5 Spouse Killers in the Ministry
The pastor’s wife is the only woman I know who is asked to work full time without pay on her husband’s job, in a role no one has yet defined.
– Ruthe White 1
If we don’t understand the potential for ministry killers our wives face, we will hinder our effectiveness. If we don’t address the issues that siphon the life from our wives and try to help them, those killers may stifle the work God wants to do through both of you. These factors are more pervasive than we might think. One survey discovered that 85 percent of pastors’ wives feel unprepared for the ministry lifestyle.2 Another, by the Global Pastors Wives Network, found that “eight in ten pastors’ wives say they feel unappreciated or unaccepted by their husband’s congregations.” Most shocking was their discovery that pastors’ wives’ issues are the number one reason pastors leave their ministries.3
Sherryl and I married over 30 years ago. In the last three decades we’ve faced many difficult challenges that, without Christ, long ago would have split us up. In my following article, my wife and I dialogue about pastors’ spouses and ministry killers. Listen in as we talk. Look for common threads your wife or husband may experience.
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Charles: From your perspective, Sherryl, do wives face their own ministry killers? Do they deal with issues that can drain the life out of their souls and in turn negatively affect their husbands? If so, what killers do you believe pose the greatest risk to a pastor’s wife?
Sherryl: Most definitely pastors’ wives face painful ministry killers. I’ve experienced them, and the pastors’ wives with whom I’ve dealt have as well. Although every church is different, if I listed issues that pose the greatest risk for a pastor’s wife to withdraw, get hurt or become bitter, these killers definitely would make the cut.
1. Deep Loneliness
Charles: We’ve often discussed that ministry requires that we spend lots of time with people. But you mention loneliness at the top. What do you mean by that?
Sherryl: When you and I married, transitioning into being a pastor’s wife was pretty smooth for me. But in our new church I experienced something I’d never felt before. People were nice to me, but they didn’t want me to be a part of their lives. I kept wondering why I couldn’t “click” with these people. I continued to invite families over for dinner and have play dates with other moms and their kids. But an incredible loneliness began to envelop me. We were hundreds of miles from our families. And because I’m an outgoing person, I wondered why I couldn’t find the friendships I needed for emotional support.
I’ll never forget one Sunday in that new church when I first visited the young-married adult class. You had other responsibilities that morning so I went alone. As people gathered in little groups to talk before the class, I went from group to group to introduce myself and tried to make friendly conversation. Often people would smile, nod their heads and then drop the conversation. Several times they actually turned their back on me in mid-conversation.
Through my experiences, my dialogue with other pastors’ wives and my own research, I’ve concluded this: A “loneliness void” is the most intense occupational hazard, or ministry killer, a pastor’s wife will face. Many people in churches expect that she be almost perfect, or at least appear that way. This unspoken expectation often makes us feel very vulnerable because we think that if others see our faults, they will reject us.
On the other hand, many view us as not having real needs—or if they do, not the ones an average woman in the church feels she could help meet. Even when people know we’re dealing with something difficult, sometimes they minimize the issue because they assume we’re strong enough to handle it ourselves. After all, they reason, the pastor lives with you. All of these misconceptions can leave us feeling alone and isolated.
Charles: I know that sometimes we pastors get so lost in our own worlds that we don’t realize that you hurt, too. How have you seen the demands on me affect this sense of loneliness?
Sherryl: Well, since you asked, I’ll be frank. Sometimes your ministry obligations contributed to my loneliness. Unlike many other professions, your job often requires that you attend early morning or evening meetings. Sometimes by the time you get home, you’re too tired to be truly present for the kids and me. I know you want to be available, but you don’t have the energy to muster what we need from you.
I’ve seen this come in cycles. For the most part you’ve done your best to be available. But when meetings go back-to-back for several evenings or you get mentally preoccupied with ministry concerns, I reason that the church needs you more than I do.
I’ve tried to suck it up and do double-duty with home responsibilities so you’ll be free for the ministry. Often when that happens, I don’t feel you are there for me to confide in. The loneliness becomes even more acute.
In your research you interviewed several experts who work with pastors and their wives, and I recall these words from Russ Veenker:
Sometimes a pastor’s wife feels that she must compete with the church for her husband’s attention. It’s almost like the church has become his mistress. She has to fight for his affections, and he often feels nagged. In those cases, pastors will often make statements like, “I want my home to be my sanctuary,” or “I want my home to be a place of rest.” This results in over-commitment to the church, and his unavailability to her often leads to depression and disillusionment for both of them.
