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Email From A Pastor’s Wife

Email From a Pastor’s Wife [7th April, 2001]

After 28 years as a minister’s wife who has shared ministry with my husband in the Uniting Church (first the Methodist church), for me it is a unique role because of the expectations that you put upon yourself and also the expectations that people in the congregations put on you. If you are not strong to cope with the many moves, relationships with all types of people, (who are sinners, some saved by God’s grace) the hierachy of the denomination (understanding the politics) and secure in your relationship to Christ, you can CRASH! And often, the pastoral care is not there for you!

At the moment, after 35 years in christian ministry, I feel I need a break (a Sabbatical). My body tells me to stop, look after the body that God gave you, but I feel that I want someone to give me permission to have that break! Anyway, here is part of a letter which I sent to a friend in Townsville. Feel free to edit what is written and I don’t really mind if you put my name. I am now in a position to encourage younger women who serve the Lord with their husbands in christian ministry, and I enjoy this.


Dear Heather,

The following stressors were sent to me from a friend (who counsels and teaches seminars of missionaries) and personally, I have found them most helpful. If you were to highlight/give any understanding of the following, the pastor’s wife would love you.

1. Never off duty – unstructured job (because there is no full-time secretary in this congregation, I always answer the phone at the house if Donald is not in his office. Even if it is 7am in the morning or 11pm at night, I have to try to be pleasant. One girl said to me recently “I’d hate your job Barbara! You always have to be nice!” It’s always nice if someone in the congregation, even Church Council, acknowledge and say thank-you for what you do. So often, you are taken for granted.

2. Fish-bowl experience. You always have the feeling that you are watched by everyone. Your kids are observed, your body language is observed, your tone of voice, your tidy house or not so tidy house – where you sit in church – who sits next to you – what you wear to church. One girl was chatting during communion to her friend and she was heard to say when I walked forward to take communion. “She always wear that outfit” . My daughter was sitting behind her and told me. So next Sunday, I wore something different and when she came out of the church, she said to me “You’ve got a new outfit on today”. With a beaming smile and hidden sarcasm, I said “Yes, do you like it? I wore it especially for you!” She didn’t know that I knew about her conversation!!!! It is a blessing when someone comes to me and says “Barbara, I’d like to make you an outfit for your birthday/Christmas and I don’t want you to pay me. You can choose the fabric, the zip etc.”

3. Expectation/performance gap: In other words, even if I am tired, or feel used up, there is that expectation that I should always remain fresh, with a vital relationship with God, my husband and family, especially on a Sunday morning. The expectation from Donald is that I attend church every Sunday morning, even if I am tired and feel worn out. Husbands need to be aware of how their wives are coping, and sometimes realise that they need to have time out (even a few days away in a holiday cottage . As a person, I probably have expectations of myself too and if I don’t reach my expectations, I feel a failure.e.g. yesterday, there were three new families. There is an expectation from others and also from me to write a welcome letter to each one (and there is no office secretary here) make sure each family is visited this week – if a lay person doesn’t have the time to do it, or the minister hasn’t delegated, then it may not happen invite these folk home to a meal – should the minister and his wife always have to do it? If one of those people came to church with a deep need, did anyone speak to them about their personal needs – if not, they might say “No-one cared for me when I went – I won’t go anymore!”

4. Lack of tangible results: In a hospital setting, you see people get well and leave hospital. In a church congregation, you sometimes can’t measure what God has done in people’s lives. You sometimes what God is doing in people’s lives, especially if they sit on the pew week after week with no great change! But God sees their hearts and that is what is important.

5. Lonliness of leadership/pedestal This is a very real situation. You may have had an extremely busy week answering the phone and being called out to situations beyond your depth e.g. a suicide marriage break-down where there may be physical violence weird people who turn up for worship a person with a psychiatric condition causing problems in a congregation, but your knowledge is limited in knowing how to handle the person person in the congregation who is found out for sexual molestation. One of the problems is that sometimes a minister or his wife have no-one to talk to about these situations. Often the Presbytery Chairman is not available or doesn’t realise that this couple need to de-brief or be encouraged so you can be quite lonely. You may have serious problems with your children or marriage, but who do you turn to?

