Pastor’s wife is key figure in life of pastor, plays biggest role in his success or failure, McKeever says
By Martha Simmons
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist
Bane or blessing: Life as a preacher’s wife can bring a bit of both, according to a recent survey by LifeWay Research. To move the needle over to the “blessing” side of the dial, however, it takes a team effort of not just the ministry spouse, but also the pastor and the congregation.
Joe McKeever, an Alabama native who spent 42 years serving as pastor of six Southern Baptist churches and now writes and cartoons about church matters, wrote, “No one in the church family is more vulnerable than the pastor’s wife. She is the key figure in the life of the pastor and plays the biggest role in his success or failure. And yet, many churches treat her as an unpaid employee, an uncalled assistant pastor, an always available office volunteer, a biblical expert and a psychological whiz.”
McKeever quoted Zechariah 13:6 in describing the pastor’s wife’s dilemma: “What are these wounds? I was wounded in the house of my friends.”
The minister’s wife, McKeever said, “is the most vulnerable person in the building. That is to say, she is the single most likely person to become the victim of malicious gossip, sneaky innuendo, impossible expectations and pastoral frustrations.” And most of the time, McKeever added, she must suffer these slings and arrows in silence.
In a recent interview, Mark Dance, director of LifeWay Pastors, and his wife, Janet, who speaks to some 1,500 preachers’ wives each year, talked about the LifeWay Research project sponsored by Houston’s First Baptist Church, the North American Mission Board (NAMB) and Houston physician Richard Dockins.
The data, though not always positive, offers some solace, in that a minister’s wife can see she’s not alone in how she feels. “To be able to look at these numbers and say, ‘You know what? I’m not a freak of the ministry,’ that a lot of these other women are having some of the same feelings that I’m having, some of the same struggles, some of the same joys,” Janet Dance said, “I think that’s huge, for us to be able to feel comfort in that.”
If the needs of the minister’s wife and family aren’t taken care of, the whole ministry can suffer.
“A lot of a pastor’s wellbeing is based on his wife’s wellbeing because they are so connected,” Janet Dance said. “How she feels about the ministry, how she feels about their specific ministry that they’re currently in. A lot of those attitudes and feelings are going to be expressed at home and can either ease stress for him or cause greater stress for him. That sounds like I’m saying that they should have a good wellbeing for his sake but it’s not quite that simple. It’s more for the sake of the ministry and God’s work.”
Fewer than one third of survey respondents planned quality time with their spouses (the ministers), and more than 1 in 3 agree their children resent how much time their spouse spends in ministry.
“Everybody’s busy. In the ministry, the ministry is busy. I think that planning that is so crucial,” Janet Dance said. “I know that in a busy life if we don’t plan it, it’s probably not going to happen on its own.”
Balancing time between congregants and family can be difficult, Mark Dance acknowledged, but pastors must learn “to say ‘no’ with confidence. Pastors deal with that struggle. That tug of war was mentioned by several spouses — 1 out of 3 felt caught in that tug of war between church and family.”
Trying to live up to unreasonable expectations causes many heartaches for pastor’s spouses, said Lisa Keane, a clinical director with Pathways Professional Counseling. Keane has worked with many pastors’ wives who expressed the same feelings pointed out by the survey data. “I don’t think any of this is surprising at all,” Keane said of the research. “It’s a pretty common thread of what they’ve experienced.
“Most pastors’ wives feel like they’re living in a pressure cooker,” Keane said. Her clients come to her for help in “adjusting to the stress they feel, all the way down to clinical depression and clinical anxiety.”
Often that help comes in the form of pastors’ wives “working on what God’s expectations are versus what people in the congregation’s expectations are, making sure they’re not trying to meet unrealistic expectations for what people might set out for them.”
As an example, Keane told of a wife who was expected to follow in the footsteps of the previous pastor’s spouse, leading the youth and teaching Sunday School and the like. But that minister’s spouse “didn’t even like kids that much” and it created unnecessary strife for the wife and the church.
“Every wife comes with a different set of gifts and we need to honor those gifts and allow them to use those gifts,” Keane said. “We have to remember that spouses also have to take care of their own families. For a lot of moms, there’s not a lot of room to do much more.”
Spouses shouldn’t suffer in silence — they should talk to their husbands and also find friends with whom they can communicate. “They need to make sure they have open honest communication with their spouse about what they’re experiencing, how they’re feeling,” Keane said. “They need to be willing to set boundaries on time and resources. And they need to find local individuals or even online resources to connect with other people in similar situations.”
In addition to not setting or trying to live up to unrealistic expectations, spouses and congregants need to realize that nobody is perfect, according to Keane.
“Realize that everybody is human. … Mistakes will be made,” she said.
Kathy Litton deals with these issues as a national consultant for NAMB’s ministry to pastors’ wives. Litton lives in Mobile with her husband Ed Litton, pastor of Redemption Church. Both lost former spouses in car accidents. Kathy has been a minister’s wife twice, for 26 years to the late Rick Ferguson and since 2009 to Ed.
Kathy Litton said the survey results reflect her own journey as a pastor’s wife plus those of “hundreds of conversations I have had with other wives.”
Although all humans, both clergy and laity, fall short of the grace of God, unreasonable expectations often set pastors and their families up for failure.
“Eugene Peterson has said, ‘Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. As if that weren’t bad enough, they all have sinners for pastors.’ When we fully grasp that we all need the gospel, it puts us all on equal footing and then true community and fellowship can happen,” Kathy Litton said. “Unfortunately, I think the isolation is often created by those who don’t understand and apply the gospel to the community of the church.
