Ministry is about relationships – no relationships, no ministry. This month my husband, Karl, and I celebrate our 32th wedding anniversary (yikes!). As I reflect on the many things I have learned from our marriage, I see elements that have kept us going that can help church leaders, too.
Humor and fun. Keeping a sense of humor about the quirks and foibles that we each have makes life a lot easier. “There she goes again,” I’m sure he thinks, when I look through the groceries he brought home looking for the one thing he forgot to buy. And when I can laugh at myself as a spouse or as a leader, I am less hooked and more able to think creatively about the challenges at hand. We also do things together we enjoy: talk about books, listen to music, watch movies, and go for walks in the city. Church leaders don’t have to do all our socializing with those we lead, but adding an element of enjoyment and fun helps us connect with our followers, an essential part of leadership.
Recognizing the only person I can change is me. It took me nearly half of those 32 years to start to learn this lesson, and I’m still in the process of learning it. I can’t change any another human being, only my response to them (which automatically changes the relationship, if I can stick to it). This is as true of those we lead as of those we live with. As leaders of churches or of families, when we try to willfully change others, we are doomed to burnout and failure. I find it hard to work on myself, but it is a more productive use of my energy.
Commitment to something larger than ourselves: We both value faith, our children, our extended families, and making a contribution to the world at large. With a larger sense of purpose beyond our own survival and benefit, it is easier to make decisions. Leaders and churches who have a broader perspective in fact do better over time than those who only consider their personal and institutional survival. And of course it’s more satisfying to make a wider contribution.
Lifelong learning. After all these years, I am still learning about the man I married, and I want to keep it that way. I can assume things about him based on my experience which may or may not be fully true. Those assumptions restrict my ability to see him as the complex human being he is. As leaders, we can limit our followers by our assumptions about them. Maintaining curiosity about those we lead (and those who lead us) can help us function better in our own leadership role.
Balancing individuality and togetherness. Things go better when we can give each other space, find room to disagree, and pursue our own separate interests. Yet it is important to spend time together and to maintain our relationship. The right balance is tough to find in every relationship. As leaders, we need appropriate distance from our followers, yet we can’t be too distant or disconnected. Each of us can spend a lifetime working on this challenging balance.