by Tara Johnson
People are messy and since ministry is all about serving people, ministry is often messy. Forget all the romantic notions you’ve heard about the glories of serving ‘in the Lord’s trenches’. Is it victorious? Sometimes. Is it exhausting? Overwhelmingly so. Is it worth it? Absolutely. But it’s hard work…an uphill climb that will entail the enemy attacking God’s people whenever he can.
People often mention the need to pray for their pastor, the need to encourage him but they often forget to mention someone who works side by side with the pastor. Someone who is often overlooked…the pastor’s wife.
Church members, and even non-church members, tend to lump pastor’s wives into the same stereotype. There is an unwritten code of “dos” and “don’ts” for pastor’s wives, all of which vary from church to church and culture to culture. The problem is none of these expectations are talked about until the pastor’s wife fails to live up to them. And I can tell you with absolutely certainty that pastors’ wives are not a stereotype.
Some are eternally optimistic. Some are exhausted and burned out. Some have the gift of hospitality, while others build strong boundaries around their privacy. Some are control freaks and some are laid-back. Some have no problem picking up everything and moving to a remote country. Others have major anxiety at the thought of moving five miles away. Most have a unique sense of humor, sometimes even a ‘Far Side’ style of humor—a God-given way of coping with stress. So, if pastor’s wives and their personalities are incredibly diverse, why do we expect them to all ‘act’ the same way?
“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
A poll was recently conducted asking pastor’s wives to name the most frequent expectations put on them, either by themselves or members within their husband’s pastorates. The most common are listed below:
1. That their children should be perfect.
No matter how well-trained and behaved, kids are kids. They are sinners, just like all of us. (If you don’t believe me, volunteer to teach the tiny tots sometime.) They are going to whisper in church, tell lies, fight with their siblings and make a mess at potluck…even the preacher’s kids. But sometimes the church members holds the pastor’s children to a higher standard than they do their own.
I might mention also that not all PKs are ill-mannered or sneaky. Neither are they perfect little adults just because their Dad is the pastor. They can’t interpret Ezekiel any better than you can. (Although, speaking as a PK, I can tell you that preacher’s kids are excellent at making it sound like we know what we’re talking about. In other words, we’re excellent bloviaters of Christian-ese.)
One pastor’s wife told me that what she really loved about their current pastorate is that the church has allowed her children to be kids, with all their flaws and quirks. They need love and understanding…not constant criticism.
2. That they know exactly what to say and do in any situation.
Everyone reaches a point where they hit a wall, a situation that is so overwhelming and crushing in its intensity that there are simply no words to ease the pain. No matter how much experience, the pastor’s wife can and will be overwhelmed in trying to comfort someone who is at their breaking point. Here’s a good rule of thumb for anyone trying to help a heartbroken friend: pray with them, hold them while they cry. It’s okay to say that you don’t understand why tragedies occur but reaffirming your love and just listening will help tremendously.
3. That they feel comfortable leading a class or speaking to a large group or taking on a leadership role.
Just because the pastor may be a naturally gifted leader doesn’t mean his wife is. In fact, it can be quite the opposite. Husbands and wives tend to balance each other’s personalities. If the husband is extremely outgoing, the wife may be shy and quiet. Assuming that all pastor’s wives are comfortable teaching a class, being VBS director or playing piano is a grave mistake. God has given each of us a unique set of talents and it is up to each of us to discover those talents and use them. The pastor’s wife is no different.
One pastor’s wife told me, “I was miserable for years because I kept trying to live up to everyone’s expectations. I volunteered to do all that stuff…lead out in every single ministry in church and, to be honest, I was exhausted and unhappy. I finally realized those things are not my job. My service is in supporting my husband. If I feel God leading me to do something, I gladly hop to it, but now I understand it’s not required. The biggest help to my husband is to keep things running smoothly at home. Taking charge over the kids, fixing the meals and just making his load a little lighter.”
4. That someone can criticize them, their husband or children and it should not hurt.
Pleasing people is a moving target. It can’t be done. So in leadership, you are sure to get plenty of arrows aimed your way from disgruntled church members. Some complaints may be valid and some may be absolutely ridiculous. For some reason, people often feel comfortable criticizing the pastor directly to his wife and she is expected to not feel the sting of rejection. Let me promise you, she may smile and seem unflappable but those criticisms hurt…they hurt a lot.
Your pastor and his family are not perfect…far from it. They are learning and growing just as you are. The only difference is they have hundreds of eyeballs scrutinizing them as they do. Before you criticize, remember that many things go on ‘behind the scenes’ of church life that the members know nothing about. Hairy, horrible, shocking things. I know, and have witnessed, stories that would curl your hair. Ministry ain’t for wimps and your pastor’s family carries the weight of those messy things with them as they serve. Be patient. And remember, if you can’t back up your complaint with scripture, it’s probably just your opinion and not worth fighting about.
A well known trick in Christian circles is to spread gossip about others under the guise of ‘asking prayer for them’. This same tactic is often used in criticizing a pastor. Some folks use his wife as a filter to let him know what he could do better. Nothing makes a sweet pastor’s wife turn into an angry Momma Bear like a member criticizing her husband or children. If there’s an issue that needs to be addressed, the best way is the path Jesus laid out: go directly to the person who has offended you and talk it out. And to you pastor’s wives out there, gossiping about a church member to another church member is a sure way to bring disaster.
5. That they should be expected to work if the church doesn’t pay the pastor enough to live on.
Among smaller church congregations, there is an issue about how much the pastor should work outside of his ministry calling. They want to have his undivided attention. The problem with this is that they can’t pay him enough to live on but they don’t want him to work either. So what happens? The wife has to go to work to feed and clothe their household. This is an unjust and unrealistic demand to place on your pastor’s wife, especially considering that pastors already take a huge hit on their taxes since they are considered ‘self-employed’ in the eyes of the government. Insurance is often a huge factor as well. They either go without insurance or have to get a full time job to get insurance. It’s a double whammy.
The pastor’s wife should not be forced to support her husband and family. Not only does it cause tremendous stress in their family, it’s not even Biblical. If she chooses to do so, that’s well and good but it’s unrealistic to have church members paying her husband minimally with the expectation that she will make up the shortfall in income. Remember, if you can’t live on it, your pastor’s family can’t either.
Stay tuned for part 2 of Life in the Ministry Trenches: The Pastor’s Wife as we discuss hospitality, ‘to parsonage or not to parsonage’, the danger of comparison, loneliness and how to help your pastor’s wife. Say a prayer for your pastor’s wife today!
If you don’t want to live in it, your pastor’s family doesn’t either.
If you can’t live on it, your pastor’s family can’t either.
If you don’t like criticism, your pastor’s family doesn’t either.
If your kids don’t always behave, your pastor’s kids don’t always either.
If you get depressed sometimes, your pastor and his wife do too.
If you want to be loved unconditionally, your pastor’s family does too.