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Life in a Fishbowl

Monday, June 10, 2024 @ 08:26 AM Life in a Fishbowl Jordan Chamblee Stand Writer MORE

Are American congregations proving to be more of a burden than a blessing to their pastors’ families?

A growing number of American pastors are facing immense pressures that are causing many to rethink their commitment to ministry, according to recent surveys from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and Barna Group. And this pressure isn’t just affecting their role in the church, but their families as well.

While most pastors’ wives feel a strong calling to ministry, there is often an estrangement between them and the congregation, according to Rivers Partin, a pastor’s wife who serves on the Spouse Development Team at the North American Mission Board.

“I think ministry wives, in particular, have experienced a lot of hurt,” Partin said in an interview on the Ministry Wives podcast. “They’ve watched their husband be hurt, or their kids be hurt, and it really does drive pulling away. … Early in ministry, another pastor’s wife directly told me, ‘Don’t be close friends with a lot of women in your church. It’s too dangerous.’ … I think that advice was because of hurt and pain.”

The Stand spoke to Jan Harper, wife of veteran minister and AFR host Bert Harper, to shed some light on these challenges from her wealth of experience.

The Stand: What is one of the constant struggles faced by pastors’ wives?

Jan Harper: It’s a constant tightrope walk. We pour our hearts into this ministry alongside our husbands, but there’s this unspoken – and sometimes spoken – expectation to be this perfect, unflappable pastor’s wife. If we open up about our struggles, we risk being judged or seen as a source of weakness for our husbands’ ministries. It’s like we’re living in a fishbowl. Sundays, which should be a time of joy, can start to feel like yet another obligation to bear through. You find yourself just going through the motions, and that spark you used to have starts to fade.

TS: Can this affect the rest of a pastor’s family?

JH: It cuts deeper than most people realize. I love being a part of my husband’s ministry, but it can feel like a constant tug of war. The church becomes this extended family, with endless demands on our time and energy. There’s a real pressure to be ever-present, to attend every potluck and committee meeting. But the needs of our own families get pushed aside. Many pastors’ wives see the toll it takes on their children – this lack of quality time with their father, the feeling of being second place to the needs of the congregation.

TS: How can congregations demonstrate care for their pastors’ families?

JH: When congregations can give the same understanding and support to their pastor’s wife as to their own daughters or sisters, that’s when things start to shift. Imagine a church where a pastor’s family’s well-being is valued just as much as the needs of the congregation. The truth is, the Bible gives us a clear picture of what to expect from a pastor’s wife – she is the wife of the pastor. We want to support our husbands, to be a source of strength for them and our children. Our family is our primary calling. Our role in the church as the pastor’s wife is secondary.

TS: Do you have any advice for pastors’ wives struggling with burnout?

JH: Stay close to God, and keep growing in Him. In those times of closeness with God, ministry wives find their ultimate affirmation – and the sustaining grace to carry on. You cannot fulfill everyone’s expectations. Just be the person God wants you to be.

(Digital Editor's Note: This article was published first in the June 2024 print edition of The Stand. Click HERE to get a free six-month subscription.)

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