Wilderness in Marriage and Ministry: Four Principles for Thriving Through Hard Seasons

by Lantz Howard

During a six-hour road trip through the panhandle of Texas headed for our home in McKinney, a major turning point in my marriage occurred. I looked over at my wife, Jessica, and acknowledged the tears streaming down her face. Our four girls, all under the age of six, were in the back seats of our minivan, oblivious to the drama playing out between us.

Eighteen months earlier, I left an unhealthy leadership role as an executive minister. I had stepped out in faith, determined to leave my passive aggressive patterns in the rearview mirror, but with no immediate direction ahead I still felt very much a nomad. In the aftermath, it was apparent to me that I lacked a spiritual leadership identity. I still felt a clear calling from God to serve in bi-vocational ministry, but my present path felt mired in darkness.

An even deeper reality began to settle in my heart as I realized how much hurt and fear I had caused my wife over the past several months. We were a team, and remaining faithfully by my side as I wandered in the wilderness had left her feeling lost as well. I was struggling with a deep sense of shame, wondering if one ministry decision would crush me, my marriage, and my family. I realized that if we were going to make it through this wilderness, it was crucial for us to find our way together.

This season proved to be a needed refining time in my life and marriage; through it God prepared Jessica and me for a land of rich blessings. Now it is my privilege to offer hope and encouragement to other ministers who are going through hard seasons in marriage and ministry.

Know What You Need:

My wife and I were experiencing a lack of intimacy caused by timidity around asking for what we really wanted from each other. As we spent hours in our minivan engaged in deep conversation, we listened to Suzanne Stabile’s Know Your Number Enneagram teaching series. Her words gave us rich insights on specific ways we could meet each other’s core needs. It was clear that we had been sacrificing our emotional, spiritual, and relational needs on the altar of serving everyone else. Jessica and I have since learned to honor one another by speaking up, articulating the dreams and desires of our hearts. When she comes to me with an opinion, observation, or problem, I practice curiosity, asking her questions in order to really understand where she is coming from instead of assuming that I know what she means.

A Vision for Marriage:

Articulating a clear vision of God’s plan for your marriage will serve as a signpost to help navigate seasons of feeling lost or needing direction.
Married couples often serve in ministry together, so it can be easy to forget that marriage is the first ministry. Articulating a clear vision of God’s plan for your marriage will serve as a signpost to help navigate seasons of feeling lost or needing direction. Jessica and I created our shared vision by talking about the stories we want to share with our children and grandchildren. We also made a list of meaningful moments in our lives, and discussed how we could create more of those memories. One specific way we keep our shared vision in focus is through our “State of the Union” meeting every Sunday night. This regular date gives us the opportunity to align our calendars and our hearts with what is most important right now. We ask each other simple questions that create authentic heart connections, speaking with love and courage.

Create an Environment of Growth:

Great marriages are built with two solid ingredients: trust and safety. If either one is violated, it takes time to repair the damage caused.
Great marriages are built with two solid ingredients: trust and safety. If either one is violated, it takes time to repair the damage caused. Jessica and I desire to honor these two values and nurture a strong connection that honors growth. One way we do this is by practicing the Hula Hoop Principle. We recognize that participants in a healthy relationship will only try to control what’s in their own hula hoop: their reactions, personality, coping strategies, habits, etc. We may feel that our partner would benefit from changing something in their hula hoop according to our advice (or sometimes just our opinions). This erodes trust, because nobody wants to share a struggle only to end up on the “fix-it list”. The truth is that only God can love this person best and know what kind of heart change and timeline they need. Jessica and I have learned to speak with “I” statements about what we personally feel and how we want to behave. For example: “I feel alone and disconnected. It would be easy for me to withdraw from having a difficult conversation. The truth is that I am loved and safe, and can express my feelings”.

Trust Builds Courage:

When my wife and I give each other permission to share our authentic selves, our trust in each other grows, producing an environment that supports change without dictating it on our own terms. This place of safety became an incredible source of courage, which gave me strength to make key decisions at this crossroads that led us to a place of thriving relationships and ministry effectiveness. I still look back on that road trip as a turning point for my marriage and ministry. We humbly asked God to show us how to lead out of grace, and He met our needs in that low moment. Our level of passion and intimacy started growing from that day forward.

In our home hangs a picture from a family beach trip we took several years ago. Jessica and I created a Psalm with our girls, a prayer of thanks to God to remind us of this particular turning point. In it we expressed the guiding principles we want to set the tone for our marriage, family, ministry, and interactions with all those we encounter as a family. It now hangs in our dining room, reminding us to trust God to lead us daily, whether through wilderness seasons or just the laundry and dishes of daily life.

Lantz Howard is an executive coach, marriage therapist, and discipleship minister. He regularly coaches ambitious leaders in the marketplace and nonprofit sector, and desires for every man to flourish in life and marriage. He is available for speaking engagements on healthy emotional leadership. www.lantzhoward.com

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