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.

  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?

Related posts:

4 Obstacles Pastors Face in Setting Boundaries

Henry Cloud and John Townsend wrote the wildly popular book, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of your Life. Dr. Cloud also wrote Boundaries for Leaders. I recommend them both. Essentially a boundary for a ministry leader or a pastor is like a property line around your yard, only in this case that yard is your soul. Healthy boundaries make for healthy souls. Unhealthy boundaries make for unhealthy souls.

In my 34 years in ministry, I’ve seen many pastors with poor boundaries. Sometimes I’ve not kept healthy ones myself. Why is that so? I suggest 4 reasons and 4 potential ways to build healthy boundaries.

First, our call and vocation is rooted in our desire to help people. And helping people takes time, and lots of it. If you are successful as a ministry leader, people with needs will keep coming your way. So, you’ll never check everything off your ministry to-do list. There will always be one more person who needs to hear the Gospel, one more person who needs prayer, one more person to counsel, one more call or email to return, one more hour you could spend polishing your sermon, etc., etc. Our vocational call places us in a position where needs will always vie for our attention.

  • Solution: Remind yourself that Jesus didn’t heal everybody and he didn’t make himself available 24/7. In fact, he often spent time along with His heavenly father away from people. If the Son of God needed healthy boundaries, it seems that we do too.

Second, our 24/7 connected world makes it hard to disconnect. I recall the first cell phone I owned. It was a Motorola flip phone that looked like a brick with one edge angled. It was novel and fun. Few other people owned cell phones at the time. And because cell phone usage was expensive, I didn’t give out my number to many people. So, I didn’t have to field many calls even though I looked cool as it hung off my belt. As cell phones evolved from ‘stupid’ phones to ‘smart’ phones they no longer served as tools for talking. Now not only can someone call us, but they can text and email us. My current phone is actually set up to send me a text when I miss a call (ugh!). We can be reached 24/7 in multiple ways which blurs boundaries.

  • Solution: Put your phone away after 6 pm. Don’t answer emails after 6. Don’t put your cell phone next to your bed even if you put it on vibrate. If it’s within reaching distance, you’re still connected.

Third, our brains are social. Neuroscientists are now learning boatloads about how our brains impact life and leadership. It’s one of my passions and why I’m pursuing a masters in the neuroscience of leadership. And next year my book Brain-Based Leadership: The Science of Significant Ministry comes out. This month Leadership Journal’s theme is called Neuro-ministry: How Brain Science Informs Discipleship. I wrote this article in that issue for LJ on neuroscience and communication.

When I say our brains are social I mean that human interaction stir ups biological processes within our brains. When we say, ‘No’ to someone (we attempt to establish a boundary) and feel disapproval from them, it actual hurts. Even mild forms of rejection light up the same parts of our brains that register physical pain. Since it actually feels bad, we often acquiesce to a request and say, ‘Yes’ to avoid that uncomfortable feeling that rejection brings. In doing so, we again blur our boundaries.

  • Solution: Expect to feel an uncomfortable emotional tinge when you try to establish a boundary and feel disapproval from another. Remind yourself that feeling that way is normal. Give yourself an hour and the feeling will fade, as long as you don’t feed it by ruminating on what the other person is thinking after you said, ‘No.’

Fourth, we want to feel needed. God gave us a desire to feel needed, that we matter, that what we do counts. And when we help others, preach a good sermon, or lead a meeting well, it feeds our souls and feels good. However, sometimes we can get hooked on feeling good. Dopamine, one of the feel-good brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) moves into our brain’s pleasure centers when we accomplish a goal (preach a good sermon, etc.). Serotonin is another one we feel when we get an ‘atta-boy’ from another. Just as some people get addicted to alcohol and drugs because it feels good (they affect neurotransmitter production), we can can addicted to the jolt we get when we serve another well or check off something on our to-do list. Addiction to affirmation and accomplishment can subtly overtake our motivations and blur our boundaries. In this post I discuss how to leverage four key brain chemicals.

  • Solution: Ask yourself if you may be addicted to feeling good. Can you take your day off and turn off ‘productivity’ and ‘helping others?’ If you can’t, I’d read Cloud’s two books on boundaries.

