In a recent interview in Rolling Stone, Taylor Swift recounts a conversation with her brother about a man he’d seen walking around with a cat on his head. She was torn between wanting to respect the man’s privacy and wishing she had a photo. After all, she said, “That guy is asking for it – he’s got a cat on his head!”
So here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: Being a pastor’s wife is a little like having a cat on your head. Are we really asking for it? We have our private, everyday lives just like everyone else, yet we happen to be married to men whose jobs—whose ministries—are public.
And despite shifting notions of celebrity, the church tends to hold an unspoken expectation that pastors and their wives live in a special category of Christian.
It used to be that certain people – film stars, politicians, clergy – were innately revered. Those hierarchies are different today; social media gives us enough access to stars that we feel as close as BFFs, while the news reports enough details to ensure we have no delusions of politicians being saints. But in the church, the old-school pedestal often remains.
When pastors’ wives walk up, the conversation goes quiet. Our remarks are often met with flattering-but-awkward deference. Our relationships still have a degree of distance.
It is the pastor’s wife effect.
Sometimes these chasms are self-inflicted, the result of having been hurt in the past and keeping ourselves safely aloof. Sometimes they are the result of an unhealthy church culture that puts our husbands and families on pedestals. But sometimes they are the result of congregants not making peace with the fact that their pastor’s wife is just a regular person.
I want to let you in on a secret; we pastors’ wives are just like you. We get mad at our kids, skip our quiet time, and worse.
A Charisma article by Ellen Stumbo seeks to answer the Googled question, “Why do some pastors’ wives misbehave?” The query itself is revealing. It’s like asking why humans misbehave.
Stumbo wisely begins with the simple answer found in Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” She goes on to list various reasons a pastor’s wife might fall into temptation and concludes: “They are not holier, they do not hold a higher place of communion with God, and they will mess up. Life is messy; we are all broken people; we all desperately need God.”
And while the church might give mental assent to that truth, it shares a common tendency to want to think of some Christians as immune. The thought of leaders and their wives giving in to ugly temptations to gossip, bitterness, laziness or lust is just... uncomfortable.
Pastor-idolizing is unhealthy for the church, pastors, and their families. It doesn’t reflect the reality of the universal need for grace, and it puts those of us in vocational ministry in an isolated position.
Pastors’ wives sin often, sometimes spectacularly; if you’re in church together for long enough, you are bound to witness it firsthand. Rather than being shocked or dismayed, church members can pass on the mercy they have so freely received, remembering that she is just as needy as they are.
James’ exhortation to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another” (5:16) applies to all believers, including pastors and their wives. When pastors' wives mention sin, don’t feel like you have to minimize the offense. I’ve noticed that women instinctually protest when a friend says something negative about herself. As pastors’ wives, when we hear someone contradict the fact that we’re imperfect, we can take it as, “No, you are not allowed to be a sinner.”
At a large Christian conference about 20 years ago, I found myself right beside the wife of one of my favorite speakers. I was going through some difficult decisions, so as I glanced at her, I thought, “Surely she’s so close to the Lord that if we get into a conversation, she will have all the insight I need.” Now, I look back on that and laugh—I’m sure she would have found my expectation pretty hilarious. The truth is, we pastors’ wives, like everyone else, go through seasons of not feeling that we are hearing from the Lord much at all. Singing hymns on Sunday feels lifeless and dry; spiritual disciplines feel like going through the motions.
The Psalms are a vivid picture of the highs and lows of walking with God; in particular, Psalms 42 and 43 describe what it’s like to feel downcast and in turmoil (42:5, 42:11), even forgotten and rejected by God (42:9, 43:2). If David wasn’t immune to these feelings, surely pastors and their wives aren’t either.
I had an extremely dark season of doubt about three years ago. I was reading Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, not to better articulate the gospel to others but for the sake of my own faith! Thankfully, the Lord moved to put my feet back on solid ground. But I wish I had been brave enough to tell more of our church members about my grappling with unbelief.
Being a pastor’s wife is—well—vulnerable. It’s not something we talk about very often, even to each other, but it’s true. Anyone in any job is subject to scrutiny and feedback. But imagine that, instead of a boss, your husband was subject to constant evaluation of his competency, giftedness and spirituality by your friends. Even in the most gracious of churches, it’s an intimidating reality. It can be hard to relax, to trust that people are happy and grateful.
According to a survey by the Global Pastors Wives Network, “8 out of 10 pastors’ wives say they feel unappreciated or unaccepted by their husbands’ congregations.” My hunch is that many of those congregations do appreciate and accept their pastors’ wives; the wives just doesn’t know it.
We cannot underestimate the power of encouragement (1 Thess. 5:11). A friend of mine and her husband periodically write emails expressing gratitude for our church and for my husband’s teaching, and they CC me. Somehow they know that I need to hear that God is working through my husband, just like he does.
It might seem obvious to you that your pastor is doing a great job, but please don’t assume that he and his wife are aware of your feelings. Their own insecurities and the enemy shout the opposite. If you do have a critique, bring it promptly, clearly and lovingly. There’s nothing worse than knowing people are discontent and not knowing exactly why.
And if you’re a pastor’s wife and you’re hiding — choosing loneliness over risking transparency — I urge you to step into the light.Your church needs you to be authentic, not perfect.
We pastors' wives are just like you—sinners with seasons of spiritual drought, children of God who long to be known and heard.
Joanna Breault is a pastor’s wife of 14 years, mother of five, and freelance writer.
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