When Finding Success Feels Empty: Bryan & Stephanie Carter
You've found the success you were shooting for. Why does it feel so…disappointing? Bryan Carter, author of Made to Last, is joined by his wife Stephanie as they share their own story of success, emptiness, and seeking true significance.
Now, every year, we set goals for our family. Where do we want our family—our marriage and family—to go for the year? So, we set goals as a couple; as parents; financially; the house, kind of what we’re trying to do around the house; spiritually. So, we’re looking at our lives probably through the lens of about six key categories. And we’re saying, “Okay, what does God want to do in our family this year?”
About the Guest
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Bryan Carter, author of Made to Last, and his wife Stephanie share doable ideas for feeding spiritual growth and unshakable family ties.
When Finding Success Feels Empty: Bryan & Stephanie Carter
Shelby: Hey, this is Shelby Abbott with FamilyLife Today. I’ve got a quick question for you. How would you honestly rate your marriage, on a scale from 1-10?
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Bryan: Now, every year, we set goals for our family. Where do we want our family—our marriage and family—to go for the year? So, we set goals as a couple; as parents; financially; the house, kind of what we’re trying to do around the house; spiritually. So, we’re looking at our lives probably through the lens of about six key categories. And we’re saying, “Okay, what does God want to do in our family this year?”
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: So, I recently read a book where the opening paragraph—first page of the book, I felt like I was reading my story.
Dave: Yes, it was about a pastor. Things were going great at his church, and he felt empty. He sat down with a counselor. And I thought, “Wow! This is—I went through the exact same thing!” And it was the framework for what his life was about and his marriage. He’s sitting in the studio right now. Bryan and Stephanie Carter are back in the studio. Welcome back, guys!
Bryan: Thank you so much for having us.
Dave: That’s funny! You’re over there, and I was like, “I don’t know if he’s talking about me!”
Stephanie: I know, we’re all like, “Hmm, okay.” [Laughter]
Dave: I mean, I know you wrote the book a little while ago, but you remember how you opened it? [Laughter]
Bryan: I remember it well! I remember it well.
Dave: It’s called Made to Last, and it’s Eight Principles for Long-Lasting Relationships. [You’ve been] married 25 years; [you have] three kids; you’re in the middle of it! You know, pastor of a large church for 20 years.
Ann: In Dallas.
Dave: So, I told Ann, when I read it, I said, “Oh, my goodness!” You know, we wrote a book about a vertical marriage, and the first two chapters are about this moment when everything was going great at the church, but my heart—I said I had lost my first love.
Now, I’m not saying you did that, but walk us through it, because you framed that story to say this is the most important thing in your life, and to even make a marriage that lasts. So, tell our listeners what I tried to tell them.
Bryan: Sure, sure. Thank you. So, it was a unique season in our lives, where our church was booming. We were adding services; three to four services. We were in the midst of a building project. I succeeded, at our church, the Founder. So, he had been there 28 years. I was coming behind him, and there was a lot of pressure to come through, right?
So, I’m in year, probably, seven or eight. God is just blessing everything! A lot of demands: preaching four different services, trying to build a new building, raising the money, designing it, trying to grow staff, reach people, reach our city.
Ann: And how many years had you guys been married at that point?
Bryan: At that point, we’d probably been married about 10 years.
Dave: Oh, boy!
Ann: And you had all your kids by then, so they were little?
Stephanie: They were little.
Bryan: Right, they were little. We had two who were probably seven and five, and a little two-year-old—
Bryan: —king of tagging along. I’m in seminary as well.
Bryan: So, I’m in Dallas Seminary. It’s a crazy, chaotic season! But on the outside, everything looks great, right? Young kids that we’re chasing around; a booming church is happening.
But it was at that juncture—I’m 37 at the time—that I ended up talking to Dennis, right? I talked to Dennis [Rainey], and I said, “Dennis, I need a counselor.” He said, “What do you need?”
Ann: Dennis Rainey.
Bryan: Dennis Rainey, Dennis Rainey. I said, “I need a counselor!” He recommends a counselor, and I’m talking to this counselor about trying to process what’s happening. I have this emptiness that’s on the inside. I said, “With all this happening, somehow, I feel empty on the inside. Something is missing.”
Ann: Stephanie, did you know about this?
