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 next few pages 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.