By Joy Allmond
Ministry is rewarding—but tough. And it’s not just difficult for pastors, but for the family they go home to, particularly their spouse.
What’s more, it’s nearly impossible for a pastor’s spouse to talk with anyone at church about some of the challenges they face.
We spoke with several pastor’s spouses about these sensitive parts of ministry life that they—practically speaking—can’t (or shouldn’t) discuss with the people they serve.
Here are the top five recurring themes.
1. They have marriage issues, too.
“It’s so hard when you have issues in your marriage that you’d love to have a friend to talk about them with. You can’t ever do that inside your church because you could cause that friend to lose respect for her pastor.”
“As beneficial as the commandment of bearing one another’s burdens is, I just don’t have the freedom to share with anyone in the church that we had a huge blowup over the weekend and the hurtful things that were said I’m now having difficulty moving past. That’s why my eyes are puffy and I look like I’d rather be anywhere but sitting on the front row listening to the preacher preach.”
2. Friendship is incredibly hard.
“(There’s an) expectation that I’m to be great friends with the staff wives or an automatic mentor to them. The reality is there are personalities you just don’t jive with. There are underlying expectations that I’m supposed to be friends with someone who I may not choose to be friends with if it weren’t for my husband’s job. You come into a relationship with unsaid expectations that in any other scenario would be seen as pushy or high maintenance, but it effects your spouse’s work environment, the culture as a staff, and the overall tone of the church, and so you often just go with it and try to appease all parties.”
“I desire to find friends in our church with whom I can be myself and feel free to talk about my personal challenges, parenting challenges and, maybe even, what’s different or difficult in my marriage, being a pastor’s wife. I’ve had some experiences in the past with when my trust and boundaries [with friends] were broken. As I result, I can remain diplomatic with everyone, while at the same time wishing for a deeper relationship with the very people I’m holding at arm’s length.”
“[It’s difficult to] carry burdens related to disgruntled church members, families in crises, problems with staff, or conflict that you just don’t have the freedom to talk about. Those burdens are so heavy, but because you can’t discuss them, everyone assumes you’re fine and that you don’t understand what it’s like to carry ‘real’ burdens.”
“My husband hired a person on the ministry staff who needed quite a bit of redirecting to align with where we were going as a church. For almost a year, his wife gave me the cold shoulder. Sadly, I couldn’t talk with anyone else about it because she was only behaving badly toward me.”
3. They often feel controlled or judged.
“Another thing in previous churches that I have experienced is how controlled and manipulated you feel by the power of committees. They can control everything about your life. At our first church we lived in the parsonage, I was the secretary, and my husband was on staff. Everything about our lives was connected to the church, and in many ways, we were thankful for what we had. However, once the personnel committee decided to restructure funds or just changed their mind we were left with no say in the decision and having to adjust multiple aspects of our life circumstances. Often times we felt like there wasn’t a person we could talk to about it, or that we could bring up concerns with because we were at the mercy of a few church members.”
“I recently began seeing a counselor again. It was a decision I put off for months because I felt it was a disqualification for church leadership. I’m beginning to believe the exact opposite, that the pursuit of emotional health is actually a sign you might be ready to lead. I’m unsure how this conversation would be received broadly, and so I don’t talk about it.”
“If you’re financially struggling, you can’t talk about that with any friends in your church because you could be perceived as being ungrateful for the salary that the church is paying your spouse.”
4. They’re not the church’s complaint department.
“There have been Sunday mornings when I’m shaking hands with people who jerk me toward themselves and use it as an opportunity to tell me what they think my husband should do differently. I simply smile and thank them for being there.”
“For the first year or so in our current church, someone would tell me a compliment about my husband or my ministry and then pull me in close to tell me his or her opinion of the things the last pastor and his wife did poorly. I’d try to very quickly turn the conversation in a positive direction, but I really wanted to raise my hand and say, ‘This is not appropriate, and I won’t listen to it!’”
“I can tell almost immediately when someone is using me to further their agenda or digging to find out a useful piece of information. It’s particularly disappointing when it’s someone on your husband’s staff.”
“I’m often asked questions about church events and programs. People seem disappointed or even upset that I don’t always know the answer. Would employees at a business expect the CEO’s spouse to know all the inner workings of the company? Probably not.”
5. They’re frustrated by the lack of boundaries and clarity in a ministry setting.
“There’s no job description for a ministry spouse and no feedback loop to measure how you’re doing. I spend a lot of time considering, what am I supposed to be doing now? Without clarity to that question, it’s very easy to let other people’s answers to that question take precedent, leaving you spread too thin and frustrated.”
“My husband frequently receives texts from church members that are not urgent ministry situations. If he doesn’t immediately respond, they feel personally offended. We’ve established criteria for when it’s appropriate and timely for him to respond, especially if messages arrive during dinner or family time.”
Joy is the editorial chief of staff at Christianity Today.