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.)