For the last four years my wife and I have been partners in campus ministry. Between the two of us, we’re pretty clear about what this means. Each of us is an equal sharer in the work of ministry at Wake Forest University. One of us might have primary responsibility for a given ministry project, but in general we collaborate on just about everything we do. Those with whom we work and to whom we minister don’t always understand the way we envision our work together. Let’s face it, spouses rarely work together in our culture, especially in ministry. For this reason, it’s often difficult for students to conceive of what an equal partnership in the workplace looks like.
Emails sent to me alone are often an indication that an alternative view of partnership is operating, especially when the information contained demands our joint attention. I find my finger hanging over the keyboard, longing to reply: “I’m not the head of my wife nor am I her representative, go ahead and add her email address to the ‘to:’ field!” I’ve recently created an email template to use in these situations. Short and to the point, it says: “Thanks for your email. I’m forwarding this to Anna. Would you please add her to the distribution list when discussing this ministry project? Thanks.” Sometimes people need a little reminder. A quick email can be a good way to do just that.
Other times it’s phone calls to me alone to discuss matters that affect our joint ministry in profound ways. These sorts of incidents are teaching me that being a good brother is often about getting out of the way, about making space for Anna’s voice to be heard.
This has been illustrated in sharp relief over the last several months. Anna and I have found ourselves in a period of conflict with a student leader who is part of a partner ministry with whom we work (not InterVarsity). As we have worked toward resolution and reconciliation, it has been very difficult for Anna to have a voice. The working assumption of this partner ministry is that communicating with me is the equivalent of communicating with us both. It may seem like a reasonable supposition, but it fails to consider the importance of two-way communication. If I am communicated to vicariously, I do not have the opportunity to respond, to seek clarification, to challenge, and, most significantly, to feel that I have been heard.
This conflict has been trying in more than one way. But if there is a silver lining to the storm cloud we’ve been living under, it has been a growing awareness of this subtle but significant need. We have made a point of having face-to-face meetings when possible. This affords us the chance to both be present and able to speak. Failing that, a conference call can be a helpful way to give both of us a voice. We’ve blown our babysitting budget, but the sense of both being heard and able to interact around a given subject has been worth it.
Ironically, my single greatest contribution has been keeping my mouth shut. I have tried to create space for Anna simply by holding back. It’s a small thing, but significant. This isn’t about me helping Anna think or speak. She doesn’t need my help in either respect. Anna is an intelligent woman who is articulate and funny. Virtually as soon as she opens her mouth it’s obvious to most that she has added substance to the conversation. All that’s really necessary is a little room for her to step in without feeling like she has to force her way in. Any help I have given has been in the form of refusing to allow others’ preconceptions to shape our interactions and communication. The simple act of hanging back has provided room for Anna to bring her insight, intellect, and effective communication to bear on the situations we face as a ministry couple. It may not seem like much, but sometimes the littlest things make the biggest difference.