A friend who is soon to be a Pastor’s wife asked me to give her Ten Tips for Pastors’ Wives. That is quite an assignment! Even after 20 years of being a Pastor’s wife, I’m not sure I’m qualified – but I’ll have a go, with the caveat that I’m still learning – and what is important for me may not be important for someone else (and vice versa). So if you’re a pastor’s wife and you’re reading this, feel free to chip in – it will enhance the discussion and make it more relevant to more people.
These are not necessarily in order of importance:
1. Avoid the Comparison Trap and Keep Juggling
We all do it, whatever our walk in life. Our husbands do it too – but that’s another story. I remember when I was a new pastor’s wife, we spent some time with a seasoned pastoral couple – and I felt so inadequate. I was a young Mum with two very young children, we had moved from N.Ireland to Switzerland to pastor an international church – and this was our first church. The other pastor’s wife had years of experience behind her, her children were much older and she seemed to be involved in so many ministries at her church. When I (enviously) asked her what all she was doing, she told me. But then (wisely and sensitively) she added: ‘You are at a different stage. You have young children at home. All that will come later for you.’ I was thankful for that perspective.
Years later, I was indeed involved in several different ministries in church. But what I have found is that, particularly as women, we are juggling several balls in the air at once. Those balls change so quickly from one season of life to another that we have to constantly reassess which balls we need to keep in the air and which balls we can drop.
2. Be Yourself
I don’t know what your picture of a pastor’s wife is but most of us have one. I actually didn’t have one, because I was brought up in the Brethren church which had no pastors, relying as it did on lay preachers and elders. As well as that, our first church was an international, non-denominational church which meant that we had over 20 nationalities and many denominations as well. So everyone’s background was different and everyone’s point of view was valid. We had no traditions and we could never say we did something because that was the way we had always done it. There probably were expectations of the pastor’s wife – but they would have been so different from person to person that I was free to use and develop whatever gifts God had given me, which was a tremendous privilege.
Nevertheless, I have been aware down through the years that there have been certain things expected of me – from the sublime to the not-so-sublime. Some feel that the pastor’s wife should lead the women’s ministry; others that she should take a very public role within the church; others that she she should play the piano; others that she should stand at the door with her husband and say goodbye to each member of the congregation as they leave the church. (I didn’t do the latter – it was too cold out there and anyway, I have never been good at small talk. I was much happier spending that time chatting to those who had stayed for a coffee after the service.)
3. Support your Husband
That should be pretty obvious – but somehow it can be lost amidst the flurry of activities, family commitments, church events etc. If you are new to the whole thing and trying to carve out a niche for yourself, you can easily forget that actually your primary role in this ‘job’ is to support your husband. You are, after all ‘the pastor’s wife’. I remember a good friend in one of the churches we served saying to me that in all of the things I did and for all the ministries I was involved in, I could be replaced – but no one else could be the pastor’s wife. You have a unique role there and, although it may not be popular today when we as women are encouraged to ‘find ourselves’, part of your role is to support your husband in the calling which God has given him. There will be things which he can’t share with anyone else; there will be days when he wants to give up; there will be nights when he can’t sleep. Who else is he going to share those things with? Take that calling seriously – and be there for him at those times when he is at his most vulnerable. It is a tremendous privilege.
4. Keep Your Sense of Humour
Church work is hard. A Pastor’s calling is serious. He is on call 24/7. It is relentless. He feels responsible for the flock in his care. There are heavy counselling problems, difficult theological questions, and complicated political issues within the church. It all takes its toll. Some days there doesn’t seem to be much to laugh about. But – maybe on those days more than ever – you need to remember to have fun. Keep your sense of humour. You don’t need to laugh at the problems – but you do need to maintain perspective and help your husband to maintain his. Don’t take yourself too seriously – and help your husband not to take himself too seriously. In the end of the day, the church is God’s problem – not yours.
5. Keep Romance Alive
It’s easy for your relationship to be submerged under the demands of the ministry and it all seems so ‘spiritual’ to put God and His kingdom first. But I don’t believe God ever meant us to put the church before our marriages. God should have first place in our lives and then our spouses and families – after that, the church. It is tragic if our marriages are shipwrecked because we have neglected them for the church. No one else is responsible for our marriages but ourselves. So make a date- night – weekly if you can – and guard it with your life. Allow no one and nothing to interrupt it, unless there is an extreme emergency….
6. Guard your Family Time
Emergencies….now there’s a problem. What exactly constitutes an emergency? The trouble is that everyone thinks their problem is an emergency. Whether it’s little Johnny who has fallen at school, his Mum who has gone into labour at home, or his granny who is in hospital for her knee operation – they all need your husband and they need him now. We are all the same when we’re in need – we want help and we want it now. But very few problems are emergencies. Even that distressing telephone call when the young woman assures you that her marriage is about to break up if your husband doesn’t come now – even that is not an emergency. It has taken 10 years to get to that point and if they have to wait 24 hours until your husband can see them, that is not going to make any difference – in fact it may actually give them some time to gain a better perspective. So here’s my advice for what it’s worth: guard family meal times (put the telephone answering machine on and let it take the calls); set weekly family times when you can do something together (exactly what will depend on the ages of your kids); and plan annual family holidays which do not include church camps etc. A complete break is good for everyone and will mean that you can go back refreshed and renewed.
7. Protect your Children
Our children have a tremendous privilege growing up in pastoral families. They can get to see church as God intended it. They may see God work in amazing ways. They experience miracles firsthand. They receive unexpected gifts, maybe even wonderful vacations. Their Dad may be free to attend sports events or other activities during the working day because his time is more flexible than other Dads’ time.
