Ministering to the unique needs of pastors, church staff and their families

Ministering to the unique needs of pastors, church staff and their families

Miles away from home while her minister husband waited for a heart transplant, Marilyn understood the need for a pastor. 

“One morning I arrived for a visit in the intensive care unit and was told my husband’s condition had deteriorated and he had been taken off the donor list. Imagine being hundreds of miles from our church, no family present and no one to really care. 

“After years of others depending on my husband now we were the ones in need,” she said.

When crisis strikes pastors, pastor’s spouses and their children too often are alone. One pastor described it this way: “We are the forgotten people.”

The minister’s family experiences the same needs as other members of the congregation. They need Christian friends to support them in difficult times and listen as they talk through tough questions.

The following suggestions — compiled from interviews with ministers, spouses and adult children of ministers — may help pastors prepare for times when they will need a pastor themselves.

Ministry friendships

Develop a relationship with ministers in other churches. Who comes when the minister’s family needs help? Often it is a pastor from a neighboring congregation. Perhaps it is an unspoken agreement. For some it is a friendship that develops between couples serving in nearby churches. Whatever the reason the ministers develop an understanding of helping one another in times of need.

Pursue the friendship of ministers from other denominations. When Richard accepted the call to another church he found a particular need awaiting him. A young minister in another denomination had recently lost his wife as a result of a fatal heart attack. 

“In every sense of the word, I became his pastor,” said Richard. “We talked over coffee every morning. We ate lunch out several times a week. We cried together. My wife helped his children. Perhaps this was one reason God placed me in this situation — to become a caretaker of a minister.”

Recognize the emotional vulnerability of the ministry. Louis McBurney, a psychiatrist and author of “Every Pastor Needs a Pastor” suggests, “perhaps the most destructive and dehumanizing of all ridiculous notions about pastors is that you have no emotional needs. People expect you to be a thick-skinned automation as they criticize and abuse, but if they are hurting you are to be warm and comforting. This expectation probably survives because most clergymen are afraid to admit their own vulnerability. You accept the challenge to be supermen and in pursuit of that goal you rigidly conceal your feelings.”

Form a support group with denominational personnel. Ministry does not exempt an individual from problems such as illness, financial concerns, issues with marriage and children, job security and other concerns common in today’s families. Friendships forged in times of peace are invaluable in times of conflict.

Invaluable relationships

Develop friends within your church. In preparation for the ministry husbands and wives often are advised to refrain from forming close friends within the local church. 

A retired pastor says, “When I was pastoring churches my wife and I worked to make close friends within the local congregation. Who says this is wrong? Who says it won’t work? Throughout my ministry in several states these same friends continue to be the ones we contact regularly. Friendship is a gift from God. And He allows these bonds to be formed in the churches we serve.” 

Seek out the Lord. Sharing personal feelings are often too uncomfortable for some ministers and spouses. 

A matter of trust

“I had this fear of confidentiality being used against me,” said Rachel, a minister’s wife. “Therefore, I never trusted anyone. If I had a problem I took it to the Lord. In many ways this helped me become a stronger Christian. Of course my prayer life and Bible reading increased. But honestly there were times when I needed someone to look me in the eye and say, ‘I hear what you’re saying. I’ve had similar experiences also.’”

Care for the needs of your children. Ernest E. Mosely discusses the importance of parenting in his book, “Priorities in Ministry.” Too often, he writes, ministers’ children are expected to be “perfect.” Children of ministers commonly say their fathers were “always so busy helping everyone else (they) never had time for me.” 

Share feelings with your spouse. The minister needs a home where private feelings can be shared. G. Curtis Jones, author of “The Naked Shepherd,” writes, “Most parishioners expect the minister’s home to be different, perfect, as if some guardian angel sat on the gatepost … keeping the family safe and comfortable, relevant and religious. (But) temptations of secular culture have not ‘passed over’ the parsonage.”

Recognizing the special spiritual, emotional and physical needs of the pastor and his family takes intentional effort but the result of the effort is healthier pastors who are better equipped to lead healthier churches.