Richard, “Rich” Watson currently resides in Hope Mills, North Carolina, just near Fort Bragg. He served in the United States Air Force for 20 years, and has an education in psychology, with other degrees in education and social sciences. He has been happily married for over 22 years and has 4 amazing children. Since his retirement from the military, he works for a veteran service organization, in their mental health department. He and his team provide resiliency-based retreats for individuals, couples, and families. He joined the church in 1996 and has had the pleasure of serving in varying leadership roles, some of them multiple times. (One of the “benefits” of moving so often during his military career.) These include ward mission leader, elders quorum president, high priest group leader, young mens presidency, branch president, bishopric, high council, and more. Rich also has shared his insights in a Leading Saints Podcast, “Ministering to Veterans in Your Ward.”
Often leaders in the church can get tunnel vision when it comes to helping those in need. In that tunnel vision, they can become overly focused on the individual they are helping and often forget the impact of this situation on the individual’s partner. However, if leaders are to be truly successful in helping members work through addictions, faith challenges, mental health concerns, and so much more, the partner cannot be ignored. Leaders can offer this support to the partner in two main ways. The first way is by providing the partner with guidance on how to support the individual who is struggling. Second is ensuring that, as a leader, the needs of the partner are being met as well.
Supporting a Struggling Partner
When church leaders take the time to talk with the partners of those who are struggling, one thing that needs to be addressed with that partner is how they can effectively support their partner. Doing this first will, typically, help set the partner’s mind at ease and then allow them the space to focus on themselves.
When someone is going through addiction recovery, mental health concerns, physical injuries, etcetera, the importance of adequate support cannot be stressed enough. As human beings we are social creatures, even when we don’t like it, we need each other. Without support from a partner in difficult times of change and growth, the process can become very lonely and next to impossible to work through. Having a partner that actively supports someone through the process can greatly enhance the probability of long-term success and help to continually keep the individual motivated.
Guiding Individuals On How to Support Their Partner
A church leader can be instrumental in helping to provide tools for an individual to help their partner during times of struggle. The first aspect of this is encouraging the individual to educate themselves on whatever the concern is that their partner is struggling with. This can take the form of church material or outside material, if it is from a credible source. Arming that individual with knowledge about what their partner is experiencing will assist them in discovering a better understanding of how they can help.
Once they gain that knowledge, a church leader can show them how that knowledge can be used to have open communication with their struggling partner. Help them see how asking their partner the right type of questions and being willing to sit and listen to them, without placing blame or passing judgment, can aid greatly in this process.
Additionally, it is of vital importance for church leaders to help the individual understand that the issue their partner is having needs to be addressed and not avoided. It needs to be openly discussed in a manner that will invite conversation about both failures and successes. It needs to allow for a free-flowing conversation about all aspects of the process. This can be achieved by utilizing the information gained and tailoring that towards open discussion. The result of these discussions should lead the individual to empower their partner towards change and not enable them. The discussion can provide their partner with tools and more while allowing them the freedom to put in the work towards the change.
In that same mindset, it would be valuable for a leader to discuss with the individual warning them about the possibility of co-dependency during this process and providing them with signs to watch out for.
The last thing a leader can do is continually remind the individual that helping their partner will require patience. This will not be resolved overnight, over a week, likely even over several months. It will require patience and determination to work through.
Once a leader can help the individual see how they can help their struggling partner, the next step for that leader is to turn the focus towards that individual and setting aside conversations about the struggling partner.
Providing Support to the Individual
When leaders begin to work with someone who is struggling, they are quick to provide and offer any necessary support that is needed. However, as mentioned, it is equally imperative that the leader provides support to the partner. While this may sound straightforward it is not something that is typically done.
The first, and perhaps most logical step, is to ensure that the leader is expressing their love for the partner, not just the individual struggling. Simply acknowledging that the supportive partner is going through something can work wonders. It shows them that not everything revolves around their partner and whatever the issue is they are struggling with. The church leader can ensure they are just as available to the partner whenever needed as they are to the individual who is struggling.
If possible, this can be displayed by meeting with the partner, without the other individual, to garner a good assessment of how they are feeling. The initial response from the partner, since they likely won’t want to take the focus off the struggling individual, will be that they are okay. However, a leader should not let this answer stand, they should dig a little deeper to see what “okay” actually looks like.
Using a gentle start-up to break the conversation, something like “I know your partner has been struggling, however at this moment I am concerned about you.” This statement or something similar can completely change the tone of the discussion. Then following that up, as the spirit dictates, with open-ended statements/questions such as:
- Talk to me about how this experience has been for you.
- Can you explain to me how you have been feeling during this time?
- Share with me some of what you have been doing for your self-care. Note, if they have not been doing anything for their self-care, that is a red flag that should be immediately addressed.
- From a church standpoint, how do you feel this has impacted your testimony?
- What support do you need, that you honestly feel you are not getting?
While these questions are not all-encompassing, they can certainly help to get a conversation started.
Another thing to consider as a leader is connecting this individual, if they are open to it, with another partner who has been through the same thing. Preferably someone who felt supported and was effectively able to navigate through this process. There is much to be said for peer support; if church leaders can facilitate that opportunity, it would be highly beneficial by helping the partner to see they are not alone, and others have walked this path. Additionally, most communities offer programs to partners of those struggling with, most often, addiction. These groups can provide a level of support that may not be immediately available within the church.
Caring and Love
The biggest aspect for church leaders to understand is that helping the individual who is struggling has to include helping their partner. This involves the leader helping the partner understand their role in helping the struggling individual and then also ensuring the partner feels they are being cared for, loved, and supported. Allowing them to understand that they are not defined by the struggles of their partner.