Once a pastor’s wife sat in my office, weeping. As she dried her eyes, she asked, “Do other pastor’s wives ever feel like this?”
“YES,” I said. “Yes. They do.”
As the wife of a pastor for over 30 years, and more recently as a marriage and family therapist who works with spouses of ministry leaders, I am very aware of the isolation that many pastor’s wives feel. Being the wife of a pastor can be rewarding and fulfilling, but it can also be stressful and lonely.
If you are married to someone in ministry, know that you are not alone. There are many other people who have had similar experiences and felt similar feelings. Most pastor’s wives have probably experienced these things, to greater or lesser degrees:
- Emotional Ups and Downs. Everyone has times when they feel energetic and happy and times when they feel down, irritable or upset. Sometimes as the wife of a pastor, we look at other pastor’s wives and we think that they have it all together, that they are always positive. We think we’re the only one who ever yells at our kids or cries ourself to sleep. We think we’re the only one who’s a mess. But the truth is we’re all broken, we’re all human. And we’re all held in God’s hands.
- Doubts or Dry Spells. When you are in a position of leadership in the church, or married to someone who is, struggles in your faith can be scary. They become another thing to hide, which increases feelings of isolation. But even some of the heroes of the Bible, such as Elijah, Moses and David, had times of doubts or questioning God. You are not alone even when your faith seems dry.
- Busyness. We live in a culture that breeds unhealthy levels of busyness. Churches are by no means immune to this, and ministry families often suffer greatly.
- Pressure to be Perfect. When you’re married to a pastor, it can feel like your family is always on display. There can be pressure to have a model family of well-behaved, perfectly-mannered children. It can trap the ministry spouse in a dilemma: If I am real and raw and open about my less-than-perfect life, I will probably be criticized. Yet if I try to keep my brokenness private, then I feel as though I’m putting on a mask and people in the church don’t really know me.
- Financial Stress. Pastors are often paid less than the average member of their church who has similar educational levels and work experience. This is especially true for pastors on a multi-staff church, such as associate pastors or youth pastors. The wife of a pastor might struggle with having significantly less income than her friends in the church.
- Unrealistic Expectations. Church members often have an agenda of what they expect a pastor’s wife to do or how she should act. Many ministry spouses have a tendency to people-please and feel guilty if they fail to live up to the expectations of others.
- Difficulty Setting Healthy Boundaries. As a therapist, I’ve worked with people from many different helping professions: teachers, therapists, coaches, and nurses, to name a few, as well as pastors. Among all helping professionals, the boundaries for pastors are the most unclear. Therapists have set hours. Nurses aren’t expected to become friends with their patients. But the pastor, and the pastor’s spouse, are often expected to be on call at all hours and to give without limits. The wife of a pastor can easily begin to resent the church if she feels like her husband is there for the church more than he is there for the family.
It is stressful to be the wife of a pastor even when all is going well in ministry. But when things are not going well, when there are conflicts among leaders or upset church members, for example, then the lot of the pastor’s wife becomes even more difficult. When ministry stresses increase, pastor’s wives often also experience:
- Increased Isolation. If there are problems in the church, then who can the pastor’s wife confide in? If she confides in any of her friends at the church, she risks causing problems to spread. And few ministry spouses have close friends outside of the church who they can turn to in times of stress, because so much of their lives revolve around the church.
- Being the Main Support for her Husband. Just as most pastor’s wives don’t have many close friends outside the church, so also most pastors don’t have close friends outside the church. So when job stresses increase, pastors turn to their wives to vent and receive support. The wife hears about personality clashes and political in-fighting. Further, even if the pastor himself is able to resolve the conflicts, the wife is usually not present at those meetings and does not have the same opportunity to experience resolution. For her, the negative effects linger.
- Powerlessness. The ministry spouse doesn’t have an official position at the church, so when problems arise, it can feel like she has no voice, no standing, no way to impact the situation. She is extremely impacted BY the church leadership’s decisions, but she has very little impact ON the church leadership’s decisions.
- Shame and Embarrassment. Some ministry problems arise due to moral failings of a pastor. The wife of a pastor who leaves ministry due to a moral failing might feel exposed and ashamed. It can be difficult for her to leave her home, not knowing who might have heard about her husband’s disgrace.
- Grief. Most Christians who have problems on the job or leave their job can talk about that with their friends at church and receive support. But when a pastor leaves a church, he doesn’t just lose a job, he and his family also lose their community, their church, their friends, their main support system. Their grief spikes right when their support plummets.
- Sense of Betrayal and Invisibility. No church hires a pastor without meeting with his wife. When a pastor begins work at a church, the wife is seen as part of the team. They say that church is a family. The wife is encouraged and expected to become involved, to volunteer countless hours in the children’s ministry or on the music team, to lead the women’s ministry, or to mentor and counsel alongside her husband. But when things go south, when problems arise, then the wife becomes invisible. No one on the elder board or pastoral staff calls the wife and seeks out her point of view, no one includes her in meetings. They say that church is a business. She’s not the employee, her husband is. It would be inappropriate to involve her. As a result, many pastor’s wives feel deeply betrayed and hurt by churches that they once loved and served.
Pastor’s wife, you are not alone. Sadly, many women have experienced the pain that you are going through. The struggles of a pastor’s wife rarely receive attention, but they are very real.
God sees. God hears. You are not alone.
If you are married to a pastor or former pastor, and you would like to talk further, feel free to go here and click on the Contact Us button. We at Restore and Rebuild Ministries would be happy to hear your story and do what we can to support you.
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