Julia Jones, of Bethel Church Liverpool, steers us through the pressures.
I have been known to say to my husband, ‘Couldn’t you get an ordinary job that you could leave at the office?’ Every job has its pressures. But the pressures of ministry life may come as a shock to those new to ministry. To the uninitiated what I share here will say, ‘These are the kind of things you can expect to handle’, and to the experienced it will say, ‘You are not alone’ and ‘It is not just you’.
• The desire to please
This well-meaning instinct is overdeveloped in some of us and can land us in trouble. Especially when you are in a new pastoral situation, you will want to win people. This makes you tend to say ‘yes’ to all kinds of requests. Of course, it is excellent to help out where we can. But set your own reasonable boundaries, even write your own job description according to your current responsibilities and gifts, and learn to say ‘no’ in the gentlest and most encouraging way you can. We must not confuse serving people with pleasing people.
• The pressure to be perfect
Some ministry wives are keen to set an example. They therefore feel that their homes, their cooking and their children should be perfect. This is seriously bad news for your children. But it is also bad because of its impact on the church. Suppose someone achieved perfection in any of those areas. Would anyone ask parenting advice, for example, of the parent whose children have never seemingly misbehaved, who are wonderfully well-balanced and who know no grades below A* and no sporting achievement below a gold medal? I think not.
• Church obsession
Ask yourself this question: ‘What do I do that is not related to church?’ As ministry wives it is easy to completely narrow our focus to church. It becomes our whole world. No wonder then that little ripples of discontent threaten to engulf us. Those ministry wives who have some kind of external employment are less likely to encounter this pressure, but those who do not might do well to explore opportunities and outlets just to be members of the human race. I decided to become a rep for a well-known cosmetics firm in a few local streets. It only takes a few hours a week, but it is a great way to get to know the locals. Avoiding the pressure to be church-obsessed will help us to serve the Lord and his church better.
•The need to succeed
Whatever the size or state of the church, we are looking for growth: numerical growth by conversion and spiritual growth as members mature in Christ. Sometimes that growth can be painfully slow. Sometimes it can seem non-existent. That is when we start to beat ourselves up. Of course there may be some useful evaluating of the way things are done. But there is no formula for success in the ministry. The work of God is frequently hidden and rarely dramatic.
• End of weekending
If you were in some other kind of employment before the ministry, you might just start to remember weekends as they used to be: that Friday night ‘schools-out’ feeling when you throw off your work clothes and get ready to play. Other people in the congregation will go away for the weekend and, as a pastor’s wife, you will start to notice just how often that is. Meanwhile you remain at your post or in your pew. It is fine, but the realisation that you have to be there can hit you quite hard.
• The unspecified hours
Most pastors have no idea what hours they work, and when they have finished, of course they haven’t. There is always a bit more they could do. This can leave a wife wondering when, if ever, she has a right to a piece of her husband. ‘He is doing the Lord’s work’, she tells herself, and this, she unscripturally reasons, makes him kind of off-limits in terms of family demands. On the other hand, if he happily takes an afternoon off to help her with the shopping or the children, sometimes it is she who feels vaguely worried that he is not doing enough.
• The smaller income
There is a vast variation between the salaries of ministers, but most are paid less than their various qualifications would earn them in secular life. I remember when we went to our first church, we accepted the call before we found out what we were going to be paid — we thought we were being spiritual. However, having worked out the minimum we could survive on, we discovered that the salary was a couple of thousand pounds short. The only way forward was to be honest and explain our predicament; the church met us halfway, but it was still a struggle.
• The tied cottage
You may have been in the happy position of owning your own property before you entered ministerial life. But if not it can be difficult to live in church property. You will find that other members of the congregation are better acquainted with the house than you are. Such talk may make you feel that this is not your own home. Practically, it is important to understand the ground rules of the arrangement before you move in. Who is responsible for what? If you and your family are to make this house your home, not just a church annexe, you must not only understand the ground rules, you must accentuate the positives to yourself and to your children.
• The claims of fame
As a ministry wife you will not enjoy anonymity; you will be categorised by the congregation as ‘the wife’. In your neighbourhood, once people find out, you will be ‘the minister’s wife’, with all the misconceptions and expectations these bring, you will not escape notice: not your clothes, nor your shopping habits, nor your children. Interpersonal pressures
• Your husband
You are the only church member who goes to bed with the pastor. You are the only one who sees him at breakfast; you see him in grumpy mode as well as when he is at prayer. This is the man you love, but this is also a sinner. He is not as good a pastor as either he or you would like him to be. Resist the temptation to tell him what to preach on or how to spend his day.
• Church members
When I was a teacher and we had a staff training day, we would often joke that school was a great place without the children. Sadly, sometimes we can also feel the same about church. Thankfully, it is not usually all the people. Most are delightful — winsome, supportive and hard-working. But there are some identifiable types in most churches: the fault-finder, the unreliable, the demanding, the unlovely; these are just a few of those you will encounter after every Sunday service. It can be, to say the least, a strain. How do we handle all of this? The simple answer is that we must dress properly for church. ‘Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience’ (Colossians 3.12).
The pastor’s wife can be the loneliest woman in the church. Because you don’t have weekends, the opportunities to meet up with close friends or family who live elsewhere may be rare. Perhaps your husband’s position sets you apart in the church and in the community, so that you are never quite one of the gang. Some ministry wives will say that it is either impossible or inadvisable for a pastor’s wife to have friends in the church. Such a mantra may be the bitter fruit of painful experience. I sympathise, but it still does not sound right to me. Jesus called his disciples ‘friends’ ( John 15.15). Who do we think we are? In any relationship worth having there is always a risk of being hurt. But we all need friends and are all called to be friends. Perhaps via inter-church networks you can meet up with other ministry wives formally or informally. These are great opportunities for honest sharing and the relieving of some of the pressure. We need others to make us laugh at ourselves, lest we take ourselves too seriously. So these are the pressures. Like them or loathe them, we must learn to live with them. And pray for grace to do so cheerfully.
This article is a heavily condensed chapter from The Minister’s Wife (edited by Ann Benton, recently published by IVP, RRP £8.99, ISBN 978 1 844 745 562), and is used with permission.