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The Problem With the Position of the Pastor’s Wife

My doctoral dissertation was about dealing with difficult people in the church. While conducting interviews one person was specifically mentioned over and over again: the pastor’s wife. Whether she was actually to blame, or merely a scapegoat, her contribution to whatever occurred seemed to cause more emotion than anything anyone else had done. And pastors’ wives feel this. They often take the brunt of the emotional assault that accompanies many nasty church leave-takings. Why is this?

Now this is only my opinion. It cannot be proven, and is based on accumulated second hand information. Not the best data, but often the only data we have when dealing with church turmoil. Re-stirring the pot to get to the true root of not one, but many church crisis after-the-fact is probably not healthy, so conjecture is an unfortunate necessity.
So here’s my conclusion: The problem is not with the pastor’s wife, but with her position in the church.

No one would take this job in the secular world, even if it paid well. No one with any business sense that is. Why? Let’s look at the job description. Oh wait, there isn’t one! And therein lies the first problem. The function of the pastor’s wife is poorly defined. Everyone seems to think they know what she should do, but everyone’s ideas are different. She must therefore be all things to all people (and she must guess what those things should be) or be labeled a disappointment. So let’s look at some common expectations:

1. She is her husband’s helpmate. This seems to mean that if there is anything left in the church that no one volunteers to do the job is hers. Lead choir, then run to help in the nursery, and make sure the communion trays are filled, all while taking care of her own nursing baby? Sure the pastor’s wife can handle this!

2. Her children must be perfectly groomed and well behaved. And so must she. I have seen pastor’s wives criticized for leaving the price tag on the bottom of their shoe (seen while praying for someone at the altar) and because their handbag was deemed too expensive for their position. The level of critique inherent in this role is out of control.

3. She must be every woman in the church’s best friend. She has to be there for them if they are having a bad day, or celebrating. She cannot act anxious to go onto something else, and must show up to every special event. And if the event is at the church, and she misses it, that is double the insult!

4. She is not on the org. chart. This is probably the worst thing we do to this woman, though it may not seem like it. She has no real position, yet she runs much of the church, and she is only accountable to the pastor- her husband. She is at no meetings, so she does not get to voice her opinion. And the man she loves is in charge of telling her when she doesn’t meet expectations. There is no impartial third person who can soften the blow. Now this may seem like a kind, gentle way to hear about something that goes wrong, but trust me, it is not. It hurts marriages. There is too much interpersonal conflict in an organization like a church that is based more on relationships than on productivity. Hearing repeatedly from the man you love that you are not measuring up in some way, no matter how gently he puts it, hurts. So often he simply does not tell her. So, until some other brave soul tells her, usually in a frustrated and inappropriate manner that blindsides her, she is clueless. Everyone needs accountability. This system where one of your major workers is left out of the loop is a recipe for disaster. Think about having a job where you were overworked, undertrained, allowed to go to none of the meetings, and then they called your spouse to tell you they have had it with your incompetence, and your spouse’s job is in danger if they do not ‘fix’ the situation.

5. She cannot be moved to a position that would be a better fit. Like it or not, she is it. The pastor’s wife is the pastor’s wife- for life. She is part of the package. Her behavior affects his job. It is one of the few jobs where this is so. This is a lot of pressure for a woman to be under, and yes, it is scriptural in the sense she must be godly, but we ask a lot more of her than that!

6. She receives no training. She is often second in command in the church in many ways, yet she did not go to one course on running a church, nor was she required to sit through one class on the Bible. Occasionally a denomination has ‘pastor’s wives classes’ but compared to what she is called to do, they are still sorely lacking.

Are you beginning to see the problem? You have an employee who works for free, who has no real authority, while seemingly having all the authority since, after all, her husband is the pastor. People obey her since they believe she speaks for him, yet she goes to no meetings and no amount of ‘pillow talk’ can adequately fill her completely in. She is expected to do everything, though there is no one who will tell her what everything is and no one assigned to warn her when she is doing it wrong.

Oh, and did I mention the types of people who typically surround the pastor’s wife? The first set is the ‘yes-men’ (women?) who like to suck up. They are great, but tend to turn rabid the first time she disappoints them. And the second are the ones who like to criticize. She cannot get away from either, because she must be sweet and diplomatic. Heaven forbid someone leaves the church because the pastor’s wife didn’t say ‘hi’ to them and give them all the time they needed!

This situation is untenable. Only a few get through well. Depression is common. Many develop health issues. Becoming calloused, and feeling lonely like you have no friends is also an issue. Some wives wrap themselves up in their families. Others become mini-tyrants because they have learned to not care what other people think, but not in a healthy way. In my opinion: Their lives become skewed because the expectations are insane.

The wives who do the best seem to fall into three categories.
1. They have a job outside the church. People then understand that they are not the church-slave and treat them more like they would treat anyone else. This is healthy.

2. Their husband repeatedly reminds the church that his wife’s ministry is to him, not the church. If she does anything in the church it is because she wants to, not because she must, and she may quit said function at any time. The husband sets a clear boundary between his wife and the church and does not let her take on too many roles. If no one in the church wants to do it, then some things get left undone.

3. She is officially part of the church staff. She has a defined role and goes to meetings. Many times there is also a salary.

