Reaching for the Heart
by Laurie Beyer
There are probably as many people who refer to Stuart Briscoe as Jill Briscoe's husband as call her Stuart's wife. That's one of the curious aspects of being a well-known ministry team, according to Jill. "We live in a world where people like to compare and compete, and I often have to remind others that Stuart and I are not in competition. We're on the same team!" They are competing together though - for the hearts and minds of God's people to be fully committed to Him.
Yes, Jill Briscoe is certainly half of a dynamic team; but in her own right she is a gifted Bible teacher, an author of more than 45 books, a magazine editor, an advisor to several non-profit organizations, a mother and a grandmother. She and Stuart have shared marriage and ministry for more than 40 years, and have three grown children: David (a pastor in suburban Milwaukee), Judy (a professor at Trinity International University) and Peter (a pastor in Dallas), plus thirteen grandchildren.
Jill's heart for ministry takes her from her home base near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to speaking engagements throughout the US and around the world. Her proper British accent may be what first catches people's attention, but her candor and wisdom are what allow others to fully appreciate the real Jill Briscoe. She loves to encourage those doing God's work, empathize with them in their struggles, and laugh with them (and often at herself) as she brings humor to the hearts of those who need refreshment. She thrives on the opportunities to encourage missionaries on the field, to speak at local women's ministry gatherings, to teach at large leadership conferences or to visit impoverished areas of the globe as a representative of World Relief. Each engagement, according to Jill, is equally vital to furthering God's kingdom and building up the body.
Such a public desire to share the riches of God's Word was not inherent in her upbringing. Born in Liverpool, England, Jill was not brought up in a home where faith was publicly proclaimed. As for church, "I do remember going once to Sunday School; my sister got upset by something that was said that day, so we never went back. That was my brief sojourn to church." Jill said it was not until college that she remembers ever even meeting a Christian.
As an 18-year-old student at Cambridge University, Jill's life took a new direction. It was there that she met for the first time people who purported to believe in something bigger than themselves. "I had been taught thoroughly to believe in myself," she recalls. Having always thought that it was up to her what she made of her life, she began meeting people who believed it was up to God what they did with their lives. "That was a totally new perspective for me," said Jill. It certainly caught Jill's attention, but didn't automatically cause her to embrace the Christian faith. "I had a roommate who was a believer, and for some unknown reason I chose to ridicule, in fact to decimate her faith. In so doing I decided that a faith so easily destroyed was not worth much."
It was around the next corner that God destroyed Jill's self sufficiency as she lay sick in a hospital bed. "In the bed next to me was a girl named Jenny, who took me by the ears as I had taken my roommate by the ears. She decimated my false belief and thoroughly won me over to the idea of a faith that works, of a truth that is reality, and of a gospel that I quite frankly could believe was believable! She managed to present a gospel to me that didn't offend my perceived intelligence." Jill's new friend, Jenny, led her to Christ.
There was a time when Jill was repelled by the aroma of Christ in others; but in the almost forty-some years since her conversion, she has been that sweet fragrance to thousands of women as she has modeled a life lived for Christ. As she traveled, Jill noted that women doing the work of God desperately needed to be encouraged when they're struggling, and comforted when they're lonely. Jill's vision was for a resource that would give special attention to the Lord's servants so they could do their job well. That resource became Just Between Us, the magazine for ministry wives and women in leadership. Jill serves as executive editor. For our 10th Anniversary Issue, we are blessed to be able to share a little bit of Jill Briscoe's heart with you. Feel free to sit and sip a cup of tea while you read!
Can you share the circumstances that brought you and Stuart together?