John Mallison’s book on “Mentoring” is a great book and at the end there are some questions that can be answered in a small group where the minister and his wife can share in a confidential manner. The Pedestal Effect means that most people put you up on a pedestal in their minds, not realizing that you are a human being, just like them, with real needs. I remember when I first came here, I was feeling desperately lonely for the friends I had in Townsville. I walked up to church on a winter’s morning feeling freezing (because I didn’t have warm-enough clothes and there were a number of mornings when it was below 0 degrees). No-one, not even the wives of the Elders, talked to me. I felt very alone and there were tears in my eyes as I walked home. I thought to myself “Well, I still have my family, so we will try to help each other – God knows how we feel, and remember, all five were going through the grief process”. If people haven’t moved to another area or suffered a loss, they have no idea what you have to experience. I believe that during that first year, there is a great need for lay people to welcome and get to know the minister and his wife and family. Those who do will probably remain friends for years.

Blessings: There are those who do take the time to invite you home, to get to know you, and accept you as you are and they are very, very special people. When they care for your children too, that is wonderful.

If you were to ask each woman about this whole subject of loneliness/pedestal situation, you would get lots of feedback.

6. Perception that you have to be constantly available. If I put the answering machine on, I always feel guilty, but this is necessary if you want to spend time with your family, or time alone with God. It would appear that some people feel you should always be there at any time of the day. It is not always easy to put up a boundary line.

7 Generational issues. In a church congregation, there are three (usually)

generations, and it is very difficult to keep harmony between them all. e.g.

* The young people don’t want to sing hymns – the older people do. * The young people like drums and noise – the older people don’t. * Older people can’t understand why young people can’t sit through a boring worship and be happy. * Young people often sit up the back of the church with their peers. If they talk, sometimes an older person will discipline them, and this makes them feel like not wanting to come again. * Young people like to be involved in lots of adrenalin-pumping activities to use up all their energy – if they have ideas, older people should respect and listen to these ideas.Ideally young people should listen to the oldies, but they don’t often do. Therefore, we who are older and wiser should take the initiative. It’s okay if a congregation have three services where each generation is able to worship in their style. If I at 55 years of age can go to the Australian Gospel Music Festival with a bus-load of young people, get into the moshe pit and crowd-surf – why can’t other older people also adapt. You have to learn to relate to all generations and this is not easy, particularly when negative criticism occurs.

8. Negative criticism This is one of the worst problems that a Minister and his wife have to endure and you find negative people in every congregation. I always identify them now and keep my distance, or at least try to diagnose why they are like they are, but for a young, married pastor’s wife, she needs to be very careful because criticism of her, her husband or family can be DESTROYING.

The best book on this subject is “Practical Criticism – Giving and Taking it” by John Alexander.

“Criticism – expressed and unexpressed, specific and vague, valid and invalid – is a fact of life inside the Christian community and outside as well. Often it is unhealthy. It can turn people against each other and destroy fellowship. It can bring civil war to a witnessing, loving Christian community, sap its life and ruin its worship of God and its ministry to people”.

“Positive criticism can be healthy. It identifies strengths and accomplishments. It indicates satisfactory achievement as judged by the critic. We all need positive criticism. A good pastor.motivates people by words and attitudes skillfully chosen to build confidence and express appreciation for not only their finished products but also their efforts and willingness to try.”

For me personally, this whole subject has been relevant to every congregation where we have been.

There are those in the congregation who want to control you, and will even go to the extend of doing/buying things for you or your family, so that you are obligated to them.

There are those who will give negative criticism of your leadership and expect you to have all the gifts whereas you don’t have – the whole body of people needs to be operating if the church body is to be an attractive place. Some people are more negative than others. Some will criticize but if you ask them the facts, they don’t have them. You have to be very skilled when dealing with negative critics, and it is hard to “speak the truth in love”. So many people speak in a manner that bruises, stabs and crushes and these words can destroy any relationship. Gentleness and love is so important. The minister and his wife desperately need people who will speak honestly. I didn’t realise until that situation in Townsville that the church has people who are the “slash and burn” type!!!! A couple need those who can support them with love and gentleness.

