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The Uniqueness and Challenges of the Minister's Wife

Ginger Graham Dennison

Pastors' wives, in commiserating together, will sometimes agree on one thing: they are no different than anyone else in the congregation. They have no special responsibilities, no different obligations, no uniqueness. In fact, when asked what it's like to be a pastor's wife, they will reply, "I'm NOT a pastor's wife! I'm just a wife, no matter what my husband does for a living."

There is truth, but also obligation in that declaration. The truth lies in the fact that your primary obligation is to serve your husband and help train your children to be obedient. The obligation is that as followers of Christ, all Christians are called to lives of service. Matthew 20:25-26, 28 states, "Jesus called them (the disciples) to Himself, and said, 'You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, ... just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.' " Christ's life is the paradigm for our lives, whether pastors, elders, or laymen. The authority our husbands have, however, gives them greater opportunities and more responsibility in serving, and as wives of those in authority, we also have greater opportunities to serve the body of Christ.

An Opportunity to Serve

My encouragement to ministers' wives is this: By the very fact that you are married to a minister, you have unique opportunities to serve, to sacrifice and sometimes to suffer. But, your husband does not just have any job. He has an ordained office—a position of authority and awesome responsibility given to him through the church by God himself. He carries a heavy burden in preaching God's word accurately and clearly, and in shepherding the sheep. This is how he's been called to serve.

Your role as a suitable helper to a minister will include some things that any wife would do, but other roles are unique to the congregation your husband serves—some things, in a well-established church, by way of "tradition" and others by way of necessity. I would encourage you to embrace each of these obligations with a "joy in serving" attitude.

When you are chafing at the bit, meditate on Romans 12:6-8, 11-13:

Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: ... if service, in our serving; ... the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness... . Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

In the paragraphs to follow, I hope to fill out some these imperatives using my own experience, thoughts I wish I'd had at the time I needed them, along with the input of two younger wives.

Be a Helper to Your Husband

As your husband's helper, there are many ways to lighten his load. Don't make his burden heavier and bring dishonor to his name (and the name of Christ) by your speech or behavior. This seems obvious, but it is easy to belittle him when you're with a group of women who may be criticizing their own husbands. You can instead discourage gossip among women about their husbands, in this way serving your husband and Christ as well.

In positive ways, you can serve him by relieving him of mundane tasks, some of which you may have always considered to be the husband's responsibility.

Understand that he doesn't have a regular 9-5 job. This may mean you do not understand his schedule—why he's going to a movie in the afternoon or spending time on Facebook (shouldn't he be working on his sermon?!). Every minister handles his schedule differently. If you are blessed to have a regular family dinner time and he spends adequate time with your family, be thankful. Be understanding. You will learn you don't need to manage his time (in my case, this took a few years!)

Sometimes you need to be his listening ear as he works through problems in a sermon text, or needs to vent about a particular pastoral problem he's having. These times unfortunately may coincide with particularly busy times in your own schedule.

No doubt the most important thing you can do is to pray with and for your husband. You and he will both be targets of Satan over the years. Ministers have been lost to kingdom service by temptations they have been unable to overcome. Pray without ceasing.

Remember You Are Being Observed

You and your family are uniquely positioned in the eyes of the congregation. Instead of fearing or resenting this, embrace it! Consider it a privilege to be able to lead by your own example. Your attitude in attending services and meetings, your demeanor in worship, the discipline of your children will serve either as a help and encouragement or as a stumbling block to others.

You might consider it a hardship, or a challenge, to be alone with your children during worship, for example. I grew up with my dad in the pulpit, so sitting by myself with children seemed a normal way of life, but I realize this can be a challenge or cause of suffering to others. Discipline during worship is on your shoulders, although I have heard of pastors who have directed a timely word or two from the pulpit that chastised their offspring—at the same time teaching the congregation a lesson concerning their own children's behavior. Growing up, I could feel my father's eyes on me during the service; woe to me if I misbehaved in church!

Do you have to be at church for every service, meeting, and social event? It may be hard for your husband to convince others to attend if his own family doesn't make an effort to support them too.

Be Hospitable

Hospitality is an important part of your role as minister's wife. ("Practice hospitality"). Charlie and I aimed to have each family over once a year. This may not be possible for every pastor's wife or in every church situation. Many other families in the church were also regular in offering hospitality, and when a new family came in the door, they were often invited to Sunday dinner by at least one family. This is so much more effective than a handshake and "come visit us again." If the families in your church are not in the habit of regularly inviting other church families, and especially visitors into their homes, you need to set the example. Hopefully your elders and other church families will come to see the importance of this too. True fellowship takes place during the worship services on the Sabbath, but spending time around the table opens up unique lines of communication.

