The pastor of the church I attended in college had a strong personality, a firm handle on Scripture, and a clear gift for expository preaching. This, in fact, was my entire perception of him: the mark he made as he stalked the stage on Sundays, Bible in hand, and the Spirit of God booming through his voice.
I never considered him beyond those weekly sermons.
Occasionally, as one among thousands in the sanctuary, I’d twist in my seat, tracing his exit with my eyes, hoping to watch him rejoin the wife or the children he spoke about from the pulpit. I was strangely fascinated with labeling them in my mind as “the pastor’s wife” and “the pastor’s kids,” as if they were mini-celebrities. I also wanted to see them interact, as if the perfect affection I imagined between them might cap for me the truth of the pastor’s sermon.
Several years after graduating college, I married a man who became a lead pastor himself, a church-planting pastor to be exact. Slowly it dawned on me that I was a pastor’s wife, the pastor’s wife, the one waiting in my folding chair to be rejoined by the preacher who stalked the elementary-school gym floor with Bible in hand and Holy Spirit in his voice. The thought struck me that a starry-eyed college student in the congregation might do what I’d done, imagining the two of us as mini-celebrities rather than mere humans trying to juggle the weighty responsibilities of leadership along with our uncertainties, insecurities, and besetting sins.
I saw my former expectations for what they were: I’d taken a servant and tried to mold him into a savior. And I’d thrown his wife in for good measure.
There’s a difference between our perceptions of leaders and the reality of who they are and what they privately face. In his book Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch refers to our “hidden vulnerabilities.” In other words, pastors and their spouses regularly meet the various needs of others while needing physical, emotional, and spiritual sustenance themselves. Despite the seminary degree, we remain limited human beings.
How had my college pastor and his wife maintained spiritual vitality while caring for others? How would we do it? I’ve been learning how to answer this question for 18 years now, and I’ve primarily found the answers by learning from the experiences of others.
Finding Ways to Worship and Serve
Susannah Spurgeon, the stalwart companion to one of history’s most well-known preachers, Charles Spurgeon, is one such mentor. In Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon, Ray Rhodes Jr. depicts a faithful life that models for pastors and leaders how to maintain soul health and ministry vitality even when facing—as the Spurgeons did—tragedy, criticism, depression, physical deterioration, and the pressures of fame.
Susie Spurgeon was, for most of her marriage and ministry, confined to her home with a chronic illness, unable to attend church alongside Charles or to interact with their congregation. Susie’s life, however, shows pastors and leaders that, ultimately, we aren’t what we do. Our value is not in performance or in our level of activity but in Christ, and therefore we have nothing to prove before man or God. The weight and burden of spiritual transformation are on the Great Shepherd rather than his undershepherds, but as undershepherds, we can join him in his purposes, even within the limits he’s placed on our lives.
Though Susie was often at home alone with her twin sons, she found ways to worship and serve God primarily through her confinement. Not only did she immerse herself in the written word—mostly Scripture and poetry—and pray earnestly for her dear husband, she also began a pastors’ book fund, providing theological books for poor pastors and encouraging them in their work through correspondence.
Susie taking on this task is instructive as well. We learn that whatever circumstance or role we’re in, we must discover who we are and how God is intersecting our personal passions with our life circumstances (and limitations). Many pastor’s wives, like Susie, marry into a role that, while not our job, still requires many things of us. Soul health is found and maintained when we consider how we can mold the role around our God-given skills, gifts, and passions, rather than attempting to mold ourselves into a rigid role defined by others. Because Susie saw the great weight her husband, Charles, carried, she felt deep empathy for pastors and their families, and she made it her life’s work, from her bedroom no less, to help and encourage them.
Pastoring Within a Marriage
Susie was not laboring alone, however. She considered herself in partnership with her husband, and helping him became her primary ministry. Likewise, Charles—though pastoring a large church, managing numerous ministries, answering hundreds of letters each week, in demand to preach throughout the continent, and training young minds for ministry—sought to personally pastor Susie and encourage her homebound ministry. Aside from the Lord, she was his first priority, and he taught other pastors to “keep their own vineyards” healthy and thriving. Rather than counting his own ministry as more important than hers, Charles called Susie out and up to her own ministry, all the while expressing her value to him in his.
The pastor and pastor’s spouse can look to and learn from Charles and Susie: Part of our ministry vitality comes from one another. As we each look to Christ, we have the responsibility of caring for one another in marriage. Pastors must sacrifice for those in their congregations and communities, but they must balance this sacrifice with deep sensitivity and care for their spouse, acknowledging the inherent sacrifice that ministry requires. For example, my husband should never attempt to rescue me from the demands of his own calling, but he can (and does) encourage me to find my own place of passion within our life together, and by word and deed he shows the priority I have in his life. I thrive in partnership with him.
Whether the out-front leader or the behind-the-scenes leader, we are buffeted, helped, and cared for by our spouse. We must be as intentional about pastoring one another in our marriage as we are about pastoring others around us.
Servants, not Saviors
Perhaps we can take a page out of Susie’s playbook in the wider realm of church life as well, by “funding” our ministers with encouragement and by meeting their tangible needs. Congregants cannot know, nor should they always carry, their pastor’s hidden vulnerabilities. But they can consider those who lead them as more than a package of roles and gifts. Pastors are not mini-celebrities, someone to perform a role according to our exact specifications. They are servants, not saviors, and when we consider their humanity, we see our role in praying for, encouraging, and following them.
May we also consider the pastor’s spouse not simply as an extension of the pastor (or only of interest because of that connection), but instead as a unique person with a unique calling and passions.
In fact, why not practice this consideration for each person in the church, valuing them not based upon what they do or what they add to our lives, but as image bearers of God? This is helpful for their spiritual vitality but also for ours, for in doing so we remember the difference between the servants and the true Savior.
Christine Hoover is a pastor's wife, mother of three boys, and host of the By Faith podcast. Her books include Messy Beautiful Friendship: Finding and Nurturing Deep and Lasting Relationships (Baker) and Searching for Spring: How God Makes All Things Beautiful in Time (Baker).