Stephanie: I did. I really—he was just so busy! Like a typical pastor, he was a workaholic. And he loved ministry! He loved serving. I remember [that] he would leave when it was dark, and he would come home when it was dark. We kind of had resolved in our marriage, just through pre-marital, that we both couldn’t have two demanding jobs. So, at this time, I was at home. I had been a schoolteacher. I taught third and fourth grades; I was an instructional specialist. Then, after the birth of our second child, I came home.
I think we were just in the routine of the busyness, but you could see the weight. I always saw the weight of ministry on him, but he just seemed like he thrived off of it. Maybe because, you know, I’d known him since college. We had met in college, [and] he was a leader on his campus. So, this was nothing new, how busy he was. But it wasn’t until later, after he talked to Dennis, when he said, “I need to go spend a couple of days with a therapist.” Then I said, “Now, wait. Why? What’s going on?”
Stephanie: Because, during that season, it seemed like there were a lot of leaders who were falling and having integrity issues, so I was kind of like, “Wait, now what?” Kind of like—[Laughter] I perked up a little bit! “Now, what? What’s going on?” Then he just kind of assured me. So then, I was just really proud of him that he wanted to go talk to someone, because you just don’t hear [that]. Just talking to different wives, you would hear wives talking about their husbands not going to seek any type of counseling or talking to a therapist. And here it is, I have one who wants to go talk to a therapist. So, of course, I’m going to say, “Yes, go ahead, please!”
Ann: And you knew, Bryan, that you needed that?
Bryan: I knew something was missing!
Bryan: I just knew that there was something missing, and it wasn’t my wife; it wasn’t my kids. There was an emptiness inside that was happening despite all the success—apparent success—that seemed to be happening all around. I just knew I needed to talk to somebody to try to process what I was feeling and what was happening.
I remember the conversation when she said, “What’s going on?!” I said, “Well, it’s not—” I had been seeing a lot of leaders fall in ministry. I was [thinking], “I don’t want to do that! So, let me figure out what’s happening.” And I think it’s in many of our lives. There is this temptation, right, that we all face? And if we don’t ask ourselves, sometimes, the tough questions or have someone helping us to process through those moments—when I began talking to my counselor, he told me I was going through a mid-life crisis. I said, “I’m 37! What is that?!” [Laughter]
Dave: That’s a little early!
Bryan: I was saying, “How am I going through mid-life at 37?!” And he began to describe success and significance, right? How we climb and climb and try to achieve success, success, success. We think we have it, but even when we attain it, it doesn’t give us what we thought it would.
There’s a distinction between success and significance. He began to unpack for me that, “You’ve been climbing and achieving and trying to have all these things. And you’ve gotten it! Now that you have it, you’re saying, ‘This is not what I want! It still doesn’t bring me the joy and the satisfaction and the fulfillment that I thought it would’.” He said, “What you’re really looking for is significance.” He said, “Bryan, what’s happening is, you’ve become a bit disconnected,” as you mentioned, “from your heart for God. You’ve gotten so many things going on that you’ve forgotten your first love, which is God, which is that relationship:;cultivating that, spending time with Him, and serving others out of the overflow of your relationship with God.”
And so, it was that—those sessions and that conversation—and reassessing my life that helped me to get reconnected back to God so, in turn, I could get reconnected back to my family and to the ministry that we were doing. So, it was just—I’ll tell you, I had gotten out of balance. I had gotten out of rhythm. I had gotten my priorities all mixed up. It required me getting back to my devotional time, getting back to my prayer time, getting back to my alone time with the Lord, and just being versus doing; just being in His presence versus performing. It was a recalibration of my life. And even now, I have to continually remind myself of that!
Bryan: I’m on—my church has blessed me with—a sabbatical, and part of that is just me getting reconnected, reset in time with the Lord. Slow down, take your time; it’s okay. Memorize—let’s review some of the verses, and [do] Scripture memory; let’s fast. Find some time to just be with God. I think that’s key to a lot of relationships. So, if I’m not connected to God well, if I’m not in His presence, if my relationship with God is not good, of course, I’m not going to get along with her or get along with my kids. [Laughter] Or get along with others.
Every relationship—its foundations begin in my relationship with God. Everything else flows from that.
Dave: So, when you did that, was it something that saw—obviously you saw it—honestly transform you? How did it impact this [marriage]? And, of course, you were a dad of young kids at the time.
Bryan: I think it helped me to reset my priorities a bit. I think this pressure to perform consumes us, right?
Bryan: Always on email, always looking at your to-do list, always trying to look at the next thing, right? I mean, it’s just constant! So, I think at that juncture, it meant Mondays, I took my off day. It meant Mondays, I took the kids to the park; Mondays, “Babe, I got it! I’m going to do the drop-off, and I’m going to do the pick-up. I’m going to go have lunch with them at school today.” So, I think it meant our date nights were protected, right?
