Stress in Clergy Marriages

What can be done to counteract the trend of ministerial drop-out due to stress?

Val Stnetheram is a pastor's wife who lives in Australia,

There is a large drop-out rate in ministerial ranks these days and very few younger recruits want to fill the spaces. This is a serious problem and deserves particular attention. Many families are not willing to subject their marriages and home lives to the intense stress obviously suffered by clergy families.

What can be done to counteract this trend? A start has been made by endeavoring to get a true picture of what it is like to be a clergy wife.

One writer said that "being a minister today can be one of the most difficult callings in the world" and "being his wife can be sheer agony in spite of dedi­cation and piety." That thought is echoed by numerous pastors' wives. Many of my colleagues agreed with me when I said that though I would support my husband in whatever line of work he chose, he was the one "called," not me. Such honest thoughts are hard to share. A pastor's wife is expected to joyfully embrace and participate in her husband's ministry. With a sm ile on her face, she is expected to put aside her frustrations and disgruntlements. Inevitably, if such feelings are not recognized and resolved, a breakdown situ­ation can easily occur.

There is no doubt that children of clergy marriages often have to rely on one parent. I think of old friends, who when still new in ministry, experienced enormous pressures on their family life. The mother did most of the parenting while the children were growing up and the children grew up resenting their father for always being "on call." It seemed their father was available for anyone and everyone except his own family. When he was at home, he was either studying or on the phone. Their mother, a wonderful Mum and a valuable church worker, felt on "overload" from the word "go." After some years of trying to cope, the home broke up with great bitterness all around.

The expectations of a minister's family are too high. In other professions, the hours that min­isters work would not be tolerated. Sixty to eighty hours per week is usual. It certainly has been in our case, and I have no reason to believe otherwise of any of our colleagues. Most people, being unaware of the amount of hours a minister works, appear to be unappreciative. And if a pastor is invalidated, due to burnout, nervous collapse or whatever, many will say he was foolish to have worked so hard. Most do not understand the pressures of the ministry.

Church authorities get a bar­gain when they hire a minister. Not only do they get a full-time employee working up to twice the hours for a 40-hour wage, they also get another worker (his wife) thrown in for free. This is probably the norm in most denominations.

Some years ago my husband and I ministered to a very busy parish. At one point I reached the stage where the phone bell nearly caused me to scream. It rang constantly. I lost count of the number of meals interrupted. Finally the receiver was taken off at mealtimes, but many times, the children and I ate alone. During our stay there, my mother passed away, we almost lost our elder child in a road accident, and my husband had to help sort out three crumbling marriages. My husband was close to burnout at that time, but I did not know where to obtain help. Today I wonder how many clergy couples are suffering silently, afraid to admit they need help or unable to find the assistance they need so badly.

Since our children have "flown the nest," I spent a year in full-time study. I found the expe­rience positively therapeutic. The following year I became reac­quainted with an old love . . writing. . . then branched into poetry and art. I enjoyed a little success (some publications) and enormous satisfaction. We tend to forget that we all have some "hidden ability" that God graciously blesses us with, and it is up to us to develop that talent, In short, we have to "make time" to have something absorbing to lift our minds from church and people problems. We owe it to ourselves and to God.

In most cases, clergy marriages in trouble do not know where to go for help. A trustworthy counselor is needed, someone unattached to the administration and with no vested interest in the employees or their jobs. Several denominations have addressed the problem and are providing services designed to defuse stressful situations before they are beyond recall.

I think sadly of two couples ... both under tremendous work­loads! In both cases, the men slipped into adulterous situations. Wife number one was devastated. She had no idea of what had been going on. Although forced to resign, her husband, having unloaded the guilty secret, began his healing immediately after confession. Hers, I fancy, took considerably longer. She was utterly traumatized by the whole episode and desperately needed ministering to; however, her only visitors were three or four ministry couples with whom she and her husband had worked. She and her husband must have experienced intense pain. Unfortunately, the system finds these embarrassing situations impossible to handle and the people suffering the most are not cared for.

Wife number two was also devastated. She was left with several children to raise and edu­cate. Although church people carefully avoided her (probably through embarrassment) for many months she still attended church. Her early despairing letters wereheartbreaking. Because she lived in another country I could only support her with prayers and letters.

Marriage number one was salvaged. The couple was able to put the past behind them and make a fresh start; however, their spiritual enthusiasm was somewhat dampened by their perception of the coldness of the church system. It is fairly certain that the whole family is lost from church membership forever.

Unfortunately, marriage number two was irreconcilable.

Following are some suggestions for those marriages experiencing trouble:

a. As already mentioned, a trusted counselor should be available.

b. An official limit should be set on pastoral working ho urs (unless in a life or death situation), e.g. no phone calls or visits outside office hours. I confess I have no idea how the clergy can limit their working hours as most seem to become workaholics. An occupational hazard perhaps! But if the policy had official backing, it would be a beginning.

c. A retreat for clergy wives (minus children) would be won­derful, although understandably difficult to implement. Such retreats have been successfully carried out in New Zealand and are very much appreciated.

d.. Marriage Enrichment Semi­nars are needed. My husband and I were able to attend an excellent seminar that we found very beneficial. Topics to be discussed should include how to lessen stress in marriage and how to find more time for one's spouse and family. The trusted counselor should be responsible to ensure the seminars are available to every pastoral couple. Wives usually have children to care for, thus it would be beneficial to provide childcare so both hus­band and wife may attend the seminars.

e. Stressed people benefit from a complete change: bushwalking, gardening, farming, or an organized exercise program thatis reasonably physical. There should be no heavy study, and the environment should refresh both mind and body. Per­haps three or four days, twice a year, should automatically be slotted into the year's planner.

f. A comprehensive question­naire should be given to all the pastors' spouses. (Ibelieve this has been done on a limited scale.) This should be handled by the trusted counselor to ensure complete anonymity. While many wives would probably be unwilling to state their concerns openly, this method of obtaining information would be non-threatening. The counselor could spend a few days with each family interviewing wives apart from their husbands in order to extract honest responses, not what the wives feel they should answer.

The "goldfish-bowl syndrome" is horribly real for most of us. Everyone suffers, especially the children. Many P.K.'s rebel against the stress of life in the manse.

These stresses are part of the realities of our increasingly pressured pace of society. What happens in the world is reflected in the church and in clergy marriages. Focusing on clergy marriages is a very important issue of today, and I believe church administrations of all denominations should take heed and make this problem their top priority.

I am encouraged when I hear about groups such as Sonscape in the United States and John Mark Ministries in Australia. They have chosen to address this problem and dealwith the stresses incurred in clergy marriages. May God bless their efforts and ours as we all try to help one another