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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The Defensive Leader: 5 Ways to Avoid Becoming One

Defensiveness: excessively concerned with guarding against the real or imagined threat of criticism, injury to one’s ego, or exposure of one’s shortcomings (Dictionary.com). Every leader at times has probably reacted defensively to another. I have and I regret every single time I did. Leaders naturally face situations that can easily provoke a defensive reaction. But seldom does defensiveness move our churches and organizations forward. So how can we avoid defensiveness? I suggest 5 proactive ways. 

Defensive Boxing Move
  1. Realize the negative effects defensiveness breeds.
    • When we react defensively to a co-worker, an employee, a board member, or a church member, seldom does good come from it. We can shut down the other person or we may incite defensiveness in them which can further escalate a conflict. We can lose the benefit of another’s insight. We can damage a relationship. If we often act defensively, we can create a reputation that can drive others away from us and from important information we need to hear. We can even lose our jobs.
  2. Keep your stress level low.
    • If stress stays at a high level for any length of time, our brain’s fight-flight mechanism gets stuck on hypersensitivity and makes us more prone to defensiveness. Prolonged stress even atrophies some parts of our brain, especially the area involved in memory. But if we manage our stress, the thinking part of our brain stays more engaged and our emotional part less sensitive. Sufficient sleep, time off, good friends, exercise, and fun hobbies can keep our stress low. In this post I suggest specific steps to lessen stress.
  3. Understand where emotions come from in your body and brain.
    • We get defensive when we feel threatened by someone and a domino effect begins in our bodies and brains. Simply knowing how this happens can help us pause before we react. Here’s how the process works.
      • Defensiveness starts with a stimulus: someone says something that makes us feel threatened.
      • Next, an emotion begins at an unconscious level. Chemicals course through our nervous system and hormones flow into our blood stream prompted by a brain structure called the amygdala. This happens within 1/5 of a second, without our conscious awareness.
      • Then we become conscious of an unpleasant sensation (the feeling) within ½ of a second. We feel angry, anxious, or fearful without even choosing the emotion.
      • Next, the thinking part of our brain comes online: we pay attention, we assess the situation, we interpret it, and we decide what to do.
      • THE SPACE (see number 4 below)
      • Finally we respond with some action in response to the feeling and our assessment of the situation. In our case, we get defensive.
  4. Recognize THE SPACE between stimulus and response.
    • THE SPACE is the moment in time between a stimulus (what someone said which resulted in an unpleasant feeling…anger, fear, etc.) and our response (defensiveness). That brief slice of time precedes EVERY choice we make. THE SPACE always gives us time to choose how we will respond. We are not captives to our feelings. We always choose what we do in response to circumstances and our feelings.
      So, when I get defensive, I can’t blame my wife, my kids, lack of sleep, the board, or Obama. It is my choice. However, we can lengthen that space with my suggestion in number 5.
  5. Create more space between stimulus and response by leaning into the resources the Lord provides.
    • Number 2 above, lower your stress level, is crucial to helping us create more space between stimulus and response. However, our ultimate source of strength lies in a growing and abiding faith in Christ. When the Egyptians were hot on the trail of Moses and the Israelites, the people started to freak out. But Moses wisely said in Exodus 14.14, The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still. God’s supernatural resources, when we draw upon them, gives us the ability to refuse to react and resist defensiveness.

So, the next time you feel tempted to get defensive, consider these thoughts and look to the example of Jesus when he hung on the cross.

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (1 Pet. 2.23, NIV)

What has helped you avoid defensiveness?

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3 Qualities Necessary to Learn from our Critics

Nobody likes to be criticized, at least not at first. Sometimes criticism is warranted. Sometimes it’s not. And sometimes it hard to differentiate between the two. The writer of Proverbs implies that we should learn from and even seek out the beneficial wounds from a critic. Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy. (Pv 27.6) But when we need to heed a message from a critic, how can we position ourselves so that we can benefit from it? Below I suggest three ways we can do so.

