The Pastor’s Wife: Beating the Blahs of Ministry
By Gabriele Rienas
Shelly shifted uncomfortably in her front-row seat. Aware that people could be watching her in the semicircular auditorium, she kept her face blank with a hint of a serene smile on her lips. Her gaze straight ahead, her thoughts turned to the preceding week. Her husband had been quiet and lethargic for several days, speaking in monosyllables and retreating to his study for hours on end. Any attempt to draw him out was met with impatience and irritability.
As Shelly continued to let her mind wander, she relived the phone call she had received from a church member midweek containing a litany of criticism and complaints that left her exhausted and discouraged. She felt a tinge of guilt because of the snippy comment she had made in a vain attempt to put the complainer in her place. She remembered briefly considering calling a friend and then discarding the thought due to a lack of viable options. Then, there was last night’s 9 o’clock phone call informing her the keyboard player had forgotten to give notice he would be out of town for the weekend. Thirty minutes and several phone calls later she had a reluctant replacement. She made a mental note to warmly thank the replacement musician after the service.
Drawn back to the present by a cough in the congregation, Shelly tried again to focus on what her husband was sharing. As he gestured to emphasize his third point in the sermon, she noticed his shirt was not tucked in at the back. She made a mental note to mention it to him after the service.
Like Shelly, many ministry wives struggle with the challenges of their husbands’ occupation. Whether she has a personal call to ministry or not, the minister’s wife by virtue of her wedding vows is called to support her husband and his concerns. Ministry, like few other professions, draws a spouse and family members into its day-to-day challenges. Much more than a job, ministry becomes a way of life, a social structure, a value system, and an occupation combined.
Congregations function much like a family. While this can bring fulfillment and joy, it also has its downsides. Like families, congregations can experience conflict and relational tensions. Criticism, disloyalty, and division can often emerge unexpectedly. People behave immaturely and selfishly, and sometimes impose their own unresolved issues from the past on the pastor’s family. For this reason more than one pastor’s wife has expressed strong feelings of dislike for her role.
Some ministry wives respond by withdrawing as much as possible, while others experience depression and lethargy. Still others may become anxious, feeling as though the other shoe will drop even when things are going well. Unless the pastor’s wife prepares herself wisely and takes deliberate steps to overcome discouragement, church drama will take its toll in time, and her potential contribution will be rendered ineffective.
The Challenge Of Meaningful Connection
Ask pastors’ wives about their challenges and loneliness frequently emerges near the top of the list. Feelings of isolation seem to be common whether they pursue friendships in the congregation or not. Leadership positions are inherently lonely. Leading people is not the same as being one of the crowd. Even if the pastor’s wife does not take a leadership role, her husband’s position can cause her to experience a certain degree of isolation. Even in the most warmhearted relationships in the congregation there are certain things she cannot (and should not) share. Her confidentiality and respect for her husband stands in the way of complete disclosure. If she becomes burdened by a difficulty with a particular church member, it would be unethical for her to share her frustration with a third party.
A ministry wife can face challenging hurdles such as unfair criticism and gossip from a person in the congregation, especially if she makes the mature choice not to reciprocate.
One of the ladies who attended Bible study was spreading accusations that Lindsay was cold and unfriendly toward her by playing favorites with her scrapbooking friends. Lindsay was shocked and horrified because she had tried to start conversations with this woman several times, only to be met with disinterest and preoccupation. She did love scrapbooking, but tried hard not to play favorites with the women. She felt a strong urge to correct these false statements. She considered sending a letter sharing her perspective to everyone involved. Even though her heart was sinking, her better sense reminded her that stooping to this level was a poor solution and would probably only escalate the situation. She comforted herself with the Word: “ ‘No weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and this is their vindication from me,’ declares the Lord” (Isaiah 54:17).
Before becoming too discouraged about loneliness in ministry, pastors’ wives need to remind themselves that lonely times are just that — times or seasons. They are not the sum total of life’s experiences. Ministry also brings with it many opportunities for social interaction and fulfillment. Not everyone will turn against us or wound us. Most congregations include wonderful, supportive people who love us dearly and wish only the best for us. Fulfilling relationships require risk. After being wounded, we are often tempted to avoid being vulnerable again.
A ministry wife who continues to reach out will be rewarded with healing relationships. The irony is, risk is required to find healing, yet risk leaves one open to more pain. That is why the Holy Spirit has offered to walk with us and help us (Isaiah 43:2).
