Surrendering to Service (and real Coca-Cola)

By Kelsey McFaul    

Jeff Ryan shares how marriage and adoption teach him to surrender control 

Thirty years ago, Jeff Ryan and his wife Gretchen were on their honeymoon in hot, muggy Beijing. Gretchen wanted her favorite beverage to quench her thirst, an ice-cold Coke.

“There was real Coca-Cola and there was local Coke, and the real thing was eight times as expensive. My scarcity mentality made her buy the cheaper one.”

Jeff’s need to conserve and control money hurt his wife, and it also became a difficult struggle in his stewardship journey. Instead of seeing God as the owner of his money and himself as the manager, Jeff desired to control the money he made out of worry there would not be enough.  

“I’m a control freak, to the point of it being a very strong impact in the way I handled things. I think our family histories contributed to it. My mother was incredibly frugal, and I observed that growing up. Gretchen was a missionary kid and she saw God provide for her family, not by a salary her parents earned but by contributions made by other people. I think that rubbed off on her.”

The child of missionaries to Taiwan, Jeff’s wife Gretchen spent her teenage years working in orphanages and majored in social work in college. When they married and moved to Hong Kong, money was still a point of contention but Gretchen’s influence led Jeff to surrender control in other aspects of life.

“We had to surrender to infertility. I guess my wife more than me, but I made tradeoffs in my work so I could be at home with kids. God built our family differently than other families because of adoption, but now we have a family bigger than 95 percent of the families around us.”

Within a year of living in Hong Kong, Jeff and Gretchen had the opportunity to foster a 13-year-old Chinese girl, Joanna.

“That foster relationship evolved into her being our eldest daughter who lives in the U.K. She’s Chinese herself, but her mother had passed away. There was a need for her to have a home. We ended up being that home for her for a few years of her life and then having an impact on the rest of her life.”

Jeff and Gretchen’s decision to adopt was not only a surrender to infertility, but also a joyful embrace of adoption. In Hong Kong, adoption carries strong social stigma. When locals and friends alike questioned the Ryans’ decision, the couple embraced a life of no reputation, believing that just as Jesus didn’t care for reputation, prestige, or image, neither would they.

“People say, ‘Wow, these guys are different. They’re pouring their lives into their kids, and not just any kids but Chinese kids.’ So it’s given me an opportunity for influence that I wouldn’t otherwise have because people say, ’Why would you do something like that?’”

The couple’s decision to surrender control over their family intensified as Gretchen became a volunteer social worker with Mother’s Choice, a local nonprofit in Hong Kong that cares for orphaned and special needs children and helps them find permanent homes.

“We adopted four more kids, three of whom are Chinese–Tanya and the brothers Joseph and Joshua–and one is Filipino, Torrey. So we have a multiethnic family.”

At six months old, Torrey’s physical development was not on track with his peers. After medical testing, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

“When we were first told of his condition, I projected 20 years forward, because the doctor had told us he may never walk, may never talk, may have seizures his whole life. That was the lowest point for us, and I had to learn to surrender there.”

Not only had Jeff and Gretchen relinquished control over the composition of their family, but Torrey’s condition asked them to acknowledge they lacked control over life itself. But just as with adoption, Jeff found a platform for influence within surrender.

“In this situation, I’ve been able to see God work and change our hearts in terms of understanding and being advocated for people who do not have typical bodies and need extra attention in different ways. I think that’s really increased my compassion for others and my advocacy. And it gave my wife an opportunity to do that within her own family.”

For Jeff and Gretchen, adoption is a manifestation of true stewardship. They do not own their children but have been given them to love and raise up by God. Control over the size and health of their family is not theirs to worry over, and surrendering that control has led to deep freedom, joy, and powerful advocacy.

Yet despite all this, stewarding money still poses a challenge.

“Two years ago, I was considering teaching this class on marriage and money, and I asked Gretchen if she was willing to teach it with me. She said, ‘No way. You’re far too controlling when it comes to money, and teaching this class will be total hypocrisy.’ That really hurt. Was I really that bad? Honestly, yes.”

Convicted by his wife’s comments, Jeff turned to a trusted mentor for advice.

“He said the best thing you can do as a husband is to practice Ephesians 5:25: ‘Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.’ You show your wife you love her by serving her. Trust her to make decisions with money. Serve her. The Lord will provide.

“I’d realized a few years back that I struggled to love myself and that fed into me not loving my wife well. The verses just after Ephesians 5:25 reminded me that loving myself more would be loving her and loving her would be loving myself.”

Jeff recognized the interplay between two key stewardship relationships: our relationships with others and our relationship with ourselves. When we struggle to accept who God has made us to be, we also struggle to steward our relationships with others well.

“I’ve made some decisions that go completely against my control to serve and love my wife. My wife wanted to have a home more in the countryside of Hong Kong, so she could get away from the busyness of the city, particularly as the whole block where our home was going under renovation. She found a place about 45 minutes away on the waterfront, and we’ve rented that, so we’re essentially maintaining two homes.”

Spending money on two homes completely goes against Jeff’s desire to save for the future, but he is committed to surrendering control in order to serve in his wife. And just as surrender to adoption yielded freedom and joy, so too, finally, with surrendering money.

“She calls it Restoration House, and she’s turned it into a place for us to have some respite and get away from things. She’s given it to others who have a need for that, NGO workers and missionaries from China and Taiwan, so it’s been a blessing to others which I hadn’t factored in myself. It’s still obedience on my part, but I’m trusting God to provide and experiencing more joy as I see my wife’s joy using and giving the house.”

The couple used the retreat to prepare for Jeff’s marriage and money course, and for the first time, Gretchen agreed to take part.

“We talked deeper than we had in a long time about money issues. That made me joyful. She said she was ready to teach the class too, which made me even more joyful.”

For the steward, surrender through service bears fruits of blessing and joy. And in Jeff and Gretchen’s case, it’s even led to a transformed celebration of their marriage, with no skimping for local Cokes.

“It was totally out of my comfort zone, but I let Gretchen plan our 30th wedding anniversary trip to an Aman resort, one of the most luxurious in Asia. I didn’t mutter under my breath about the cost as I had before. She loved that I felt she was worth doing something so special.”

Kelsey McFaul    

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