I live between two cultures, two countries. One is the culture of my birth and childhood, and the other is where I live and serve as a minister’s wife. My two countries may be geographical neighbors, but they are very different, especially in their ideas about the role of a pastor’s family.
Some of my observations are the result of Communism in my two countries. Should ministry spouses engage in church life or not? What happens if we do? What happens if we don’t? Could my involvement create problems? And if so, how would I solve them?
In the country where I grew up, I never once heard of a pastor’s wife being involved at church. In most places it would have been considered sacrilege for a pastor’s wife to be active in ministry—those jobs were reserved for men. Even committees were all male, and women had no say about it. Some of these pastors’ wives were very withdrawn and did not have many friends. Essentially, being the pastor’s wife meant you had to be a wallflower.
Later, I met some extraordinary exceptions. Our first son is named after a friend whose wife is an example of active church life. She was an excellent deaconess and an active member of the Tabita [Dorcas] ministry. I eventually met other women who served in music and choir ministry and began to realize that it wasn’t necessary to be on a pedestal to manifest kindness and service.
In contrast, the pastors’ wives in my adopted country can’t imagine a quiet life. Their homes are the hotel room of choice for travelers, cafeterias for the hungry, and schoolrooms for those learning church duties. In addition, these wives were traditionally required by the state to have an outside job “for the benefit of society.” Their schedules often included the following: state job, motherhood, washing, cooking, cleaning, ironing, receiving guests, repairing the house, leading morning and evening family worship when the husband was absent, conducting worship services and preaching if the husband was away, serving on the church board, singing in the choir, giving Bible studies, leading in missionary activity, visiting members, and more. In short, she was expected to be a one-woman band!
Wallflowers and one-woman bands aren’t unique to my part of the world. Why do some shrink from church activities and others actively work beside their spouses in ministry? Let’s try to understand these two extremes so we can avoid the negative consequences on either side.
Reasons for being a wallflower:
misunderstanding our role, juggling unrealistic expectations, facing difficult problems at church, feeling alienated from our spouse, etc.
Pre-marital expectations can be unrealistic for anyone, including pastoral spouses. Misunderstanding one’s role in church life can lead to withdrawing from social interaction. Ministry can be as demanding for people-lovers as it is for the shy and timid. If you’re engaged to a pastor, it might be good to learn about the life ahead of you or maybe even to stay in a pastor’s home for a real-life glimpse. Being a ministry spouse means more than wearing stylish clothes on Sabbath or accepting a position of honor (and often unjustified envy). Ministry requires a life of self-sacrifice, seeking the good of others, and sometimes doing things you don’t particularly like.
In some cases a wife wants to work with her husband, but the church family resists her efforts. Disappointment can lead anyone to stop being a public person for fear of being wounded.
Other times, a wife may feel that the pastor focuses primarily on his own problems. If he doesn’t care about my challenges, why should I care about his? she may think.
Negative effects of being a wallflower: distrust of members in the church, indifference in missionary work, setting a bad example for others, etc.
A wallflower spouse can produce distrust in the pastor’s leadership. People may think, If his wife is not involved, why should I bother? Some church members may feel disappointed by her lack of involvement, while some may see it as a stumbling block to others.
On the other hand, some husbands are reluctant for their wives to be active at church, even when they are talented and may have been active in ministry before marriage. These pastors may prefer to have their wives in the shadows—quiet mothers, perfect housewives, brilliant students, nice neighbors— anything except being a leader at church. They may think they are protecting their own authority or letting church members develop their talents. Perhaps they have good intentions, but this attitude will always bring unhappy results.
Being active in church doesn’t have to mean being in charge. Active ministry brings joy, self-esteem, and a sense of achievement. A loving woman needs to have people to love, both at home and at church. To prohibit her from bestowing that love on her church is a great cruelty. Feminine sensitivity can be an incredible asset to pastoral ministry.
While some pastoral spouses retreat like wallflowers, others are driven to the opposite extreme.
Reasons for being a one-woman band:
energetic temperament, overestimation of the position, a mythical aura of holiness, lack of team spirit, inability to delegate, etc.
Some women are naturally energetic and active. But the pastor’s wife who tries to do everything herself may also be driven by misguided spiritual reasons. I was shocked to hear that some churches expect the pastor’s wife to sit in a reserved seat up front, on display for everyone. Acting as if the pastor’s wife is better than others can make people place her in the center of everything. This holy aura is inappropriate and an unreasonable burden for any human.
Excessive involvement can also stem from an innate distrust of others and lack of team spirit. Perhaps she feels unable to delegate and thinks that nothing can be done right unless she does it herself.
Negative effects of being a onewoman band:
loss of energy, reduced quality of life, weakened health, neglected family, lack of energy for other important duties, etc.
Anyone who tries to do everything alone won’t be able to do anything with excellence. Workaholism leads to exhaustion and illness. And illness from lack of temperance diminishes a spiritual leader’s influence because they aren’t following their own advice.
Being over-involved forces you to neglect some things at the expense of other things. One of the biggest temptations is to treat your own family as less important than your missionary work. Too many pastors’ children rebel, often because their need for love is unfulfilled. Who would feel loved if their parents treated everyone outside the family as more valuable? We cannot ask children to accept our absences while we freely share our energy with others.
Finding a Balance
Pastoral spouses generally fall into one of four categories:
1. You like to be active in church, but you don’t have the opportunity for it.
2. You don’t like to be active, but you are forced by circumstances.
3. You don’t like to be active, and you are not active.
4. You like to be active, and you have plenty of opportunity to be involved.
Whichever category you fall into, remember that ministry is the main purpose of life. This doesn’t mean that you have to say “Yes” every time someone asks for help, but it does mean that you cultivate a lifestyle of service, whether or not you are elected to an official position.
Ideally we will also help others develop their abilities. Tact and diplomacy are essential when our talents overlap (or surpass!) those who are already in church leadership. But we’ll be most valuable when we teach others to serve—and it’s possible to do so without acting superior.
When you’re mentoring, try to avoid saying things such as, “When I was in charge, I did it this way . . .” or “Here, I’ll do it myself.” Acting like a boss will push others away, but sitting on the sidelines may only encourage contempt. The challenge is to be neither a wallflower nor a one-woman band, neither spectating nor suffocating. It’s hard to find the balance between them, but serving with love is definitely the best way to start!