Research about pastors’ wives conveys both good news and bad news. First, the bad news. Roy Oswald of the respected Alban Institute, Washington D.C., says stress and burnout among clergy wives is as high as for pastors – and that’s high! As resident ‘holy woman’ she’s a walking target for everyone’s unconscious expectations of what such a saint should be. There’s no one providing pastoral care for most clergy wives. Clergy families are often on the move, and such relocations are stressful. Parsonage living for many isn’t easy. On controversial issues she must stay silent – or, as Carolyn Taylor Gutierrez has put it, be ‘a holy noodlehead’.
Mary LaGrand Bouma calls them ‘the walking wounded’. They can’t be ‘themselves’ (often they are introduced as ‘the minister’s wife’: are others ‘the plumber’s wife…’?). Many have tried to make close friends in the congregation – until trust was violated. Most have no-one with whom they can ‘let their hair down’. Meredith Wells believes it’s very important to have a close friend in another church. ‘At dinner with a group of ministers and ministers’ wives I happened to mention Marjorie, a member of one of the other churches in the area and one of my closest friends. “I didn’t know Marjorie was a member of your church”, someone said. “She’s not”, I replied, “That’s why we’re friends”‘. She adds: ‘If my basic need for human closeness is met outside the church I can continue to love freely within.’
Then there are the unfair expectations placed on the pastor’s wife by ‘the official women’. Because previous ministers’ wives were president of the Ladies’ Guild of course, dear, you’ll be happy to oblige! Sometimes pastor-husbands fail to inform ‘call committees’ that their wives are to be treated like everyone else – their ministries will coincide with their own gifts and be within their own personal limits – not anyone else’s! ‘If this is ‘pulling rank, then so be it’, says Mary LaGrand Bouma.
Lyle Schaller believes congregations have to be taught how to ‘say thank-you to the pastor’s wife’. First, she ought to be invited with her husband initially to discuss the call (it’s then her free choice whether she accepts or not). She ought to be involved in the question of parsonage vs. housing allowance. Then, her needs in the parsonage ought to have a hearing in some appropriate way. If she’s a young mother, are her baby-sitting needs cared for? (She’s often loathe to ask). Is the congregation too tough re its expectations that she ‘turn up’ to everything?
Many pastor’s wives feel inhibited in pursuing their professional or hobby interests outside the Church: they are assumed to be the pastor’s ‘unpaid assistant’.
Clergy marriages and family-life are often under so much stress that ‘Divorce in the Parsonage’ is now the subject of books and articles.
There are incessant evening meetings following a rushed evening meal. And disappointed kids because a pastoral emergency has impinged on the family outing or holiday.
Pastors are often the last people to admit a need for counseling. Anglican dioceses in England are appointing special ‘visitors’ to help where clergy marriages have broken down. Clergy marital splits occur at the rate of 40-50 each year! It has been said that the church is one of the few institutions that ‘shoots its wounded’. If a clergy marriage is strained, the pressures added by the church can be very unhelpful. Clergy wives ‘share their man’ with other women, and as pastors are the last ‘helping professionals’ to regularly visit women alone in their homes, there are unique temptations to cope with.
That great facilitator of ministry – the telephone – is also one of the greatest destroyers of pastors’ family-life. I heard Richard (‘Celebration of Discipline’) Foster talk to seminarians at Fuller about ‘fasting from the telephone’. He said he was astonished to learn of pastors answering a phone at family times; and even (would you believe?) during their prayer-times; and even (worse still!) during love-making!
However, there are joys in this service. Most minister’s wives are generally happy in their roles. A Leadership survey found that 90% ‘always’ or ‘often’ enjoy being a pastor’s wife; 65% feel fairly well equipped to be effective as pastors’ wives; the most rewarding aspect said 43%, is ‘seeing people grow in Christ’; and 94% said their children ‘never’ or ‘seldom’ complain about being ‘PKs’ (preachers’ kids).
On the other hand, 21% wanted more privacy; 19% wanted to be thought of as an individual rather than as ‘the pastor’s wife’; 56% say they do not have close friends in the church (the biggest single problem in the survey); the husband’s over-busy work-schedule is viewed by 25% as a source of conflict; 17% agreed that ‘our family lives in a fishbowl with more expectations and increased pressures’; 60% of the wives expressed the need to further their training so they can serve better.