Inviting people into your home can leave you open to criticism—your housekeeping isn't up to their standards, your children don't know who Emily Post is and their table manners show it, you are a mediocre cook at best. First of all, I would encourage you to improve in each area. Then persevere despite criticism. Your loving service to the church and kindness to others will make the lasting impression.

Be Discreet

You are uniquely the recipient of much confidential information and on the inside of controversial issues. You may not go out seeking information, but information has a way of coming to you. Some people may come to you and expect you to be a "backdoor" to your husband or the session. This may be disturbing, but take comfort in knowing these problems are not, and should not be, yours to solve. It may sometimes be necessary to direct their concerns to the appropriate person, either your husband or the session.

In being uniquely aware of problems in the church, you can privately bring these concerns before your Father in Heaven in prayer. Pray for wisdom in the session, for submission on the part of those having problems, for the ability of those concerned to continue to "love one another with brotherly affection" (Rom. 12:10).

Be Gracious to All

The biggest challenge for you may not be in loving and showing kindness to the people who might be difficult to love by worldly standards (the alcoholic, the mentally unstable person, the one who comes in from the outside to claim this church isn't meeting her needs). It's rather those who you expect more from, those members you've had no reason not to trust, who can be the hardest to love. Also, for a wife, it is those who are critical of your husband, who have the greatest capacity to hurt. They don't see the outpouring of himself that your husband has given to others, and the hours of worry, prayer, sleepless nights, and tears shed for others. We all have our stories. A couple from an Episcopal background starts attending church regularly and raves about the sermons. Your husband spends week after week in the their home instructing them in the confession and the doctrines of the church, only to be told at the end of this time that they feel they need to stay in the Episcopal church. Their daughter, who has joined, marries a Roman Catholic, despite the admonition of the session. Your husband suffers, but you are emotionally bruised.

It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking yourself better than these ungrateful sinners, but in the end, it's Christ in us that keeps us from these sins and not something we do ourselves. Praying for these souls, despite the pain, will strengthen and sanctify you far more than you may realize at the time.

There is a practical aspect to not fighting your husband's battles for him too. Sometimes people leave the church, angry over polity or doctrine, but God works in their hearts, and years later they come back and say, "Pastor, you were right." If you had bitten back with unkind words, how much more difficult or impossible might that return have been?

Criticism of your children's behavior cuts deeply too. If your children are obedient, you are also being obedient to the Word. The advice above applies here too; respond with love. I know this oversimplifies a sometimes extremely complicated and divisive situation, but because these situations are so diverse, a simple answer is better than none.

Be Ready for Unspoken Expectations

What about those unspoken expectations of the congregation? Are you expected to play the piano, lead a women's Bible study, teach Sunday School, pick up others' responsibilities that have been "dumped" on you, be in charge of an open house, a gift, a reception because you are thought by many to be de facto in charge? There are some things you will have to humbly admit you just are not gifted to do. My husband felt that any one else who could serve in the capacity of leadership, organizing dinners, etc., should take precedence over the minister's wife, because others should first be given the opportunity. There were very few things that I had to manage single-handedly. You may have an uphill battle in fulfilling expectations, but if the women aren't already organized into service committees, that's a good place to start. In a well-established congregation, these expectations may not be changed during your time with them, but you can work towards shifting them—continuing to pray for a heart that can have joy in service.

Be Careful of Friendships

It's a challenge to know what your friendships should look like. Many wives crave a close friendship with another woman or a few women. Some husbands warn against this. Some women are content in the circle of their own families, some find companionship with other ministers' wives or their own elders' wives who share your roles to some degree. I believe this problem is particularly keen for younger wives who have had a wider base of friends in the past. Good friends can share much without sharing too much. Hopefully your good friends in the church will not want to know more than they should.

It's not Only Challenges

I don't want to leave you with the impression that there are nothing but challenges, or that these challenges happen all at once. Some seasoned minister's wife may not see herself at all in some of the things I've mentioned. There are also great blessings in being a pastor's wife, that others may not know: the joy of having people over, getting to know them, and celebrating their joys; saying goodbye to dear congregants, keeping in touch over the years and watching their children grow; getting to know the elder saints of the church; being the recipients of the kindness, thoughtfulness, encouragement, and acts of service of various members; listening to your favorite pastor preach Christ-centered sermons week after week.

God in blessing us with these good works to do, will also give us the grace and strength to persevere to the completion of each task. As you encounter difficulties, your pastor-husband can point you to the sufferings of Christ and remind you that you and he do not labor for the praise of men, but for the glory of God. As you labor, your love (the greatest gift) will grow as you grow in the likeness of Christ.

Ginger Graham Dennison, an OPC minister's wife for almost three decades, is a member of Immanuel OPC, West Allegheny, Penn., and teaches second grade at Robinson Township Christian School. Ordained Servant Online, May 2010

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