We thought our marriage might be over. But through some very hard conversations and one long family camping trip, God showed us another way.
By David and Rebecca Wulkan
Two and a half years ago, our marriage almost came to a crashing halt. After sixteen years of marriage, five children, and the demands of leading a congregation, we came to the stark realization that there was an emotional gulf between us. We used to embrace life as an adventure. We led youth ministry together, threw backyard parties, and relished what we called “tomfoolery,” which usually involved pranking friends. But that adventure had all but vanished as we slogged through daily routines, neglecting meaningful conversations and life-giving dreaming. We knew that something drastic had to be done, but we did not know what.
God, in his mercy, had called our congregation into Ridder: Churches Learning Change (at the time, it was called Ridder Church Renewal). Through the process, we were learning that congregational transformation begins with the transformation of the church’s leadership. And transformation was what we desperately needed, not just to renew the life and mission of our congregation, but to help us embrace adventure again—in short, to save our marriage.
David: No transformation journey begins without facing the impact that you have on the people around you. And so, for several painful evenings, I sat on our living room couch and listened to my wife’s deep pain from the ways that I had emotionally neglected her in our marriage. It took every ounce of courage I had to stay there, listen, and ask her to tell me more.
Rebecca: Not many things are more terrifying than sitting beside your spouse, unleashing your unmet emotional and relational needs of the past 16 years. These were the most raw, open, and painful conversations we had ever had. To finally speak openly about our pain and where we hoped our marriage was heading was both soul-destroying and freeing.
David: In facing our pain, God gave us hope. We agreed that we wanted to stay together, rebuild our marriage, and heal our family. As I continued to do the work of personal transformation, it became clear that God was calling us to take a sabbatical, to which our congregation graciously agreed. Personally, I needed to discover why I kept my wife at arm’s length emotionally.
Freed from regular pastoral duties for the time, I started seeing a spiritual director and came to realize that I did not really believe that God loved me. Sure, intellectually and theologically I knew God loved me. But in my gut, I seriously doubted that God loved or even liked me. And this doubt reached all the way back to my early childhood. In order for me to embrace a new adventure for my marriage, I had to learn what it meant to embrace God’s love.
Rebecca: For our sabbatical, I planned a month-long camping trip so we and our boys could practice adventure. We discovered we loved walks and hikes together, sharing in the beauty of nature and conversation. But we struggled to be patient on long drives crammed into our small van, in noisy campgrounds, and during one windy night in Calgary when our canopy punched a hole in our tent trailer roof.
Our trip wasn’t exactly what I had expected—candlelit conversations about enhancing our marriage and romantic walks under the stars (we were there with five kids, after all)—but we were relearning how to intentionally work together toward a new adventure. It was a small but good start. And that was true even with an ambulance trip to the emergency room, endless rainy days, and a severe lack of showers.
David: The sabbatical experience helped us to see the gap between where we were and where we wanted to be. It also helped us to see that we needed to make some concrete changes. Rebecca and I committed to having regular and intentional conversations about our emotional and spiritual needs. Essentially, we were learning to practice vulnerability, which deepened our connection. I still find this difficult; some evenings, I will find any excuse not to talk to Rebecca. To help us push through and make these conversations happen, we have found a couple of “safe phrases” that give us permission to talk without causing us to put up our guard. If I notice Rebecca is very frustrated, I can ask her, “What is the story you are telling yourself?” Or if I am slipping out of vulnerability and into analyzing mode, Rebecca can say to me, “Stop pastor-izing me.”
I am a slow learner, but our conversations are becoming more meaningful, and we are beginning to dream about future adventures.
Rebecca: We are learning to celebrate each other and God’s goodness. We now practice a weekly Sabbath that includes nature walks, family worship, bad jokes, and laughing together. These are some of the positive things we discovered on our sabbatical trip. Admittedly, it’s not all smooth going. A few weeks ago, we noticed that our Sabbath was becoming an oppressive routine. But instead of getting stuck or giving up, we had the courage and grace to talk things through and make some adjustments. We added some spontaneity and creativity, which allows the sense of adventure to return and encourages us to keep moving forward.
David and Rebecca: We are living a very different life than we were two and a half years ago. Conversations are not as painful or terrifying. We are growing closer and we are learning to embrace the adventure that God is revealing to us. We give God thanks for the gift of Ridder: Churches Learning Change. When our church signed up, we did not imagine that God would use it to prompt such a grand adventure of healing, hope, and dreaming for our marriage.
David and Rebecca Wulkan serve at Christ Community Church (RCA) in St. Albert, Alberta, where David pastors.
Are you craving the kind of deep transformation that the Wulkans have experienced? Would you like to see it happen for other people in your church? Consider entering into the Churches Learning Change process (previously Ridder Church Renewal) with your church. Email Andy Bossardet at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.