We get many enquiries to 20schemes, particularly from earnest young couples seeking to give their lives to the Lord among the urban poor.
In order to even get to our interview stage, these couples must have completed a 40-page application process and been on a week-long residential review trip. In some cases, though, we will meet couples who are just keen to dip their toe(s) in the water. Without exception, they will turn up all bright eyed and bushy tailed. They’ll ask me loads of doctrinal questions and what I would do if one of my members knocked up his next door neighbour (or other supposedly controversial issues).
Invariably, we will get around to the question of their marriage—which is an integral part of the application process—and how they are doing spiritually, physically, and in terms of communication. l always ask the same question: “Tell me how you resolve conflict in your relationship?”
What We’re Looking For
This leaves them in a bit of a quandary. She looks at him and he looks at her, and whoever speaks first tells me a lot about the relationship from the off. Should they admit to problems? Will that colour my opinion of them or will it kill their application before it even gets started? Should they pretend that everything is fine and they both cope really well under intense pressure and never get stressed? Will he buy that and move the conversation on?
Now don’t read me wrong. My intention is not to catch people out or to try and trip them up. I want to help them. In fact, I want to protect them. Marriage is a bit like ministry to the poor. Everybody wants to do it (at least right now) and they often seem to picture it through rose-tinted glasses. But both marriage and ministry are hard. At times they are downright stressful and place a great deal of strain on our own lives and those nearest and dearest to us.
Applicants to our ministry do themselves no favours by pretending they live in pre-fall Eden when, in fact, the reality is a little different. Once the polite conversation has died down and we are supping our cups of tea, I remind married couples of some things I already know before they begin to fill out their form(s). Primarily, I remind them that there is no perfect marriage. We are all sinners. Therefore, all marriages contain areas of tension and imperfection. It is what happens when two selfish people come together. We live in a broken world. And broken people inhabit it.
Therefore, my chief concern for married couples applying to 20schemes is not that they put their best face on (in the hope that they land the gig) but that they explain their process of communication and reconciliation when they do sin against the Lord and each other. That will be a far more helpful answer when it comes to helping us pastor and counsel them in the long term should they join our ministry.
Paul reminds the church (just before the submission verses, incidentally) to do the following in Colossians 3:12–14. In doing this, he actually gives me two great indicators to assessing marriage relationships:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Conflict resolution tells us a lot about a prospective planting couple.
Notice that Paul’s concern here is not that disagreements happen but that when they do, believers are to restore one another gently. Here’s some amazingly good (and freeing) news. We can still be holy, God’s chosen ones and dearly loved even though we annoy and sin against one another. So, there’s no need to pretend. We’re going to have disagreements and misunderstandings. That’s life. It’s what we do afterward as those who walk in Christ’s Spirit that counts.
Will we sulk or scream or manipulate or try to get our own way, or will we seek to restore one another gently? The word ‘restore’ literally means to make things right, to reset a broken bone or mend a fishing net. I want to know, in my application process, how couples go about mending their nets. I want to know how we can help them grow in these areas should they come and do ministry with us. I don’t need to be told that everything is perfect and that they have it all together because they think that’s what I want to hear. Those are the kinds of answers that lead me to not employ people.
How we resolve conflict gives us an insight into possible pastoral practice.
Imagine going to the docs with a bursting migraine and they start screaming in your face and tapping you on the head, saying: Just pull yourself together. You don’t need that. You want them to heal you, not make it worse. To restore you to your former good health. “Restore gently” Paul says. When a disagreement threatens the peace of a relationship, the aim is to try and restore the peace, not drag out the war.
Many couples would rather win the fight than have the peace. But that is not the Christian way. That is not love, says Paul. Christian love puts the other above yourself. Notice it says restore not ignore. Restore means face whatever issue comes up and deal with it. Some couples think that things will get better or be okay if they just ignore or blank out the early teething problems in their relationship. But that is dangerous.
Imagine if you bought a new car and you noticed a small knocking sound when you turned the engine on. It wasn’t enough to affect the driving, but it was there. You decided it would be okay. Then you noticed that one of the indicators wasn’t working properly. Again, nothing serious so you left it. Sooner or later you can be sure that it is going to break down. How couples deal with their conflict tells me how they’re going to deal with their ministry. Because much of ministry is basically conflict management.
Building churches means getting lots of angry, frustrated sinners together to worship God. They rub each other up the wrong way and so we are called to bring peace and reconciliation to all kinds of situations. If we are a shouter, that won’t help us. If we avoid confrontation, that won’t help us. How we handle conflict in our marriages tells me an awful lot about who is fit for pastoral ministry.
The way we restore one another gently is actually a picture of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Think about it. What do Christians believe about life and the world? Once, a long time ago, the human race lived at peace with God, but sin entered into the picture and spoiled that peace. It broke that relationship between humankind and God, and also person-to-person. That breakdown brought death and pain and carnage into the world.
Then, God sent Jesus to earth to live a perfectly sinless life and to die a cruel death in order to bring peace back. The good news of the Bible is that Jesus holds his hand out to any and all who would come to him in repentance and faith. How we model this truth in our marriage has evangelistic implications. If we’re the type of couple who don’t handle and resolve conflict well, then the odds are that we will have very little spiritual impact on other couples in similar scenarios.
How couples communicate is a key indicator of pastoral giftedness (or not).
Communication is such a key issue. More so than money and sex. Marriages can get through all sorts of external pressures if we learn to properly support one another. We need to develop the skill of watching when the other is struggling or going through a tough time. We need to develop the skill of acting upon that by communicating and releasing our burdens to one another.
Can you see how that gift and skill set can be useful for ministry? Much of it is caring for our sheep to such an extent that we know when something is up. If a man is just blind or wears blinkers in his marriage, then he is not much good for pastoral ministry. The odds are that if he doesn’t properly care for, and communicate with, his wife then he won’t for God’s people either.
So, if you’re applying to 20schemes or want to go into full-time pastoral ministry of some sort, then make sure you answer the how is your marriage question with: “It is broken. But here is how we handle it with the grace of God.”
Let me recommend this little marriage questionnaire from Paul Tripp. Think of it as a little check-up.