How do you keep healthy boundaries?

Related Posts:

Jesus-rest

How Chronic Stress Affects Leadership

Our brains play a vital role in effective leadership (duh!). That’s pretty self-evident. Yet, this often overlooked brain fact profoundly reduces leadership effectiveness – chronic stress diminishes your ability to lead because of how it affects your brain. In this post I list five ways chronic stress does that. Whether you’re a pastor or a business leader, effective leaders understand how their brains affect their roles. In my next post I’ll provide some solutions to these problems.

Chronic stress affects leadership in these ways.

  1. It amplifies fear and anxiety.
    • Chronic stress leaves the stress hormone, cortisol, in your body and brain for extended periods of time (as well as imbalancing brain chemicals called neurotransmitters). As a result it keeps the brain’s fight-flight center (the amygdala) on high alert which turns up the dial for fear and anxiety and leaves it there. Fearful leaders don’t lead well. 
  2. It gives you a ‘shorter fuse.’
    • Parts of our brain compete for energy and other resources it needs to work effectively. When the amygdala stays on high alert, it hogs those resources and our brain’s ‘thinker’ (the front part called the pre-frontal cortex) has less of those resources available to pause and reflect before reacting. Leaders who react make dicy situations even worse.
  3. It impairs good decision making.
    • Reduced resources for our brain’s ‘thinker’ also affects our ability to think clearly necessary to make wise, thoughtful decisions. The thinker can literally go ‘off-line’ in stressful situations when a leader has been under chronic stress for a long time. Leaders who don’t make good decisions can hinder their churches’ or organizations’ ability to reach their goals.
  4. It diminishes memory.
    • A key part of the brain involved in turning short term memories into long term memories is called the hippocampus. Chronic stress actually shrinks this part of the brain which makes us more forgetful. Leaders who forget important information or commitments they made to others can lose trust from those they lead.
  5. It decreases motivation.
    • A fundamental way brain cells talk to each other is through chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Chronic stress creates an imbalance of these important chemicals which can lead to depression, listlessness, and decreased motivation. Unmotivated leaders struggle to lead their churches or organizations forward.

So, chronic stress hurts the brain which impairs our leadership.

In my next post I’ll offer some practical suggestions on how to deal with chronic stress.

Related posts:

Rejection: How to Keep Other People from Feeling It

I blew my knee out, but that wasn’t what hurt the most. I was left alone and felt rejection. Pain is a given in life. And usually when we think of pain we’re only thinking about physical pain. But social pain is just as real and perhaps more hurtful. In this post I share what recent neuroscience has learned about social pain and some practical tips how pastors and leaders can avoid multiplying social pain in others.

In college I could run fast. I had joined a college flag football team and I was their deep threat. I could outrun most of the other defenders. During one game the quarterback had me run what is called a down and out. I was to run ten yards and take a quick pivot to the right. He would then pass the ball to me.

We lined up. I took off. I planted my left foot. I turned around and caught the ball and something in my knee exploded. I crumpled to the ground in agonizing pain. The team had to carry me off the field to the sidelines. I was out of the game but after a few minutes I was able to hobble around, still in considerable pain.

When the game ended, all my teammates left. The field where we played was a mile from my dorm room and I didn’t have a car. Nobody asked me how I was doing. Nobody offered me a ride. It took an hour to hobble back to my dorm room. The next week I learned that I had blown out my knee which later required surgery.

As I write this, I don’t feel the physical pain from the injury. But I still can feel a tinge of rejection I felt that day when no one showed me any concern. I’m not angry at the guys. I can simply feel some of the pain of rejection I felt then.

It’s a brain thing. Neuroscientists have discovered that our brain records social pain, like rejection, in the same place  in our brain where we feel physical pain. In other words, getting rejected really hurts just like physical pain really hurts. That day I got a double whammy.

Across multiple languages we even use words to describe social pain that we typically use to describe physical pain like, “she broke my heart,” or he “hurt my feelings.” Disapproving facial expressions can even create social pain, especially those most prone to feeling hurt from rejection.

