by Tara Johnson
Ministry is difficult and no one knows this better than the pastor’s wife. In Part 1, we looked at the God-given talents that make each pastor’s wife unique as well as some of the unrealistic and often damaging expectations that pastor’s wives have placed on their shoulders, whether by church members or themselves. To refresh, some of these expectations are:
- Their children should be perfect.
- They know what to do and say in every situation.
- They feel comfortable leading a class or taking on leadership roles.
- Someone can criticize them, their husband or children and it won’t hurt.
- They should be forced to work if the church can’t pay the pastor enough to live on.
Let’s move on to several more expectations facing the pastor’s wife.
- Their home should be open to the church’s needs 24/7.
Boundaries are extremely important. They protect our families and many times, our sanity. But let’s face it…life happens. There are medical, emotional and spiritual emergencies that cannot wait. A pastor is like a doctor who is always on call. Most pastors will tell you they expect these to happen from time to time and are happy to comfort and help however they can. But emergencies are not what I’m talking about here.
I’m talking about dropping in on the pastor’s family whenever it suits you. Contrary to popular opinion, the pastor’s wife does not always keep a tidy house, nor is she always pulling warm, homemade cookies from the oven. Her life is often stressed and scattered…just like yours. If there are days when you don’t feel especially hospitable, neither does she. Children misbehave, dinner burns, the washing machine leaks…you get the idea.
Respecting the pastor’s time with his family is one of the most loving things you can do for him and his wife. Call before dropping in. Don’t text them incessantly while they are on vacation. (FYI: every time a pastor’s family leaves for vacation, it’s a guarantee that something will happen within the church family.) Every time you call or text your pastor, you are pulling his time away from his family and his study time. The wife, if she’s not careful, can end up feeling resentful and lonely.
Before you send out that text or hit call on your phone, consider the importance of your message. Can it wait until a later time? Is it something that somebody else in the church can help you with? A good rule of thumb is to call on God more than you call on your pastor.
Several wives have confessed boundary issues are especially pronounced if the church has provided a parsonage. This leads to an interesting question…to parsonage or not to parsonage?
Parsonages are tricky things and the opinions on their usefulness has been much debated. Can it be a blessing? Yes. Is it ideal? No. Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages.
- It’s usually free housing for the pastor’s family. Parsonages are tax exempt and the congregation usually foots the bill for the mortgage. The arrangement for utilities vary. (Some churches offer to pay these and some don’t.) Parsonages are also exempt from property taxes.
- Easier Transition for the New Pastor. Often times, when a new pastor is elected he must move his entire family to the new location, sometimes quite a distance. It’s usually a relief to know that housing is already provided and waiting. (FYI: The average tenure of a pastor in the US is less than five years.)
a. When the pastor resigns, his family is essentially homeless. As soon as the pastor announces his departure, it’s time to get out of Dodge (aka the parsonage) before it’s needed by the next pastor. The scramble to find someplace to live, often with no direction on where God will move him next, is extremely stressful and often expensive.
b. Conflict and Criticism. Not only can church members argue about carpet color, appliances and decor, but it’s common to see them criticizing the pastor, his wife and children for a toy-filled yard or grass that often more than an inch high. There can be arguments about pets, decorating….you get the idea. This is especially true if the parsonage is next door to the church. When conflict arises, it usually comes down to “the church owns this so we (the church members) have the say” versus “we (the pastor’s family) need to know that you will still love us and show us grace on the days when we don’t have it together”.
c. Intrusions. Living next door to the church isn’t easy. When people lose or forget their church key they knock on the pastor’s door. When the cleaning people realize there’s a leaky sink, they knock on the pastor’s door. I’ve even heard a church member say, “The church owns the parsonage, so as a church member, I can stop in whenever I want.” This attitude is inconsiderate and can cause much stress and anxiety for your pastor and his family. (And on a lighter note, for the majority of us, the bank owns our homes. I don’t particularly want them stopping in whenever they feel like it!)
d. Sub-standard living conditions. If you wouldn’t want to live in it, your pastor’s family doesn’t either. Insisting your pastor live in a house with a leaking roof, broken appliances, mold, little to no insulation and vermin infestations is a hardship that only makes his work more difficult and to his family, can even be dangerous. This is not the norm but still, it happens more than people think.
e. Preparing long term. Many pastors, although thankful for shelter and a comfortable house can become frustrated in their inability to be able to build equity in a home. As they get older, this need becomes more and more apparent. With few retirement options, expensive health insurance and no equity, preparing for the golden years can be a dark shadow that looms over the pastor’s head.
A good alternative? Instead of parsonages, some churches offer a ‘housing allowance’.
So going back to the original ‘expectation’, a pastor should be available and is usually happy to do so, but don’t abuse the privilege. The wife often takes the brunt of the criticism when it comes to the home, whether living in a parsonage or not. They hear complaints about the way they spend their income, what cars they drive, how much they eat out, what gifts they buy on holidays…they are essentially living in a fishbowl. Grant them the courtesy of respecting their family time as much as possible. After all, their children are a ministry too. (A thought that’s very important to remember from the pastor’s kids’ point of view.)
- Being compared to other pastor’s wives.
Nothing makes a person feel more unloved, devalued and vulnerable than being compared to someone else. This includes comparing pastor’s wives to each other. Oddly enough, some members are crass enough to vocally voice their disappointment or comparisons to the pastor’s wife herself.
A poll was recently conducted asking people to list what they expect for their pastor’s wife. Most gave the typical answers—godly women, loving, etc.,— however, some members went a step farther, insisting their pastor’s wife be friendly, outgoing and give selflessly to the church
As I was scanning the poll results, I noticed one common phrase in each response. “What I want from my pastor’s wife is…” “I just want…” “I want…” Isn’t this really the problem? We have an expectation of what a pastor’s wife should be, how they should dress and how they interact with people. It’s about ‘what I want’ from my pastor’s wife. But it’s not up to you, me or anyone in the church: your pastor’s wife is only responsible to God to live the life he gave her, with her unique talents, gifts, family, personality and flaws. Just once, I’d like to hear someone say, “It doesn’t really matter what I want from my pastor’s wife. She only needs to focus on being who God created her to be.” Those they claim they want their pastor’s wife to ‘be a certain way’ are inadvertently stating that God can only use one type of personality in ministry…and this simply isn’t true.
Living in Grace
Along the same lines of interesting polls and statistics, do you know what the number one struggle expressed by pastor’s wives is? Loneliness. Their husband is often called away. They struggle to work full time and keep things running smoothly at home. They feel they are judged if they build close friendships with one or two women in the church so they distance themselves to keep the peace. They know the messy bits of life that go on behind the scenes in a church but can’t say a word. This isn’t always the case but it is a very real struggle for many.
What to do? Pray for her. Love her. Thoughtful gestures and kindness can speak deeply to her heart. Extend grace. Have a sense of humor. Remember she’s not perfect. She struggles in her walk with God just like you. She will mess up from time to time. But then again, so will you. Aren’t you thankful for grace?
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.