Making friends in your own church

Being a pastor's spouse can lead to loneliness. But you can find friends in the churches you serve.

Laurie S. Herr, a freelance writer and pastor's spouse, writes from Burnsville, North Carolina.

This is just a friendly warning," the note said. "Beware of playing favorites in church."

This "friendly warning," written by a blue-haired lady to her pastor's wife, echoes the advice ministers and their spouses often receive. Sometimes they even give it themselves. One veteran clergy wife, for example, once cautioned a young woman upon her engagement to a seminary student. "Let me tell you about being a minister's wife," she said with a congratulatory hug. "If you do make a friend in your church, never let the other members know it. I have friends with whom I do things during the week, but at church I hardly speak to them. Otherwise, people think you're partial."

Such a fear of appearing partial is just one of the obstacles that spouses of ministers, and wives in particular, face when it comes to making friends in their own churches. Some of these obstacles are caused by the nearsightedness of church members. Others the pastor's wife herself may unknowingly create. By becoming more aware of these obstacles, however, the pastor's wife can more successfully overcome them.

While we all crave close friendships, there are several reasons that a minister's wife especially needs them. Frequent moves are not only hard on the fine china; they can also damage a fragile self-esteem. Her husband's odd work hours often keep him away from home. Usually she is the only one who ever hears her husband fume after a frustrating board meeting. She is also an easy target for criticism on everything from how she dresses to how her children behave.

Added to all this is the constant under lying pressure to please. One parishioner, for instance, once informed her new pastor's wife that she always judged a pas tor by his wife's performance!

For a minister's wife, all of these factors combine to create a very real need for emotional support beyond that which her husband and family can give. Even a strong relationship with God cannot re place the need for a hug or human conversation.

It would seem that one of the most logical places to find such a friend would be in one's own church. Yet of the eight women I interviewed whose husbands are ministers, 1 most found their church friendships superficial. Only two felt satisfied with the friendships they'd formed, and for one this was a happy change. "For the first time in our ministry," she said, "we are in a place in which we have real friends—not just church relations."

The way that many church members perceive their pastor and his family poses part of the problem. Because ministers move frequently, some parishioners tend to view them as temporary members of their community.

They may even express this in not-so-subtle ways. During my husband's internship, for example, we learned that none of the past several associate pastors of the church we were serving stayed more than a year or two. Within six months of our arrival, people began asking when we planned to move. While this may have been only polite interest, we couldn't help wondering if maybe they were a little too eager to help us pack!

Nevertheless, it's important to realize that some church members are deeply hurt when it comes time to say goodbye to clergy families they've grown close to. Rather than risk being hurt again, they hesitate to make another emotional investment in a pastor and his wife. As one member explained: "It's always easier for the ones who move than for those who stay behind."

The false distinctions some members make between clergy and laity raise another serious obstacle to close friend ships. One pastor's wife of 15 years re marked that ministers and their families are "not thought of as part of the real world." Parishioners don't necessarily consider a pastor's wife as better than others (although some people mistakenly believe that as well); rather, they may view her as "out of it" and basically not much fun. Unable to see beyond their picture of "Mrs. Pastor" (a term many church members think is cute, but in reality strips a woman of her individuality), they fail to get to know a complete person who has the same ambitions, faults, quirks, and spiritual struggles as the rest of the world. As one pastor's wife put it: "It's hard to get close to someone who assumes that all we do at our house is pray and hum hymns."

Some laity have preconceived ideas not only of what their pastor's wife should be like, but also of how she expects them to be. "In general, people are wary of being too open or honest with their pastor's family," one clergy wife said. Because the pas tor—and somehow his wife—represent so much more to them than what they actually are, these members resist exposing too much of their true selves, preferring instead to keep the relationship on safe, superficial levels.

In her book Who Is the Minister's Wife? Charlotte Ross points out that some people may even treat the pastor's wife as a personified conscience. She quotes one woman who experienced this type of rejection: "People, I think, shy away from me if, for example, they've missed church. It's not much fun to be a walking judgment on others." 2

Such distinctions blur the focus of God's ministry. They distract both clergy and laity from the true church Leader, the only One who can judge hearts. And they keep us from being genuine with one another.

It's easy to blame church members for their apparent lack of understanding, yet we must also recognize the obstacles to friendship the pastor's wife herself often sets up.

Frequent goodbyes, for example, can harden clergy as well as laity. Without realizing it, a pastor's wife may succumb to the thinking of the woman who told her daughter not to love her dog too much because it would only die someday and make her sad. By steeling herself against loss, the pastor's wife can miss out on a great deal of love.

