Unrealistic Expectations

by Gabriele Rienas

Q: I have been a pastor’s wife for 15 years. I always said I would never marry a minister. Once I made my decision, however, I have done my best to be a good pastor’s wife. I am not an up-front person, but I have tried to support my husband while helping out where I can at church. I love being a mom to my children (9 and 11), and I like to work in children’s ministry wherever needed.

My husband is constantly pushing me to do more, for example: lead a ministry to women, host dinners, or plan events. I am not gifted in these areas — in fact, I dread the thought. He reminds me that I knew I was marrying a minister and am therefore obligated to support him. In the past, I gave in to his requests to keep the peace, but felt miserable and exhausted. Lately, I have been more resistant, and it is causing tension in our relationship.

A: The key concept here is support. One of the major challenges for pastors of small-to-midsized churches is finding the right volunteers to take care of the many needs of church life, while at the same time avoiding incompetent helpers and great expense. This is especially true in churches where there is one paid pastor. Apparently your husband feels supported when you are willing to fill in the gap where he needs help.

First, allow me to reframe your situation. While this is becoming intolerable to you, keep in mind that his desire to have you involved is in fact a compliment. He knows where to go to get the job done. He believes in your abilities. I suppose it would be worse if he discouraged you from doing anything because he questioned your competence. Seeing your situation from this perspective will help you to be less angry and resentful approaching this topic with your husband.

Your situation can easily become a power struggle. The more your husband insists you be involved, the more you resist, making him more insistent, making you more resistant, and so on. Power struggles happen when people do not feel heard or validated. They try harder and harder to assert their position as the other person does the same. The problem is that no one wins, each feeling unheard and uncared for. Likely, your husband feels you are being insensitive to him just as you feel he is to you.

If this continues, it could potentially lead to your disengagement from church ministry entirely to make your point. This would then confirm your husband’s suspicion that you do not want to support him in ministry. Again, no one wins, least of all the congregation.

Your husband’s intensity about this leads me to believe he could possibly have some insecurity about your role in his ministry. Perhaps you and your husband have never discussed this in concrete ways or perhaps past experiences have led him to conclude you are not supportive. Be willing to look at this honestly and humbly. Explore this with him and talk about what supporting one another looks like. Be nondefensive and ask forgiveness for the times you have been absent or insensitive to your husband’s challenges in ministry.

Your current frustration requires more discussion about the overall dynamic of what is happening. As with any potential conflict, two things are needed: a strong dose of validation and understanding for the other person’s position, and clarity about your own position, which includes firm, nonpunitive boundaries.

Reaffirm your commitment to the ministry and your desire to help. A heart-to-heart conversation is a good start, but an ongoing dialogue is also necessary. Emphasize your calling to be a good pastor’s wife and your desire to do your best. Let your husband know that you understand and join his desire to work as a team.

Next, communicate your feelings and frustrations. Talk about your exhaustion, weariness, and how you feel when he requires you to do certain up-front things. Chances are your husband is not clear about the internal struggle you have with some of these expectations. At the same time, offer alternative ways of getting the job done. (“I am really not cut out to cook a meal for 30 people — just the thought overwhelms and stresses me. But I would be happy to organize other people to do the cooking and to do other things to support the event.”)

Talk freely and frequently about what you feel called to do and how you would like to apply that at church. Share your passion for children’s ministry and your dreams. Stress the things you love to do and share how you feel when you are carrying out this calling.

Appropriately set some boundaries. If there is a chance that you have not been clear with your husband about your limits, then take responsibility for correcting this. He may be surprised to learn how you feel. Clearly state what you are not comfortable doing. If you have any question about setting boundaries, I would recommend reading Boundaries, by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. This resource will clarify appropriate ways to define your limits.

You desire to be a good pastor’s wife. No doubt your husband desires to carry out his calling with excellence as well. In that, you have a strong common goal. The challenge is to blend your individuality and uniqueness in the pursuit of that goal, honoring both God and one another. With humility, clarity, and dependence on God’s help, I am convinced you can meet the challenge.