Insights for Couples in Ministry: An Interview with Les and Leslie Parrott

October 10th, 2009


If you’re a married youth worker, you may agree that youth ministry—more than most fields—lends itself to husbands and wives leading together, even if unofficially. But while the benefits of heartfelt, shared experiences with students go a long way toward drawing ministry couples closer together, many other factors in the same setting can actually drive them apart.

There are few who can speak to this issue better than Les (Ph.D.) and Leslie (Ed.D.) Parrott, a prolific husband-and-wife team who teach at Seattle Pacific University and who’ve coauthored some of the top-selling books on relationships.

No doubt about it, the Parrotts affirm, working together can be great for husbands and wives. “One good thing is the sheer amount of time you have together,” Les says. “You see so many couples who’re proverbial ships that pass in the night; you don’t have that problem when you’re working together.”

Leslie adds, “I think the best thing is that you have a shared vision, and you’re both invested in it. So you’ve got a picture for what your mission is, what your calling is, and it’s really fun to share that. That gives you the same level of commitment and celebration.”

The Parrotts have appeared on “Oprah,” “NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw,” “CBS This Morning,” cnn, and many other tv and radio programs. Their ministry has been detailed in Rolling Stone. They’ve written for mainstream and Christian magazines alike. They’ve spoken all over the map. And now the Parrotts speak to Youthworker journal and Jeanette Littleton, a writer and interviewer who’s contributed numerous times to these pages.

Youthworker: You’ve told us what you like about working together. What are the most challenging things about that arrangement?

Leslie: We’ve done a lot of traveling and speaking together, but we have different energy levels at different times. Les might be willing to do four events in a weekend, but my limit might be two. Les and I can be equally committed to a goal, but he’s willing to work all night. It doesn’t matter how passionate I am, I’m not willing to work all night!

Part of the challenge is that we have such different work styles. When we started working together, we took a working-style assessment. We learned that he’s concrete-linear, and I’m abstract-random.

For instance, since Les books our calendar—and I’m so abstract—I don’t really think about what I’m saying yes to. The first year we traveled together, Les booked 33 weekends in a row—in addition to our full-time teaching load at the university! I fell apart. After a year and a half we started making sure we always come back on Saturday night when we travel on the weekend so I’ve got a Sabbath day.

It seems that working together doesn’t come naturally for many couples. How can couples learn to work better as teams?

Leslie: I’ve discovered that couples do work as teams, but they’re not used to translating that to work environments. For instance, everyone has to coparent if they choose to have children—that’s very much a team. It doesn’t seem that different to me than teaching together or writing together or speaking together; there are the same kinds of negotiations over the values you each care passionately about, your different work styles, and in the end, you have to find a way. What’s been important for us, first of all, has been getting to know ourselves as individuals—then I know what I’m good at. And when I say I’ll do a job, I know what things I’ll really follow through with and what things will fall through the cracks. Then I can really play to my strengths.

Les: One of the best things couples can do is to take personality tests before they start working together—especially if they’ve never worked together before. That’s what I’d do if I were counseling a couple. I’d give them a personality profile and make sure they could identify their work styles.

And because of our divergent work styles, I’m much more task-oriented than Leslie. I’m focused on the to-do list and, “Let’s be efficient and get it done.” But she’s more fun than I am. She has a more relational style. You can see it when we go on the road and speak at seminars or teach classes together. People line up oceans deep to talk to her while I just stand there with my briefcase and say, “Honey, we have to go to the plane.”

But despite our different work styles, we’ve discovered the truth of “iron sharpens iron.” We help each other become more whole, I believe, by incorporating each others’ work styles. I’ve learned how to be much more relaxed by watching how she works, and noting how she’s still so productive.

If couples are really challenged and irritated by each others’ work styles, one of the best exercises I know to help them is an exercise in empathy. You ask, “How would my partner do this?” and even roleplay each others’ parts for a short period. This helps you see your partner’s perspective. For instance, Leslie knows that if a task has been accomplished, I like to know about it. She’s learned she can leave a quick voice-mail message if I’m not around so that I’m informed. By putting herself in my shoes, she knows to do that kind of stuff—and vice versa.

Another suggestion—this sounds really hackneyed and cliched, but it works—is to celebrate each others’ gifts. Do more than just recognize that you’re different, but actually appreciate it. That makes a world of difference.

How can couples learn to really appreciate each others’ differences instead of being irritated by them?

Les: I think it comes down to finding a place where you can consciously empty yourself of your need to change your partner. I think every seasoned couple eventually gets there, and they do it anyway if they’re relatively healthy. They just say, “You know, this is how he or she does it. I’m just going to appreciate that.”

Most of us have a compulsive need to want our spouses to do everything the way we want it done. But if you want to survive, you’ve got to surrender that.

Let’s look at some of the potential problems that come with working together. For instance, what if one person feels like he or she is carrying most of the workload?

Les: I think that’s a common problem. We’ve certainly experienced that—even more recently with our new baby. I feel I’m doing more of the professional activity because I’m on the road speaking more by myself than I ever have before.

