5 Ministry Killers in the Life of a Pastor’s Wife

My wife, Sherryl, and I have been married for almost 34 years (this Saturday marks the date). We’ve been through ups and downs in our lives and in our ministry. Yet, we still have a zest for ministry as we see each other as ministry partners. When I wrote my second book, 5 Ministry Killers and How to Defeat Them, we collaborated on a final chapter called a pastor’s wife killers. Here’s what Sherryl believes can suck the life out of a pastor’s wife with a few suggestions how to combat them.

shark killer
  1. Deep loneliness.
    • This issue hit home after we both graduated from seminary and I took my first church. The people were nice but Sherryl just couldn’t seem to click with them. Although Sherryl is very outgoing, some people seemed to distance themselves from her and building friends became difficult. It seemed that people didn’t think she needed friends. These experiences helped Sherryl realize that many pastors’ wives do face a loneliness void, especially when they come to a new church setting. Over time Sherryl did find safe friends, but the process seemed agonizingly slow.
  2. Inescapable vulnerability with others. (I quote Sherryl’s thoughts here.)
    • Pastors’ wives face a unique kind of vulnerability. By default, the church where her husband serves often becomes the center of her life in several areas. It’s her main opportunity for service, the place to find some of her closest relationships, the source of her family’s primary means of financial support, and her home away from home. Unfortunately, it also becomes the source of the greatest criticism. Unlike many women who find volunteer opportunities, friendships, and income through other various venues, a pastor’s wife often finds all three wrapped up in the same place: the church.
    • This can become an example of the proverbial “eggs all in one basket.” The history of the word pastor illustrates this idea. The Old English term for person, “parson,” became commonly used to describe a pastor, because the man and the vocation were so integrated that they’d become synonymous. The same holds true for a pastor’s wife.  (Kindle Locations 1644-1649, 5 Ministry Killers, Bethany House, 2010).
  3. Living in a fishbowl world. (again, her insights)
    • When I say that a fishbowl experience can become a ministry killer for a pastor’s wife, I mean this: We not only must face the normal and painful stuff life throws at us, but we must do it as the church looks on.
    • Fortunately, what created anxiety in the fishbowl also challenged me to deepen my walk with Christ. Knowing that others watched my response to crises spurred me to move forward in my faith rather than to wallow in self-pity. Had I not been in the fishbowl, I’m not sure I would have relied as much on His grace.
    • As I reflect on Jesus’ life, I realize He revealed the Father’s heart to us even when He lived in a fishbowl. The people expected Him to be one kind of Messiah, but He didn’t meet their expectations. Instead, He met His Father’s. He lived to please God, not others.
    • This understanding freed me. Although I can only reflect His image dimly, even in the fishbowl I want to mirror His character as clearly as possible. When I try to keep my eyes on the Lord to seek His approval, I’m more at peace and free to be me when I deal with others’ expectations. As a pastor’s wife I must remind myself that one day I will stand before Him to give an account of my life. Then the only thing that will matter is that my life reflected Him well.  (Kindle Locations 1680-1688).
  4. Managing unrealistic and unfair expectations.
    • The spoken and unspoken expectations churches place on pastors’ wives landed on my list because every church has them. Most churches don’t officially say they expect certain things from pastors’ wives. However, they’re as pervasive as dust bunnies and differ from what they expect from other women in the church. (Kindle Locations 1690-1692).
    • Some pastor’s wives simply give up when they can’t meet other’s expectations. They withdraw and become sullen. Others yield to despair, helplessness, and hopelessness. Others outright rebel and turn to behavior that at a conscious or subconscious level hope will force their husbands to leave the church or even leave the ministry. Most pastor’s wives don’t makes such devastating choices, but the expectations killer still exists. Ideally we wives should respond with grace and dignity to them. Through prayer, safe friends, and leaning into the Lord, we can prevail.
  5. Having little or no voice in response to church decisions/church critics. (final thoughts from Sherryl)
    • This issue concerns two groups: church boards and your critics. Boards where we’ve served have seldom asked for my thoughts on decisions. I recognize that because I don’t serve on those boards they aren’t bound to ask me what I think. And most decisions have had little direct bearing on our family or me. However, when a decision does impact our family, as a pastor’s wife I’m not able to voice concerns for fear that such disapproval could affect your job or how others may perceive you.
    • As for critics, we’ve often felt the brunt of unfounded criticism through an e-mail, a call, or a conversation. It hurts, especially when it comes from someone we’ve thought safe.
    • It’s easy for a pastor’s wife to take offense. Since these criticisms aren’t directed toward me, Matthew 18 instructs me not to bring them up; rather, you’re the one who is to approach the critic. But because I’m your wife, when you get criticized, I feel criticized as well. To add insult to injury, I’m expected to be gracious when I come in contact with these people. This makes me feel bound and gagged.
    • I remember years ago when a couple came to talk to you. The wife had been hurt because she believed you ignored her by not speaking to her one Sunday morning. Even though you explained that your oversight was inadvertent and that you’d be more sensitive next time, they left the church a few months later. I struggle with those situations because I feel I have no voice. I feel powerless. I want to express my disappointment with such people and help them get perspective, but if they’ve already decided to leave, it profits little. (Kindle Locations 1712-1722).

