Journalists seem to relish any morsel of news about the defeat of a pastor's family. The headlines describe in gory detail one story after another in which a pastor's spouse has incurred ignominy. Other stories even showcase ministers' wives acting inappropriately in public. The wife of one popular megachurch pastor reportedly lost control in a dispute with a flight attendant just prior to the family's departure for vacation, causing her whole family to be deplaned and miss the flight.1 If the report is true, why did she lose control and why have so much anger built up?
However, the scenario is not new. Consider this story of megachurch pastor Whang Sa-Sun who pioneered the Korean Methodist Church in San Francisco.
San Francisco was not a friendly place for Korean Americans in the early 1920s and 1930s. Nevertheless, it was here that Whang Sa-Sun felt called to labor. The first barrier was finding a vocation that would support him as he ministered. Even finding a building to rent to start a business was a challenge. Somehow, he found work, eventually setting up shop as a dry cleaner. But that was only his day job. His real passion? Sharing the gospel. Many long hours were spent helping others. B. Y. Choy, who knew this faithful minister for decades, writes, "Hundreds of Korean students and political refugees received advice, counsel and help in securing jobs. Many stayed at [Whang Sa-Sun's] home until they found a place to live or got jobs. . . . He gave no attention to his own personal gains or glory but always concerned himself with the welfare and interests of others."2
Eventually, Pastor Whang also became a successful megachurch pastor. Did his wife lose control? Never in public, anyway. In fact, it was several years after his death that the feelings of his widow would come out. In a 1980 interview, she divulged, "As a pastor's wife I had no time for myself. For 24 hours my heart was heavy. So was my head. I longed for an ordinary wife's life. When will you leave pastoral work? I would plead with him. His stock answer: You should be grateful that we are doing the Lord's work."3
That's an interesting paradox-we are doing the Lord's work. Whether the pastor ministers in a megachurch or a small district, every pastoral family will find that job expectations cross and blur regularly into the lines of home and family. You remember the first time you became aware of this blending, don't you? Maybe it was when your husband told you that he felt the Lord was calling him into ministry, and you wondered exactly what that strange tone in his voice or faraway look in his eyes would mean when dreams collided with reality. Or perhaps when the day arrived for interviews with conference leaders, you sensed that you were more involved in the picture of ministry than you thought. You worried what to wear to make just the right impression, only to have your husband comment, "Could you wear something less professional, maybe more domestic?" Maybe you were filled with excitement at the prospect of being able to be a support and encouragement to the man you love. You looked forward to working together in the great harvest field saving souls for the kingdom. Eagerly, you embraced inspired statements like this one:
A responsibility rests upon the minister's wife which she should not and cannot lightly throw off. God will require the talent lent her, with usury. She should work earnestly, faithfully, and unitedly with her husband to save souls. She should never urge her wishes and desires, or express a lack of interest in her husband's labor, or dwell upon homesick, discontented feelings. All these natural feelings must be overcome. She should have a purpose in life which should be unfalteringly carried out. What if this conflicts with the feelings and pleasures and natural tastes! These should be cheerfully and readily sacrificed, in order to do good and save souls.4
Wonderful thoughts. But what if your pastor husband has been in a district for two years longer than you think he should have been? At least it seems that way to you now. You wish you could move today. Right now! Maybe it's an undercover ring of gossipers you've just discovered and you feel hurt and betrayed. Or, the level of dysfunction and dwarfed spirituality among some of the members of your husband’s small churches seems too unbelievable for even a reality TV show. You feel overwhelmed and afraid that your children might be permanently influenced by all the things they see and hear. Or maybe, like former pastor’s wife Stephanie Elzy once experienced, the status quo and financial strain are crushing you.5 Perhaps it’s the schedule of your husband, and you vow that if he answers his cell phone one more time during dinner, you’ll throw it out the window. Maybe you long for time for yourself, like Mrs. Whang Sa-Sun. Do you find yourself wishing as she did that your husband had another job, one that wouldn’t affect or involve the family so much? Do you long for an “ordinary wife’s” life, as she did?
Again, you’re not the only one. Even the faithful wife of J. N. Loughborough, a minister in the Seventh-day Adventist Church during the formative years, must have wished for a “normal” life too. We aren’t told that she pleaded with her husband to leave the work as Mrs. Sa-Sun did, but we do find her family among the 30 believers who left the gospel work for more promising fields. This group also included J. N. Andrews, another minister. They all decided to move to Waukon, Iowa, and take up farming. At least farmers could see the results of their hard labors. Weeds and weather as foes seemed much easier, or at least less draining, than dealing with people. Financial strain, humiliation, criticism, and feelings of failure due to no apparent success were constant companions on the path of ministry. Surely, this land with its fertile fields promised better returns. We read, “The young ministers in the group had found the work in the cause hard, the separation from family difficult, especially for the wife and mother, and there was no plan for regular financial support. It seemed that the enemy was stepping in to thwart the work of God just at a time when the outlook was most promising.”6 Further, “This was a time when ‘the West’ with its good farmland was opening up to settlers. This lured many families from their rocky New England farms to the promise of a more comfortable and easy life.”7
Thankfully, the same God who had compassion on Elijah when he left the work cares for pastors’ families in a special way. Nowhere in the story do we read that God condemned His servant for fleeing the scene of battle and becoming depressed and overwhelmed (although He did tenderly encourage Elijah to get back to work).8
God didn’t give up on His servants in Waukon, either. He sent James and Ellen White on a long journey to remind them of their first love and calling to ministry. But He did not stop there. Just as He took care of Elijah’s physical need by feeding him, so He remembered His servants who repented and left Waukon to take up the gospel plow again. Church leaders began to realize the importance of regular and systematic compensation for ministers. As pastoral families, we still benefit from that decision. What about Mrs. Sa-Sun and her husband? She concludes, “When he retired [in 1942] I realized my longings for a comfortable life was wrong. I really felt sorry for my husband and the Lord. So I repented in my prayers sobbing much tears.”9
In time of fiery trials, it is easy to blame the ministry. We imagine that if we did not live in the proverbial fishbowl or have to be drained by being around people all the time, things would be better.
