I’ve walked through a few shadows in the last couple of years after twenty-five years of pastoral ministry and stepping away from my role as Pastor of the church Angie and I spent a decade planting. It was a valley of grief that I didn’t want to walk through. I actually just wanted to pitch my tent and camp out, like, forever.
I withdrew because I wasn’t processing my pain well at all. My head was clouded with questions about my identity and purpose. My pathway forward seemed unclear.
But as hard as it all was for me, it was harder for my wife. While she experienced the same set of circumstances and felt similar feelings, she managed to walk through it in a much healthier and more mature way. But on top of all the things we were going through, she also had to deal with me and my determination to hide out in the valley.
I’ve spent the last year healing, grieving, and growing. Now, I find myself at a place of really wanting to share, for the benefit of others living similar stories, how to survive and begin to thrive again.
I wanted to dedicate a post to detailing the ways in which my wife has helped to “save” me and to restore my health. But before I get to that list, a couple of disclaimers…
First, just in case you come from an evangelical background in which the word “saved” can only mean one thing, I don’t mean that she saved me in the way that only Jesus can save – being the sole conduit of my reconciliation to God. And yet I do mean that in a way, too.
God invites us to partner with him in the renewal of all that is lost and broken. And in the sense that she’s been a willing partner with God concerning my brokenness, she has indeed helped to save me in a spiritual sense.
Second, it should be known that it’s not up to your spouse to save you. My wife stubbornly kept loving me when I least loved myself (and therefore wasn’t at all very good at loving others). But the ways in which I was broken were never her fault and the repair was never her responsibility.
I point this out because far too many women are carrying the heavy weight of being responsible for their husbands’ emotional well-being. It’s never okay for a spouse to outsource their own wholeness to their partner. It’s too great a burden to bear.
So while she was never obligated to do so, she willingly stuck out the toughest of seasons and invested wholeheartedly into the project of restoring “us,” which had to begin with a lot of restorative work in me.
How did she do it? I prefer to speak in the present tense because she’s still doing these things, even when they’re hard.
1. She keeps believing in me when I doubt myself.
I know, on one level, that I’m made in God’s image and that I have inherent value as a member of the human family. But I often struggle to believe that I’m up to the challenges life brings.
So when the self within, the enemy at large, or the world around me whispers the lie that I’m not capable of overcoming the next obstacle or taking the next right step, her voice is one that echoes in my head… “I believe in you, babe!”
2. She reminds me of who I am when I forget.
When I stepped away from the church we’d planted, having spent twenty-five years in preaching and pastoral ministry, I faced the greatest identity crisis of my life.
After advising so many other leaders not to define themselves by their vocational ministry role, I had inadvertently defined myself in large part by my vocational ministry role.
In the weeks and months after resigning I found myself repeatedly asking the question, Who am I, then? And what do I have to offer, if anything, to the world around me?
I’ve spoken since then with many others who, willingly or otherwise, stepped out of church leadership and have wound up asking the same questions. To you, I want to say what my wife has often said to me.
Your identity and worth and value are never, ever contingent upon holding a church position or professional role. Whether or not you are a pastor, you get to share who you are and the love that you have with other people. You matter, not because of what you do or what you can produce, but simply because you are you.
3. She gives me permission to share my true emotions.
I had to learn, over time, to say out loud, “I’m grieving today.” And by nature, I want to stay “up” and positive and happy so that everyone around me is happy, too.
I’ve carried the false belief that sharing a negative feeling is a bad thing and jeopardizes peace in relationships. Angie has drawn out of me a truer expression of my pain and grief.
She’s modeled what it looks like to sit with me in pain without trying to fix, diminish, or disregard me. She’s even helped me with learning a vocabulary for putting words to those feelings. That has been healing.
Feeling things is inevitable. Identifying and expressing those feelings is optional, but it’s the only step toward the pathway of growth and healing.
4. She wants me to be strong for me, not just for her.
I’ve often expressed my wish that I was more consistently able to handle the hard things of life without being phased, for the sake of my wife. The stronger I am, the more peaceful her life is. But she consistently expresses a desire that I become stronger for my own good even more than hers.
5. She sets appropriate boundaries and expects me to respect them.
Her message to me has often been that it’s okay to grieve. It’s okay to feel loss, fear, and even anger. But it’s not okay to behave in ways that bring more pain to myself, her, or the people around me that I love.
And she’s absolutely right. Prentice Hemphill often says, “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.”
6. She models spiritual and emotional growth and maturity in her own life.
I’ve never known anyone more willing and prone to do the hard inner work of personal growth than Angie. She’s highly skilled at digging deep, and I don’t always want to go there, for sure. But I’m always glad when we do.
This act of drilling down into the beliefs and motives underlying our outward feelings and behaviors isn’t just therapeutic practice. She has the audacity to believe that the hidden parts of anyone just need to be radically loved. It’s how she lives life. It’s vulnerable and uncomfortable and it feels like freedom.
7. She forgives the past and, once it has been resolved, leaves it there.
There’s a lengthy laundry list of things, big and little, that she could easily bring back up as ammunition against me in moments of conflict. She doesn’t. She’ll be honest about how past interactions might trigger a feeling inside her, but she almost always deals with it in a healthy and grace-filled way.
8. She honestly expresses her doubts and worries about me.
When I coach someone, one of the phrases I say a lot is, “Here’s what I see about you from my perspective.” Sometimes it’s positive, such as when we are speaking to a person about their giftedness, worth, and value. And sometimes it’s a warning.
Angie has been honest with me on many occasions about what she sees in my heart and what it means for my direction. When I sound a little resentful or a bit fatalistic, she’ll point it out and remind me that my “words create worlds.” (Credit to Brené Brown for that phrase.)
9. She loves me. And loves me. And loves me more.
Her love has been constant, passionate, honest, and true.
We talk about the ultimate kind of love being unconditional love, but if love is conditional, is it love?
I am more convinced than ever, because of the way I’ve seen it at work in my own life, that no force on earth is as powerful as love. Love shapes us when we allow it.
Rick Warren, our former pastor, often says that your one job on earth is to let God love you. I agree with him on this. And until you receive love from God and others, it’s super hard to give love to yourself or others.
After all, “(Love) bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7 NRSV).
Has it been hard? Oh yeah. Today, I’m walking in daily gratitude for my life, my family, my faith, my work, and my world. But yeah, it’s been hard.
But then again, Angie has told me for years that I can indeed do hard things. Guess what? So can you!
Whatever pain you’re avoiding, whatever obstacle stands in your way, and no matter who is against you, you can heal and grow!
- Leeana Tankersley (Author)