In our current church we both have a great relationship with those on our board. It really is a freeing experience for us.

Having been in ministry together for over three decades, we recognize that serving alongside a pastor as a spouse is difficult. And I believe these killers apply as well to spouses of female pastors. While we can’t ignore these killers, with God’s grace a pastor and his spouse can rise above them and choose the godly path.

What spouse killers have you seen in churches? How have you dealt with them?

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8 Ways to Bust Leadership Discouragement

Discouragement is a universal experience for ministry leaders and the word actually self defines itself…dis-courage meaning no courage. Some of the Bible’s greatest characters faced it: Moses, David, Paul, Mary the mother of Jesus, and the apostles. Nehemiah, the great Old Testament leader faced it when he led the Jews to rebuild the wall. Yet, his response offers us hope when we face it.

Businessman having a crisis

Nehemiah had been hammered with criticism and it was taking its toll. Discouragement had set in. Nehemiah 4.10-21 tells us what Nehemiah did in response to it. This part of the rebuilding story gives us 8 discouragement busters.

Buster 1: Monitor your thoughts.

This buster is perhaps the most important one. An unconscious chatter is always active inside our minds because our mind simply wanders a lot. When we are not thinking about anything else, it wanders off into worry, fear, anxiety, or discouragement.

A key concept gaining greater prominence today is something called metacognition which simply means thinking about what you are thinking about. To battle discouragement we must discipline ourselves to be aware of this constant chatter that often leads us into discouragement. I believe the Apostle Paul understood that when he wrote this verse.

Phil. 4.8   Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.

So, to bust discouragement stop and ask yourself, “What am I thinking about?” Monitor your thoughts, your self-talk, the inner chatter. Change you thinking if it’s going negative.

Buster 2: When you feel discouraged call it what it is, don’t stuff it, ignore it, or rehearse it.

Nehemiah didn’t ignore the discouragement the people felt.

When we name our negative emotion we actually decrease its power, contrary to what we often tell ourselves, “Just ignore it or stuff it.” Neuroscientists have discovered that when we stuff our emotions it actually reinforces them over the long term. But when we actually name them, it decreases the power of our emotional centers and engages the thinking centers of our minds.

Buster 3: Guard against emotional pig-pens.

Pig-pen, one of the characters in the Peanuts cartoon was always dirty and carried around a cloud of dust wherever he went. And, he seemed to spread his dirt everywhere he went. Pig-pen is a great word picture for some people who carry around a cloud of discouragement with them wherever they go. In Nehemiah’s day some of the Jews living in the surrounding areas would come into town and bring their discouragement. When you know someone around you is an emotional pig-pen, keep your distance.

Buster 4: Do nothing.

Nehemiah had to stop the building for a time to re-group and re-focus the Jews. Sometimes as leaders we get so tired or sleep deprived we simply need to stop, rest, sleep more, or simply take a break.

Buster 5: Do something.

Nehemiah responded to this discouragement and resistance by getting the people to be intentional about doing something to get them off their negativity. He gave them a common goal. He did something constructive by setting new plans in place to deal with his enemies. So, when discouragement comes, don’t wallow in it. Rather, do something constructive.

 Buster 6. Be specific with your plan.

Nehemiah was specific in what he did in response to the discouragement. He made many changes in how the work was done. The same holds true for defeating discouragement. We know that discouragement will come our way, so be prepared. When it comes, act upon your predetermined plan. Such a plan may include calling it what it is, going for a walk, calling a friend, doing something nice for someone, or spending 10 minutes on a short term project you’ve been avoiding (like cleaning off your desk).

Buster 7: Count your blessings, not your burdens.

Nehemiah often reminded the people of God’s faithfulness to them. In doing so he was helping them count their blessings. Neuroscientists are learning that when we count our blessings and shift our attention from the negative we actually decrease the chemicals in our brain that make us feel blue. By counting your blessings you are intentionally shifting your attention off the source of and the emotion of discouragement. The Psalmists counsels us with these words.

Psa. 77.11 I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.

Buster 8: Don’t face your discouragement all alone.

Nehemiah would keep his trumpeter at his side and if he saw the enemy marshaling forces in the distance, he’d sound the alarm to bring everybody together. The beauty of the body of Christ remind us that we don’t have to bear our burdens alone. When you face discouragement, take the initiative to be a friend, get into a safe small group, or see a counselor. Don’t bear it alone.

Every ministry leader will face discouragement. Nehemiah’s response gives us hope in our discouragement.

What has helped you battle discouragement?

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