiencing burnout. Not long after arriving in Kasilof, they launched Alaska Family Ministries, offering three cabins as getaways for rest and recuperation. "We said, 'If you can get here, we'll take care of you,'" recalls Jennifer. Though they didn't realize it, God was uncovering within them a passion to encourage and strengthen other Christian leadership couples.
Living a day-to-day existence, they survived on financial support from their church, some friends, and the little bit of the business Eric still had going. When times got tough, God always came through—such as the day they received an e-mail from a friend in Indianapolis letting them know he'd felt compelled to send them a $10,000 check.
Life was good; their marriage was stronger than ever. Then, nearly four years after the move, two events conspired to bring their time in Alaska to a close: they ran out of money and learned that they were expecting. Twins.
But God was faithful.
Assets that they'd had on the market for more than two years sold. People sent groceries, checks, even car seats. In less than seven days, God had provided more than $30,000. Elliot and Wesley were born in July of that year, 1998. And in October, the Garcias left Alaska for the last time to return to their home in Indiana.
A new direction
This next phase of their lives found them—especially Jennifer—operating in survival mode. While her days were consumed with meeting the needs of their four young children, Eric began searching for job opportunities. Determined not to forget the lessons learned in Alaska, they set boundaries to guard their time as a family and as a couple—such as Eric's commitment to eat breakfast and dinner at home.
Eventually, Eric accepted a job in Arizona, and the Garcias moved to Scottsdale. After "church surfing," they found and fell in love with Scottsdale Bible Church. They wanted to get involved, to give back to God since he'd been so good to them. That's when they realized they wanted to do ministry together. And what better place than the church's ministry to married couples?
That marriage ministry convinced Eric and Jennifer of the great need for the church even further to support and nurture married couples. "We saw what we thought were the healthiest couples, from the best families, and they were having problems," Eric explains. "Yet they were saying, 'Everything's fine.'"
"They weren't processing their faith or their life together," adds Jennifer. "They were on separate tracks. And we'd lived that way."
During a leadership meeting a few months after they began working with couples, Wayne Lehsten, the head of the church's marriage ministry team, mentioned that he was taking a three-month sabbatical. His repeated attempts to find marriage ministry tools their church could use had been unsuccessful. During the sabbatical, Wayne planned to apply himself full-time to the task.
Eric reacted with disbelief. "I couldn't believe there wasn't an organization for that. I'd been consulting in the ministry community for 20 years. I was sure there was an organization for everything."
Determined to show Wayne that the sabbatical was unnecessary, Eric called his friend John Trent. Trent, the founder of StrongFamilies.com, confirmed Wayne's assessment: no organization existed for proactive marriage ministry training. He also admitted he was one of a group who'd been praying for eight years that someone would create such an organization.
In that moment, fueled by the needs of Eric and Jennifer's own church, the concept for AMFM was born.
"I went home all excited," Eric recalls of sharing his dream with his wife. "But Jennifer said, 'We're not doing it.'"
"Eric is an entrepreneur," she explains. "He's always coming to me with great ideas. We'd just finished piloting a new ministry with the married couples at our church. I wasn't ready to start another."
Over the next few weeks, as John Trent and Eric met over coffee, John would mention more "big" ministry names who would get behind the project. Eric would relay that information and reiterate his desire to start a national ministry for marriage and family church leaders. But Jennifer continued to say no.
"I saw such a need," Eric says. "But I'd committed not to do anything unless Jennifer and I were on the same page."
Both Eric and Jennifer continued to pray about the idea. Finally, when he approached her for the fourth time, she cautiously agreed. "I was still apprehensive," she admits. "But I told him, 'If we take baby steps, and God's clearly in it, then we can do this.'"
To avoid a return to the burnout they'd experienced before Alaska, Eric and Jen-nifer set some strict boundaries—Eric wouldn't be gone for more than three days at a time, and they'd travel as a couple only once a month.
On November 11, 2003, having given less than two weeks' notice, Eric and Jennifer hosted at an initial organizational meeting 30 people involved in marriage and family ministry from all over the country. The premise of the meeting was simple: If there was an organization that could serve you, what would it look like?
The result was the creation of the Association of Marriage and Family Ministries—an organization dedicated to training, equipping, and resourcing local churches so they can build proactive marriage and family ministries.
"We're a 'train the trainer' model," Eric explains. "We introduce resource providers and educators to the church." They accomplish this through annual national conferences, monthly e-newsletters, and focus groups for 15 different family and marriage ministries—such as stepfamilies, parenting, and sexual wholeness.
"We're really about building relationships," Jennifer adds.
AMFM is close to their hearts, the fruition of those months in Alaska when they helped other ministry couples. And they are intentional about sharing completely in it. Though Eric is the visionary and main speaker, Jennifer has her own roles to play.
"I love the relationship part," she says. "I enjoy talking to people about AMFM and recruiting new members."
"She's my biggest cheerleader," Eric adds. "Without her encouraging words and filling in the gaps, I'd run out of gas."
Their modeling of ministering as a couple has paid off: more AMFM conference presenters are doing so as couples, accepting the challenge of blending differing gifts into joint ministry.
Eric and Jennifer admit it isn't easy. But the blessings are plentiful. "We have so many things to talk about and collaborate on," says Jennifer, "whether it's meeting with other couples involved with AMFM or putting together outlines for speaking engagements."
"We have all these connection points," Eric agrees. "We're writing, speaking, rearing children, and sharing a house together. We know exactly what's going on in each other's lives. How many couples can say that?"
Yet they also recognize the need to insure the ministry never competes with their marriage. They have a mentor couple who touch base with them each month, asking tough questions about how each of them is doing. And Eric checks with Jennifer before every trip. If she says she needs him at home, he doesn't go.
Just as God has blessed their marriage, he's also blessed AMFM. In the three years since that first meeting of 30 people, their membership has grown to more than 1,000. And so have the number of lives touched by the organization.
Eric recalls one couple who'd been in ministry for 18 years. "They told me, 'Before we got your phone call, we'd made up our mind to quit. But you've opened a whole new opportunity for our area of work, and we're going to stick with it.'"
Eric and Jennifer stress that they aren't perfect, just blessed. "The bottom line is that God has been faithful," Eric says. "We've been fortunate to be placed where we are."
Their goal for AMFM? To train 10,000 churches in ten years, a 100,000 lay-leader army doing marriage and family ministry for their pastors in the local church.
It's an endeavor they never grow tired of, and one that has brought countless benefits to Eric and Jennifer, their children, and their marriage—the largest being their focus on serving together.
"This is exactly what God designed us for as a couple," Jennifer says. "We really are living our dream. It's not what we'd planned, but it's what God gave us. And it's wonderful."
For more information on AMFM, visit www.AMFMonline.com.
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.