Susannah Spurgeon, wife of 19th-century preacher Charles Spurgeon, often had to give up her husband for the demands of ministry. Charles preached widely and frequently, and Susannah spent weeks—even months—at home with the children while Charles served elsewhere.
Charles returned from one preaching trip to find Susannah particularly sad and lonely. He tenderly encouraged her and affirmed the value of her solitary days: “Don’t you see, you are giving me to God, in letting me go preach the gospel to poor sinners?”
More than 100 years later, we recognize Susannah’s name and admire her sacrifice for the sake of Christ. But every week there are a handful—perhaps even dozens—of women in churches who similarly give their husbands to God for the work of ministry. They, too, spend long nights at home alone. They, too, shoulder the practical and emotional burdens of being married to a man who shepherds the flock. And you may not even notice them.
They are the elders’ wives.
As I researched my new book for pastors’ and elders’ wives, I asked women about the challenges and joys that accompany marriage to a ruling (or lay) elder. Like their husbands, elders’ wives usually love the church deeply and count it a privilege to serve Christ’s bride. Elders’ wives also often make sacrifices, experience hurts, and struggle to find their place in the church. But they frequently do this in obscurity. The people in the congregation rarely know how much they have given and don’t always understand their unique concerns.
If God designed the body to give care to each part (1 Cor. 12:22–26), we cannot overlook the needs of elders’ wives. Consider six things your elders’ wives may want you to know:
If God designed the body to give care to each part, we cannot overlook the needs of our elders’ wives.
1. She needs friends.
Church members sometimes assume pastors’ and elders’ wives don’t need friends in the church because they’re all close friends with each other. I’ve never been in a church where this was actually the case. Just like everyone else in the church, elders’ wives are looking for friends. They want relationships in which they can know and be known, pray and be prayed for. They want to kayak, paint, or try new restaurants. And they want to do it with other people.
Befriending your elders’ wives starts, of course, with knowing who they are. Particularly in a large church, you may not even know that the woman who sits three rows up every Sunday morning is the wife of one of your elders. Make a point of identifying and establishing a relationship with your elders and their wives: “Greet the friends, each by name” (3 John 15).
2. She wants to grow.
Just because a woman is married to an elder doesn’t mean she’s a spiritual giant. She likely loves Christ and wants to follow him, but she may not be versed in theological language or equipped to lead a women’s Bible study. Like many of us, she may struggle to read her Bible daily or worry that she doesn’t understand it as well as she should. Most of the time, she also wants to grow.
Just because a woman is married to an elder doesn’t mean she’s a spiritual giant.
If the congregation assumes that an elder’s wife matches her husband’s knowledge or abilities, this can exacerbate her feeling of inadequacy. Instead, seek to know the woman next to each elder. Recognize that the Spirit gives a variety gifts (1 Cor. 12:4–6), and that he is at work to mature your elder’s wife, just as he is maturing you.
3. She carries unique burdens.
Writing to the Corinthians, Paul details all the difficulties that came into his life as he sought to serve Christ’s church. He was whipped, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, sleepless, hungry, thirsty, cold, and in constant danger (2 Cor. 11:24–27). “And,” he writes, “apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28).
Your elders probably aren’t facing imminent shipwreck, but they almost certainly experience the daily pressure of anxiety for the church. The needs of God’s people require elders’ time and energy—and consume their thoughts and emotions. For ruling elders, these burdens often pile on top of the demands of their regular employment and home life.
Understand that your elders’ wives regularly sacrifice their husbands’ time, attention, and emotional energy for the sake of the church. What’s more, these women are often counseling and mentoring other women in the church with significant needs. Don’t neglect to pray for your elders’ wives.
4. But she doesn’t know everything.
While it’s important to acknowledge the unique burdens of elders’ wives, it’s equally important to recognize that they don’t know everything that happens in the church. Some parts of their husband’s ministry are private matters: counseling, church discipline, material needs, discussions among the elders.
Your elders’ wives regularly sacrifice their husbands’ time, attention, and emotional energy for the sake of the church.
Your elders’ wives are in the uncomfortable position of knowing their husbands have deep concerns but not being able to share all of them. Ask the Lord to make your elders’ wives content to serve in the dark.
5. She (sometimes) feels hurt.
Many years ago, a church we were part of went through a difficult season of disagreement about some changes in the church. One Sunday night, I stepped into a back hallway, only to hear two voices complaining about my husband’s part in the decision. The church members didn’t realize I was there.
This kind of hurt can be common in the lives of elders’ wives. Their husbands are the visible men who make decisions about the church, but the wives are often the unseen hearers of criticism.
As far as it depends on you, be at peace with your elders and their wives (Rom. 12:18). Be slow to offer criticism. Demonstrate love for them even when—especially when—church disagreements loom large. Look for ways to say to your elders’ wives, “I know this is a hard time in our congregation, but I’m thankful for you and your husband.”
Look for ways to say to your elders’ wives, ‘I know this is a hard time in our congregation, but I’m thankful for you and your husband.’
6. She loves you.
It may be challenging to be the wife of an elder, but it is also a delight. The elders’ wives I spoke to unanimously testified to the goodness of being part of Christ’s church, of serving his people, and of having front-row seats to the kingdom’s advance. In the church, they have been cared for and sharpened. In the body of Christ, they have used their gifts and served their Savior. In the company of the saints, they have experienced great joy.
It is the great privilege of elders’ wives to hear your stories, hold your babies, and stand with you in prayer. You belong to Christ. And your elders’ wives love you.