the shape of leadership

Fighting Fair

Four ground rules for ministry couples

Pamela Crosby on July 19, 2021

I can still remember our first argument as newlyweds.

My husband, Robert, said, “I’m afraid we’re going to get a divorce if this fighting keeps up.”

My response was, “Are you kidding? This is nothing. We’re just warming up.”

As a middle child who grew up between two brothers, I was used to debating and making my voice heard. Robert, the firstborn in his family, just wanted to keep the peace.

Our dating relationship had been free of major conflicts, but that first year of marriage as youth pastors made up for it.

One of our pastor friends described his experience with marriage conflict this way: “I taught her how to fight, and she taught me how to fight fair.”

For us, it was reversed. In any case, we’ve learned over the years that disagreements happen in every marriage, and navigating them well is crucial.

Just because you’re in ministry together doesn’t mean your union will be paradise. In fact, ministry can multiply the pressures couples face — and increase the temptation to direct all that stress toward each other.

Clearly, we need some ground rules for fighting fair. Here are four important ones:

1. Keep the End in Mind

A list of rules can be difficult to remember in the heat of the moment. But no matter how quickly things heat up, if we embrace this first guideline, it might save the day.

When words start flying like foils during a fencing match, consider the rest of the day. Were you planning something fun or heading to an event? Is this issue really worth damaging the joyous atmosphere of your home? Is it worth scaring your kids? Is your opinion worth devaluing your spouse and destroying the potential of a day together?

Consider the consequences of your anger and whether you can save the disagreement for a less stressful time, or a time when you’re alone.

Keep your words, attitude and volume in check at all times. As Proverbs 10:19 says, “Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues.”

2. Stop, Think and Listen

Many disagreements arise from miscommunication or words that trigger past pain. This quickly leads to fear and anger.

Amid such emotions, people hear and understand through a muffled filter, usually a red-hot one. Each word sounds personal. Each argument can feel like a test of their worth.

Be the one who chooses to stop the emotional escalation. Concentrate on listening calmly without being defensive. Repeat what you hear your spouse saying, and ask whether you understand correctly.

This often de-escalates the tension and opens the door to more constructive communication.

If you’re both on the defense or your spouse is stonewalling, it might be wise to say, “I’m too upset right now, and I’m concerned I’ll say the wrong thing. I need to come back to this in 10 minutes.”

Before leaving the room, agree on a time to return to the conversation. Take a short break (no more than 20 minutes) to calm down and consider your spouse’s point of view so you can listen with a more open mind.

Just because you’re
in ministry together doesn’t mean your union will be paradise.

When two people learn to pause, listen, and work toward solutions together, they both win.

3. Resist Name Calling

It should be obvious that insults are beyond the pale, but in the heat of the moment, it can be easy to say things we’ll later regret.

Harsh words have a way of magnifying stress and insecurity. When someone is already feeling like a failure in leadership, dealing with a disgruntled board member, or struggling with the embarrassment of people leaving the church, unloving words from a spouse can hit especially hard.

You can’t take back what comes out of your mouth. Once that horrific word or devaluing phrase flies out like a sharpened arrow, it will do damage. And in some cases, the wound may take years to heal.

4. Apologize and Grow

When the smoke settles after a fight, take positive steps to become stronger as a couple.

This is a time to bridge any communication gaps, make and accept apologies, offer reassurance, and learn from the disagreement. The goals include discovering and communicating personal insights, perspectives, and triggers, and renewing a calm and safe atmosphere.

It might look something like this:

Spouse 1: “I’m sorry I forgot to make the reservations for our dinner tonight. I really have been looking forward to going out, just the two of us. Just before I left the office, I heard about the Smiths leaving the church. They said my preaching isn’t deep enough. I thought about it all the way home and completely forgot to make the call. I really was looking forward to being with you — just you — tonight. I was thinking about it all day until that phone call came in.”

Spouse 2: “I forgive you. I’m sorry I flew off the handle. I can get wrapped up in church concerns, too. I thought for sure you just forgot about our plans again, but I hear you. Now that I think about it, it probably pushed a disappointment button from my childhood. My dad used to tell me he was going to pick me up from school to spend time together. Then he’d get a call from the office, and that was the end of our plans. I felt like something was always more important than me.”

Spouse 1: “I’ve heard you tell that story before, and I never want to disappoint you. I love you and want to do and say what brings you value and confidence. When you shut down, it shuts down something in me too. I will do my best to remember and do what I’ve promised you. In fact, I’ve started using that reminder app you told me about. I was putting the restaurant’s number in right before I left the church. Let me follow through and see if we can still make dinnertime at our favorite place. I already scheduled a reminder for our next three date nights. It’s a priority. You’re my priority.”

Spouse 2: “I have been looking forward to being together. You’re the highlight of my day.”

Ministry couples have their differences like everyone else, but these things don’t have to pull them apart. The key is working through the issue at hand without attacking each other.

Even when we don’t see eye to eye, our words should reflect the love of Christ. According to 1 Corinthians 13, love is “patient” and “kind” (verse 4). It “does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs” (verse 5). “It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (verse 7). That’s the kind of love that “never fails” (verse 8).

Love doesn’t always have to agree. But love fights fair.

This article appears in the Summer 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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