Lucas and Mia were a natural fit for the small but growing church in Tribeca. Everyone knew them for their vibrant personalities. Lucas demonstrated leadership finesse. Mia had an exceptional ability to winsomely engage cynics and intellectuals. The couple nurtured a growing network among New York City’s business elite.
Within 24 months of their arrival the church was thriving. But Lucas and Mia were not. Eight months later Lucas announced they were leaving. They vacated their apartment in five days.
Why do couples like this leave the ministry? Of the many rumors that swirl around a pastor’s resignation, we don’t often consider the hardship that ministry places on the pastor’s wife and on their marriage. We easily acknowledge that the happiness of both marriage partners affects marital health. Yet we’ve been slow to correlate how the well-being of a pastor’s spouse affects the long-term vitality of the church.
Women married to pastors face unique challenges. Keeping the following in mind (along with a commitment to regularly pray for her and her marriage) could affect your church more than you realize.
1. She’s Her Own Person
She’s not an appendage of the pastor. She may even have differing political, social, and biblical views than her spouse. But she’s in a position where sharing those views could negatively affect her husband’s job.
Allow her to be who she is. You might be surprised and delighted to discover how different she may be from what you assumed.
2. She Has a Calling
It might not be what you expect, and she may still be figuring it out. Many women consider their husband’s call to a specific pastoral position as a joint calling for both of them. Others do not. And some women married to pastors are hoping someone, anyone, will tell them what their ministry should be, in hopes of not disappointing others.
Confused? So are we. After years of serving in pastoral ministry, some women confess a sense of loss, of not even knowing themselves. They were too busy serving where needed. On the other hand, others may be minimally involved in church ministry with a calling focused outside the church.
3. She May Struggle Financially
In one of our local Parakaleo groups, we were discussing financial hardships and laughing over the ingenious ways we’ve stretched a dollar. I asked how many had ever been on food stamps because of ministry salaries. Half the women raised their hands. I was reminded of how delicate the financial situation is for many women in ministry.
4. She Shares Her Husband with the Whole Church
Depending on the size of the church and whether there are other competent staff members, pastors can be on call 24/7. Family dinners, holidays, and vacations are often interrupted by crisis situations. While some of this disruption can result from unhealthy boundaries in the pastoral home, ministry constantly involves crises.
When you meet a pastor’s wife who seems unusually wise, is her own person, and can speak truth in kindness, you are in the presence of a woman who has come through fire.
Especially in high-risk areas, the pastor is often the first person called during suicide attempts, when someone is jailed, when a church member is in an abusive relationship, when a marriage is breaking up, and so forth. Even celebratory events such as weddings, sporting events, and baptisms still take time away from the pastor’s family. Pastoral couples are honored to be involved in their congregants’ lives in this way. Just be aware that their time is limited for good reason.
5. She Is Harmed by Gossip
Gossip is idle talk or rumors, especially about the personal or private affairs of others. Gossip doesn’t have to be malicious. A simple rule of thumb is to not tell other people’s stories. Let them be the purveyor of their own information. If you hear information from someone about another person, consider a kind way to stop the gossip chain: “You know, I bet Marjorie would want to tell that story herself.”
If it’s malicious gossip, take a hard stand: “Regardless of how bad this situation has become, I don’t want to participate in gossip. Will you go with me back to the person speaking about this and help me stop it?” While I can laugh about it now, at times I discovered through gossip at church things about myself that even I didn’t know.
6. She’s Living with Unrealistic Expectations from Others (and Herself)
Well, who isn’t? Whether it’s our moms, kids, boss, or difficult neighbors, we all experience the pressure of expectations. But consider if you were also living with the expectation of being at church every time the doors opened. What about being told how you should dress? How your children should act? What is appropriate to say or not to say? How you should spend your money? How many people you should invite to your home for dinner? You would be surprised how often women married to pastors are criticized for these things.
Many women married to pastors also work full-time, participate in several church ministries, meet with couples for premarital or pastoral counseling, and attend community functions. It’s already a full life. Your pastor’s wife often needs to be reminded that the only audience that finally matters is the audience of one—her heavenly Father.
7. She Probably Finds Friendships in the Church Tricky to Navigate
It’s virtually impossible for her to know if her church friendships exist because someone is drawn to her or because of her husband’s role. Many women discover, when their husband leaves a pastoral position, that people they thought were friends really weren’t. They assumed the Christmas cards, social invites, long conversations over coffee, or trips to the beach were due to friendships. It’s devastating to discover that, without his role, the friendship was never really there.
The same happens in the reverse. Congregants may think they were closer friends with the pastoral couple and discover a similar scenario when the pastor and family leave. It’s painful for all involved. Rich friendships can still be enjoyed, but it requires maturity and an understanding that some topics are off limits.
8. She’s Harmed by Criticism of Her Husband
Pastors have been told they don’t work hard enough, disciple enough, preach well enough, visit congregants enough, and so on. Everyone has his or her own job description of what a pastor should do. Almost no one realizes the impossibility of meeting these expectations. How many hours should a pastor work? Fifty? Eighty? There’s plenty to be done and usually no one stopping him except his wife. When he’s criticized for not doing enough, she can feel guilty for trying to help him maintain healthy boundaries.
Pastors often share with their wives a disgruntled leader’s comments or what was said in a contentious meeting. But she isn’t part of the conversation when a situation is solved, often doesn’t even know if it’s resolved, and is left without a safe space to process the situation.
And unlike spouses in many other professions, these are the same people with whom she worships. When you meet a pastor’s wife who seems unusually wise, is her own person, and can speak truth in kindness, you are in the presence of a woman who has come through fire. Learn all you can from her, even if it’s just through observation.
9. She Lives with Stress and Ambiguity
Ambiguity is endemic to ministry. For the pastoral family, the system is not clear. All members of the family participate either directly or indirectly in the church. There is some role expectation from the congregation, which must be fulfilled by the pastor, the wife, and even the children. This level of ambiguity causes high levels of stress for pastors’ wives. Consider showing her the same compassion you would extend to someone who has recently received hard news. Why? Because this has likely been her experience on any given day.
Unlike others experiencing sorrow, however, she probably is unable to share the event and its effect, or process it with others in the church. Hearing that a trusted staff member plans on resigning, that a key church leader is having an affair, that the church can’t pay its bills, that her husband’s job is in jeopardy, that her closest friend decided to no longer attend church, are the kinds of revelations women in ministry face on a regular basis.
Not all women married to pastors experience all of the above. Many enjoy a wonderful, caring church community. And most of the pastors’ wives I know enjoy working in tandem with their husbands to see God’s kingdom advance in their city.
Regardless of the differences, the item all women married to pastors has in common is number 10.