But of course, Leslie feels that she’s carrying the weight of raising our son. It’s pretty stereotypical, and we’re still working that out to some degree.

I think in this kind of situation you have to be willing to hear your partner rather than just defend yourself. Most of the time in marriage, we want to build our case, to say, “I’m working, too. Look at what I’m doing. You’re not appreciating me.” But setting that desire aside and truly listening to your partner is the best thing you can do.

The first step is to talk about it. You have to be willing to open up; you can’t expect your spouse to read your mind. And usually the best time to talk is when you’re both sane—when you’ve had enough sleep, when you’re not hungry. Do it in an environment where you’ll be able to listen to each other.

If talking doesn’t seem to work, write a letter. This gives you a chance to collect your thoughts and to be articulate. We advise that you always do these things with the sole goal of being understood—not to accuse, not to point a finger, not to make the other person feel guilty.

Sometimes a result of couples working together is competition. How can couples work through that?

Les: I think you have to be very intentional about celebrating each others’ successes. I also think—this is something we’ve worked at—you need to be your partner’s best publicist. Rather than feeling the need to let people know what a great person you are all the time, let your spouse do that for you. That kind of helps balance the scales.

Leslie is the last person to tell others about her achievements. So sometimes with friends or at a dinner party I’ll say, “Hey, did you guys know Leslie just spoke here and people loved her?” Doing that for each other kind of helps keep the competition at bay.

What about when others—teens or parents—give more praise or credit to one person?

Leslie: We both come from homes with parents who worked together. Because of the era, it was a lot less formal; there wasn’t as much of a peer structure. My parents were in ministry together, and Les’s parents were in ministry and higher education. Les’s mom and dad worked very closely together. She always had a desk in her husband’s office, and they always approached things together as a team—but an unofficial team.

When Les and I were in seminary and working on our graduate degrees, we really established the dream of working together and having a peer relationship—so we were both committed to getting our doctorates. Part of that was so that people would allow us to work together instead of only seeing Les as the professional. And Les was as committed to that as I was.

Les: We’ve worked hard—and we’ve seen other couples do this—to create a really equal platform. For instance, sometimes we’re introduced as “Doctor Les Parrott…and his wife, Leslie.” When that happens, I don’t correct them because that would be rude, but shortly into our remarks, I’ll make a point of communicating the fact that Leslie’s also a doctor.

The problem isn’t so much with us—we feel we’re in a peer relationship—but other people miss that. So we consciously do things to help counteract that.

And we’ve worked at maintaining a peer relationship not just professionally, but on a personal level. We didn’t want a relationship in which one person was so overpowering professionally that it affected our personal relationship, too.

Can couples really keep their professional and personal lives separate? How can they keep from revolving their lives, discussions, and personal time around work?

Leslie: We’ve just made a commitment to schedule a date night every single week. Of course, when we go out, we’re not the kind of couple that says, “We’re not going to talk about work tonight.” That would be too artificial for us. We like what we do, and we like to talk about it.

But going to dinner, going to a movie, or going to a restaurant we’ve never tried—those experiences give us something to share besides work, something to get excited about.

Les: Our date night has become very precious to us. We’re conscious about getting into other areas in our conversations—not only discussing work stuff. A couple has to be very intentional about that. Sometimes we say, “We’re not going to talk about work this evening” or whatever the boundary may be. The one thing that has been most helpful for us is that we don’t talk about work while we’re in the bedroom.

We’ve traveled a lot; we’ve had lots of adventures speaking together. And that’s kind of become a substitute for vacations, for times of just getting away. Until we finally realized, “We’ve gone two years and haven’t had any time when we just went off by ourselves without a professional agenda.” That was a red flag for us, and we’ve since been intentional about twice a year saying, “This is our time. Nothing will happen here.”

How does working together bond a couple?

Les: From our books you can almost chronicle our marriage. Since we’re fairly vulnerable in our writing, these projects tend to bring us together. Our latest project—Love Is (a set of meditations on 1 Corinthians 13)—came out last year when we were really struggling to read Scripture together, to have some sense of a connection as a married couple. So we started studying the Love chapter and looking at different translations together. Those kinds of things bring Leslie and I together.

Part of it also is doing the work you’re passionate about. We became very passionate about what 1 Corinthians 13 was doing in our marriage, and we wanted to share that with other couples.

And working together can be an act of spiritual intimacy. In ministry, the whole point is to put your own needs aside and serve others’ needs. When you’re doing that together, it can’t help but bring your two spirits together. And it does help you walk together with God.

Leslie: A lot of people know their spouses are good at their jobs, but they don’t really know about that world or get to see them in action. I think the feeling of respecting your partner as a professional—and feeling respectedby your partner as a professional—adds a totally different dimension to your marriage.

I feel that working together is the most intimate, incredible privilege. When we travel together and speak, we’re entering new worlds. You come back from a trip, and maybe you’ve gone to two different cities in a weekend, and you’ve met people, and you’ve had an intensely emotional experience—together. It’s kind of like going to summer camp every weekend! You receive a unique bonding experience by going through bizarre situations, as well as fulfilling and stressful ones. That incredible intensity is great.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.