I confess that I have been tempted—when under extreme pressure caused by conflict with unhealthy or unreasonable church members—to fantasize about the days when my husband owned his own business as a contractor with the state. Bringing in twice the money he now makes, it seems that he made more money then for less hassle. Visions of our picturesque home and parklike lawn overlooking mountains and fertile valleys come to mind. This place that we owned before being called to ministry is the same home that he grew up in. It’s the place where we worked together and watched our babies grow into children. This all comes into my mind in a rich, nostalgic glow of glory—never mind that there were trials then too. No, this temptation to long for the leeks and onions of Egypt10 comes to me as perfect and flawless—a surreal imagination of our own personal Waukon, Iowa. Those were the good ole days, a voice whispers, the days when you were an ordinary wife and you didn’t have to put up with all the trials that come from being a pastor’s wife. People having petty issues or criticizing your children or your husband. Not to mention how the incessant expectations of others wears on your personal spirituality and joy or puts stress on your marriage! Wouldn’t you love to be an ordinary wife again? The temptation culminates in that single thought.
Would I? I wonder. Then, another thought presses gently into my mind, What kind of ordinary wife? I remember a book I read about army wives. Even though people compare being a pastor’s wife to being married to someone in the military, the situations are very different. There may be some similarities, but a close look reveals that the expectations of a military family are even harder. Yes, I have a lot of respect for military families and the tough issues that they must face. But military and minister’s families are not alone in having troubles due to fishbowl living. Many other professions such as politicians, teachers, lawyers, and many in the medical field deal with these issues. And, the list could go on. Aside from afflictions that come as a result of one’s profession, we must remember that many of our struggles come from trying to survive in today’s culture. Family psychologist, Dr. Kevin Leman, in his book Keeping Your Family Together When the World is Falling Apart, says it this way, “One major reason the families of our nation are in trouble is that moms and dads are not really putting each other or the family first.”11 He further states that even though many people think they do put family first, they become victims of trying to have it all.
I think back to the times when I’ve felt overwhelmed. There have been some real issues I’ve had to address. Setting boundaries and coordinating my schedule with my husband’s to ensure time to build our relationship and take our date night, for instance. Most of all, I have had to keep my own priorities straight—putting God first, then husband, children, and ministry. When I feel overwhelmed by my own pain, my vision can become distorted and I risk blaming the ministry and longing for the idyllic life of an ordinary wife—which is merely a mirage, as Mrs. Sa-Sun learned through hindsight. Could it be that the enemy who so often “comes in like a flood”12 has chosen to overwhelm me just at the moment when God and my husband most need me to be strong? Maybe I need to remember the words of Galatians 6:9, “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.”
I don’t wish to be an ordinary wife anymore. I just pray that God will help me to be a loving wife to David when he needs me most. Yes, a loving wife to Pastor David. After all, sometimes his job leaves him feeling drained, too, and the last thing he needs is a suggestion to move—to Waukon, Iowa.
1 J. Willey, “Victoria Osteen Reportedly Removed from
Plane,” Abc13.com, http://abclocal.go.com/ktrk/
2 K. W. Lee and L. and G. Kim, “A Pioneer Pastor’s Son,”
KoreAm Journal.com, www.koreamjournal.com/Magazine/
4 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, DC: Review
and Herald Publishing Assn.,1915, 2002), 202.
5 Stephanie Elzy, The Sweetness of a Bitter Cup: Journey of a
Pastor’s Wife (Longwood, FL: Xulon Press, 2005).
6 A. L. White, Ellen G. White: The Early Years, 1827-1862,
vol. 1 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing
Assn.,1985, 2002), 346.
7 Ibid., 345.
8 See 1 Kings 19.
9 K. W. Lee and L. and G. Kim, “A Pioneer Pastor’s Son,”
KoreAm Journal.com, www.koreamjournal.com/Magazine/
10 See Numbers 11:5.
11 Dr. Kevin Leman, Keeping Your Family Together When the
World is Falling Apart (New York, NY: Delacorte Press, 1992;
reprinted by Focus on the Family Publishing, Colorado
Springs, CO, 1993), 20.
12 See Isaiah 59:19.