9. In Townsville, when Donald was “side-lined/walked on/manipulated by the power group” at that Presbytery meeting at Crystal Creek, people were able to minister to him in gracious, kind ways. He was always there for others to care for them, but when he desperately needed love and support, there were those who deserted him. They were not there for us, and when we made the decision to leave, they didn’t really understand. But Romans 8:28. It is important when situations like that one in Townsville occur that the minister and his wife are given maximum support. Those situations take their toll. If resentment and unforgiveness builds up because no-one has cared enough, this will have serious consequences for the minister and his wife.

10. Finances: this can sometimes be a problem when you have to live in a Manse all your life and don’t have your own home. Some pastors wives live by faith, and this can sometimes be difficult. I remember a certain surgeon in Townsville who didn’t seem to like minister’s wives working and I felt guilty when I went back and did my refresher course in Nursing. A commandment that I have always had to keep and I find it difficult is “Do not covet – always be thankful for what you have got”

Management Issues: It is my perception that a Minister must have good management skills. If this is not the case, a lay person who has these skills must offer to give of their time and energy for this role. When a church family has growth, it has to have a structure (e.g. Church Council). This must operate if the church is to function and feel like a close-knit family where loving relationships are developed and valued.

In this congregation now, we have about eight areas, involving many groups of people e.g. Administration, Pastoral Care, Youth, Outreach, Education, Worship, Property etc. Because I have skills in organization, I have helped Donald in the past fortnight organize an overnight seminar for 38 of his leaders in the church. He is the only paid employee, but these people are valued and appreciated and our church wouldn’t be attractive if all of these people didn’t do what they do, as unto the Lord.

11. Inadequate training in interpersonal skills e.g. conflict resolution etc. Increasingly, ministers/pastors and their wives find it difficult to cope with all that is expected of them. If they don’t have skills in counselling, what do they do with difficult situations. People often come to them as an initial contact because their service is free, but sometimes these people need COUNSELLING, and not just pastoral care. They need to know the difference between pastoral care and pastoral COUNSELLING! These days, if an minister/pastor gives the wrong advice, they could find themselves in a court of law being sued. Also, sometimes in your congregation, you may find a person with a psychiatric condition who is very manipulative and can cause a lot of trouble. These people can be quite dangerous and I have had experience with these types of people. If they seek to sue you, or blacken your name, your reputation can be ruined for life. Sometimes, a desperate woman will set up a minister and this can have a devastating effect upon him and his wife. Proper training should be given by Christian Counsellors to the pastors and their wives to know what to do with situations that are beyond their depth! A good congregation will seek to put training in place, so that a minister and other leaders are protected!

12. Constant exposure to people’s problems and pain. This situation is very real and quite demanding. Some people can use you so that you give and give and give and give, and you find yourself exhausted emotionally and physically and spiritually. You become drained and this affects all your relationships. You could become bitter and used! Ministers and their wives MUST TAKE TIME OUT TO RELAX, HAVE FUN AND LAUGH, READ GOOD BOOKS.

13. Maintain a good marriage. If a minister doesn’t maintain his marriage, no one else will – and when he is totally exhausted with giving out to others, and his wife also wants time, there could be conflict. Over the years, I have sought to make our marriage a top priority in the following ways. Have a dating day each week – even if only part of a day. Dialogue together because it is our best way of communication. Buy a new marriage book every year. Express gratitude to those who encourage us with our marriage. In Townsville, those young people gave us a candlelit dinner on the Strand for our 20th Wedding anniversary – others paid for a night at that Motel – another couple took us for a surprise night-away to Magnetic Island after I broke my wrist after a car accident.

14. Children of the Manse : These kids are often not allowed to be themselves, because people have expectations of them. e.g. James and his boxing. Donald and his shooting! Motor-bikes. A mother must be the best advocate for her children. Parenting must be taken very seriously. During the teenage years, I was very grateful for those young people who met in the Manse every Tuesday night – who were fun. They made a great impression on our kids. Children of the Manse need good role models and people who really care about them.

15. Extended Family: A minister is always expected to be in the pulpit on Christmas Day. All other families usually have family gatherings, but for th e minister and his wife and family who may be hundreds of miles from family, this can be a very lonely time. I always remember Rev. Rob Grenfell taking services in western Queensland and then getting in the car and driving all the way to Victoria to see family.

