“Once at a new church – we had not been there 48 hours – a woman called and asked if I would take over the scheduled missions banquet,” Susie Hawkins, a pastor’s wife, recalled. “All I could say was, ‘Thank you for thinking I could do that, but I have to decline.’ There are often these kinds of ideas about a minister’s wife – that she will be very visible in the church, in VBS or women’s ministry or mission organizations or music.”
Getting a grip on expectations
Hawkins is a ministry wife who has had to confront, and help others confront, just those types of challenging situations. The wife of well-known pastor and author O.S. Hawkins, she leads women’s ministry programs around the country, serves in various capacities for the Southern Baptist Convention and writes regularly for flourish.me, an online ministry for ministers’ wives.
Hawkins shares from her experiences of 25 years in ministry as a pastor’s wife to discuss some of the unique challenges of this role.
As illustrated in the anecdote above, it can be especially hard to navigate uncertain or conflicting expectations – whether from a church congregation or the woman herself – of just how she should fill the shoes of a pastor’s wife. Often a church body regards their pastor’s wife with preconceived assumptions. Hawkins told AFA Journal a pastor’s wife is not required to fulfill a stereotype, but to carry out her own walk before God.
“Perhaps a previous pastor’s wife did plan the missions banquet or lead the VBS, and that’s what a church is accustomed to,” she said. “But, bottom line, every minister’s wife needs to know who she is: how God has gifted her, what He has called her to, how she can best support her husband and her church.”
However, a ministry wife is not without any external standard. Aside from the example of other godly women, she is given biblical instruction, which focuses on her Christian character.
“Nowhere in the New Testament are we told the pastor’s wife has to perform certain duties in the church,” she explained. “But when Paul describes characteristics of a Christian leader he also mentions the wife in 1 Timothy 3:11: ‘Wives, too, must be worthy of respect, not slanderers, self-controlled, faithful in everything.’ That tells us something – her character does matter, her actions do matter – because the wife is in spiritual partnership with her husband in ministry.”
But many ministry wives struggle at a deeper level, questioning if they even have a personal calling to ministry. After all, their place in ministry is often not determined by their own decision but in connection to their husband’s vocation.
“I would say for at least a third of these women, their husbands were called to ministry, or even came to Christ, after marriage,” Hawkins said. “So the general idea can be ‘I didn’t sign up for this.’ But understand this: If you are married, you are one, physically, emotionally, spiritually. Therefore, if a man is called to ministry, his wife is called to walk alongside him in spiritual leadership. You can’t overemphasize the role of the ministry wife. As the pastoral epistles indicate, the wife does matter.”
Putting appreciation into action
On that note, church members should not neglect special consideration of their pastor’s wife as they demonstrate appreciation for their pastor’s ministry. Hawkins highlighted several ways to encourage a wife in ministry:
Be her friend. Offer trustworthy friendship beyond the church walls. “Maybe go for coffee and just chat about your lives in general as wives and moms,” Hawkins suggested. “But take your cue from her. Does she respond to you or seem interested?”
Recognize her personality type. Is she extroverted? Introverted? Either way, let her set realistic goals and don’t push her to overextend herself. “I’m a people person so I’m drawn to people-oriented work,” Hawkins explained. “But many pastors’ wives are more quiet-natured. Your minister’s wife may feel called to something more private, like prayer ministry. Are you going to give her that freedom?”
Encourage her personal Christian walk. Let her use her spiritual gifts as she feels led. “Give her room to use her gifts where she feels called to serve,” Hawkins advised.
Affirm her ministry. Openly express appreciation for her. “Often the biggest struggle for a ministry wife comes from her expectations for herself,” Hawkins shared. “Thank her for even small ways she serves. There is nothing so helpful as words of affirmation.”
Show support for her husband. Voice appreciation for her husband in front of her. “Be free with your encouragement and praise,” Hawkins said. “It speaks volumes to a woman when another couple, another man or woman, says, ‘Thank you for your sermons. Thank you for your leadership.’ I don’t think you can do that enough.”
Watch out for her kids. Be aware of the vulnerable and tenuous position a pastor’s children may be placed in. “Have the PK’s back,” Hawkins urged. “This is really important for people to understand. People will say to the kids what they don’t have the nerve to say to the wife or the pastor. Encourage, befriend, and pray for those children. Protect the family unit.”
Give her time with family. Help her and her husband find respite from the many demands on their family. “One of the greatest stresses on ministry wives is to find family time without being distracted by email, phone, and social media,” Hawkins explained. “I would really advise a church to give the pastor time – one day off a week, a few weeks or a month to get away occasionally – where he can just unplug and spend time with his wife and kids.”
Respect her visible position. Realize her influence, especially before other women. “So many in our culture have no idea how to be a Christian woman, wife, or mother,” Hawkins pointed out. “Your pastor’s wife has an exceptional opportunity to show them a woman who lovingly honors her husband and cares for her children. Maybe that just means they see her everyday life, sitting with her kids in church or encouraging her husband.”
“And above all, show the ministry wife a special grace,” Hawkins emphasized. She may not stand next to the pastor in the pulpit on Sunday mornings. She may not teach Sunday school or organize church functions. She fills a demanding position that sometimes goes unnoticed and uncompensated, one that she may not have chosen or expected before her marriage or her husband’s calling. But the ministry wife has a vital role in spiritual leadership with her husband.
“As described in Titus 2,” Hawkins concluded, “she is modeling the Christian life, and you can participate in that by encouraging and being a blessing to her.”
From One Ministry Wife to Another by Susie Hawkins
Running on Empty: The Gospel for Women in Ministry by Barbara Bancroft
Encouragement for Pastors & Wives with Dr. Robert Jeffress –a teaching series that includes four messages on two DVDs. Available at afastore.net or 877-927-4917