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No More Banging Doors: Healthy Communication in the Ministerial Family
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Megan came home from a stressful day at work to find her husband, Luke, working in his office. The laundry was waiting to be hung up, the children were watching television instead of doing homework, and the house was a mess. One child complained, “Daddy, I’m hungry! When’s dinner?”
            Tired and frustrated, Megan felt unable to ask her husband for help because he was working on his next sermon. Instead, she slammed the cupboard doors, banged pots on the stove, and felt generally miserable.
She longed for Luke to stop by and offer five minutes to make a salad or peel potatoes. But he tiptoed quietly past the door on his way to fetch a book from the bedroom. If Megan is feeling that upset, he thought, I’d better keep out of her way.
A few months later Megan and Luke attended a family life seminar at a retreat. They learned that everyone has relational needs that can only be met by other people. These are things like acceptance, affection, appreciation, attention, and security, along with being cherished, comforted, encouraged, respected, and supported. They learned to identify what their needs were and recognize other people’s needs. They also learned how to ask each other to help meet their relational needs and how to anticipate each other’s needs.
The next time Megan came home after a long day and felt too tired to make dinner on her own, she went to Luke and said, “Honey, I’ve had a really rough day, and I could sure use your support to help make dinner.”
 
“That’s fine, Megan. I’m glad to help! I need a break from my work, and I’m guessing you could use a hug too.”
 
Special communication challenges
What would life be like if we could neither hear nor speak to other humans? Undoubtedly, communication and companionship are among God’s greatest gifts to His children. In the Garden of Eden He said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18, NKJV).
Nevertheless, it is entirely normal for families to sometimes find communication challenging. We can easily misunderstand or hurt each other without realizing it.
Communication in a ministerial family has added complexities. Sometimes this is because the pastor, the pastor’s ministry, the pastor’s priorities, and God can get all mixed up. If a family member says something that might sound unsupportive or critical of the pastor or the ministry, they can feel as if they are also speaking against God. This can make family members feel guilty and prevent them from expressing their needs, hopes, and concerns. It is important for ministerial families to separate God’s hopes, desires, and wishes from those of their congregation or church employers.
 
Understanding relational needs
Good relationships are grown by listening for other people’s needs behind their words, meeting their needs, and asking for our own needs to be met. When we meet these needs for each other, trust and love grow.
 
Conversation Starters:
1.  True or False: Many arguments in my home are about something deeper and it takes time and humility to get to the heart of the issue.

2.  Is there anything that I keep arguing about with a family member that is likely to be about something else? If so, discuss it.


Consider these “Top Ten Relational Needs,” adapted from Dr. David Ferguson:[i]
 
  1. Accept each other, especially when mistakes have been made (Romans 15:7)
  2. Be affectionate with each other (Romans 16:16)
  3. Appreciate and say thank you to each other (1 Corinthians 11:2)
  4. Give each other focused time and attention (1 Corinthians 12:25)
  5. Bless each other with kind words (Ephesians 4:29)
  6. Comfort and share in each other’s sadness (Romans 12:15)
  7. Encourage each other towards goals (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
  8. Respect each other (Romans 12:10)
  9. Support each other through the struggles of life (Galatians 6:2)
  10. Help each other feel safe (Romans 12:16, 18; 1 John 4:18)
 
Understanding these ten relational needs can transform your communication style.  Whenever Megan felt stressed and grouchy, she stopped and thought about each of the needs in turn until she identified her most important ones. Then she could tell Luke what her needs were and how he could meet them best. He no longer needed to guess what she needed.
Megan could also consider how to meet Luke’s needs, since he often needed her support too. They also used the concept of needs to listen to their children in a fresh way.
One important aspect of understanding the “needs” approach to communication: Everyone has needs. And everyone’s needs are important, whether that person is the pastor, spouse, or child.
 