But they also see church as we fallen human beings can make it. They know the toll it takes. They see their weary parents. They know the times when their Dad isn’t available because there’s a crisis going on. They hear criticism too.
So make sure they are aware of all the positive aspects of being a Pastor’s kid – and guard them when you can from the negative side, whether that is pressure from others or criticism of their Dad. Try to make sure they don’t overhear conversations they would be better not hearing. And release them from pressure which comes from others.
I remember one of our daughters being held up as the standard so that her friends knew that if she was allowed to…… (fill in the blank: wear red nail polish/have her nose pierced/go to the school disco…..) then they would be allowed to do the same. No child should have to deal with that pressure – so make sure your child knows that (s)he is free to do what you have agreed together – and what his/her friends do is up to their parents.
NB You may also need to release yourself from expecting your child to be different from other kids. I remember one of our girls starting to cry on stage at a rehearsal for a Christmas play in church. As I went up to get her down, a friend said to me, ‘Why should your child be any different from the rest?’ That is a very good question!
8. Don’t Respond to Every Request for Help
That doesn’t sound very spiritual, I know, but somehow we begin to think that we are there to help out wherever there is someone in need. Whether that’s a marriage on the rocks, a child who needs babysat, or someone who needs their blocked sink fixed – we can’t possibly respond to all the needs of a congregation and stay sane. I remember early on in our time at one church, I sat down in church for a Sunday service and the lady in front turned round and said, ‘Pauline, the sun is coming through the windows and I can’t see the pulpit’. What was I meant to do?!!!
That is a very trivial example – and I did respond to it. I wish I had not taken it on myself to respond to that request, as well as some others. Why do we think we have to? Who do others think we have to? What is our job description anyway? We haven’t got one! So, early on in your ministry with your husband, try to work out what God has gifted you to do – and get on with doing it. Then you need to learn to graciously decline all the other job offers. If all else fails, point the person in the direction of the nearest deacon or elder.
9. Develop a Thick Skin
Some of us are born with thick skins – others of us have to learn to develop one. I am a sensitive soul and it has taken me a long time to learn to take criticism. But in this calling your husband will constantly be on the receiving end of criticism – and you will come in for your fair share too. Some will be obvious and some will be veiled, from what you wear to church, to how you dress your kids, to how you spend your money.
By the very nature of the job, some church members feel they have the right to point out everything they don’t like – to your husband and about your husband. If you are like me, you would rather hear criticism about yourself than about your husband. So swallow hard, withdraw those claws that are about to pounce, and take some time. It’s always good to reflect on what grain of truth there may be in any criticism and deal with it before dealing with the rest.
10. Guard your Relationship with God
This is obvious – but Pastors and their wives struggle with maintaining their spiritual lives just as much as anyone else. There are always other demands on our time – and perhaps because those demands seem ‘spiritual’, we can fool ourselves into thinking we don’t need time with God so much. After all, if we are preparing a Bible study or a Women’s talk, we are in the Word, aren’t we? We are, but it’s not quite the same as that one-to-one intimate time with God where we are just spending time with Him for our own good. So guard that time – selfishly, doggedly – and keep it fresh. Use a devotional, keep a journal, read books on prayer and the devotional life, do whatever you need to keep it fresh. For we cannot lead others where we have not been.
11. Maintain Friendships outside the Church
Ok. I know this was supposed to be Ten Tips – but it has become Twelve. Well 12 is a good number in the Bible – there were 12 tribes of Israel and 12 apostles! You will need a good friend or two to share things with – and experience has taught me that sometimes it is possible to have one or two good friends within the church and sometimes it isn’t. Through the years we have served in ministry, I have been truly blessed to have had one or two good friends within the church, friends I could share with and pray with regularly. (But if you do have special friends within the church, it is best to refrain from making those friendships obvious within the church.) However, sometimes things can become complicated if there are problems within the church so it may be prudent to maintain one or two good friendships outside as well. Then these are safe places where you can share without the waters being muddied by inter-personal loyalties. These are friends you can pray with – regularly – and support one another when the going gets tough. It also helps you gain perspective when you can seek advice from someone who is not part of your own church.
12. Be thankful
Remember to be thankful for the privilege of the calling. Depending on how it’s going, what season of life you’re in, how your kids are coping, and many other factors, you may find it easy to be thankful and you may find it hard.
But don’t forget the immense privilege it is to serve people in a congregation. You get to celebrate the births of their babies, you are invited to join them on their wedding days, and you are there to comfort them when they are grieving. Through all the vicissitudes of life, you are invited to share their stories with them. There are few jobs which offer such an intimate knowledge of people. It is a huge responsibility – and it is a huge privilege. Cherish it. Be thankful that God has entrusted such a gift to you. And guard their secrets to yourself.
When a church is functioning well, it is something which brings God so much pleasure. I remember being moved almost to tears as I sat in a prayer meeting for prodigals in one of our churches and listened to men and women plead with God for others who had strayed from Him. It felt like holy ground.
I have felt the same way when someone has invited me to share their struggles and made me part of their story. To see a woman who was at the end of her rope coming through to the place where she has found hope again is such an amazing privilege. That God should allow me to be a little part of that is truly humbling.
Gail MacDonald has written a book called ‘High Call, High Privilege’ – and that is what our calling is as pastors’ wives. May God help us to find balance in our lives as we juggle so many balls in the air, so that we will be able to serve Him well and rejoice in the high call and high privilege He has given us.