It meant that I had to make sure that I was hearing her heart, hearing her passion and her desires for our family and marriage so that I wasn’t so consumed with public success.
Bryan: Certain things can give you esteem: preaching, right? Everybody sees that. Or leading the meetings, or leading things for the life of the church: everybody sees that. Nobody sees the time with the kids like we do. Nobody sees, “Are we going on vacation this year? Let’s make sure we take care of that?” Right?
Bryan: “Are we going to a marriage conference just to go and not to teach?” So, just trying to build out the rhythms of our family so that we have a rhythm that is manageable, and that cultivates the love, the care, and the grace in our family. Whether it’s vacations, or whether it’s family time, it just helped me reset things a bit.
Now, every year, we set goals for our family. Where do we want our family—our marriage and family—to go for the year? We set goals as a couple; as parents; financially; the house, kind of what we’re trying to do around the house; spiritually. So, we’re looking at our lives probably through the lens of about six key categories. We’re saying, “Okay, what does God want to do in our family this year?”
By us doing that together, I hear her heart, and we can stay aligned. We can look back and say, “Okay, this is where we’re going, and this is how we’re going to get there.” And we can work together to make it happen; but I think that kind of, to some extent, crash (or burning out, right?) helps you to say, “Okay, this I don’t want to happen,” right? “I don’t want that feeling, so how do I build in the rhythms and routines to protect my heart, to guard her heart, and also to guard the heart of our family?”
Ann: So, Stephanie, walk us through that. You sit down—is this on a vacation where you’d sit down and go through your goals?
Stephanie: Sometimes it’s on a vacation, but then, also, even before we get to that, we have a talk time. It used to be our talk time was something weekly that we do, where we talk through the kids’ activities; we talk through what I’m doing this week.
Ann: You’re looking at your schedules.
Stephanie: He is the “master scheduler,” which is great! I love it! But based on that, talk time starts every Sunday. When our kids were younger, they really weren’t a part of talk time; but now, as they’ve gotten older (I would probably say like late elementary/early middle school), they were a part of talk time. So, during that talk time, it’s kind of like our family meeting.
It might be, you know, “Hey, how can I pray for you?” And it could be something like, “Oh, I have a test this week,” or “Oh, I have to have a conversation with so-and-so, because they were mean to me, and I don’t know.” Just talking through that, giving an open dialogue with our children, helped immensely!
Ann: That’s awesome.
Stephanie: And then, as far as the goal setting, that was very essential because, sometimes as husband and wife, we can not be on the same page. So, I might want to do something—
Stephanie: Yes, curtains. [Laughter]
Dave: You need them; you need some.
Stephanie: Yes! Like right now, our big thing at our house was wanting to do some things with our backyard. So, anytime we’ve wanted to do something super—you know, whatever, he’ll say, “Remember the backyard.” “That’s right; that’s right: the backyard; that’s our focus. That’s our focus.” [Laughter]
Ann: Well, when you start talking about marriage kind of stuff, what did that look like? Would you say, “What are our goals for our marriage this year?” Because most couples don’t do this.
Ann: We just survive or just get through.
Stephanie: We’re just trying to make it.
Stephanie: Our goals for our marriage might be, “We’re going to go to a marriage conference,” or “We’re going to have a date night consistently,” or “We’re going to pray for each other consistently, so we’re going to have a devotion time.”
Bryan: Yes, that’s a good foundation!
Stephanie: There you go!
Bryan: Those three to four right there—
Bryan: —give us a rhythm that helps protect and strengthen our marriage. Marriage conference, as she mentioned; some years, we might do a marriage core group—a small group of couples.
Bryan: It’s not only going to help us, but help those other couples as well.
Bryan: Normally, those four to five are typically what we try to focus on in terms of what we want to do for our marriage specifically. Then, we’ll add others around financial, right? “What is our plan financially? Where are we going as a couple?” Parenting: “What activities do we want the kids involved in this year that will grow them spiritually?” It might be going to a Christian camp. It might be, “This one here needs some extra tutoring,” or “This one here—how do we help that child take their next steps based on what they need?” Or if they have unique gifts and talents, “How do we develop those unique gifts and talents?”