Relationships outside the congregation are a must. Establishing them can be challenging because of lack of time and lack of contact with people outside the congregational circle. Still, the challenge should not be a deterrent to us.
If pastors’ wives are open, God can bring confidantes into their lives in many ways. Another pastor’s wife in the community can be a great resource. In one ministry experience I had lunch with several local ministry wives until I found one with whom I felt kinship. It took several attempts, but the reward was invaluable. We met for lunch monthly for 5 years and continue to meet to this day.
Many communities offer cross-denominational Bible studies. The women in leadership are often mature, compassionate, and possible candidates for friendship. Pastors’ wives may make a connection with a neighbor, a colleague at work, or a trusted family member. Sometimes former relationships, such as a loyal person from a previous ministry experience, can be a source of encouragement.
A pastor’s wife needs to exercise wisdom in choosing in whom to confide. She must remain aware that safety is not assured because a person is friendly or welcomes her self-disclosure. Unfortunately, there are those who enjoy the perceived social status that goes along with befriending the pastor’s wife. We might experience painful repercussions if we make unwise choices. Test the waters and look for signs that a woman is genuine and has unselfish motives regarding her friendship. A trustworthy person will be mature in her faith, compassionate, and honest. On the other hand, red flags should deter us. Does this person gossip about others? Does she have a prolonged history of relational struggles in which she was the victim? Does she have a bitter attitude toward church? Does she have a history of church-related trauma and difficulty? Does this person agree with everything you say rather than gently confronting you about your own contribution to issues that arise? These are signs that we need to look elsewhere for the supportive friendship we desperately need. Even though it may be a challenge to find time and energy to cultivate outside relationships, the rewards far outweigh the effort.
The Challenge To Be Yourself
What does it mean to be a good pastor’s wife? The answers to this question could be as varied as the people answering it. A ministry wife deals with expectations from the congregation, her husband, and herself.
Expectations are a given in any relationship. No relationship is completely free of them. Therefore, not all expectations are wrong or inappropriate.
In any relationship, expectations must be negotiated. The problem comes when expectations are not realistic. It is not realistic to expect a minister’s wife to be perfect all the time — to always be friendly, compelling, and engaging, and to have perfect children. Too often this kind of pressure compounds her self-imposed, unrealistic standards. Trying to live up to such expectations is like aiming for a moving, hidden target with a bow and arrow — frustrating and futile. She will either strive unsuccessfully, or give up trying in frustration.
The first expectations a pastor’s wife must deal with are her own expectations. A pastor’s wife can only strive to be herself and to use her gifts to enhance God’s kingdom. God does not expect any more. God always equips us for the task He wants us to do. It is common, however, for a pastor’s wife to struggle with identifying her strengths. In the name of humility she often avoids self-evaluation. So her gifts remain underdeveloped, and her potential is unrecognized.
The first thing to do is a thorough and honest self-examination. Answer questions such as: What do I love to do? When given a list of activities to accomplish, what do I gravitate toward first? What do I love to do any time for a long period of time? List your ministry-related experiences and ask: What activity was the most fulfilling?Most likely, some activities will be more inherently comfortable and rewarding than others. In these areas others may admire you and, yet, you do not feel as if you are doing anything difficult or particularly special. You succeed in these areas because God has given you gifts and character traits to fulfill His purpose in your life.
There are various tools to help people discover their strengths. Some churches or counseling centers offer personality profiles such as the Myers-Briggs Type IndicatorÂ® or the DISCÂ® Profile. The Clifton StrengthsFinder™ a resource for readers of the book, Now Discover Your Strengthsby Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton, is a user-friendly tool accessible on the Web. These kinds of assessments often confirm what one already knows but may have been reluctant to admit. In the end, what one learns from using these tools can be empowering and motivating. When a pastor’s wife finds the freedom to be herself, she can be firm, but kind, regarding the unrealistic expectations set by the congregation.
The pastor plays a big role in supporting his wife in whatever role she chooses to take in the Body. If the pastor publicly supports his wife in using her gifts, his support will go a long way in encouraging congregational support as well. He can do this in many ways. He can refer to her contributions in ministry in a positive way from the pulpit. He can express his admiration of her strengths. When she is functioning in her gifts, he can be present in a positive, supportive way. He can refer to her in positive ways in social settings. For example, if she is known to evangelize neighbors by helping them in distress, the pastor can refer to a specific event in an admiring way: “Sherri spent most of the day yesterday at the hospital with our neighbor, and they talked about faith and healing. She is so good at breaking through those barriers.”
