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Side By Side: Changing Lives for 30 Years

After an interviewing trip in 1987, my husband announced he wanted to complete his residency at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. To this day, I still remember hearing myself say, “That’s fine, honey. We could go there and have a ministry to internationals because many people from all parts of the world come there

by Robin Morgenthaler with Mandi Mooney

After an interviewing trip in 1987, my husband announced he wanted to complete his residency at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. To this day, I still remember hearing myself say, “That’s fine, honey. We could go there and have a ministry to internationals because many people from all parts of the world come there for training and then return to their homeland. It would be a great reverse mission field!”

Now I would be lying if I told you I acted on that vision God laid on my heart as soon as I got to Rochester. I did not; instead, I was fearful. I believed myself inadequate for the task. So I tried my local church’s women’s Bible study. It was fine, but I didn’t really feel like I fit in. They were nice women, but they did not understand my world. While being in a medical marriage often eventually brings financial security, many do not know that the path there is fraught with sacrifices and that even the eventual arrival has many financial and non-financial burdens. It is a good and promising life, but it is far from what non-medical wives think. There is an unseen conflict between a vision of life being perfect for a doctor’s wife and the actual reality of the demands of the medical life. They could not comprehend my life with a doctor on call, holiday hours, long hours, the feeling of solo parenting, financial burdens, going to church alone—all the issues that come with being married to a doctor.

I was frustrated—frustrated that I couldn’t find anyone at my church who connected with me, my life and my needs. Those frustrations led me to finally follow God’s call and start Side By Side in 1988. So, I asked six women who were married to physicians and new to the community. All six said, “YES.” And it all began, with six women and eight children meeting in our big red farmhouse for a 12-week Bible study.

That was the early beginnings of a ministry that is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Today, Side By Side encourages and ministers to women in medical and dental marriages through fellowship and Bible study. We come from a vast variety of backgrounds and denominations, but what we have most in common is our shared desire to reach out to others, just like us, with the love of Christ. From its humble beginnings in my kitchen to a vibrant ministry in Rochester, God had even bigger plans. In 2005, God gave our leadership team a vision of expanding across the country, while at the same time CMDA wanted to develop a ministry to wives. While CMDA CEO Dr. David Stevens was speaking at Mayo, our team joined him for breakfast and the rest is history. Since then we have grown to more than 80 chapters across the United States, plus three chapters across our world. Today, thousands of medical wives are being impacted by Side By Side and lives are being changed. And we keep growing. Why? Because women are hungry for God’s Word. They may not know that, but they’re hungry for truth. In our chapters, we have women who are all at different steps of their walks with God. And they are encountering the power of God’s Word every time they meet together. When you influence the woman, she influences her husband and her children and their neighbors. God’s Word changes all, and we continually see how the love we show each other in our chapters has eternal significance. Also, in the medical life, people move. From medical school to residency to fellowship to practice, women seek out other women who understand the medical life: women who experience the same struggles, disappointments, frustrations and victories. If they happen to move to a new town with an established Side By Side, they find a ready-made support system, instant friendships and an automatic belonging place in the middle of a time of transition. It’s “instant friends who get their life.”

When women move away to a new town without a Side By Side chapter, they miss the camaraderie, their network and the women in their Side By Side chapter. And oftentimes their local community misunderstands them, causing a disconnect at the same time they’re searching for a new support system. So, we see that these women are now starting new chapters in their new towns to fill that space in their lives. The absence of a chapter when moving causes people to say, “I really liked what I had, and I want to have it again.” Now to start a Side By Side chapter, you don’t have to have theological training, you just have to love women and love Jesus. And it sure helps to have one friend to pray with.

I hear women who say, “Oh yeah, Side By Side was my lifeline.” And men have whispered to me, “Side By Side was truly a lifesaver for my wife.” And I’ve heard both say, “We chose our residency where there was a Side By Side chapter.” My favorite line, probably because it makes me chuckle, is, “I’m not going anywhere where there’s NOT a Side By Side chapter.” The support Side By Side gives, especially during these training years, is desperately needed. What do we actually do in Side By Side? Simply, we do everything women do in a church Bible study. We study God’s Word together, we pray together, we love one another. But since we are also living the medical life side by side, we understand and encourage one another, and we connect deeply. And God’s Word bonds us and changes us.

As more lives are changed, God willing, Side By Side is going to keep growing. How do I know how to grow this ministry? Well, I don’t. I simply know what He has taught me, so I use that and then ask for the Holy Spirit’s leading. But I know He created me for this. I was raised in a medical family, as my father and grandfather were dentists. I experienced the long hours, and I watched my mother cope with the long hours. She never complained about the hours, the patients, all the inconveniences that come with being in a medical family. I have also learned that God made each of us capable of doing His work without us knowing we were capable of doing it. We have to lean on Him. And that’s the message we give to the women in our Side By Side chapters. In the life you are leading now, God is molding and creating you to do exactly what God wants you to do for His kingdom. Look to Him for everything. Now it’s certainly not just my efforts that have contributed to the growth. This ministry continues to grow through the guidance and leadership of our team of women who have a heart for reaching other women with the love of Christ.

He has been doing that for Side By Side in such a mighty way, and it’s a privilege to watch as He takes it to the next level. And what is the next level as we look to our next 30 years of ministry? Well, I certainly don’t know that either! When we joined CMDA in 2005, Dr. Al Weir said to me, “Let’s set your first goal for seven chapters.” I quickly responded, “Oh no, we can’t do that. Let’s just say one or two.” But my prediction wasn’t correct. God has created 80+ chapters in 13 years. In 30 more years, it could be 200 chapters for all I know. I do know it will continue to grow. I hope lives continue to be changed, and I pray women realize the significance of God’s Word for their medical and dental marriages. The medical world is changing so much, and the people involved in it need God more and more. It’s a “we” thing when we talk about this crazy medical journey. The medical married life is a “we” thing.

So is Side By Side. We as a ministry are still committed to medical and dental wives. And we are also committed to standing side by side our husbands, side by side our sisters in Christ and side by side our Lord.

ROBIN MORGENTHALER was raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the daughter of a dentist and a professional volunteer. She was the middle of five children and still wants credit for being the only one who worked in the dental office when the receptionist and the dental assistant took their vaca-tions. She earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing at Keuka College. One day, while working as a nurse, a cute male medical student came down the hallway talking and drink-ing a cup of coffee. Their first interactions were not so good, as he did not promptly answer the night page. He did get her attention, but she really was not interested in him until she realized he could dance. A total 34 years, eight moves, five children and two grandchildren later, these two are still dancing. They currently live in Rochester, Minnesota where he practices pulmonary and sleep medicine at Mayo Clinic and she is the Executive Director of Side By Side, all from her kitchen.

This Feature Story Appears in:

Fall 2018 Edition of Today’s Christian Doctor