These six or seven categories just help us. They help shape a vision for our house so that we stay aligned and stay connected. The other thing that has happened is, my wife always says, “We have two vacations every year.” We have a vacation with the family, okay? We take them somewhere. And then we have a vacation for ourselves. That’s a couple goal. One time, we told our mentor, “We’re going to Disney World.” He said, “No, no, no! Where are you guys going? Where are the two of you going on vacation!?”
Ann: Yes, because that is not vacation!
Bryan: That is not a vacation! That’s work! “You guys need to plan a separate vacation, after you come back from that, for you guys.” So, we’ve learned stay-cations. We’ll stay right in Dallas, get a hotel, and have a great time. We’ve learned how to have time together. Oh! One more thing that we’ve learned: couple friends.
Ann: Oh, yes.
Bryan: We prayed!! In our thirties, we were so lonely in ministry [that] we prayed for friends. It was hard, because you’re pastoring, you’re leading, you’re serving. We prayed, and God sent us two couples; two couples that we met over ten years ago, that we vacation together and spend time together. It’s a safe space. We can be transparent. We don’t have to be “Pastor This;” no titles.
Ann: Do they go to your church?
Bryan: Neither one goes to our church—
Stephanie: So, it makes a great—
Stephanie: Yes, yes. [Laughter]
Bryan: Having friends, whew! It’s been a blessing to just be you and be able to share and be authentic. It’s probably been one of the biggest blessings in our lives. It’s that.
Dave: I mean, you know, what I just heard is so good, because we need to be doing some of these things, or all of these things, if we want a relationship that’s going to last.
Ann: “Talk time.” I like it!
Stephanie: The talk time is huge! And I think it also helps your children to see it as well.
Dave: Oh, yes!
Stephanie: Your children need to see you setting goals for your family. They need to see you setting goals for, “How am I going to grow spiritually?” For me, there was a season where I did Bible Study Fellowship. This was before I was a Women’s Ministry Director and so on. I was so new to being a pastor’s wife, and I just needed a safe place. Bible Study Fellowship was that safe place for me because you go to Bible Study Fellowship, and they can’t ask you about church. You can’t say, “Aren’t you—?” That was my safe place.
But for my kids to see me going off to Bible Study Fellowship, then they’re staying with their dad instead of me getting a babysitter or my mom watching them. Them seeing their dad love me enough to say, “Hey, Babe! I need you to go, and I need you to grow, too. I need you to get filled, and I don’t want you to worry about the kids and this stuff.”
But then, this is my advice to that wife or that mom: let him do it! He’s not going to do it like you want him to do it.
Stephanie: Just let him do it.
Ann: It doesn’t matter what they ate—
Stephanie: It doesn’t matter. I don’t care!
Ann: What they dress like—
Stephanie: You’re going to leave the house to go do what you need to do.
Dave: Was that hard for you to do?
Stephanie: But I learned a quick lesson; it was with our first child. I would just critique him, and I would nag him. “No, that’s not--! Bryan, please!” I’ll never forget, there was one time I was doing laundry, and I just said, “If you could just watch Kaitlyn.” He said, “Yes, yes. I’m watching the game.” I give him Kaitlyn. She’s lying on his chest; he’s eating Doritos. [Laughter] Y’all! This is a bad dad moment for you! He’s wiping the Dorito dust on the back of her onesie. [Laughter]
Dave: I can see it! [Laughter]
Stephanie: And I was walking through with the basket of clothes, and I say, “She’s a napkin? She’s a napkin?” [Laughter] He said, “What!? It’s not hurting her!”
Bryan: “It’s on her back!”
Stephanie: “It’s on her back! It’s on her back.”
Dave: “You’re going to wash it later!”
Stephanie: “She can’t reach over! It’s not a fancy onesie you have for her! It’s just a plain onesie!” [Laughter] Using our child as a napkin!
Ann: And now, you would just let that go.
Stephanie: I would let it go!
Ann: Yes, who cares?
Stephanie: I learned that: “Who cares? It is not hurting her.”
Ann: I’m with you! [Laughter] That’s good advice.
Dave: Well, I want to talk about Made to Last principles for parenting tomorrow, but let me ask you one last thing today. You mentioned a safe couple, or couples.
Dave: A lot of couples don’t have that.
Dave: How do you get that, and why is it important? We have that, and it’s so critical! Coach some couples. That’s really important. Help us.
Bryan: I think they start with prayer.
Stephanie: Yes, you have to start with prayer.
