by | May 23, 2024 | Bitterness, Leadership, Ministry Leader, Pastor, Spouse of Ministry Leader

We have spent significant time camping out on the topic of conflict because we strongly believe that conflict resolution is a vital skill both for the individual Christian and the collective Church. If you missed any of the posts or podcasts, be sure to get caught up here. But if you’ve been following along, you’re probably an expert at dealing with that elephant in the room, right? I type that with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek.
Last week, in the cohort that I lead, we discussed this topic at length. One of the individuals in our group said, “We can only get better at conflict resolution if we practice it.” The good thing about life in the Church is that we will have plenty of opportunities to do so.
Today, I want to address something related to conflict but a little less glaringly obvious—maybe like a baby elephant in the room—we know it’s there, but it’s not taking up as much space and destroying everything to the extent a full-grown elephant would.
This type of elephant affects a very specific portion of the ministry leadership population, so if this doesn’t apply to you, feel free to skip this post, or read it for some insight into your spouse’s perspective on church conflict.
I am “The Pastor’s Wife.” In ministry as the spouse, I’ve experienced a particular phenomenon when it comes to conflict in the church. I’ll refer to it as Secondhand Conflict.
If you are married to a pastor, you have probably learned people feel very comfortable confronting your spouse with every single issue which may be bothering them. Many of these issues are legitimate and need resolution. However, some situations have more to do with a personal preference or even the Holy Spirit dealing with an issue in the parishioner’s life and the emotions are misplaced onto the messenger. And it’s not always stuff that can be resolved in one conversation.
I applaud the parishioner for functioning in a Matthew 18 kind of way. But it just seems like it’s more prevalent with the pastor. This could be for a multitude of reasons: 1) The aforementioned Holy Spirit conviction, 2) emotional baggage needing to be worked through, 3) miscommunication and/or misunderstanding, 4) legitimate wrongdoing on the part of the pastor, or 5) overall cantankerousness on the part of the parishioner.
If a conflict occurs between your spouse and someone from your church family, most likely, your spouse comes home and talks to you about it. Here’s what that has looked like in the past in my life. My husband, the verbal processor, wanted to talk through the conflict he’s dealing with. By the end of the conversation, I had gotten pretty worked up at the person who was upset with him. I ended up taking up my husband’s offense.
And if I stewed on it long enough, the following Sunday when I saw that person in church, I’d need to walk the other way to avoid my face telling on me. Sometime later, I would bring it up to my husband, to which he’d seem confused. So, I would remind him of the previous conflict. To which he’d say, “Oh yeah. We talked and worked it all out. He’s fine. We’re good now.”
But I wasn’t. I wasn’t there for the resolution of the situation. I didn’t hear the tone of voice they spoke in. I didn’t get to witness the forgiveness and reconciliation offered to one another as brothers in Christ. I was left with the residual effects of hearing experience secondhand conflict.
As the spouse of a pastor or ministry leader, we generally want to be a support and partner in the ministry. This means we’ll be part of most if not all situations as someone to help process emotions, give advice on next steps, and offer sound Biblical council. But it’s also vital to protect our own hearts in the cases of secondhand offense.
Here are some practical ways to do that:

Have an agreement
There are some situations I’ve asked him not to tell me about because I don’t think I’ll be able to handle my emotions. I have some very specific scenarios he knows not to bring me into because I will have nothing good or helpful to offer.

Nip the conversation in the bud
If now is not a good time to be brought in on a conflict, then tell your spouse you need to discuss it later. Know what type of headspace you are in before engaging in something that might cause you to spiral.

Put the conversation on “hold”
If talking about the conflict is becoming intense or overly emotional, take a break and come back when you can both assess it with clearer heads.

Ask for a status update
If—and—when he does bring me in on a conflict, I ask him to report back regarding how it’s progressing and specifically when it’s resolved.

Do the difficult heart work
Conflict happens. And at times, it’s part of our commitment to our spouse to be there for them. So, if I’m struggling, I can’t make it my husband’s problem to fix that. I have sin propensities and character flaws that need the Holy Spirit’s touch. Therefore, I am always looking to God to help me do the hard work of becoming more like Him.

Conflict is part of being human. But as Christians we are called to walk it out differently than the world. We will have plenty of opportunities to resolve conflicts in a Biblical manner and plenty of opportunities to keep our hearts from taking up the offense of our spouses. Let’s be sure to guide that baby elephant out of the room as soon as possible.

As we do this together, know we are in your corner rooting and praying for you,