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Spouse Killers in the Ministry
Charles Stone more from this author »
The pastorís wife is the only woman I know who is asked to work full time without pay on her husbandís job, in a role no one has yet defined.
Ė Ruthe White 1
If we donít understand the potential for ministry killers our wives face, we will hinder our effectiveness. If we donít 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 pastorsí wives feel unprepared for the ministry lifestyle.2 Another, by the Global Pastors Wives Network, found that ďeight in ten pastorsí wives say they feel unappreciated or unaccepted by their husbandís congregations.Ē Most shocking was their discovery that pastorsí wivesí issues are the number one reason pastors leave their ministries.3
Sherryl and I married over 30 years ago. In the last three decades weíve faced many difficult challenges that, without Christ, long ago would have split us up. In my next few pages my wife and I dialogue about pastorsí spouses and ministry killers. Listen in as we talk. Look for common threads your wife or husband may experience.
* * *
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 pastorís wife?
Sherryl: Most definitely pastorsí wives face painful ministry killers. Iíve experienced them, and the pastorsí wives with whom Iíve dealt have as well. Although every church is different, if I listed issues that pose the greatest risk for a pastorís wife to withdraw, get hurt, or become bitter, these killers definitely would make the cut.
1. Deep Loneliness
Charles: Weíve 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 pastorís wife was pretty smooth for me. But in our new church I experienced something Iíd never felt before. People were nice to me, but they didnít want me to be a part of their lives. I kept wondering why I couldnít ďclickĒ 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 Iím an outgoing person, I wondered why I couldnít find the friendships I needed for emotional support.
Iíll 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 pastorsí wives, and my own research, Iíve concluded this: A ďloneliness voidĒ is the most intense occupational hazard, or ministry killer, a pastorís 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 needsóor if they do, not the ones an average woman in the church feels she could help meet. Even when people know weíre dealing with something difficult, sometimes they minimize the issue because they assume weíre 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 donít realize that you hurt, too. How have you seen the demands on me affect this sense of loneliness?
Sherryl: Well, since you asked, Iíll 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, youíre too tired to be truly present for the kids and me. I know you want to be available, but you donít have the energy to muster what we need from you.
Iíve seen this come in cycles. For the most part youíve 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.
Iíve tried to suck it up and do double-duty with home responsibilities so youíll be free for the ministry. Often when that happens, I donít 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 pastorís wife feels that she must compete with the church for her husbandís attention. Itís 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, ďI want my home to be my sanctuary,Ē or ďI want my home to be a place of rest.Ē 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 didnít 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 wivesí 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: Pastorsí 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. Itís her main opportunity for service, the place to find some of her closest relationships, the source of her familyís 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 pastorís wife often finds all three wrapped up in the same place: the church.
A politicianís 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, ďYou have to remember that the sharks are circling.Ē
Current research has pinpointed how pastorsí wives respond. Jama Davis noted in her doctoral dissertation4 the same reaction Iíve seen in my conversations with pastorsí wives. This vulnerability runs so deep that many wives are even reluctant to share their hurts with other pastorsí wives in their own church or those in nearby churches. They donít 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, pastorsí wives tend to meet these needs through impersonal or anonymous venues, such as online communities, retreats with women they probably wonít ever see again, and books.
Charles: Since youíve 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 preacherís kid. She understands my world both experientially and professionally. I would encourage pastorsí wives to find a safe person, even if itís a professional counselor who understands ministry life. Professional coaching also could provide a source of help.
3. Living in a ďFishbowlĒ World
Charles: Iíve heard the ďfishbowlĒ 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 pastorís 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, Iím not sure I would have relied as much on His grace.
As I reflect on Jesusí life, I realize He revealed the Fatherís heart to us even when He lived in a fishbowl. The people expected Him to be one kind of Messiah, but He didnít meet their expectations. Instead, He met His Fatherís. 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, Iím more at peace and free to be me when I deal with othersí expectations. As a pastorís 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 ďexpectations,Ē specifically, and how have you seen pastorsí wives respond?
Sherryl: The spoken and unspoken expectation churches place on pastorsí wives landed on my list because every church has them. Most churches donít officially say they expect certain things from pastorís wives. However, theyíre as pervasive as dust bunnies and differ from what they expect from other women in the church. Iíll explain what I mean by describing three ways Iíve seen pastorsí wives respond.
Some pastorsí wives simply give up when they canít 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 pastorís wife said to me, ďI have a pastorís 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.Ē She felt she couldnít be herself at church. She feared if she were, and people knew her, theyíd 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 Iíve 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 theyíre more common than you might think. But not every pastorís 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. Iíve certainly not managed expectations perfectly, but by Godís 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 weíve served have seldom asked for my thoughts on decisions. I recognize that because I donít serve on these boards they arenít 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 pastorís wife Iím not able to voice concerns for fear that such disapproval could affect your job or how others may perceive you.
As for critics, weíve often felt the brunt of unfounded criticism through an e-mail, a call, or a conversation. It hurts, especially when it comes from someone weíve thought safe.
Itís easy for a pastorís wife to take offense. Since these criticisms arenít directed toward me, Matthew 18 instructs me not to bring them up; rather, youíre the one who is to approach the critic. But because Iím your wife, when you get criticized, I feel criticized as well. To add insult to injury, Iím 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 donít feel that freedom, even when Iím sitting right next to you in the meeting.
Charles: Youíve described five pastorsí wivesí ministry killers. In summary, what advice would you give spouses that might help them navigate the inevitable challenges?
Sherryl: Iíd like to suggest three ideas Iíve found helpful.
First, we must practice what I call ďpre-forgiveness.Ē Most wives will face at least some of the ministry killers. Disappointment, hurt, and discouragement come with ministry. Knowing this, Iíve tried to position my heart ahead of a hurt to extend grace even before itís 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, Godís grace can surround it before it can wound me. Iíve 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 canít move forward from a hurt. Iíve found that some words and actions from church people act like triggers. They trigger feelings rooted in unresolved hurts weíve 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 weíve not yet moved beyond a past experience. Thus someone who hurt us actually can become a tool that God uses to grow us. Josephís response to his brothers when he revealed himself to them demonstrates this: ďYou intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.Ē5
Finally, as you and I have both mentioned, pastorsí 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 Lordís. 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 Lazarusís body lay, He told Lazarus to come out. He truly performed an astonishing miracle in raising the dead.
Yet Jesus didnít 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.
Iíd like to share one final thought. Although being a pastorís wife brings many challenges, my role allows for spiritual impact that few others experience. Iím 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 wouldnít trade my role for any other. I hope the wives who read this would see themselves in the same way.
* * *
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 pastorís 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.