Feedback Concept
  1. Stay teachable. We must be willing to let others tell us what we may not want to hear. We must cultivate an open, non-defensive heart. I’m trying to create such a culture among our staff through one of our key staff values… Continual growth and learning: We welcome constructive feedback. For a list of our staff values, read this blog post.
  2. Keep accountable. One way to stay open to the message from a critic is to develop a mentoring relationship with another person and/or use a coach. I meet with my personal coach each month via FaceTime. (I explain why every pastor should get a coach here.) He is free to ask me tough questions about my life and ministry. I’m also directly accountable to the chairman of the board. Without accountable relationships, we can easily miss our blind spots. I need someone in my life, including my wife, that cares enough about me to ask those tough questions and tell me what I may not want to hear.
  3. Develop a bias toward action. Tom Peters who wrote In Search of Excellence popularized this term. It simply means do something. In other words, when a critic tells us what we don’t necessarily want to hear but need to hear, a bias toward action means that we act on it. Learning from our critics means more than assuming a listening posture. It also includes a doing posture as well. 

So the next time you get criticized, ask yourself what you need to learn from it, if it came from a less-than-friendly source get the perspective from someone who cares about you, and then act upon it.

What other quality do you believe leaders need to learn best from their critics?

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Leader, have you Normalized God?

When you hear someone say, “God,” it evokes many images and thoughts. Yet for a Christian leader, without a clear biblical understanding of God, leadership lacks power. Recently I read the newly released book, Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying (Thomas Nelson) by Drew Dyck, managing editor of Leadership Journal. It is a beautiful written, thought provoking book about how God beckons us to see Him afresh. I highly recommend it for anyone, especially leaders. I asked Drew to write a guest post about the book and I’ve included it here.

Beautiful sunshine

There are no experts on God

Not me. Not you. Not your pastor or the theology professor with two PhDs.

Merriam-Webster defines an expert as “one with the special skill or knowledge representing mastery of a particular subject.”

Have you ever met someone who possesses “mastery” on the topic of God?

Me neither.

While we know enough about God to receive salvation and enter into a relationship with him, our knowledge of him is still far from complete. Our intelligence is too small, our language too limited. When it comes to God, we’re all beginners. Yet this very realization—that we cannot fully understand God—is crucial to even beginning to understand him.

The early church father Gregory of Nyssa compared contemplating God’s nature to standing at the edge of a sheer cliff with no foothold. He wrote:

 The soul . . . becomes dizzy and perplexed and returns once again to what is natural to it, content now to merely know this about the Transcendent, that it is completely different from the nature of the things which the soul knows.

We might assume knowing God simply includes getting all our facts about him straight. But maybe the first step is vertigo, a holy disorientation. Perhaps only once we’ve been shocked out of our normal way of processing reality—categorizing it, mastering it—can we hope to gain even a glimpse of God’s awesome power and beauty. Even C. S. Lewis, arguably the most brilliant Christian of the last century, speculated that “half our great theological and metaphysical problems” would be too confused to even have answers. “How many hours are in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask . . . are like that.”

Our attempts to describe God stretch the limits of human language. The best descriptions seem to veer toward the superlative and abstract. Theologians describe God as the ground of all being, the uncaused first cause, the overwhelming mystery.

How could we possibly hope to comprehend such a Being? Our brains are too puny, our resources too limited. The moment we think we have God figured out is the instant of our greatest confusion.

As the Dominican priest Victor White wrote:

So soon as we become satisfied with any picture of God, we are in danger of idolatry: of mistaking the comprehensible image for the reality, of losing the numinous, the mystery, the transcendent majesty of God. So soon as, consciously or unconsciously, we suppose we have grasped God, he must elude us, for he is always beyond the furthermost advance we make in knowledge about him.

Don’t get me wrong. We can feel God’s presence and receive his love. We can know him, but that’s only possible because, in a stunning display of mercy, he chose to reveal himself to us in ways we could understand. However, possessing this modicum of knowledge should never be confused with comprehensive understanding. Ultimately, when it comes to God, we’re like ants crawling across an iPad: in touch with something we only faintly understand.

Literary critic Jonathan Culler defined poetry as “the making strange of language.” What does he means by “making strange”? Simply that, in poems, words draw attention to themselves. With other kinds of reading (an instruction manual, for instance) words serve merely to convey information. But in poetry words become the stars. They don’t disappear behind their meaning. Instead, through literary devices such as meter, rhyme, repetition, and structure, poetry “foregrounds language itself: makes it strange, thrusts it at you—Look! I’m language!”