Charles: I recall those conversations when you confronted me about my imbalance. I didn’t like them, but I needed a jolt to get me back on track. And I believe Dr. Veenker correctly assessed this dynamic. When pastors add to their wives’ loneliness though inadvertently making the church a mistress, both pastor and wife lose.
2. Inescapable Vulnerability With Others
Charles: You chose vulnerability as the second killer on your list. Tell us more about that one.
Sherryl: Pastors’ wives face a unique kind of vulnerability. By default, the church where her husband serves often becomes the center of her life in several areas. It’s her main opportunity for service, the place to find some of her closest relationships, the source of her family’s primary means of financial support, and her home away from home. Unfortunately, it also becomes the source of the greatest criticism. Unlike many women who find volunteer opportunities, friendships and income through other various venues, a pastor’s wife often finds all three wrapped up in the same place: the church.
A politician’s wife comes closest to this predicament. She must guard what she says so that her words always reflect well on her husband. If she slips, what she says could become fodder for his opponents and could lead to controversy or defeat in a future election. One wife told me as we discussed church relationships, “You have to remember that the sharks are circling.”
Current research has pinpointed how pastors’ wives respond. Jama Davis noted in her doctoral dissertation4 the same reaction I’ve seen in my conversations with pastors’ wives. This vulnerability runs so deep that many wives are even reluctant to share their hurts with other pastors’ wives in their own church or those in nearby churches. They don’t feel safe even with their own kind. What could become an avenue for intimacy, prayer and mutual encouragement is often perceived as a threat. As a result, pastors’ wives tend to meet these needs through impersonal or anonymous venues, such as online communities, retreats with women they probably won’t ever see again and books.
Charles: Since you’ve had your share of loneliness and vulnerability, how have you dealt with this?
Sherryl: Well, over the years, God has brought a few safe people into my life. Fortunately, one of mine has been a professional counselor who was a preacher’s kid. She understands my world both experientially and professionally. I would encourage pastors’ wives to find a safe person, even if it’s a professional counselor who understands ministry life. Professional coaching also could provide a source of help.
3. Living in a “Fishbowl” World
Charles: I’ve heard the “fishbowl” analogy before, and I think I get it. You listed it as your third killer. What exactly do you mean?
Sherryl: When I say that a fishbowl experience can become a ministry killer for a pastor’s wife, I mean this: We not only must face the normal and painful stuff life throws at us, but we must do it as the church looks on.
Fortunately, what created my anxiety in the fishbowl also challenged me to deepen my walk with Christ. Knowing that others watched my response to crises spurred me to move forward in my faith rather than to wallow in self-pity. Had I not been in the fishbowl, I’m not sure I would have relied as much on His grace.
As I reflect on Jesus’ life, I realize He revealed the Father’s heart to us even when He lived in a fishbowl. The people expected Him to be one kind of Messiah, but He didn’t meet their expectations. Instead, He met His Father’s. He lived to please God, not others.
This understanding freed me. Although I can only reflect His image dimly, even in the fishbowl I want to mirror His character as clearly as possible. When I try to keep my eyes on the Lord to seek His approval, I’m more at peace and free to be me when I deal with others’ expectations. As a pastor’s wife, I must remind myself that one day I will stand before Him to give an account of my life. Then the only thing that will matter is that my life reflected Him well.
4. Managing Unrealistic or Unfair Expectations
Charles: What do you mean by “expectations,” specifically, and how have you seen pastors’ wives respond?
Sherryl: The spoken and unspoken expectation churches place on pastors’ wives landed on my list because every church has them. Most churches don’t officially say they expect certain things from pastor’s wives. However, they’re as pervasive as dust bunnies and differ from what they expect from other women in the church. I’ll explain what I mean by describing three ways I’ve seen pastors’ wives respond.
Some pastors’ wives simply give up when they can’t meet the expectations. They withdraw and often sullenly sit alongside their husbands in church and do little else. Others yield to despair, helplessness and hopelessness, afraid to resign from any of their church responsibilities because they believe it will hurt their husbands and even threaten his job security. One pastor’s wife said to me, “I have a pastor’s wife mask I hang on my door that I put on when I go to church. Once I get home, I hang it up again.” She felt she couldn’t be herself at church. She feared if she were, and people knew her, they’d reject her.
