Leading Together: Lessons From Sharing Leadership in Ministry and Marriage

by LeAnn Van Cleef-Trimmer | June 02, 2021

Editor's Note: This is a CBE 2020 Writing Contest honorable mention. Enjoy! 

I have known since I was eight years old that I was called to ministry, following three generations of women in my family who served as equal leaders in ministry with their husbands. I grew up and now serve in The Salvation Army, where women have shared full rights in ministry since its inception. Gratefully, there was never a time when I felt I would be unable to answer and fulfill God’s clear call in my life to preach the gospel and fully participate in any aspect of Salvation Army ministry.

My husband and I were trained a year apart at The Salvation Army College for Officers Training. He was commissioned and ordained as a Salvation Army officer the year before me. We were married in 1992 and have served together in a variety of ministry appointments for almost 29 years. It has been a journey! I thought I had a handle on what it meant to be an egalitarian, but now, after nearly three decades I know that my understanding was incomplete.

Darren and I complement one another in ways that make us a strong team. I tend to be analytical and systematic in my thinking. I handle the business of ministry, am quick on my feet, and have the ability to assess varying situations quickly. My spiritual gifts lay in the areas of prophecy, discernment, preaching, and leadership. I am also frank and honest in my speech—some might say brutally honest though my husband’s presence in my life has tempered that. My husband is unceasingly kind and has the heart of a pastor. He is the people person and demonstrates to me over and over again the way Jesus loves others. His spiritual gifts lay in the areas of pastor/teacher, administration, and mercy. He is also honest in his speech, but his kind and gentle manner make his delivery much more palatable to the receiver.

The lessons I have learned about shared ministry have come out of our complementary gifts and skills based on our differing personalities. As the years have rolled on my understanding has grown. Here is some of what I have learned:

1.    Egalitarian theology extends to men as well as women.

I fully expected when Darren and I married that I would use my gifts and my skills to their fullest in ministry, but I didn’t know my own biases and assumptions about what my husband’s responsibilities and role should be. Those came to the forefront in a big way in the early years of our shared ministry.

If we are to be truly egalitarian, the ideals of egalitarianism must be applied across the board. To use an old adage, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If I expect that the body of Christ should allow me, as a woman, to live and minister into the fullness of who God created me to be, then I must allow the same to be true for my brothers in Christ. This can be a tough one, because we must confront our own personal and cultural assumptions about gender roles for both women and men.

In my case, I was perfectly comfortable handling the church finances and budgets, managing our social services ministry, tending to denominational reports—stereotypically male tasks—because they were in my gifting. But I also had this expectation that my husband would be equally adept at these functions, and I would become agitated and frustrated when he struggled. I expected he would take on children’s ministries, pastoral care, and nursing homes—stereotypically female tasks—because they were in his gifting and not mine, but I also expected him to fulfill all the stereotypical male roles with which I had grown up even though they were in my gifting and not his.  I had to learn to allow Darren to be who God made him, in the same way Darren does for me.

2.    Mutual respect in shared ministry is paramount.

There is never a time when it is OK for me to denigrate my husband, my partner in ministry, to others or in front of others, or him me. We must mutually affirm one another, in front of our congregation, in front of our leaders, in front of our employees, and in front of our children.  There have been some dark days in these last 29 years, days when I was not always my best self, days when I didn’t keep to this advice.

In not honoring who my husband is and who he was created to be, I diminish myself and compromise my leadership. There is no place in the kingdom of God for one-upmanship, and there is never a time when I will look better by tearing him down. Kingdom values demand that we lift one another up and submit one to the other. We must strive to live in the perfect love and mutual submission of the Trinity.

3.    It is helpful to identify to others how we function as a mutual team.

The Salvation Army assigns us to our ministry posts and so the leadership teams and church councils that we are sent to lead have not had any opportunity to interview us or vet us.  During a season of ministry when there was conflict with lay leadership, we created job descriptions based on our skills and gifts so that the people we led knew what to expect of each of us and to whom they could direct questions on any particular subject. We are both available for pastoral counseling, we share the pulpit, we both lead Bible studies, we both do pastoral visitation (though my husband is much better at that last one).

Clarifying for people what they can expect of each of us has helped to eliminate frustration on both sides of the equation. For the two of us, it has helped us stay in our own lane and not interfere in the other’s work inappropriately. For the people we have served, it has helped prevent people getting the run around. Also, because we have defined these roles, we are able to present a united front and it is difficult for others to divide us and cause friction. We’ve come to refer to our “sandboxes” and, as people come to us with requests, we will respond with, “Sorry, that’s not my sandbox.” (Although there are, of course, times when flexibility is required and our ongoing communication with one another is essential to maintain continuity.)

4.    We don’t need to justify our shared ministry to others.

Our shared ministry is fact of who we are as a couple. We will not argue the point with others. We will not change our dynamic because it makes others uncomfortable or because they don’t understand. We will teach and explain to others the biblical foundation for our egalitarian partnership, but we will not debate it. We move forward together, shoulder to shoulder and hand in hand, leading God’s people as we have been called, equipped, and gifted to do.

(Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash)


Related Reading:

In Sickness, Never Health: A Mutual Marriage
Friends (and Equals) Forever
Building Strong Ministry Teams: Women and Men Planting Churches Together