Effective listening
The way we listen to each other will either encourage people to tell us more or discourage them from talking to us. We can listen effectively and help others calm down and resolve their problems, or we can frustrate them and add to their suffering by listening badly.
The following example is a conversation between a father and daughter, but it could follow a similar pattern between adults:
 
Holly’s horrible day
Holly arrives home from school and throws her bags on the floor. “I had a terrible day today! I hate my teacher, and I never want to go back!”
“Now, Holly!” Dad yells. “You pick that bag up and listen to me. ‘Hate’ is a horrible word, and you must never say that about anyone, especially your teacher. And don’t be so stupid! Of course you have to go to school.”
Holly kicks her school bag and runs to her room. Dad shouts after her. Holly is miserable all evening and eventually cries herself to sleep.
 
What went wrong?
  • Holly came home frustrated and distressed, and she needed Dad to listen and help her calm down. Instead, Dad judged and criticized her so she felt misunderstood and even more hurt. The only safe place is alone in her room.
  • Holly needs Dad to respond to the feelings underneath her strong language and not react to the words themselves.
  • Holly has “learned” that it’s not worth talking to Dad about the difficult experiences she has at school.
 
Holly’s day gets better
Holly arrives home from school and throws her bags on the floor. “I had a terrible day today! I hate my teacher, and I never want to go back!”
“Oh, Holly! I’m sorry you had such a horrible day at school,” sympathizes Dad. “That must have been miserable. Sit down, and I’ll make you a hot chocolate while you tell me all about it.”
“Thanks, Dad. I spent all last night doing my science homework, but I did the wrong page. My teacher yelled at me and called me stupid in front of the whole class. I was so embarrassed.”
“Holly, that’s so sad! And after all your hard work too. I’m sorry your teacher was so disrespectful. That must have been hurtful and embarrassing.”
“Yes. It was awful. But Kate came and gave me some gum to let me know she cared.” Holly smiles through her tears.
“Oh, that was kind of her. I’m glad someone was there for you. I wish I could have been there to give you a big hug.”
“Dad, I’m beginning to feel better now. Thanks for listening.”
“That’s great! And I’m glad you can come and talk to me about the tough stuff at school.”
“So am I! Love you, Dad!”

What went well?
  • Dad listened for the distress under Holly’s outburst.
  • Dad didn’t judge Holly’s language.
  • Dad let Holly know he wanted to listen to her.
  • Dad understood Holly’s difficult feelings and did not ridicule them.
  • Dad offered comfort, not criticism.
  • Dad noticed what Holly had done well and did not focus on Holly’s mistake because she had already learned from it and did not need to be reminded.
  • Dad was not critical of the teacher or the school because he did not want to undermine Holly’s confidence in them.
  • Dad appreciated that Holly talked to him.
 
 
Appreciation is better than nagging
We often think we can change people’s behavior by nagging them or complaining. But it is far more effective to use our words to appreciate what we do like.
When people hear our appreciation, they feel good inside and usually want to repeat whatever they did to make us happy again. So look for what the people around you are doing well, appreciate their efforts, and watch the difference it makes. 
 
Turn complaints into polite requests
Whenever you catch yourself about to complain or nag, stop and turn it into a polite request. Try using this simple formula:
  • When this happens . . . (be specific and non-blaming)
  • I feel . . . (list two or three emotions)
  • Because . . . (be specific and non-blaming)
  • And it would really help me if you could  . . . (be specific)
  • So that I could help you by doing . . . (suggest something that would benefit the other person)
 
Example: “When you don’t let me know that you’ll be late for dinner, I feel frustrated, disappointed, and let down. This is because I want you to have a hot dinner, and eat with us. And I can’t really start working on something else I need to do because I don’t know when you’ll be ready to eat. It would really help if you could call me when you’re going to be later than 6:30. That way I can plan, and you can have a hot dinner when you get home.”
 
Solving conflicts
As A.P. Herbert once said, “The concept of two people living together for 25 years without a serious dispute suggests a lack of spirit that is only to be admired in sheep!”[ii]
Every problem in a relationship is shared: It’s not my problem or your problem; it’s our problem. Having a shared approach to problems makes them much easier to solve.
 
