One of the things I hear a lot of wives calling their husbands out on is spiritual leadership. Even in marriages that aren’t particularly distressed. This isn’t a subject we’ve tackled before so I thought it would be good to look at so that we can give husbands some help on how to move forward in this area of married life.
This is a tricky topic for a lot of guys. I know in our marriage for the longest time the “spiritual leadership” would look more like Verlynda prodding and me obliging, which is no criticism of her but just reflects my own reluctance. When I talk to guys about this, there are a lot of reasons why we do not show spiritual leadership, including issues like:
- Not knowing what to do can be a challenge
- It can feel like a huge task and one that you’re not qualified for. You don’t know where or how to start
- It feels awkward. Spirituality is often a private relationship with God and now you are being called to live that out in front of others.
- Perhaps the spiritual leadership you saw as a child was unattractive because it was dry or hypocritical or just unpleasant
- Then there’s the huge issue of just feeling like I don’t have it all together enough to lead myself, how am I supposed to lead you?
I just mention these to help people understand there can be a lot of reasons why it is hard to do this whole spiritual leadership thing. I’m sure a lot of people reading this will be struggling with the same issues or hang-ups. I think a big one is just feeling like you’re being called to be something that you aren’t. Not many guys wake up in their marriage one day thinking, “OK, I finally feel like a spiritual leader today”. But that doesn’t exclude you from being able to do it. So let’s unpack this and then give some guidance.
Why Spiritual Leadership?
Spiritual leadership might be something that God calls each man to in their marriage and their family, but there are also a range of practical life benefits to taking this seriously. A study in 1999[i] looked at nearly 100 married couples and examined the effect of joint spiritual activities compared to individual spiritual activities and beliefs. They looked at how this impacted marriage and found that the benefits of joint spirituality included:
- Closer integration of faith into the marriage
- More perceived benefits to the marriage, for both the husband and wife
- Less conflict
- More verbal collaboration
- Better ability to discuss agreements
This came from shared activities like prayer, worship, spiritual discussion, mission or charity work and church attendance as a couple.
So it’s great to note that doing these things that seem unrelated actually has these tangible benefits inside of marriage.
Getting Started With Spiritual Leadership
I think the biggest barrier to getting started properly is the belief that you have to have it all together before you can show spiritual leadership. I know this is an issue for me: I’d like to feel like I am an expert before I try something. I guess that’s part perfectionism, part shame-based self-identity, but most importantly it’s about having impossible standards.
I mean, if you stop and think about it, in terms of the Christian faith if you wake up one morning and think to yourself, “I am definitely qualified to be a spiritual leader!” At that moment, you are probably DIS-qualified!
We’re never called to have it all together and we’re never going to be perfect. So instead of thinking that you have to lead this from a place of accomplishment and expertise, why not approach it as a shared journey together? So instead of doing this because you have it all together spiritually, why not do this because you’d like to bring your wife and children with you as you figure out how to grow spiritually?
As part of this, you need to believe that God is actively at work in your marriage and that marriage, including yours, is sacred[ii]. So He is invested in this journey of growth and discovery as well. Holding that fact in your head and knowing that God is with you can be a powerful thing.
What happens here is a subtle but important shift from needing to model accomplishment or perfection towards realizing that you just need to model curiosity, humility and discovery.
Real leadership is about getting past yourself and getting past focussing on your own limitations and believing that there is a higher purpose and send of meaning for your life and your marriage[iii] and then stumbling towards that as a couple. You don’t need to get it perfect all the time because now instead of asking you to be something, we’re just talking about initiating something.
The Qualities of a Spiritual Leader
Once again we’ve created a bonus guide for our sponsors. This one is like a spiritual exercise program. Actually it looks at several different aspects of your current spiritual condition and asks some great questions. It really helps you to understand where you strength and growth areas are now, and from that you can start working with your spouse on growing together.
I’ve really worked hard to make sure this isn’t setting some super-high spiritual standard so that you feel like a failure right off the bat. No, all you need is Jesus Christ as Saviour and a willingness to follow Him. That’s the only prerequisite. You can get this excellent exercise and start working on it today by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Now the exercise available to our patrons really goes into the practical detail but let’s just cover off the high-level issues as a foundation for that work.
Spiritual Leadership Requires Authentic Love
One thing all of us husbands are doing every day is learning how to love our wives better. Things change. Life changes. We change. Circumstances change. We’re in this constant state of flux and what I notice — maybe because this has really been us lately (the change thing) — is that it is easy for my fuse to shorten and I stop loving Verlynda the way she should be loved.
But this is a good thing, right? The change, I mean. Because now marriage becomes a crucible for refining the quality of love I am showing you. Because when I snap at you I have to both apologize for that and then stop and pause and really self-reflect about what is going on inside of me that I would be willing to snap at the most important, the most valued person in my life. The behaviour doesn’t make sense, right? And yet, at some level it does.
And I’m asking, am I not taking care of myself? Am I not meeting your emotional or practical needs somehow? Something is off if my behaviour is off[iv]
So spiritual leadership again is not about being perfect but about catching those imperfect moments and taking them back into the presence of God and asking for sanctification. It becomes a way of identifying areas I need to grow in and then taking those to God
The Prayer Life of a Spiritual Leader
Praying with your spouse is important — and very difficult.
Again, referring to our own spiritual experience it took me a long time to figure out why it was hard for me to pray with Verlynda.
I think that when husbands pray with their wives they are faced with an existential dilemma. Prayer demands that we be completely vulnerable in order to be authentic. And that’s not easy.
So the dilemma is: do I pray in a comfortable way, which is going to be shallow and not feel very authentic? Or, do I just not pray? Either I feel like a heel for not being authentic or I feel like a heel for not being a spiritual leader! And meanwhile, our beloved wives are prodding and prodding us so on top of this we get this pursue-withdraw cycle going on.
What’s happening? We are afraid of vulnerability.
And it wasn’t until I realized that what I didn’t want was actually what I most needed that I decided I was just going to have to man up and put my big boy pants on and start honestly praying with my wife. And initiating this rather than waiting for her to prompt me. One of the outcomes of that is we get to be more vulnerable together, and vulnerability leads to emotional intimacy and emotional intimacy in bed together at the end of the day…well…there may be some unspiritual motives there too. Unless, of course, you believe that God is interested in your sexual intimacy as well!!
So I would really encourage you to push through on the prayer front. If it’s possible given work schedules etc, go to bed together and either kneel beside each other or hold each other as you pray, and learn to be real in front of God together. It is a beautiful thing. I know we’ve had some pretty tender moments because of taking this challenge on.
Where To Go From Here
Once you are loving each other well and you are praying together, then what you’ll find is you have room to talk about the bigger picture things in life.
Things like vision and service and purpose. Before God, and with his help, how are you going to create legacy together? What are your long-term plans or goals? How do you want to impact your local community or your faith community or the global community? As the spiritual leader you can play a big part in these things, and in deciding how you and your wife are going to impact the world together.
[i] Annette Mahoney and others, ‘Marriage and the Spiritual Realm: The Role of Proximal and Distal Religious Constructs in Marital Functioning.’, Journal of Family Psychology, 13.3 (1999), 321.
[ii] Mahoney and others.
[iii] Louis W. Fry, ‘Toward a Theory of Spiritual Leadership’, The Leadership Quarterly, 14.6 (2003), 693–727.