July 9, 2012

Ministry Wives Need Ministry, Too

I know more than one pastor’s wife who secretly receives weekly professional counseling.

The stress of ministry life, compounded over the years by a near-monastic silence about problems, has created a situation where these women need help to speak freely and regain a realistic, God-glorifying perspective.

These pastors’ wives are struggling. And their story is not as unusual as the average layman might think.

I can name dear sisters in ministry who have climbed some very steep mountains. They have been diagnosed with mental illness and have been afraid to tell anyone. They have been so poor the jokes beginning with that line are no longer funny. They have quietly supported their husbands through severe depression. They have even lost their husbands to moral failure. And, mostly, they have climbed alone, revealing their vulnerability only on the other side. . .if at all.

Recently, I read an article by a seminary director of alumni. In his post, entitled “Getting Ready for Someone’s Last General Assembly,” Joel Hathaway bemoans the lack of peer support for pastors who are faltering.

His concern is that pastors are so busy with the work that they forget the fellowship. They can tend to buzz past one another, focused on the to-do-list of ministry, and fail to help a brother in need. Men who are all but defeated by discouragement, sin, and spiritual apathy get scant attention from their fellow workers whose souls are (momentarily at least) healthier.

In my mind, each of the unnamed men he mentions is paired with an even more anonymous wife. And if the pastor’s concerns are neglected, surely his wife’s are, too.

Silence is the pastor’s wife’s default.

Why do we do this? I think that saying “the expectations are too high,” does us a disservice. The pastors’ wives I know, down to the last woman, are concerned for God’s glory and for the good of His bride, the church. They would give anything (some of them have given everything) for the kingdom.

We don’t put on a good face because of a prideful conviction that we must have perfect hair or people will tsk-tsk behind our backs.

Instead, I believe most of us minimize our own problems because we think revealing them would be harmful to the kingdom. We keep quiet to protect our husbands, to spare the church additional burdens, and sometimes just because nobody thinks to ask.

And, in many cases, silence and prayer—becoming nothing that Christ might be exalted—is the God-honoring path.

But when pastors’ wives are seriously discouraged, or their marriages are struggling, or their financial needs are acute, I think other Christians need to be intentional about helping them.

This is good for pastors’ wives, but it’s also good for the church.

I jokingly say that my job description as a pastor’s wife is two-task simple: be a good church member, and keep the pastor alive.

But if I’m spiritually depressed, if I’m crippled by sin, if I’m anxious or sexually tempted or angry, I can’t do my job. And when one portion of the Body gives up, all parts are affected.

A hurting pastor’s wife is a hurting church member. She needs the Body to minister to her, just like any other Christian woman. And, because her situation is slightly different, she may also need a different kind of help.

Here, I propose five suggestions to help the forgotten pastor’s wife. Some of them, we wives can do for one another. Some, the church will have to do for us.

1. Prioritize fellowship among wives. Learn to see ministry to other wives as valuable ministry. By making friends with a pastor’s wife, you will have opportunity to help the kingdom.

2. Designate an elder in the local church to “pastor” each wife. That elder should regularly make contact. Only by building a relationship over time will a pastor’s wife feel comfortable enough to seek help in time of need.

3. Destigmatize getting help. My friends who slink off secretly to professional counseling, should be able to do so openly. We should assist pastors’ wives to find and use godly counsel wherever it is available, whether professional or informal.

4. On a presbytery level, make the shepherding committee a household name. When the pastor struggles, his wife does, too. And the local church isn’t always the best place for help. Wives whose husbands are faltering need to know which of their husband’s peers they can call.

5. Don’t let go. In some cases, these struggling women will find themselves no longer pastors’ wives. Through death, divorce, or lack of call, their lives will change radically, and they will need these supports more than ever. We must not forget them.

This is just a beginning. There are years of un-held conversations about encouraging Christ’s struggling workers and their wives. Let’s talk.


  1. I requested what you are suggesting in #2. It was difficult for me to ask for an Elder to be assigned to me because I feared that no one would take on such a daunting task. One man did, and we met last week. God is using this in my life to help me in my role.

    1. Yes, it's hard to put yourself out there and think nobody would want you. Glad he did!

  2. Very insightful post--I know there are so many times that I have to remain silent in conversations with other church members. Though I'm blessed as a pastor's wife to have a precious group of church people, it's not often anyone wants to hear if I'm struggling. When I do try to share, almost inevitably conversation reverts to their problems and I again take on the role of listening. This being said, we've recently been through a difficult time with one of our children, and I had a couple of my church ladies reach out to me and show me they really cared. One took me out shopping and then bought me a rose and told me she'd been praying for me. Simple, but such a sweet, meaningful gesture. Another sat and just listened to me as I poured my heart out. When I was finished (and she let me go until I was completely spent), she told me, "You're a picture of God's grace." I'd never thought of my situation in that way, but what a blessing she was to me!!! God sent help when I most needed it, and through my own church family.

