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What I Can and Can't Discuss at Home

Candor and compassion may lead in different directions.
What I Can and Can't Discuss at Home

My brother David, age seven, and I, age eight, were figuring ways of getting more money so we could keep up with the status quo in baseball cards. We had noticed that Cub Scouts raised money by collecting pop bottles. In our enthusiasm, we reasoned that newspapers were more plentiful than bottles and would net us a higher return.

As we began to canvass the neighborhood for papers, the response was astounding. People were overjoyed to contribute to our cause. At some houses we were given so many newspapers that we had to empty our wagons in the garage before we could go to the next house. The papers piled up like so many stacks of cash.

After a full morning, we had enough newspapers to cover half the floor space of the garage to a height of three feet. We didn't want to be greedy, so we quickly found other things to do, waiting for Dad to come home to help us exchange the newspapers for hard cash.

And sure enough, Dad came home.

The fun began when he bashed the Pontiac into Mount Gazette, which nearly toppled his workbench with a loud rattle. That was the first of many loud noises, most of which came from Dad, especially after we discovered there was no recycling center anywhere near our house. After a half-hour dressing down, the issue came around to one question: what do we do about the newspapers?

Mom suggested we take them back; Dad agreed. We marched up to each house-we with our sullen faces, Dad with his notebook for taking return orders. Somehow we weren't surprised that almost every person denied knowing us, even in the face of Dad's colorful reminders. One sweet woman, who had given us several loads, did accept one wagon load. That was the extent of the newspaper redistribution.

I learned a lesson that day: Not everything is worth bringing home. And once there, things can be mighty hard to send back.

Imagine a pastor's wife lying awake in bed. Her husband is at a board meeting, and it's getting to be the normal time of adjournment. She listens for the screen door. If it closes with a slight wisp, the meeting went well, and all will sleep soundly. If the door slams, her husband has taken a beating and will tell her all about it that night.

She hears the door slam shut. He comes to bed and replays the entire meeting, not missing a thing. He feels frustrated and betrayed. She prays for him, and he goes right to sleep. She doesn't. In the next few days, her husband will work things out emotionally. However, for months she will bear the burden of some of the things he told her.

Not a pretty picture, yet all too common. Christian marriage counselors have been talking for years about the value of open, honest communication between husbands and wives. But there are also potential dangers in openness.

Admittedly, I have a narrow perspective on the subject. What I am careful not to bring home to my wife may be easy for other spouses to handle. The reverse may also be true: what I bring home to my loving mate may take to your marriage like dogs to cats. I also recognize that what I am going to say may not apply equally well to female leaders, since their mates may react differently. What a single person in church leadership says to friends and family must be thought through as well. But my problem is deciding what to bring home to my wife in order to prevent having to try to take difficult things back. Perhaps these thoughts will aid you in your own unique situation.

What I Tell My Wife

Let me begin by summarizing what my wife does hear about: almost everything that goes on in my life. From the seedling thoughts of a sermon series to the interesting details of a half dozen home visits, my wife shares my day. She relishes the high points, looks appropriately concerned over the troubled moments, and adds her observations whenever she feels it's proper. The same scenario holds true in most pastors' homes.

Therefore, it may seem superfluous to discuss what I bring home to my wife. Why not go right to discussing the danger areas? For the same reason that good theology recognizes a distinction between sins of omission and sins of commission: what I don't say may cause as much harm as what I say inadvisedly. Or to paraphrase a famous prayer of confession, "I have said what I ought not to have said and have left unsaid the things I ought to have said."

It may be just as harmful to neglect telling my wife certain things as it is to enter the area of dangerous subjects. Accordingly, let me point out two subjects I am always prepared to discuss.

Difficult Decisions

Every so often, my wife and I celebrate "Want Ads Day." It's an event that is cherished by neither of us but demands dual participation. At regular intervals, the pressure of pastoral responsibilities convinces me there must be a softer wall to beat my head against. Therefore, I tell my wife that we are going to look through the classified ads to see what other job I could pursue. Kathy's role is to convince me I really don't want to do anything else. But she has to be subtle; I feel I'm facing a tough decision.

At the end of this madness, we fold the paper, and then my wife asks me what's getting under my skin. Usually, I'm trying to decide if God is calling me to adjust my ministry, or even to change the location. It's always a difficult decision, so I share it with the one who would be directly affected by it.

Life throws up difficult decisions the way a plow digs up rocks. They seem to be always there, always annoying, and always tricky to handle by yourself.

Several months ago, I became concerned that most of the elders were not attending prayer meeting. I decided to confront the issue at the next board meeting by proposing changes in the format of the prayer time, lecturing the board, and soliciting their attendance on Wednesday nights.