Her husband’s expectations
A pastor’s expectations for his wife also need to be negotiated. This is an area of potential conflict in a marriage relationship. What if a pastor expects his wife to entertain frequently, but she cringes at the thought of cooking a meal?
Christine’s husband thought she should take over children’s church when the leader moved away. Christine did have a degree in early childhood education, but she also had two toddlers and an ailing parent she was helping care for. Her resistance seemed to fall on deaf ears. Her husband believed she was the logical person to step into the void. It is best to approach this kind of conflict as one would approach any other conflict in a marriage.
A ministry wife must also deal with her own tendency to take too much responsibility for unmet needs in the church. She must make peace with her limitations. Christine should firmly, but calmly, state why she does not feel she can fulfill this role at this time. She may negotiate a lesser role she can take. She should explain why she feels overwhelmed and communicate concern about her husband’s dilemma as well. She might suggest other options her husband could consider to fill the void.
If husband/wife expectations cause recurring conflict, it reflects a larger marriage issue where conflict is not being successfully negotiated. Something needs to be done about the larger issue. Marital difficulty is a destructive element in ministry. When a ministry marriage breaks up, the ripple effect is astounding.
The Challenge Of Balancing Work And Church
Nearly 60 percent of ministers’ wives are in the work force. In other words, more than half of pastors’ wives balance job, family, and church. Some pastors’ wives have the blessing of their husbands to work outside the home. These women have made a personal choice to pursue a career they feel passion for and are more likely to report positive feelings and a sense of well-being. Others must work because of financial concerns. Women in this group are more likely to struggle with the demands on their time and the frustration of unmet expectations. They may grow discouraged by their sheer lack of ability to address the many needs around them. They may also feel disconnected from other women who do not work and have more time to socialize.
To overcome her discouragement, the working minister’s wife must adjust her expectations. She must keep in mind time is fixed and finite. People have limitations. A pastor’s wife can only do what she can do. Taking on the world requires more than she is capable of. She must turn her attention to things she is equipped to handle. The rest she needs to give to the loving Savior who can be trusted with the concerns of the world. Essentially, it is necessary to give up control and let some things be undone, and trust God to fill the void in His time. For those who like to control things, this is a challenge (Job 37:14–22).
One’s family and marriage should always come first. Family should come before the church, personal satisfaction, and finances. Placing them first means monitoring three specific areas of family life in relation to the job: availability, stress level, and family functioning. Availabilitymeans being emotionally and physically accessible to the family. Stress level refers to the extra internal pressure and anxiety the job brings. Family functioning refers to the overall health and well-being of the family and its members. A working pastor’s wife can monitor the family impact of her job by asking herself: Do I feel connected and available to the individual members of my family? Do I know what is going on in the lives of my children? How much stress does this job add to my overall sense of well-being? How is my family doing? How are the individual members of my family functioning? Sometimes bringing the family into dialogue about these matters can enhance one’s perspective. Family meetings help bind a family together and bring a shared sense of responsibility.
In any case, those who juggle various hats must be diligent about personal stewardship. Stewardship extends beyond financial responsibilities. It includes taking care of ourselves physically and emotionally. In other words, wives should take care of their bodies and their minds. When running a race, it is not wise to expend all of one’s energy near the beginning and drop out before the finish line. Healthy self-care and rest are important requirements of stamina and resilience.
The Challenge Of Resilience
Allison was becoming increasingly disillusioned about the ministry. A series of church-related problems had taken their toll. She dreaded Sundays because she felt unsafe and vulnerable at church. She dreaded church social events. She felt as though she was pretending while underneath wanting to run screaming from the room. The congregation became the enemy that threatened her well-being, her mood, and her stability. She felt more and more comfortable in her own home, concentrating on the needs of her family and avoiding the neediness of the people in the congregation. She fantasized about leaving the church and about changing occupations. Knowing this was unlikely to happen, she felt stuck and frustrated.
Allison’s experience is common. She is an example of a burned-out minister’s wife. The stress and challenge of church life can take its toll and lead to discouragement. Stress and depression become inevitable partners.
Most pastors’ wives start out trying to do their best to promote the Kingdom. Inevitably, reality hits somewhere along the way: conflict develops, leaders become disillusioned and leave, financial issues bring constraints, pastors struggle emotionally, people lob criticisms, and the pastor’s wife experiences rejection. Stress takes its toll, and sometimes depression is a result.