16. Working with Volunteers – in this parish, only Donald is paid. Everyone else uses their time and energy in jobs outside in the world, and then they give time and energy in their stewardship to God in christian ministry. This work is voluntary. If they are tired, then they don’t do their job or they take the weekend off. If a job is important, often the minister or his wife will do it, even if they are already overloaded. Volunteers need to be appreciated and I am grateful to Donald for initiating a “member of the Month”. In ministry, even though you get worn out with all the work, you still have to show appreciation and an attitude of gratitude for those who give to the Body of Christ to make it such an attractive place.

Many changes – especially moving to a new place : I could write heaps here, but people need to remember that the STESS AND GRIEF involves every family member and often, it is the wife who is the hub of the home, who has to cope with the change with God’s strength.

Employed by people to whom he ministers.

17. What is the role of the pastor’s wife? This is not easily defined and has changed. You will find many ministers wives who have been hurt and then refuse to get involved ever again. They are the walking wounded and for them to trust someone, can be quite difficult. As a christian woman, I find it easy to get involved with people, to love them and care for them, because of my background and training. But I need someone to say to me “Barbara, what are your personal goals for this week? Did you reach them? Are you coping with the balance that you have to have in your life as a minister’s wife? Not everyone likes to stand on the door beside their husband on Sunday mornings and shake hands with the flock, but I do. I enjoy people. I care for people. I love people and I want to see us giving good pastoral care. Others may not be happy doing this, and members of a church family must realize that all wives of ministers are different!!!

18. Support for the Pastors wife! Meeting with Prayer partners each fortnight, down by the creek is great. I meet with two women who are not in this congregation and have been doing this for the past few years. They support and pray for me and I and pray for them. Invaluable and important – healthy same-sex friendships. We write out our goals each year and help each other reach them with God’s strength and wisdom. Do you have a support group?

19. Journalling: Over the years, there has been great seasons of change, but the most theuapeutic action for me in coping with relationships including family and marriage, has been to journal. When I die, people will pay big money for my journals, and it will be too late for me to be prosecuted, but to journal alone with God my Father has been a wonderful, healing experience. I always read heaps of good christian books. In journalling, I do the following.

Reflect on the previous day or week

Put a date and time at the top of the page, even if it during the night

Reflect upon situations and people

Write down under the heading “Things for which I am thankful” (Phil 4:6)

Write down another heading “Jobs to do”

20. WOMEN and CHURCH PEOPLE WHO ARE HELPFUL: I Value greatly those dear friends who encourage me in so many different ways. I keep their cards and letters and notes. I pick their brains for wisdom. I keep in touch with them. James Dobson says that women need other women to encourage them with their roles, and I agree!

At the end of last year when I was so tired from all that I did in EMU (Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church) , I still wanted to have an evening for women. I felt worn out, tired, needing a break and wasn’t very well organized. However, we did have an evening and I decided that even though I felt this way, I would seek to deliberately try to make the evening a blessing to those women who came. I baked Christmas shortbread biscuits, wrapped them in a plastic container and red celephane with gold ribbon. I gave one to each lady who came and on the container I typed a thank-you note which said “Thank you for your love and support”. I find that when you deliberately go out to others and be proactive in a positive way, then God blesses your giving.

When we travelled to Bourke, three families who are related made sure that our Christmas Day was special. We took Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services, then packed up and didn’t get away until 3pm. That night, we camped in the Jondaryan Church yard and had our Christmas Dinner. These kind people had done the following.

* covered a cardboard box with Christmas paper

* put a polystyrene box inside containing ice with containers of ham, coleslau, turkey and other salad.

* another gift had a small plum pudding with custard

* more crunchy nuts and nibbles for driving

* 20 gifts individually wrapped up with instructions to open one every half an hour

* one gift had $5 in it with a note “Buy yourselves an ice-cream at the next petrol stop”

* a Quiz typed up by one member of their family with questions and answers (to do with tractors and other interesting topics)

What a great blessing this was to us as we traveled in the hot weather and when we felt worn out!

Anyway, Rowland, I trust this is okay!


Barbara McKay.

A note from Rowland: Barbara, not only is it O.K., I think you have expressed brilliantly and honestly many of the feelings of the pastors’ wives I talk/listen to. May your thoughts and encouragements strengthen thousands of others.

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