“Then people tend to keep the pastor and his wife at arm’s length. Yet he, his wife and his kids desperately need the same Jesus the church family does,” she said “Neither of them should think otherwise. When we get that, we can live in honest, vulnerable community together, no more pretending and performing.”
Authenticity is key.
Process of sanctification
“When our churches are free to be honest and open about their humanity and flaws in the pew or in the pulpit, the power of the gospel is on great display in our lives,” Kathy Litton said. “Jesus is glorified because we are all in the process of sanctification, which is a messy but beautiful process for the pastor and the congregation. People without Christ are looking for authentic people of faith as never before.”
Ministers also must prioritize their wives’ needs. “I know these men love their wives and are immensely grateful for their partnership,” she said, “but the demands on him can overwhelm his capacity to give her care. Yet his first calling was to her and not his church. Her health is imperative.
“I would encourage husbands to be aware of how their wife is doing in her role. He needs to lean in by listening to her and shepherding her heart. Is she lonely? Is she over-serving? Is she in a dry place? Has she been wounded? He can then step into her struggles and together they work toward solutions or avenues that will address her issues. In doing this they will leave one of the most profound footprints a minister and his wife will ever leave their family, a church or the community — a healthy, honest, growing marriage.”
Southern Baptist ministers’ wives may have support they have not accessed, Kathy Litton added.
“Many state conventions and associations have made tremendous strides in providing resources and events to ministry wives,” she said, adding, however, that “care and nurturing to ministry wives are best delivered at the local level where context is shared and similar. Obviously, this is happening in some places more than others.”
Ministering to ministry wives
Unfortunately many ministry wives aren’t accessing the help that is available, Kathy Litton said. “Sadly, in my experience it is extremely challenging to get wives to participate — primarily because of the tremendous time demands placed on their lives — as more than half of ministry wives work outside the home.”
One option for these busy spouses, she suggested, is an online blog called “Flourish,” written by ministry wives for ministry wives: www.flourish.me.
And while there is troubling data to contend with in the ministry spouses survey, Kathy Litton identified some silver linings, especially the number of wives who felt their own call.
“The result on calling was a pleasant surprise — nearly 80 percent of wives felt a personal call to ministry,” she said.
“I was encouraged by that and increasingly see the generations coming into our ministry context as more able to passionately articulate a personal call.”
Pastors’ spouses often feel lonely, survey reveals
By Martha Simmons
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist
But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this” (1 Cor. 7:28).
If Paul had had his way, disciples — both male and female — would have followed his example and stayed free of the bonds of matrimony in order to focus on pleasing God instead of their spouses. Resigned to the reality of human nature, however, Paul laid down some general recommendations about marriage among the faithful but did not address the particular challenges of being a preacher’s spouse.
More than 2,000 years later, there’s still no instruction book to guide pastors’ spouses, and a recent survey by LifeWay Research points out mixed blessings for those who are married to ministers. Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, said the survey of 720 spouses indicated they felt both blessed and stressed. “Despite their challenges, most pastors’ spouses say they are happy,” he said.
The survey focused mainly on spouses of a senior pastor or solo pastor at Protestant churches, including Baptist (29 percent), nondenominational (15 percent), Methodist (9 percent), Lutheran (9 percent), Assemblies of God (7 percent), Presbyterian (4 percent), Pentecostal/charismatic (3 percent), Church of Christ (3 percent) and Church of God (2 percent). Ninety percent of respondents are married to pastors who work at least 35 hours per week; 53 percent have children at home; 9 percent have seminary degrees; 51 percent have spent at least 20 years as a pastor’s spouse; and 86 percent have responsibilities at their church, including 19 percent who are on the church’s staff. More than half of respondents work outside the spouse’s church and, of those, a quarter work for a church, ministry or other nonprofit. Most are women (96 percent) and also feel a strong call to ministry (81 percent).
Pastors’ spouses often feel lonely, held to an impossible standard and like they’re “living in a fishbowl,” the survey revealed.
“Many also feel isolated with few close friends other than their spouse,” LifeWay reported. “Sixty-two percent, for example, say they can count on their spouse ‘a great deal’ when they feel under stress. Fewer say they can depend a great deal on other family members in their household (14 percent), other relatives (12 percent), friends at church (10 percent), friends outside church (12 percent) or other ministers’ spouses (9 percent).”
Church members’ attitudes and behavior have a lot to do with their minister’s spouse’s isolation. “Half say they don’t confide in people at church because they’ve been betrayed in the past,” LifeWay reported. “About half (55 percent) also say they don’t have enough relationships where they can be themselves.
“Seventy-nine percent say their congregation expects their family to be a ‘model family,’ while 86 percent say they are expected to have a model marriage.”
Younger spouses and those with children at home reported more financial stresses and trouble in church relationships than their older counterparts, LifeWay reported.
Other key challenges identified in the survey:
• 72 percent say their spouse has experienced resistance in the church.
• 69 percent say they have few people they can confide in.
• 68 percent worry about having enough money for retirement.
• 59 percent say church commitments limit family time.
• 49 percent say, “If I were honest at church about my prayer needs, they would just become gossip.”
Nevertheless, spouses reported feeling positive about many other aspects of their lives:
• 74 percent think their lives are close to ideal.
• 93 percent believe their spouse is a good fit for the present church.
• 90 percent think ministry has had a positive effect on their family.
• 85 percent say, “The church we serve takes good care of us.”
• 83 percent enjoy their ministry work.
• 79 percent are satisfied with their role in ministry.
To read the full report, visit http://lifewayresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Pastor-Spouse-Quantitative-Long-Report-2017.pdf.