The Bible does the same thing for God. It thrusts God at you, saying, “Look! This is God!” It makes God strange. Not strange in a bad way but in the most basic sense of the word—unfamiliar, other, outside the range of our knowing.

Unfortunately, in our efforts to make the Bible interesting and relevant, we try to normalize God. We become experts at taking something lofty, so unfathomable and incomprehensible, and dragging it down to the lowest shelf. We fail to account for the fact that God is neither completely knowable nor remotely manageable.

This habit is not confined to the pews. Those of us who lead can be the worst. Preaching professor John Koessler writes of the tendency for preachers to “normalize the outrageous in Scripture.” There’s a temptation to flatten out the divine portrayals in the Bible to make God more palatable to our audience. We’re in desperate need of leaders who will resist this temptation and teach the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), holiness included.

Here’s the beautiful irony: making God strange actually enables us to know him more. Once we have marveled at his magnitude and mystery we are able to achieve the deep intimacy that grows out of a true appreciation for who God is. Instead of treating him as an equal, we approach him with reverent awe. Only when we’ve been wonderstruck by his majesty can we be overwhelmed by his love.

This post was excerpted from Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying (Thomas Nelson). For more information visit yawningattigers.com

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10 Secrets of Leaders who Forgive

Forgiveness. So very hard, yet so very necessary for leaders and pastors to lead well and experience personal freedom and relational health. Good leaders and pastors get the concept of forgiveness. And, it behooves every leader not only to understand and practice these 10 key insights about forgiveness but to teach them as well.

Forgive
  1. Forgiveness is counterintuitive.
    • It goes against human nature to forgive. Yet God rearranges our natural instincts and impulses by His grace.
  2. If you don’t forgive those who hurt you, you will stay frozen to your pain.
  3. Forgiveness can break the chain of unforgiveness we can unintentionally pass on to our children.
    • Physically we know that we can pass defective genes onto our children. In a similar way unforgiveness is like spiritually deformed DNA that we can pass on from one generation to the next. The Bible says that unforgiveness produces the fruit of bitterness that defiles many (Heb 12.15).
  4. Unforgiveness can lead to unforgiveness’ cousin: revenge, the passion to get even, a delight to hear bad news about those who hurt us, or wishing ill of those who hurt us.
    • Desire for revenge keeps the pain of the wound fresh, like picking a fresh scab over and over.
  5. Forgiveness does not settle all all questions of fairness.
    • What someone did to you is still unfair and wrong. Grace goes beyond fairness. It wasn’t fair that they crucified the ONE who never sinned. Grace doesn’t fit logic. It’s supernatural and beyond logic.
  6. Forgiveness does not minimize the offense.
    • The very nature of forgiveness actually recognizes that an offense occurred.
  7. Forgiveness is often a process that happens over time.
    • The deeper the hurt, the longer the process takes. True forgiveness is not forgive and forget the hurt. It’s more like remembering it less and less.
  8. Forgiveness does not absolve the offender of the consequences of his offense (in the eyes of the law or in the eyes of God).
  9. Forgiveness speaks to the longing of every human heart.
     
    • A  story in Ernest Hemingway’s short story, Capital of the World, illustrates this truth. A Spanish boy named Paco never experienced a relationship with his mother and his father had kicked him out of the house for some reason. Later his dad regretted it but couldn’t find his son. The remorseful father decided to attempt to reconcile with his son who had run away to Madrid and he took out an ad in the El Liberal newspaper. The ad read, PACO MEET ME AT HOTEL MONTANA NOON TUESDAY ALL IS FORGIVENPAPA. Paco is a common name in Spain. When the father went to the square he found eight hundred young men named Paco waiting for their fathers and yearning for the forgiveness they never thought was possible. (source unknown)
  10. You are well on our way to forgiveness when you begin to wish your offender well.

Leaders must model and teach true forgiveness. When we don’t, we can actually keep a lid on the health and growth of our churches and our lives.

Do you believe that unforgiving leaders can hinder the health and growth of their churches? Why or why not?

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