Meanwhile, in Australia
GRID (World Vision’s Leadership Letter) invited pastors’ wives to tell us how they felt about their role and calling. There were 80 responses, from women ranging in age from 25 to 70s. All major Protestant denominations were represented, and all Australian states. Length of husbands’ ministries ranged from 6 months to over 40 years (25% under 5 years, 30% over 20 years). Most were in parish ministries, a few in team ministries, several were now retired, a couple had been in missionary situations at some stage. There was a fairly even spread across rural/semi-rural/suburban/urban situations.
About 90% supported their husband’s calling, with 25% explicitly mentioning a ‘shared call’. Several were uncertain about such support, a few had a high commitment to their husband’s faith but less (and in one, nil) to his call.
Most were considerably involved in the life of their churches, but with varying criteria influencing the degree of involvement, e.g. small children, work commitments outside the church. Most talked about wanting to ‘be themselves’; some could do this in more ‘traditional’ roles (leadership of women’s groups, hospitality, support to husband) whereas others insisted they be involved in other areas for which they are gifted.
We suggested six questions:
1. Are pastors’ wives the ‘walking wounded’?
Just under 25% had experienced something of this, and many knew others who had suffered. Main reasons: * Re husband: inadequate ‘couple time’, burdens of the church, hurt by criticisms of husband (especially if the wife was the ‘channel’), incompatability between husband’s ‘pastoral image’ and his behaviour at home. * Re church: pleasing everybody, unrealistic expectations (‘everybody’s slave’, ‘model wife/mother’), recipient of thoughtless criticisms, little support in tough times (e.g. sickness), loneliness – outside mainstream of church’s life. * Symptoms: stress and burnout, loss of identity, resentment, disappointment, loneliness, awareness of ‘spiritual battle’. * In general: the ‘walking wounded’ syndrome spreads across all denominations and ages, though older women tend to have adjusted better. However, the most ‘bitter’ responses came from two groups: young wives making these initial discoveries, and some older women whose resentment had deepened over the years. But one said ‘We’re not the walking wounded unless we allow ourselves to be!’
2. How do you feel about being ‘married to the church’? Many told us they were married only to their husbands! 20% resented being married to the church. Others said their role in the church was the same as if they were an ‘ordinary member’. (‘I see myself primarily as a member of the church who just happens to be married to the pastor!’). A number were quite happy for their lives to revolve around the church. * Husbands’ workaholism is a problem for many – particularly his evening commitments (but, then, as one said, wives of company executives wouldn’t see more of their husbands either); if the office is at home, it’s difficult to find a boundary between work and family; husband/wife and family times ought to be more predictable – through careful time budgeting; he should understand his wife’s needs for activity outside church and house. (One wrote, ‘My call to nursing is as real as my husband’s to pastoral ministry’). * Churches sometimes expect pastors (and wives) to ‘attend everything’, to be constantly ‘on call’. If the manse is next to the church buildings, parishioners ought to be discouraged from intruding without good reason. The church similarly ought to know about the pastor’s day off, holidays, etc. The pastor’s wife is not necessarily his ‘unpaid assistant’ (‘two for the price of one’). Some observed that it is not unique to the pastorate that a wife is ‘married’ to her husband’s job. One stressed: ‘It is absolutely vital that the minister’s wife has something to call her own outside the home or parish’.
3. What are the unique features of your role?
Many enjoyed the opportunity to share in husband’s ministry, to be ‘a sounding board’ for him. It’s nice to have him in and out during the day (but nights are another story! And some with small children did not appreciate his daytime impositions!). Most are keen to be of help in the church; others felt their role as pastor’s wife inhibited their contacts with neighbours/ non-Christians. Over 50% listed at least one negative. Most common: being in the ‘public eye’; neither clergy nor lay (unclear role expectations); loss of individual identity (always the ‘minister’s wife’); loneliness from being left out socially; difficult financial circumstances.
4. Could churches be more sensitive to your needs?
Most felt their church was caring, but * please regard pastor’s wife as unique, not just an appendage of the minister * sometimes she is expected to know nothing (‘I want to speak to the pastor!’) or know everything (‘Ask the pastor’s wife!’) * if she wants to go out to work, that should be respected * PK’s are ordinary kids, not angels * we need more privacy in our home – from people – and telephone-calls * some problems exist in income-disparity between church-people and pastor. ‘Role negotiation’ is important here: it’s difficult to meet needs is those needs are not known. But if there is reticence to share needs, this must be sensitively understood too. And one commented: ‘In a dying parish, their energies were directed away from helping anyone, let alone a pastor’s wife!’ A couple of respondents felt their churches didn’t appreciate their gifts: ‘Churches don’t seem to want a gifted, talented or forceful pastor’s wife with God-given vision, drive and initiative – they want a pastor with all these qualities’. ‘It is soul-destroying to have very little identity and no opportunity for acting on one’s own behalf.’