    1. What a blessing to have someone to remind you that your personal struggles are being used for a greater purpose in other people's lives! Another "benefit" to opening up and sharing.

  3. I cannot tell you how much I relate to this post. When struggling, which is more often than anyone realizes, I feel very alone and do not know who I can turn to or trust. I fear that if I share about difficulties in my marriage, struggles with my children, or doubts I experience in my own walk, that my husband or I will be judged, or that what I say will not be held in confidence. I wonder, quite often, why we are living this life as a pastor family that is full of criticism, constant financial crisis, loneliness, and very little reward on this side of Heaven.

    1. I think we have all been there. Christ himself had a very lonely ministry experience, and it is one of my chief comforts that He knows and understands. I prayed for you this morning, sister.

  4. #2 is terrifying to me. Whenever I have reached out for help I HAVE been spurned, judged, and rejected. This by fellow members in my church and other pastor's wives I love and trusted, but won't trust again. AND the ministry has suffered. People lost confidence in my husband and quit listening to sermons and taking them to heart. Even the elders don't support him in many biblical things. I will never speak up again and ask for help. I've been nothing but burned over and over again. And I can echo Anonymous above in her last sentence. I have prayed numerous times for the Lord to give my husband a "normal" job... only later to thank the Lord for the ministry job we have. I can't imagine a better job, even though I hate the whole being rejected and criticized, living the lonely life on the precipice of poverty part. I will go on finding my strength in Christ, rubbing the balm of the Word deep into every pain. I will remember that this is the lot of those who follow Christ, not to be surprised by it. It has been a very rare thing to be a church leader, since the very beginning of the Church, to not suffer in these ways, which will seem like minor trials in the End. Also I find reading Christian/missionary biographies helps me to keep a good perspective on my ministry trials. Our reward is in Heaven ladies, and that's all we really need.

    1. Do you think change is possible this side of heaven?

      If you read my other posts, you'll know I seek to live with an eye to heaven; I'm so thankful for a heart-knowledge of "the highways to Zion" as Psalm 84 says. Our reward IS in heaven. But it also seems to me that the Body can--and should--function more like a Body right now. This is good for pastor's wives, but it's also good for the Body. With the Spirit, I believe mutual trust can happen.

  5. A body SHOULD function like a body this side of Glory, but I think it is not likely to happen in this culture, in most circumstances. We have forgotten how to act like a body. We are a busy culture that delegates responsibilities to appropriate people because we think it must be somehow better and more efficient that way. All that ugly stuff belongs to someone who specializes in whatever that thing is. So, we have adopted the all-too-convenient mental health therapist instead of elder shepherding and older woman help (I feel I can say this bc I used to be one.) Leaders and their families are naturally under the microscope and sinful natures lend themselves to criticism of the leaders and their families so they can feel better about themselves. Personal reflection leading to humble repentance seldom happens. Until people give up being overly busy with all the seemingly important noise in our schedules so they can live simple lives unto God, nothing will change. This ability to slow down and care about another hurting soul will not develop. Our culture won't allow itself to slow down, to not be entertained, to discipline its mind and heart and will and find the delight of peace on the other side. Sadly, our churches have bought into the busyness of it all, trying to keep congregants entertained more than caring about worshiping God in His way. Churches have a calendar full of programs throughout the week to add to the rest of the perceived needful busyness. We're not content doing the stuff God tells us to do, we feel like we need to do more. We need to keep people entertained and feeling good about themselves so we can keep them coming back, that mega church down the way might steal them if their teens are too bored. The American church is too busy individualistically to be a body. I think when the Spirit brings revival we will see faithfulness to God's Word and worship again, all the extra programs will be cancelled, and people will start acting like the body of Christ again. Wide is the path that leads unto destruction, so the revival won't be popular even in so-called evangelical circles. Those who change will be labeled in whatever is the latest negative label so the rest of the mega church culture can go on feeling entertained and good about themselves as the run blindly after the blind guides into the Pit.

  6. Every Christian, not just ministry wives, feels the pain of a broken world. We have all felt rejection, encountered untrustworthy people, and found people too busy to really care. Whether we are aware of it or not, we have also sinned against others in the same way.

    By looking to the example of our suffering Savior "who, being reviled, reviled not in return" we ministry wives have a unique opportunity to set a public example of how to act when wounded. We can seek to bring some practical changes, we can live for Christ's "well done," and we can continue to forget what is behind and (again and again) press on.


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