So, next time you see your pastor’s wife love her. Give her a break and some space to be human, and remember, if you promise to do something and drop the ball, it often falls to her to do it, so keep your commitments. And let’s see if we can make life better for these women, shall we?

*By the way: My husband was ‘the pastor’s wife.’ Because there were no real expectations of a male spouse, and he had a full time job, we did well.
**We used the term ‘pastor’s wife’ when referring to him as a joke because, even though our denomination allowed women to pastor, they often forgot some of us were not male, and many times referred to the pastor’s spouse somewhere in their communication as a ‘wife.’ One year they sent the church suggestions as to how to appreciate the pastor’s spouse. The suggestions were read by the elders to the congregation to everyone’s amusement! (My husband is large and very masculine looking, so if you can imagine the gift certificates for a perm, or mani-pedi were quite amusing. He was a good sport and enjoyed it as well.)

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My Encounters With the Holy Ghost (Con’t): Pastors

Pastor

Yes, being a pastor is a spiritual gift. It is not just a job. In scripture the word ‘pastor’ means ‘shepherd.’ My experience with this gift is brief. (They nicknamed us the ‘whirlwind pastorate.’) But I am convinced that many people have, and use this gift without ever holding the position. (Pastor is always plural in the New Testament, indicating that there should be more than one with this gift in the church.) These are the people that direct flocks of people. People follow them and look to them for advice and guidance. There is a danger to this. People with this gift must be careful what they say and how they act because other people naturally copy them and have a tendency to do what they say.

I became pastor in a very odd way. I was home schooling my children and had just finished my doctorate when one of my children, during night devotions (a practice I would highly recommend) said, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have our own church?’ This was not a child that one would expect to say this, and it struck me as something I needed to pay attention to. I mentioned it to my pastor, who, instead of reminding me I had seven children at home, thought it was a great idea. What I didn’t know is that the area we were moving to was in desperate need of a pastor. My pastor called the powers that be, and put me in touch with them. When I called their office what I did not know was that many, many people call and say that they have a call from God to pastor a specific church, and that they are usually phonies. Later the gentleman I talked to said that when he got off the phone with me he spoke to the higher up person and said, ‘I think this is for real.’ We moved, and I attended the church for a while. I then told the interim pastor what God had placed on my heart and he got really excited. I became senior pastor (they only had one pastor, it was small) before I was even credentialed. Now, before you think it was all smooth sailing, by the time I got to the credentialing meeting I thought it was merely a formality. Somehow God had not informed the pastors on the board that this was the case, and the interview did not go as well as I hoped, though I was credentialed in the end. I thought I would be pastor for life, but that was also not to be. I don’t know why I was there only a brief time, but we did much while we were there. God has a plan and a time for everything, and one of my children needed more attention and needed to be far from the environment he was in. We moved, and he improved. Later he went downhill again, but as an adult, and that is a different story. The beauty of pastoring is knowing that you are called. I never felt anxiety over what I was doing, nor did I worry about what I was going to preach. I threw out my sermons when I was done because these were messages for this group, today, and they were not to be repeated. I was shepherding a small group, teaching them what the Lord needed them to hear now. Not that the messages weren’t good for everyone, but they were specific for this time, place and people. Some weeks God did not lay anything on my heart to preach until the last minute. Most of the time though I knew what I was to speak on after the Sunday service. God also directed people to me. I had the resources and answers to meet their needs when they called. It was fun. If I had no message, then we prayed, and truthfully those were the best services! I also encouraged my congregation to ask questions and talk back to me. (This can only be done in a small church, but it was fun.) People came to the church, but God also moved many away in that year. Some relocated due to jobs. One became a missionary and left quickly, it was amazing how the pieces fell into place. Still the church did grow, despite the fact that my goal was to fix the place up before we did much outreach. (The building needed much work, and there were ‘smells’ that had to be located… Four major ‘smells’ to be exact.) We ripped out carpet, painted, planted and decorated. One of my sons felt moved to rip out dead bushes. Not an easy job. (When children really want to do hard work, for free and do it well and quickly you kinda know it has to be God!) People also got saved. We baptized three and more professed faith for the first time. And we weren’t even ready yet. And then I knew we were to go. This was hard. I loved this church and felt like a perfect fit for it. But I was obedient, and knew my adopted son came first. I missed the work, and the people, but also knew that my calling was for that church, and not for pastoring in general.

I still have the ability to have people follow me. I am very careful about it, but find it strange when I, now the new person, am the one people look to for the answers. This is the true gift. You may have all of the right answers, but if no one is willing to listen or follow, you can accomplish nothing. You can also lead people astray. I kick myself when people misunderstand my words because there is a very real chance they will do something based on what they think I said. They will also tell everyone else I said it and make me look bad, but that is another issue.

Some say that the gift of pastor goes along with the gift of teacher and that they are never separate. I am not sure that this is true, but it is good for the pastor to be a good teacher if people are going to listen and follow. There are some however, who have people follow their example. They are quiet, and don’t say much, but everyone knows they do what is right. This may be teaching by example, or it may be just pastoring. I don’t know, and truthfully it doesn’t matter. What I do know is that pastor is a spiritual gift and there are many people with this gift directing the sheep in our churches, not all of them in the proper direction. (Everything can be abused.)

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