Bryan: I think a couple has to start praying now for God to send that relationship. I think you’ve got to pray for it. I don’t think they happen by accident. I think they happen as a result of God’s grace in our lives. They are an expression of God. I think you start out praying, and then the Lord—you have to take chances, right? You have to spend some time together. Try lunch together.
Bryan: Try dinner together; try the families together. And just be open to see how it goes. And sometimes, you’ve got to see—you know, you have to give it time to figure out: “Is this the right fit?” It’s hard to get four people to really connect well.
Stephanie: And everybody likes each other.
Bryan: And everybody likes each other.
Bryan: Those are rare situations.
Stephanie: That’s rare! That’s why we only have two! [Laughter]
Ann: That’s about what we have, too; yes.
Bryan: And we don’t necessarily mix the two, right?
Bryan: They are two—
Stephanie: Yes, we don’t mix.
Bryan: —distinct, separate relationships. But I would say, pray for it; I would say, give it time; I would say, you’ve got to be open and honest, and be willing to cultivate that relationship. You’ve got to protect that relationship, which means what happens there stays there.
Bryan: You don’t take it outside and violate that trust. And then, you’ve got to be willing to be friendly. Sometimes, you’re just thinking, “Well, I’m going to keep all our stuff. I’m not going to share anything. I don’t know about them.” But you never really build a heart connection without being transparent.
Dave: So now, with those safe couples, you’re vulnerable.
Dave: You’re sharing the junk.
Bryan: We’re sharing the junk.
Dave: I mean, you’re not doing that with everybody, but with those—
Stephanie: With those, yes.
Dave: —you feel like [you can].
Dave: And that’s what’s so important, right?
Stephanie: Yes, just somebody that you can share with, and that you do life with.
Two of our couple friends, we each have three kids. They’re all pretty much kind of going through the same season. I always believe that you should have someone in your life that’s walking ahead of you, walking beside you, and then, of course, someone that you’re pulling up behind you.
We have a group with other friends—we forgot to mention them—that all of our older kids were in preschool together. So, we would go on vacations together. We still do it, but we stopped taking our kids. [Laughter] Because it was like four of us [couples]. So, two of us have three kids. No, we have the most kids; and then, there are two couples who only have one kid. They said, “Oh, we take them everywhere!” And I said, “No. We’re done with this.” We took them to D.C. Do you remember that? We went to D.C., and that was our last time.
Bryan: Last trip. The kids were too much.
Stephanie: We said, “No more kids! No more kids.” [Laughter]
Bryan: No more kids.
Stephanie: We said, “This is not vacation for us, guys.” They were saying, “No!” And we said, “No, it’s not.” So, anyway, we go on a couples’ trip with them, but our kids have been in pre-K together, and our kids will all graduate next year, from college.
Bryan: But every couple needs a place.
Stephanie: You have to have it.
Bryan: I mean, you crave it, where you can just be yourselves, right?
Bryan: Where you can be honest, and they don’t get mad when you say, “Well, you know, Bryan is not doing this.”
Bryan: “Now, Bryan, don’t get bristled up!” I don’t get resistant. I say, “You’re right. I probably could do better,” and we can talk through it. You need people to help you!
Dave: She said, “Not probably. You can do better.” [Laughter]
Bryan: If I have the accountability of friendship. It’s healthy for you!
Stephanie: It’s healthy.
Bryan: Right? It’s healthy for me.
Dave: You’ve got to have it!
Bryan: You’ve got to have it!
Ann: You have to.
Stephanie: You’ve got to have it.
Bryan: You can’t do it in isolation. It doesn’t work.
Ann: This has been so rich, you guys. Thank you!
Stephanie: Thank you.
Ann: Lots of great things to apply.
Shelby: You know, I love this! Get people into your life who you trust and who you can be honest with, regardless of your life stage. Laugh together, cry together, and be honest together, because community is what we were made for. I have learned so much from other couples who walk with Jesus by simply observing their marriages and, frankly, copying what they do in certain areas. We all need this, and it’s so, so valuable.
I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Bryan and Stephanie Carter on FamilyLife Today. Bryan has written a book called Made to Last: Eight Principles to Build Long-Lasting Relationships. Bryan lays out clear insights, ways to tap into the love and power of God, and practical, effective steps to improve our most important relationships. You can find a copy of that book at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-F as in “family,” L as in “life,” and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, coming up tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson are back again with Bryan and Stephanie Carter. They’re going to talk about transitioning from a dictatorship parenting style to a coaching approach. That’s a tough shift for all of us, but a necessary one. We hope you’ll join us for that tomorrow.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We’ll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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