After Cambridge I went back to Liverpool to teach in my hometown. As a teacher trying to cope with out-of-control street kids, I believed that unless I was able to connect with them outside of the school environment they wouldn't listen to me teach them about anything - math, English, or Christ. One night I found myself beginning a whole new adventure as I boarded the bus and went looking for these kids. Although they were under age I found them in the pubs, drug dives and strip joints. Finding them in these places helped to better explain their behavior in school, or I guess I should say their non-behavior. I initially thought my friendship would change them, but I quickly realized that a friendship with Jesus was their only hope so I began sharing the Lord with them and they began accepting Him. I prayed that the Lord would give me their hearts and allow me to be the mother, grandmother, or big sister they never had in their lives. And God did just that!
Kids would meet Jesus and bring along their friends. In time, 150 or so would come regularly and meet in the basement. I decided to take a group of teens up to a holiday center called Capernwray where Stuart served. That's where we met, in the company of 150 wild, woolly, street kids.
Was he in full-time ministry when you married?
Actually, Stuart was a bank inspector, but helped at Capernwray when it first opened its youth center to reach ex-Nazi youth after World War II. Obviously, by the time I showed up there with my "gang," the program had expanded to minister to youth from all over Europe. We were married in 1958.
Because of his passion for this type of ministry, Stuart eventually gave up banking, and became the treasurer of Capernwray where we taught and served for twelve years. He traveled extensively in his position and was often asked to preach on those trips as well. In time, he relinquished his financial responsibilities to focus totally on preaching, and that commitment took him around the world - and away from us.
During that time you were raising young children, much of the time alone. Can you share some of the stresses you faced?
One of the stresses was that Stuart's traveling was unexpected. Around the corner of our glad "Oh, yes Lord!" was an "Oh, no Lord!" We had gone to Capernwray thinking that Stuart would have a stable job there as treasurer, and had no idea that this traveling thing would happen. It was a good thing we didn't know or we might not have gone! One of the reasons we had turned down opportunities with two other missions was because their offers required travel.
This was a God surprise! The first time Stuart was away for three months. He returned with engagements booked that would take him away for another three months and he began to travel at both ends of the year, three months at the beginning and three at the end. That went on for about ten years and it was a strain. I went through some deep waters during this time, but came away with many illustrations for ministry that I wouldn't have otherwise.
How did you resolve that personally? Did you fight it or just surrender the situation to God?
I think I was disappointed with myself. I had to come to terms with the fact that I wasn't the "good little missionary wife" I always thought I was or wanted to be. And the strain of being both mom and dad to three small children under school age, as well as my mission responsibilities, just got to me in the end. I started complaining to God thinking that no one else would know. But of course that stuff shows. Stuart noticed what I tried to pretend wasn't bothering me. He said, "Jill, I can't do this work unless you're with me in it."
I shared this struggle with my senior missionary and she was the friend who helped me to realize that if this was what God wanted for this period of our lives, I would not be happy if my husband were home. Once I got that sorted out in my head, it filtered down to my heart. I saw that it was the will of God that Stuart go, and I accepted that, expecting that it would be for a lifetime.
God brought me to such victory in this area it was unbelievable. I remember once even being sweetly sorry that Stuart was coming home because that very special presence of God seemed to disappear when my husband was around - I didn't need it. And I told Stuart about that because I wanted him to know how God had provided for me so thoroughly when he wasn't there; but I also wanted him to know that when he was home, he was God's provision for me. I came to realize God's Word to be true - His promise to be a husband to me. That promise is for the single person and I was in effect a single parent.
What then led you to move to the United States?
On one of Stuart's travels he visited Elmbrook Church, located outside of Milwaukee, to preach. Their pastor had just resigned and Stuart was asked to consider taking his place. Of course by this time I had accepted the fact that we were committed to our extraordinary lifestyle forever, and that Stuart would be away much of his life traveling. I think that unless you live as though you're there for good in whatever ministry God has placed you, you never give all you should to what you're doing, and therefore you never achieve what you've been put there to achieve. You think, I won't get too involved in this ministry because I'm moving on. I had invested my all in being there for God. That being the case, it was a bit hard for me to adjust to the change when God asked us to move across the Atlantic.
