For my growing up years all the way through college, I had a favorite slogan: “I will never, period, never marry a pastor.” Not that I was opposed to the pastoral function or had anything against any individual pastors. It’s just that the role of a pastor’s wife looked like a tough job I wanted to stay far away from. Growing up in church – various churches, really – I had witnessed plenty of the pressure, politics, and public scrutiny that come at a pastor and his family. And I had friendships with enough PKs and pastors’ wives to know those challenges can be at once unrelenting and undefined when they come to the pastor’s wife.
But in the past few years my expectations and my stubborn resolution have changed. In talking with three women married to ministers and who are seasoned ministry leaders in their own right, I’ve arrived at a deeper perspective. From conversations on behalf of AFA Journal with Barbara Bancroft, Susie Hawkins, and Kimberly Wagner, I’ve gained insight into the life of a ministry wife. The lesson for me, and for all the members of any pastor’s flock, is to keep in mind a few simple things about the pastor’s wife. One aspect concerns her role, and another concerns the congregation’s part to play, and I will describe a few points for each.
First, for the pastor’s wife, she has:
A spiritual partnership – A pastor’s wife is not isolated from the ministry. She may not function in the same way as the pastor, be on the church salary, or bear the responsibilities he does, but through her marriage to a man in the unique position of spiritual leadership she does have her own call to ministry.
A sacred trust – Scripture does not outline a list of specific tasks a minister’s wife is supposed to perform, but it does mention her character in 1 Timothy 3:11. Her position of influence, and vulnerability, as the pastor’s wife necessitates a godly character.
A spiritual walk – The wife is not just an extension of the pastor. She has her own spiritual walk before God. She can’t get a free ride off her husband’s fellowship with God. She needs to diligently maintain her own relationship with God.
Spiritual gifts – On the same token, she has her own spiritual gifting that may not be similar to her husband’s, or to other pastors’ wives. She may be led to some aspects of ministry and not to others, so her ministry duties cannot be drawn up for her.
A load of expectations – She has many expectations coming at her from all sides, from various church members or church staff, and even from herself. She cannot possibly meet them all and should not be made to feel as if she should. The best she can do is what God has laid on her heart and equipped her to do, and trust Him to supply for additional needs.
A marriage – She is not just “the pastor’s wife.” She is his wife. She is his helpmeet, his support, and his love. There is something sacred in their marriage, their relationship that is just between them and not the property of their congregation. She doesn’t need to hear remarks that undermine her husband or her marriage. Neither does she need critiques on her and her husband’s decisions on what to do about having or not having so many children, where they go on vacation, their financial choices, or what color they paint the living room walls.
Next, for the congregation, allow her:
Freedom – Your pastor’s wife has spiritual gifts and you have certain expectations, and the two may not line up perfectly. Allow her freedom in how she participates in ministry.
Time – She has a lot on her plate with all the normal obligations of family, work, friends, household chores, special interests or hobbies, and life goals – and on top of that, the church. Have consideration for the demands on her time and don’t assume she’s ready to be tied to the church or always available.
Family – Be respectful of her time with family. There are family experiences you take for granted such as having evenings undisturbed at home or attending church with your spouse beside you. Those are rare, treasured moments for her so leave time and space for her to enjoy her family.
Grace – Your pastor’s wife is not a super being. She is a fallen human like you. She might even be less than mature in years or in her spiritual life. She has limitations, faults, and personal baggage, and a not very private landscape in which to deal with it all. When you notice these things, show her grace.
Encouragement – It is so simple it may be overlooked, but even small things can encourage your pastor’s wife. Just a few words or a few moments can let her know you value her and her husband’s ministry. And if you see an opening, step in to help in a specific way in one of the areas mentioned above. For example, provide childcare so she can go out, arrange for the pastor’s family to be able to take a quiet weekend away, or take them a home-cooked meal.
Friendship – Offer genuine friendship. Don’t make her feel forced into it and don’t be fake, but open the door of friendship and fellowship and invite her, her husband, and her family to different types of activities unrelated to church. Don’t expect that they will bare their souls to you, but protect whatever they do entrust to your friendship.
Together, a pastor’s wife and the congregation can produce two great fruits for the health of the ministry role: honor and witness. Both her actions and the actions of the congregation can bring great honor to the role, not just to her personally, but to the ministry calling. As Scripture says, those who lead in the church are worthy of “double honor” (1 Timothy 5:17), and so, “Dear brothers and sisters, honor those who are your leaders in the Lord's work. They work hard among you and give you spiritual guidance” (1 Thessalonians 5:12, NLT). Out of that, her witness is magnified.
The pastor’s wife is unquestionably in the spotlight for those that sit under her husband’s ministry. She may be seen as the representation of what it means to be a Christian woman, expected to manifest all the virtues of the Christian life. Her conduct, her care for her family, and her teaching may set an example that others will seek to follow. The congregation can sustain and strengthen her in that witness, and their actions toward her can be a witness in itself that models love and unity in the church and respect and gratitude for those who minister under the authority of God’s call.