Depression is a recognizable ailment. It includes symptoms such as sadness, lethargy, lack of motivation, forgetfulness, sleep issues, and isolation. It can be treated. More and more resources are becoming available to help Christian leaders deal with emotional and challenging situations. Reaching out for help becomes the first step in the healing process. In many cases professional Christian counseling is available. When it is unavailable, a caring confidant or mentor can be an invaluable resource.
In the middle of prolonged pain, people desire relief. Withdrawal becomes a survival tactic, or so it seems. This is, however, the exact opposite of what people need. Healing takes place in the context of relationships. Even though there may be no desire to communicate with others, communication is as important as insulin is to a person with diabetes. Ask others to reach out to you. Being the one in need of ministry can be humbling, but it can also be a growing experience in our own journey.
One frequently neglected area in a busy woman’s life is self-care. I often ask leadership wives, “What activity do you regularly engage in and look forward to?” Too often the response is a blank stare or an uncomfortable laugh. There is even the unspoken idea the concept of self-care might be unspiritual or selfish. Most people agree God cares a great deal about physical health and financial health, even good time management. So, why would pastors’ wives rule out taking care of themselves emotionally?
More than anything else a ministry wife needs resilience. Defined as “the ability to recover quickly from setbacks,”1 this trait allows one to bounce back into shape after being stretched. While a pastor’s wife may feel permanently damaged from unexpected events that come her way, the choice to rebound lies with herself and her desire to try again. Scripturally, she has promise after promise that God is for her and offers her the resources she needs to recover from her trials when He is allowed to do the work. God wants to reveal His power through difficult circumstances (2 Corinthians 4:16). He provides opportunities for those in ministry to grasp just how dependent they are on Him and His grace in their lives (Deuteronomy 8:3).
The Challenge Of Being A Supportive Wife
Brenda studied her husband Steve as he slept. Her heart was deeply burdened for him, and she prayed silently. Life and ministry had been difficult during the past year. Increasing conflict with certain board members, financial issues, and the death of his father had taken their toll. While he seemed the same as ever at church, at home he was withdrawn, lethargic, and morose. He made frequent negative comments about ministry and about his ability to pastor. He was spending more time at home, but most of his time was spent watching television or sleeping on the couch. He did not return calls from friends. Her attempts to draw him out were met with irritation and defensiveness. Brenda sighed.
What does a minister’s wife do when her husband encounters emotional struggles? Women naturally are nurturing. They want to help and comfort those close to them who are in distress. Also, in ministry, life and occupation are closely intertwined. The pastor’s wife knows that if her husband continues to struggle, it could affect their future.
Pastors and their wives can work on one solution before discouragement and depression even arises — cultivating a safe atmosphere in the home where honesty and self-disclosure are welcomed. This comes from being a mate who listens well and uses advice and correction sparingly. If a leader’s disclosures to his spouse are met with overreaction, criticism, and despair, he will soon learn to limit vulnerability with his wife. In an atmosphere of mutual sharing and honesty, a wife can express her concerns about her husband’s depression and mood. She will have earned the right to make suggestions or gently steer her husband toward possible solutions.
Depression is a family matter. It should be discussed as a family, and the solutions should be approached as a family. A pastor’s depression should be discussed with church leadership as well. In most cases depression is a temporary state of mind and can be treated from both a spiritual and psychological perspective. If necessary, obtain outside help. Family responsibilities may need to be rearranged temporarily. The depressed person will need much prayer and spiritual support through his difficult time.
Being a supportive wife is not the same as being a codependent wife. A codependent wife takes on the responsibility of making sure her husband looks good and behaves properly. This task is too big for any woman. It will lead to frustration for her and resentment for him, while at the same time enabling him to be less than his best.
A supportive wife communicates she is behind her husband and trusts God in his life. She offers unconditional love and positive regard. She offers to help him in reasonable ways, taking into account her own limitations. She recognizes she is unable to resolve all of his shortcomings and gives up trying to control them. She puts her energy into dealing with her own issues where it is better served.
Turning her attention back to the sermon, Shelly felt a surge of compassion and admiration for her husband. Week after week, he put everything he had into bringing God’s truth to the people in their congregation. Rarely taking a day off, he passionately fulfilled his calling and felt the burden of the needs of the people of the community. He tries hard to be a good husband and father as well. She resolved to be more supportive and positive. She reminded herself God was more concerned about her well-being and her future than she was. Taking a deep breath and whispering a prayer for strength, she settled back for the rest of the sermon.
1. Anne Soukhanov, Encarta Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language, 2d ed. (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2004).