Others outright rebel. When they face continued pressures, some act out almost like teenagers. Some have turned to affairs. Others have left their husbands. Some have made statements simply to get a rise out of members. I knew one who had her body pierced and tattooed and deliberately wore clothing at church to prominently display her body art. Sometimes I’ve wondered if, on a subconscious level, these women hope that acting out might get their husbands (and themselves) kicked out. The prospect of being out from under these expectations may seem worth the loss of respect that would come from getting booted from the church.
I admit these responses are extreme, though they’re more common than you might think. But not every pastor’s wife responds in these ways. Many move forward the best they can with grace and dignity. They pray, lean on the Lord, and seek encouragement from His Word. They seek out godly influences and help their husbands understand their struggles. I’ve certainly not managed expectations perfectly, but by God’s grace the two of us have not yielded to these ministry killers.
5. Having Little or No Voice in Response to Church Decisions or Critics
Charles: Your last ministry killer touches on something unique. Unravel that one for us.
Sherryl: This issue concerns two groups: church boards and your critics. Boards where we’ve served have seldom asked for my thoughts on decisions. I recognize that because I don’t serve on these boards they aren’t bound to ask me what I think.
And most decisions have had little direct bearing on our family or me. However, when a decision does impact our family, as a pastor’s wife I’m not able to voice concerns for fear that such disapproval could affect your job or how others may perceive you.
As for critics, we’ve often felt the brunt of unfounded criticism through an e-mail, a call or a conversation. It hurts, especially when it comes from someone we’ve thought safe.
It’s easy for a pastor’s wife to take offense. Since these criticisms aren’t directed toward me, Matthew 18 instructs me not to bring them up; rather, you’re the one who is to approach the critic. But because I’m your wife, when you get criticized, I feel criticized as well. To add insult to injury, I’m expected to be gracious when I come in contact with these people. This makes me feel bound and gagged. Even during meetings where others are encouraged to air their concerns about your leadership and are free to stand up and say anything they want, I don’t feel that freedom, even when I’m sitting right next to you in the meeting.
Charles: You’ve described five pastors’ wives’ ministry killers. In summary, what advice would you give spouses that might help them navigate the inevitable challenges?
Sherryl: I’d like to suggest three ideas I’ve found helpful.
First, we must practice what I call “pre-forgiveness.” Most wives will face at least some of the ministry killers. Disappointment, hurt and discouragement come with ministry. Knowing this, I’ve tried to position my heart ahead of a hurt to extend grace even before it’s needed.
Wounded women can easily become bitter. Scripture tells us that bitterness hurts not only us but those around us. If my heart is filled with grace when someone throws a dart at me, God’s grace can surround it before it can wound me. I’ve not always done this, but when I have, those hurts have not become places where bitterness could grow.
Second, we must use a trained counselor when we can’t move forward from a hurt. I’ve found that some words and actions from church people act like triggers. They trigger feelings rooted in unresolved hurts we’ve brought from our past. I believe God actually allows this pain to prompt us to seek help from others so we can be free of our baggage. The pain reminds us that we’ve not yet moved beyond a past experience. Thus someone who hurt us actually can become a tool that God uses to grow us. Joseph’s response to his brothers when he revealed himself to them demonstrates this: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.”5
Finally, as you and I have both mentioned, pastors’ wives should find a trusted friend with whom they can walk through their valleys. Some wives may consider themselves strong enough to handle what ministry brings by drawing upon their own strength and the Lord’s. But I believe the story of Lazarus challenges that thought.
After Lazarus had been in the tomb three days, Jesus arrived. As He looked at the tomb where Lazarus’s body lay, He told Lazarus to come out. He truly performed an astonishing miracle in raising the dead.
Yet Jesus didn’t do everything. He had someone else remove the stone from the tomb. He instructed others to remove the graveclothes. We do need others to help us avoid being bound by the graveclothes of ministry killers.
I’d like to share one final thought. Although being a pastor’s wife brings many challenges, my role allows for spiritual impact that few others experience. I’m able to invest in your life as few others can. I believe I make a unique contribution to the body of Christ expressed through the local church where we serve. Despite all the challenges I face, I wouldn’t trade my role for any other. I hope the wives who read this would see themselves in the same way.
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Mark McMinn, former professor at Wheaton College, wrote:
A male pastor relying on his wife for support may function well most of the time, but this narrow support system will become a problem if she is not able to fulfill that role (if she herself becomes burned out, depressed, disabled, disillusioned, and so on).6
Pastors, we must heed this counsel. When our wives feel overloaded, we should lean more into our safe friends. And if you are a pastor’s wife and feel overloaded by your own ministry killers, please talk to your husband and let him know how you feel. Unless he knows, he may inadvertently add to your stress.