I was not really prepared to be a ministerial spouse. Nothing prepared me for life under a magnifying glass. When I arrived at our first pastoral district, I suddenly felt as if I were a specimen under examination. And when I had my first child, the child also became a specimen. A pastor’s family is, in a sense, laid bare on the table in the lab and placed under the slide. I did not realize that, when I married a minister, I was signing up for a pastoral family life that was always up for public review.
What are the challenges of living a ministerial family life under a magnifying glass, and what are some practical ways of dealing with the prying eyes? How can we turn these challenges into opportunities for blessings?
1. High expectations
For starters, I did not realize that the members’ expectations would be so high. The list of expectations seemed endless: do children’s ministry; attend church events, every worship service, baby showers, funerals, and weddings; lead small groups, host the visitors, have special music, cook, serve and clean up for every potluck, and on and on.
I still remember being called to a church pastorate and sitting beside my husband as the congregation talked with us about the opportunity to be their pastoral couple. A member looked at me and said, “Do you play the piano? Our last pastor’s wife played the piano every week, and we want our next pastor’s wife to do that also.” I calmly looked at the member and replied, “No, God has not gifted me with the ability to play the piano. I am gifted as a teacher instead.”
Each ministry calling is different and based on the talents and gifts God gave you. Your contributions to ministry need to be gift based; otherwise you will be frustrated, discouraged, and overwhelmed.
It is important that you do not let expectations of members guide your behavior. Do not try to be who you are not. You are accountable to God in using the gifts and talents that He has given you. Serve by using your unique gifts in the location where God has placed you. No two pastoral spouses look the same or have the same gifts. Be the person God has called you to be and shine the light He gave you.
It is hard to escape the fact that being a pastor’s spouse can be lonely. We often have ministry burdens that we cannot share with our church members. Sometimes, the need for confidentiality prevents us from doing so. Other times, we feel that none of our members can fully understand the complexities of a ministerial family. Who among your members can identify with the specific challenges of ministry? And sometimes church members do not want to become close friends because they assume that you will be moving again soon.
Life in ministry continues to show me that my best friend is Jesus. He is the One to whom I must go. He is the One I do not have to worry about what I say and how I say it.
Yes, there are times when we need a human being in the flesh. We need to pray for at least one true friend, for this person can be more valuable to you than an entire room of acquaintances.
Frequent moves, and a district far from other family members, adds to this feeling of loneliness. What about another pastoral spouse who lives under the same magnifying glass as you? The difficulty is that our districts are often spread out over a large territory, and so the opportunity for face-to-face time is rare. The good news: today’s technology enables us to chat on Skype or FaceTime. We can send them a quick message requesting immediate prayer. Do not allow distance to prevent you from developing a friendship and having a prayer partner.
I have often found that friendships actually developed to a greater degree when we moved away from the district. It freed me to talk about life in general. I no longer had to be concerned about the particulars of what was happening in the church because I was no longer their pastoral spouse. I was just “Pam,” and that was a wonderful and blessed feeling that created an environment for friendship to grow.
I believe that even Jesus needed human contact and friends. As I reflect on Scripture, I think that Jesus had special friends in Bethany. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus seemed special to Jesus, and He went to Bethany to revive His inner being. If Jesus needed special friends, we do too. We must be careful and use discernment, but if we are careful to follow biblical counsel, we can have friends. In reality, the things (gossiping, being untrustworthy, etc.) that get us into trouble when we have close friends in the church are the same things that get us into trouble when we have close friends outside of the church. Thus, we need to avoid those things.
3. Overlooked, yet looked over
Do you often feel overlooked? Our spouse’s ministries are public and visible. They are in front of the people, preaching, and teaching, while we are often in the nursery or in the pews trying to keep our children quiet. While our husbands are out meeting and fellowshiping with other members, we are often stuck home with sick kids! Our needs and contributions to the church family may get overlooked. We are often behind the scenes, doing so much that no one ever seems to notice. Many people know us as “Pastor soand-so’s wife,” but they really do not know us.
Nevertheless, they do notice us. The problem is that while they might overlook us, they also look us over. Members notice what you are wearing, and if you are having a bad hair day, they will point it out. Your dress is either too long, or matronly looking, or too short. Your blouse is either so high that you look as if you are choking, or too low and revealing. You either have on too much makeup or you have too little and look homely. Yes, you are looked over, and at times it seems that you will never get it right.
Dealing with criticism is one of the hardest challenges. But it is not criticism of you that is most difficult; rather, it is when people criticize your spouse or your children. You have watched all week as your pastoral spouse has had emergency after emergency. There were hospital visits, a funeral, and working with a couple on a marriage intervention. Yet, you hear a church member complaining about the fact that he did not visit them that week. You take a deep breath and ask the Lord to hold your tongue.
Those are the moments when we must stop and remind ourselves that our defenses and explanations will not matter to those who criticize. Arguing and defensiveness only escalates the situation. Meanwhile, our true friends will not need any explanations.
And why do members think the pastor’s kids must be perfect and never sin? Other toddlers may run in the sanctuary, but when the pastor’s three-year-old runs down the sanctuary aisle, they have just committed the unpardonable sin.
Our children already have so many pressures placed on them, and so being a pastor’s kid is not another pressure that we should allow. We need to gently remind our children that they need to walk quietly in the sanctuary because the church is a place of reverence; it should have nothing to do with the fact that they are the pastor’s kids. Never miss an opportunity to make sure your children understand that they are not to act a certain way because they are the children of a pastor. Rather, they are to act a certain way because they are children of God.
We need to learn to sift through the criticism that comes our way. If it has merit, we need to act upon it and, if possible, grow from it. However, if unwarranted, we need to pray for that person. Learning to become a sifter of criticism takes a great deal of prayer and honest reflection.
5. No time for family
Ministry is not a nine-to-five job but lasts 24/7. You are supposed to be on duty all the time and be available whenever and for whatever you are called to do.
Yet we cannot be so busy taking care of our flock that we neglect the flock in our own fold. We need to boldly build the fence around our family time and guard its borders.
• Family meals
• Vacation time
• Family worship
• Family night
• Date night
Our ministerial spouses may need our encouragement and gentle reminders about family time. We cannot be so busy saving the world that we lose our families. Perhaps an audit of actual time spent with our family and our calendar appointments should be considered often.
Reflect on your family priorities. Remember that God and ministry are not the same thing. Our priorities should be God, family, and ministry (church). When we put God and ministry both in the same spot, we will neglect our families of necessity, and that is wrong!
Do you take the time for a conversation with your spouse? As ministerial spouses we need to be assertive in discussing this issue. That may mean that we need to take the lead and open up the topic.
In the end, our struggles are not against “flesh and blood” but against Satan himself. The enemy will target us, and our families, with temptation, depression, and discouragement. Satan does not like what we are doing. If he can attack us personally, it will affect our ministry. We all have a target on our backs that Satan has drawn. Our real battle does not present itself against our church members but against the forces of darkness.
The good news is that the outcome has already been decided. Jesus won that battle on Calvary. When the challenges of ministry seem overwhelming, we need to look to the Cross and know that “it is finished” already, and we can take cover in what has been done for us in Jesus.
It is often far too easy to lose sight of all the blessings that come with ministry. If we look for it, the blessings truly outweigh the challenges; the good outweighs the bad. God has given us the privilege of being on the front lines, and in partnering with Him in ministry. We just need to make sure we do not lose our own souls, and family, in the process