The minister isn’t the only one who bears the pain when a congregation or a group within the church turns on him or her. The spouse does also, whether members have simply criticized the way the minister handles aspects of the job or have made a concerted effort to oust him or her.
And in some congregations, expectations placed on a minister’s spouse can be overwhelming. Members may have a stereotypical, idealized image of a pastor’s wife who can cook, clean and care for her family while also managing the church nursery, playing the piano for the choir, leading Vacation Bible School, hosting potluck dinners, attending every wedding and funeral, having a positive attitude — and still have energy to spare.
“It all depends on the internal culture of the church and biblical parameters that Jesus gave us,” said Kim Wenzel, director of Smoldering Wick Ministries, a nondenominational ministry to help burned-out, wounded and rejected ministry leaders. “A church that puts love and caring and living in the tree of life above everything else won’t have these problems.”
But some ministers’ spouses acknowledge congregations may fall short in the “love and caring” department.
“It seems like it comes down to just selfish behavior (rather) than really listening to what God wants you to do,” said Jill Stowe, pastor’s wife at First Baptist Church in Monahans and president of the Texas Baptist Ministers’ Wives Fellowship.
Obstacles ministers’ spouses face include poor communication, judgmental attitudes and a sense that people are talking behind their backs — or openly confronting them, said Sharon Jeffreys, who served as a minister’s wife in Texas several years and now is helping her husband plant a church in Murrieta, Calif.
“It is hard when people very openly oppose your husband, because you love him,” Jeffreys said.
Spouses of ministers who serve isolated rural congregations face additional challenges — the expectations of people in the community as well as the congregation, plus lack of financial security.
“In a larger church, there is a little more give and take,” said Sherry Burrows, director of women’s ministry at PastorCare, a national clergy support network. “If it is a smaller church, she is expected to pick up where other people drop off, whether it is her gift or not.”
Young ministers’ spouses with children also experience much scrutiny. They have the task of balancing the needs of their family and the demands of ministry.
“My mission, being a mama now, is making sure my kids are taken care of,” said Darcie Hill, wife of the music minister at First Baptist Church in Garland. “As a minister’s wife, I first have to be a God-pleaser and first do what he has called me to do. And sometimes that means that I stay home from church on Sunday nights because my kids are exhausted and that’s what they need.”
A minister’s wife for 36 years, Anne Bracken believes the best way to deal with the pain a spouse may face at church is identity.
Through surveys of ministers’ wives across the country, she discovered loneliness as a primary issue. Many women isolate themselves, either because of competition with other ministers’ spouses, their personality or a negative church experience.
“Many don’t have the social support they need,” she said. “The average woman has five to nine people she is close to, and she usually looks for more. But the average minister’s wife has from one to three, and she usually doesn’t look for more.”
Bracken’s studies indicate women who work outside the home are less lonely because they develop a social network outside the church.
“Find an identity outside the church, or find a time that is identity-related outside the church so that you have someone outside you can turn to for support,” she said. “But even then you have to be careful.”
Spouses can find identity not only in work, but also in hobbies, education or ministries outside their local church setting. Take a class, learn a new skill, or volunteer in a community or nonprofit event or program.
The happiest ministers’ wives, she discovered, were those who felt their husbands were their best friends. Mutual support helped both husband and wife to weather church criticism and crises.
The idea behind developing a separate identity, she noted, allows empathy and concern without being totally consumed.
“You can say, ‘If someone insults my husband, it doesn’t affect me.’ Yes, it hurts, but you can help each other through it. If you only live through him, you can’t separate yourself from attacks on him,” she said.
“You are not him, and he is not you. That has to be established when you go to a church. With separate identities, you can be a help to each other, instead of trying to live his life for him. It’s overwhelming to take on both.”
Although few Baptist churches have female senior pastors, women serve in a number of church staff roles, including children, youth, worship, missions and discipleship ministers. Their husbands also can experience pain and frustration.
Tim Pennington-Russell, whose wife, Julie, is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Decatur, Ga., believes his wife’s place in history has helped him.
“I can pretty much be myself (at church) because people don’t know what to expect from a pastor’s husband,” he said.