As mentioned earlier, the fear of showing partiality may also inhibit a pastor's wife's friendships. To an extent this concern may be valid. But it can also be overestimated. Surprisingly, not everyone is dying to be the pastor's wife's best friend. Ruth Senter, author of So You're the Pastor's Wife, tells in her book how she had a hard time grasping this: "There is a myth about the pastor's wife that contributed to my lonely times during the first years of marriage. . . . Somewhere along the line I picked up the idea that a pastor's wife had to be a friend to all and close companion to none. Some where I got the picture that the church was full of people who were just waiting for the chance to be friends with the pas tor's wife. In order to be fair to everyone and not have anyone get jealous over the fact that she was not my friend too, I would have to be friends to everyone. "That kind of thinking did a lot for my ego."3

Ego-boosting as it may be, the concept is, as Senter says, a myth. She goes on to point out that while she would never want to close herself off to others by maintaining exclusive friendships, she believes that "it is possible to have close friendships without having cliques." 4

Occasionally a pastor's wife will run into someone who accuses her of "playing favorites." While she must be sensitive to the opinions of others, she cannot let them control her personal relationships. Rather than hiding such friendships when in public, she can decide on ways to handle criticism with tact and kindness. Doing so will enable her to be truer to her church members, her closest friends, and herself.

Sometimes meeting the problem head-on may uncover the fact that her personal friendships are not the real issue at all. For example, when the pastor's wife who received the note mentioned at the beginning of this article confronted its writer, she learned that the woman had been deeply hurt by a former pastor who had shown blatant favoritism in his church management. But was she jealous of this pastor's wife's close friends? "Oh, my dear, no!" the older woman said. "I didn't mean you shouldn't have friends! You go right ahead and make all the friends you can!" Both women left with a deeper appreciation for the other.

But the greatest obstacle to friendship that a pastor's wife faces may be the fear of confiding in a church member. The women I interviewed shared these com plaints: "Hard to know whom to trust with certain information"; "Not really able to let your hair down"; "Difficult to share personal concerns unless they're fairly general." When asked whom, other than their husbands, they usually confided in, only one of these women specifically mentioned a good friend in her church (and one woman responded with an emphatic "I don't!").

Naturally the fear that last night's argument with her pastor-husband might become a tasty after-dinner treat for some members at the next potluck is legitimate. But assuming that everyone in her church likes to gossip may keep a pastor's wife from enjoying some truly trustworthy friendships. Just as others trust her to keep their confidences, she must show enough faith in others to trust them with hers. As one pastor's wife said: "Once you've found a friend you can totally trust, you have something very special and worth keeping." Unless she risks trusting a few souls, a pastor's wife will never know that kind of friendship within her church.

What can pastors' wives do to overcome these obstacles? The women I interviewed suggested everything from the familiar "Be yourself to "Get out of the ministry!" Fundamentally, however, a pastor's wife must make sure she opens herself to new friendships.

This means being patient. The women interviewed said it took them anywhere from three months to a full year to feel at ease in a new church. During these transition periods they often relied heavily on friends from former districts.

It also means being willing to take the initiative in making friends rather than waiting for the dinner invitations to come rolling in. "If you're patient, the Lord will usually send you some friends," said one minister's wife. "But be careful to be looking for them. They may not be the persons you're expecting to find."

Most important, being open to new friendships means acknowledging your need of them. Ross points out in her book that "the admission of such needs by clergy wives and the abandonment of a phony posture of self-sufficiency will lead to a greater maturity." 5

One young pastor's wife hadn't even realized how she had assumed this falsely superior attitude. "I was shocked when a friend told me that I came across as highly self-sufficient in our church. Unintentionally I had been putting others off, keeping them at a safe arm's length even when I was feeling my loneliest. Ironically," she smiled, "it took a good friend to help me see this."

Another woman said that she didn't realize the potential for friendship in her church until it was time to leave. "When my husband and I decided to take a call to another part of the country, we explained to our members that it was because we needed to be closer to family. Later one woman who had always been very kind to us met me with an indignant look on her face and said, 'But we're family too!'

"I realized she was right. There were some wonderful, funny, interesting people in that church. But I'd been so busy feeling sorry for myself that I'd failed to notice many of the times they'd reached out to me."

Acknowledging her needs for friend ship and doing what she can to overcome the obstacles that may exist in her church will help a pastor's wife feel more a part of her church family. It will better enable her to break through some of the phony facades that both clergy and laity sometimes hide behind. And hopefully, it will help find some irreplaceable friends.

1 These women ranged in ages from 27 to 40,
and had spent anywhere from 1 Vi to 17 years with
their husbands in the ministry. One woman's husband
had left the pastoral ministry and had gone
into another related career. While these interviews
in no way pretend to be an exhaustive study, they
do reflect some common feelings of pastors' wives in
different situations.

2 Quoted in Charlotte Ross, Who Is the Minister's
Wife? A Search for Personal Fulfillment
(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980), p. 67.

3 Ruth Senter, So You're the Pastor's Wife
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House,
1979), pp. 87, 88.

4 Ibid., p. 88.

5 Ross, p. 53.

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Laurie S. Herr, a freelance writer and pastor's spouse, writes from Burnsville, North Carolina.

March 1989

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