In time, though, the blessings became evident. We couldn't believe that God had given us the chance to have some family time together. How wonderful it would be!
Was reality as wonderful?
Having Dad around certainly helped with the kids' adjustment to a new home and culture, but almost as soon as we got here I began to travel. That was the "Oh, no Lord!" which followed the "Oh, yes Lord!" But that was truly wonderful because Stuart got to know his kids who were ages 7, 9 and 11 at the time. And I was out of the way so that could happen. Moving was a great adventure and we treated it as such. The kids adjusted so quickly because for the first time we were a family unit, and to go to church together the very first Sunday was incredible. In fact, Stuart was so used to going everywhere without his family that he actually forgot we were there and went home alone! The janitor took the rest of us home that day!
You said that almost immediately upon moving to the US you started your speaking and traveling. How did this come about?
Because I was Stuart's wife, people expected me to speak. They assumed that his gifts were also my gifts. That often happens with pastors' wives. I did begin the women's Bible study at Elmbrook Church as well as the junior high and drama ministries, but most of my speaking took place outside of my church. It was a little intimidating at first, but I did it anyway, basically out of obedience.
My desire was to continue working with the youth, but you can't always choose your ministry in the end. You have to accept where He wants you to work. He chose to thrust me out, and in return gave me a love and concern for the women to whom I would minister to around the world. I took every opportunity. I never said "no" if I could say "yes." And it was hard work. I was on the road every week. It was as necessary to go to a rural community in middle-America and speak to 32 women as it was to teach at a large conference in a major city.
Did your passion for women's ministries grow out of those travels?
Yes, there was a definite connection. The more women in different places that I connected with, the more I learned about the needs of women. Not only did I bring home ideas that we at Elmbrook Church made our own, but I could also share this wealth of information with women as I traveled. That's how we learn and grow. It was an incredible opportunity to network with women from all over the United States, and encourage them to give their ministries away and say, "This is what we've learned. Can we help you?" Otherwise your focus is on building empires, not the Kingdom. Women are very good at networking, and bringing that ability into the church has accounted for the success in women's ministries. I love watching women get an idea and implement it. They get an idea, do it, polish it, and do it better!
You must have had a support system in place to travel and minister. With young children at home did you ever struggle with balance?
I don't believe that balance is having the same amount of things in different boxes: this is my family box, work box, play box, ministry box - all equal. I look at the life of Christ and He had 30 years at home with no ministry. He then had three years of ministry and no home life. By all appearances that's unbalanced. Balance to me is doing the tasks the Father has called you to do at the time He's called you to do them. That will certainly look unbalanced to some.
The Lord has called me to Himself to be His disciple first and foremost. More specifically, the tasks He's called me to will vary according to my circumstances and season of life. For us, we muddled through what we believed we were called to. Some people would say, "What's a father doing on the road all the time?" The flip side would be, "What's an evangelist doing staying home all the time?" The greater call supersedes. Jesus said that anyone who would put his or her family before Him is not worthy to be called His disciple.
Furthermore, I don't think we can judge one another. It's not our job. Ours has indeed been an extraordinary situation, but in a sense everybody's story is extraordinary because every individual and family is unique in God's plan. If you have sought God in your decision making, then you must proceed with confidence, whether it's home schooling, going back to work, or heading for the mission field.
Your books are filled with wonderful stories of your friendships. Do you have a story of any special friendship you'd like to share in closing?
The incredible friendship of our own children as they serve in ministry and function as a family team with us is such a source of encouragement. That support gives Stuart and me the fuel we need and the ability to go on, knowing that we are all united in God and in ministry. That's a huge blessing and joy for us. And then of course there's my relationship with Stuart whom I love and respect so much. He not only encourages me to minister, but insists that my gifts be developed and used. Believing that God gave me to him, Stuart has made that happen, in the same way that I have affirmed him in God's work. Encouragement, respect and affirmation form the bridge that connects a couple in ministry and life and allows God to use their work to make a difference in the world.