With glee, I described my plan to Kathy at dinner. Her face soured, and she motioned that I should follow her to the family room. There she came right to the point: "Do you really want a prayer meeting full of guilty, shamed elders? Maybe they all have good reasons for not being there." She then left, leaving me to my decision.

I knew instantly that she was right. The beauty of her intimate counsel is that it combined objective integrity with conjugal caring. She knew me and she knew my board. And because she wasn't directly involved, she saw the problem with greater discernment than I did.

In his autobiography, The Man Who Could Do No Wrong, Charles Blair looked back on the financially troubled project that caused him the most grief as a pastor and concluded that he could have sidestepped the whole mess if he had paid attention to his wife's impressions. I have resolved in my mind not to waste this natural resource known as my wife's opinion.

Points of Growth

The movie Ishtar centers on two would-be songwriters. The opening scene sets the stage both theatrically and philosophically: they are writing a song about truth. After hours of effort, they come up with the first four lines:

Telling the truth is dangerous business.

Honest and popular don't go hand in hand.

If you tell everyone you play the accordion,

You'll never get a job in a rock and roll band.

It's putrid poetry and faulty philosophy, but it's a philosophy we often embrace. In my ministry, I take great pains to be transparently honest, showing the congregation that I'm flesh and blood, failing and burdened. I believe it has been effective in that people accept the Word of God from their sinner-pastor with a belief that if I can live it, so can they. Over the years, I have found it progressively easier to discuss intimate failures and personal points of growth.

Yet it is so hard to do the same with my wife. She even remarked to me a few years ago that if she wanted to find out what God is teaching me, she would have to pay closer attention to my sermons. It's amazing how I am an embodiment of Ishtar philosophy. I actually believed that in my marriage, honest and popular don't go hand in hand.

It's part of human nature to fear pain from our most intimate relationships. But it's part of good mental health to overcome that part of human nature.

The other night, just prior to our anniversary, we were talking about the positive changes we have seen in one another. I decided at that point of camaraderie to reveal a deep, dark side of me. I told her she was changing me. Her interest piqued, she requested I tell her more. So I began to recite some incidents in which I had mistreated the women I had dated. However, when I first met my wife, I knew she was special, for she demanded that I respect her. She never said this in so many words, but she demanded it through every nuance of her personality.

That night, I let her know God was, through her, changing my actions, not only toward her, but toward everyone else as well.

Since that night, she has been acutely aware of this side of me. As a result, she lovingly warns me when I start slipping into my old disrespectful patterns. It's like having a dual conscience, sort of a branch office of the soul.

A caution: it's essential to understand our problems prior to laying them out before anyone else. We need to be sure we can describe things accurately before we alarm our loved ones. Can you imagine a company's telling its stockholders every conceivable problem in the firm? The stock would be worth zero, even if the company had very little the matter with it.

Before a recent board retreat, I sensed some tension building between several church members and myself. As I spent time in prayer, I developed a growing sense of my own shortcomings. The evening before the retreat, I felt like telling my wife all I was feeling. But because I wasn't sure, I left things unsaid for the time being.

I'm so glad I did; it saved a lot of backtracking.

At the weekend time together, I brought up my concern. The board agreed with some aspects, but not with others. The personality flaw I had noticed was real, but it wasn't the whole story. I was enlightened and relieved as we ended the weekend. I was corrected and ready to fight with more fervor against the Enemy's schemes. That Saturday night, after getting a better perspective, I discussed my problem with Kathy, enlisting her to help me cope. She has done so with gladness and strength.

What I Don't Tell My Wife

At times, however, it's best for both of us if I keep my mouth shut. I no longer point out ring around the collar or another woman wearing the same dress as hers. This kind of tongue restraint is simply what I call "peace in the parsonage." Everyone's list will contain a different assortment of no-nos.

There are also aspects of my calling that my wife is not called to bear. God lays upon each person a different yoke. Let me describe the line I draw between unwise conversation and callous clamming up.

Others’ Attacks on Me

I once asked my wife to describe the one thing I had told her that was harder to handle than any other. Without hesitation she said, "The letters you showed me last fall."

The previous autumn, I had received a series of nasty notes from a former member of our congregation. Clothed as prophetic words, they were vindictive slanders and generally throw-away advice. After a while, they were laughable. Without thinking, I showed them to Kathy one night. It took her a long time to go to sleep that evening. All she could think about was the dirt this person had thrown my way.

She was much more upset than I was. Her protective feelings were creating a whirlwind of emotions, alternating between bitterness and anger. Thus I learned that it's a major mistake for us to unload second-hand attacks on our wives.