5. To what extent is your husband your pastor?
Very few object to their husband being their ‘public pastor’ (e.g. worship-leader), and 20% wanted him to be their pastor at home too. A small number would not want that – some said they didn’t need a pastor (‘God is my pastor’). Most thought it would be nice to have a supportive, occasionally a counseling relationship, but there were hindrances. A few had pastoral help elsewhere, but most who would have liked that were somewhat diffident (confidentiality problems, threat to husband or his reputation). A few longed for a closer spiritual relationship with their husbands, but for various reasons (e.g. allowing him to ‘switch off when home’) this was not possible. One said, ‘I have been waiting two weeks to talk to my husband about a personal problem!’
6. Why is it difficult to make friends in the church?
Most would like to think it possible, some succeeded, but few found the process to be without its tensions. Consensus: it’s difficult-to-impossible. Why? (1) ‘We move too often; can’t put roots down anywhere; congregations see us as temporary residents’ (2) ‘It’s difficult to be impartial; problems with ‘favouritism’ and jealousy, so we mustn’t allow this to happen’. Also: pastor’s wives are perceived to be a special ‘holy’ race – and some even act that way!; different age or interests; it’s hard to find people you can trust; some want to ‘own’ you, or get to the pastor through you; our free time is during the week — others, weekends. Some respondents are very lonely, relying solely on family for social relationships. Retiring is a problem: they’re away from previous acquaintances; and change status from ‘somebody’ to ‘nobody’.
Finally here are a few random bits of wit, wisdom or woundedness: ‘Meeting with other pastors’ wives for sharing is helpful’. ‘One daughter has her father booked for Christmas dinner the first year after he retires’. ‘There is no happiness in marrying for love and then objecting to the lifestyle’. ‘I am happy to be married to my husband and I’m happy for him to be the minister but please don’t call me ‘Mrs Minister’!’ ‘Some pastors’ wives aren’t called to be pastors’ wives but wives of men who are pastors.’ ‘If I were to do everything that people expected of me I would be in a continual state of collapse!’
Nan Andrews, ‘Divorce in the Parsonage’, Christian Ministry, Mar. 2, 1980, 18-20.
Mary LaGrand Bouma, ‘Ministers’ Wives: The Walking Wounded’, Leadership, Winter, 1980, 63ff.
——————, Divorce in the Parsonage, Bethany, 1979.
Sheila Brown (ed.), Married to the Church, Triangle, 1983.
Archibald Hart, Coping with Depression in the Ministry and Other Helping Professions, Word, 1984 (chapter 12: ‘Depression in the Minister’s Family’)
Lucille Lavender, They Cry Too!, Tyndale, 1981
Gail MacDonald, High Call High Privilege, Tyndale, 1984
David and Vera Mace, What’s Happening to Clergy Marriages?, Abingdon, 1980
Dean Merrill, Clergy Couples in Crisis: The Impact of Stress on Pastoral Marriages, Word, 1985
Kathleen Neill Nyberg, ‘Whatever Happened to Ministers’ Wives?’, Christian Century, Feb 7, 1979, 151 ff.
Roy Oswald, ‘Why do clergy wives burn out?’, Action Information, Vol. x., no. 2, 1984, Alban Institute, Mount St. Alban, Washington, DC USA, 20016.
Charloote Ross, Who is the Minister’s Wife?: A Search for Personal Fulfillment, Westminster, 1980
Lyle Schaller, ‘Saying Thank You to the Pastor’s Wife’, Christian Ministry, Vol 12, 1982, 20 ff.
Ruth Senter, So You’re the Pastor’s Wife, Zondervan, 1979.
———–, The Guilt-Free Book for Pastors’ Wives, Victor, 1990
Donna Sinclair, The Pastor’s Wife Today, Abingdon, 1981.
Ruth Truman, Underground Manual for Ministers’ Wives, Abingdon, 1974.
Pat Valeriano, ‘A Survey of Ministers’ Wives’, Leadership, Fall ’81, 64 ff.
Meredith Wells, ‘Thrice I Cried, Or, How to be a Minister’s Wife If you Loathe It’, Christianity Today, Jan. 18, 1974, 7ff.
Ruthe White, What Every Pastor’s Wife Should Know, Tyndale, 1986