So what can we do as leaders to avoid unintentionally hurting others? I suggest three tips.

  1. Help your church be more aware of those who are alone on Sundays. Often before a service you can easily spot those who are sitting alone. The same is true after church for those who stand alone in the lobby or in your café. Encourage your regulars to look for people who are alone. And when they see someone alone, encourage them to introduce themselves to the person and genuinely seek to make them feel welcome.
  2. Be careful with your facial expressions. Be aware that our facial expressions often communicate more than our actual words. Studies show that even looking at disapproving faces can evoke social pain. Without being fake, don’t bring your ‘poker’ face to church. Bring your kind and pleasant one. If you’ve not sure what kind of face you usually bring, ask someone who is close to you to observe you interacting with others to give you feedback
  3. Finally, teach your church about the brain. Help them understand how our brain impacts community, spiritual growth, and leadership. For a primer on the brain in layman’s terms, check out my most recent book called Brain-Savvy Leaders. And watch for my next one coming out early 2019 (Moody Press) on an ancient spiritual practice called mindfulness.

Related posts:

Jesus’ 6-Step Strategy for Resolving Conflict

Conflict is unavoidable in relationships. Conflict isn’t necessarily sinful or destructive, but it can be depending on what we do with it. Jesus outlines a clear, specific, and workable process in Matthew 18. And, we simply can’t improve on what Jesus says. I’ve summarized into a 6-step process the essence of what I believe Matthew 18 teaches us.

Before I suggest these steps, here’s the actual passage of Scripture.

Matt. 18.15   “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.  16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’  17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.  18   “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19   “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” (NIV)

  1. Determine if you really need to approach the person about the issue.
    • In verse 15 Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you.” In other words, we simply should drop some issues. If we can pray through them and commit to not using them against the other person, drop it.
    • But if you can’t, what might warrant taking the next step?
      • Go if the issue is seriously dishonoring Christ.
      • Go if the issue is damaging your relationship with the other person.
      • Go if the issue is hurting others.
  2. If you do, go with the right heart and attitude.
    • In verse 15 the Scripture says, “If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” The win here is that the relationship stays intact, not necessarily that you reach a resolution, even though you hope you do find one. Ultimately the goal is not to win an argument or point out the error of the other person’s ways, but to reconcile. It takes a right heart to help make this happen. In this post I outline 5 ways to prepare your heart.
  3. Prepare for your meeting with the person before you go. Do your homework.
    • Assuming that you’ve arranged a meeting with the person, don’t go in blind. Give some thought to what you want to say. Proverbs 14.8 tells us that, The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways.
    • I’ve found that the acronym, DESC, provides easily recallable mental hooks to guide such a conversation.
      • Describe the behavior that caused the conflict.
      • Explain the emotions you feel/felt when it happens.
      • State the desired changed behavior (the solution).
      • state the positive Consequences the new behavior will bring.
  4. Go in private and in person.
    • We often miss this step yet Jesus is very clear on this when he states, “just between the two of you.” By going to the other person first it avoids prematurely pulling somebody else into the issue and stops potential gossip. Plus, a face-to-face meeting allows us to observe body language which experts say accounts for much more of a message than words alone.
    • However, sometimes it may be wise to seek counsel from an objective party so he or she can give us objective advice.
  5. When you meet, use grace-filled words.
    • If in our conversation with this person we put them on the defensive, the meeting’s over. Grace-filled conversation, however, can create safety and openness to resolving the issue. A great verse that speaks to this is Ephesians 4.29.
      • Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
  6. If you reach a dead-end and feel the issue warrants it, enlist others to help.
    • Sometimes the issue is so serious that even after repeated 1-1 attempts to reconcile we must take the next step. In verse 16 Jesus says if we reach a stalemate, we must include others in the process. Often the leadership in the church should be included at this point. And then if the other party simply refuses to budge, the church must take more severe action (v. 17). Seldom do issues warrant such a drastic step. Yet, God sanctions such action for the sake of the unity in the church (vss. 19-19).

What steps would you add to this list that have helped you resolve conflict?

Related posts.