What I do now with a situation like that is simple. If I have to tell someone, I tell my prayer partner. He's a good friend, has broad shoulders, and never gets upset at attacks on me. He thought the letters were funny; he even got me laughing over them. Kathy still doesn't laugh when she sees the letter writer and his wife downtown. She has, however, worked her facial muscles up to a smile, bless her protective heart!

My Attacks on Others

"Blondie" continues as one of my favorite comic strips. In one memorable scene, the Woodleys from next door are visiting Dagwood and Blondie. While the wives are in the kitchen, Herb and Dagwood get into a shouting match over a forgotten debt. The wives come out to break up the fight. The men settle down until several minutes later, when they hear the women fighting in the kitchen over the same debt. Dagwood breaks them up and states with pontifical pride, "You women are always fighting over meaningless things."

When one person in a family lets off steam, pressure begins to build up in those who are listening, especially in a pastor's home, where spiritual warfare is unusually intense. Inevitably, I will have opinions on various members of the flock I pastor, some of them negative at times. This doesn't mean I don't love them and desire the best for them, and God is able to adjust my opinions in the course of time, too. But if I voice my personal misgivings about others to my wife or children, I no longer have any control over what those careless words will produce. Understand that my wife is not a gossip and is certainly not vindictive. My comments will taint her viewpoint, however, even if only slightly.

Several years ago, we had a young Sunday school superintendent who I felt was not getting the job done. I told my wife about his mistakes, and I told her on numerous occasions how upset I was with him. Finally, God convicted me of being the one in the wrong, for I had not spent any time praying for and training the man. As I rectified this, he showed smooth progress in his ministry.

My wife was not aware of this turnaround, however, and I noticed over a year later that she still had a critical attitude toward the man. The blame lay firmly on my shoulders. I apologized to her and asked her to forgive me for tainting this young man in her eyes. I also vowed inwardly to keep my most vindictive vents of steam to myself.

Sensitive Issues

My college physics professor was a joy. It was common knowledge that if you asked him a question about black holes, even if it were only remotely connected to the topic at hand, he would wax eloquent on the subject, and the rest of the class would be history. We used to call him "Black Hole Rollie." We knew the topics that set him going.

In the same way, I know the kinds of discussions that set my wife's mind abuzzing. Each person, and each pastorate, has a different set of these terrible topics. For some of us, it may be learning of a church member's financial irresponsibility or doctrinal deviation. For others, hearing about even long-past sexual misconduct may create only unhealthy agitation. For still others, talking about how other people discipline their children gets the blood boiling.

So Kathy and I have discovered that there are some issues too sensitive to discuss—unless we've got a long, uninterrupted time together to fully process the topic together. Ours are so sensitive I'm not even going to tell you what they are. But you've likely discovered your sensitive issues when you uncover a topic that:

1. Contributes to obvious feelings of dis-ease in your spouse;

2. The two of you cannot constructively deal with;

3. You yourself feel uncomfortable discussing;

4. Leads to conversations whose long-term effect is only negative.

Unfortunately, it takes time and mistakes to discover what these "don't tell me" issues are-for yourself and for your spouse.

The "Blurt Threshold"

There is one other problem with regard to what I tell my wife. It's what I call the "blurt threshold." Our minds are like steaming pots, with a myriad of mumblings and grumblings boiling around inside. After days and days of stress and tension, the amount of information and emotions carried around can reach the boiling over, or blurt, point. That's when I blurt out the first thing I think of when I get home.

In other words, the things we have decided to put a lid on come spilling over the side anyway. In reality, I have said many things to my wife that have hurt her, made her uncomfortable, or left her feeling angry or frustrated. Each of these times I had already decided to say nothing about the matter, but it slipped over the edge of my brain.

I have only one solution for the blurt threshold: pray heavily before going home. It sounds super-spiritual, but it gives the Lord a chance to say which ideas will do the least harm if spilled.

Beyond that, recognize that you will inevitably say things you shouldn't. A recent United Press International report stated that surgeons in Northern Ireland have become leaders in the field of knee and foot surgery. It seems that a favorite tactic of the Irish Republican Army is to intimidate people by shooting them in the leg or foot. Thus, by necessity, the surgeons of that troubled land have gained a proficiency in treating leg wounds.

The only reason I can write about what to say and what not to say at home is that many times I have shot myself (and my wife) in the foot with verbal miscues. The medical regimen I have described here is the result of making many errors. But my wife, at least, doesn't have a garage full of newspapers or, if I screen what I bring home, a mind full of trash.

Michael E. Phillips is pastor of Lake Windermere Alliance Church, Invermere, British Columbia.

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