What are the other person’s relational needs?
Stop and think why the other person’s behavior makes perfect sense to them. If you consider what their life might be like, you will better understand what their relational needs are. Once you have identified and met their needs, you may find your problems have shrunk.

Listen to each other
When we argue we do not listen to each other properly. We are too busy wondering what we are going to say next, or too angry and upset to hear what the other person is saying. 
 
Conversation Starters:
1.  Rate the listening skills of each family member in this video on a scale of 1 to 5.

2.  Ask your family members (if you’re brave enough) how they would rate your
     listening skills on a scale of 1to 5.

Good listening can prevent arguments from escalating. Try listening as your partner makes one point at a time. Then repeat back what your partner said, simply and warmly, to ensure that you have heard correctly: “So you’re saying. . . . Did I get that right?” Let your partner clarify anything that you did not quite catch.
Then swap roles so you each have a chance to speak and be heard properly. Repeat this process, one point at a time, until you have heard and understood what you both have to say about the issue. This feels strange at first, but the more you try it the easier it becomes, and the more it will help you understand each other.
 
Never say never or always
The phrases “You never . . . !” and “You always . . . !” are virtually guaranteed to make any conflict worse, because our partners will almost always think of an exception and disagree with us.
Try saying, “Help me to understand why you find it difficult to do . . .” or “why you choose to do . . ..” Your partner is much more likely to respond positively, and it’s really useful to hear their side of the story.
 
Unhelpful responses to avoid
  • Blame: Avoid blaming each other for the problem. It pushes the other person further into hurt, shame, and distress and makes it harder to work things out. Think about how you may have contributed to the conflict instead.
  • Walking away: If you need some space to think, do not just walk out without saying when you will come back. This can leave your partner feeling frightened or angry. Say you need some time to think about things properly, so you can have a better discussion, and agree on a good time to talk later.
  • Scorn: Avoid attacking each other’s character. Rude and disrespectful words wound deeply and stay in our memories for a long time. Imagine you are disagreeing with your boss instead of your partner, and you will probably find yourself being much more polite.
 
What’s the Big Question?[i]
Sue Johnson is a leading couple therapist who has been studying couples for over 25 years. She suggests that underneath each major couple conflict there is likely to be one of the following big questions.[ii] When we are worried about one of these questions, we often get into a state of emotional panic because we are afraid that our relationship is at risk.
  1. Do you love me? Do you care deeply about me and what I am experiencing right now?
If your spouse needs to know that you care about them, try listening to their feelings and showing that you understand. Find out what would help them feel really loved and then do it. Ministry spouses often feel like their needs are less important than those of other church members, and this can be very painful for them. So do something amazing to show how much you love them.
  1. Are you there when I need help, in distress, or struggling?
If your spouse needs extra support, notice when they might be struggling and go out of your way to help
  1. Will you ever leave or abandon me?
If your spouse is worried that you might leave them, however irrational it may seem, reassure them of your love and commitment. They need to know that whatever happens, you will stay by their side.
 
Aim for win-win
No one really wins an argument. The winner loses the trust and respect of the loser. The loser loses hope. And sometimes the relationship is lost forever.
When you are both working toward a solution that will give you mutual benefit, you are more likely to feel respected, understood, and positive about each other. You will have to be flexible, and you may not get exactly what you hoped for. But it’s better than destroying your relationship.
Once you have found a possible solution, try it for a week. See if it helps. If not, adjust it or try something else.
 
Apologize quickly
It’s important to apologize after a big argument. You can say you are sorry, write a note or text message, send a card, give flowers or small gifts, hug and comfort each other, do something kind, show you are trying to do better, etc. Whatever you do, it’s very important to “kiss and make up” as quickly as possible and to reassure your spouse that you still love them.
 
[i] For additional resources, see Appendix A.
[ii] Sue Johnson, Hold Me Tight: Your Guide to the Most Successful Approach to Building Loving Relationships (London, Piatkus Books, 2011).
[i] To see the original list, visit www.greatcommandment.net.


Karen Holford, MA, MSc, is a family therapist and freelance writer residing in Perthshire, Scotland.