(May 2021) BEFORE YOU READ THIS: I’m in the process of writing a book that goes into even greater detail and expands the list of what you are about to read in this article. I want the book to be honest (real), affirming, encouraging, and instructional. So, if you are married to a pastor, what do you think should be included in a book like this? I’d love to hear your ideas! You can either post your comments at the bottom of this article or email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you!
Yesterday (August 18, 2020), the body of a woman was found whose vehicle and identification matches that of Marilane Carter. In a Fox News article entitled “Missing Kansas mom Marilane Carter’s body likely found, as officials work to positively ID remains”, we are told that “Carter’s family was ‘dealing with grief and the loss of a loved one.’” According to another article, she was headed to Birmingham, AL, to visit with her sister “and also to seek treatment for undisclosed mental health issues.”
Today (August 20), it was reported that Marilane “likely died from asphyxiation due to carbon monoxide poisoning based on initial evidence, the Crittenden County Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday.” The Crittenden County Chief Investigator Todd Grooms spoke during a news briefing and said: “I believe that anything that happened, happened by her own doing.”
The following picture was Tweeted by Mark Clifton (@johnmarkclifton) who is the Sr. Director of Church Replanting at the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. He commented:
“Adam, Marilane and Isaac Carter when they begin their pastoral residency with me at Wornall Road Baptist Church 2014. At the conclusion of his residency he became the pastor of Leawood Baptist Church. I have the fondest of memories of this family. Heartbroken and grieving tonight”
We don’t know the full story yet but it breaks my heart that we’re talking about yet another person in ministry who appears to have caved under the unspeakable pressures. There were probably specific, personal issues that Marilane was dealing with but being in the ministry simply compounded the pressures resting upon her shoulders. While being in the ministry can be an incredible blessing, it can also exacerbate any personal problems making the stress unbearable and the ability to maintain mental health incredibly difficult.
This is why we hear of suicides of pastors and their spouses. The pain of life and ministry has become so unbearable that they believe that ending the pain is much more desirable than continuing under that pain. A couple of years ago, I wrote an article entitled, “Why Many Pastors and Their Wives Are Running on Empty … and What to Do About It” after news broke of yet another pastor who took his life.
While there are incredible joys of being a pastor’s wife, it may not be so obvious that there are incredible pressures as well. So in this article I want to identify 9 of the typical complicating factors that drive some (many?) wives of pastors into anxiety (many of them are taking anti-anxiety medications), depression, with a small number even contemplating suicide (one is too many!). (I added a tenth pressure after hearing from a former pastors’ wife.)
We need strong churches across our land led by strong, God-led pastors. But, the pastor’s wife has much, much more to do with the effectiveness or failure of a pastor’s ministry than most people realize. So, let’s identify some of the problems that our pastors’ wives are struggling with so that we can start talking about how to address them.
1. She is Often Running on Empty
It may come as a shock to hear this but many pastors’ wives don’t always look forward to attending church services. Sometimes, they wish they could just stay home. Sure, they love the Lord and they love His people but they know that they will often leave church feeling much worse than when they arrived.
The reason for this is that many church attenders see the pastor’s wife as a free counselor. She is someone they can share their burdens and cares with. They believe she will express empathy and will pray for them so they unload their cares upon her. One by one, they come and unload their burdens before and after church services. Pastors’ wives often genuinely love the church their husband has been called to pastor but they can only take so much bad news before they get to a point where they just can’t take any more.
The compounding problem is that the “relationship” frequently runs only one way. When the pastor’s wife is struggling with her own personal issues, or her marriage, or her children, or her job, or her health, or any number of other possibilities, who does she talk to? Most pastors’ wives, because of their knowledge of the complexity of relationships in the ministry, feel that there is no one they can talk to (more on this in a moment). This is in spite of the fact that there are women in the church that would gladly be a confidant to her and wonder why she doesn’t open up to them.
But there are a few churches in existence that don’t even try to demonstrate compassion for their pastor’s wife. I know of a pastor’s wife who periodically visited church members in the hospital with her husband. She thoughtfully engaged with people on social media, hosted church members in her home for food and fellowship, took food to the sick, and did other very selfless, helpful things for church members. But, on one occasion, she was hospitalized for a few days and it was public knowledge in the church. Yet, not a single church member came to visit. Only one church member called.
So, for far too many pastors’ wives, ministry is a one-sided relationship where they are constantly being emptied. Typically, only a few people actively work to fill her back up through acts of thoughtful kindness.
2. She Has Few, if Any, Meaningful Relationships
The fact that the pastor’s wife has few, if any, relationships in the church her husband pastors may be a surprising fact. But, it’s not surprising to pastors’ wives. Just observe her this coming Sunday in churches across our land. The odds are … she will be sitting by herself. Most pastors’ wives do.
Pastors’ wives struggle with relationships for a multitude of reasons. First of all, they are periodically wary of the motives of those who try to become their friends. Are they simply trying to befriend her because she’s married to “the big guy?” Are they simply wanting to have access to information most of the others in the church aren’t privy to? Are they simply wanting a free counselor? I’ve got multiple stories that go along with each of the scenarios I’ve just mentioned.
Many pastors’ wives fear being completely transparent with anyone in the church and sharing their heart burdens because of how that information could be used. I have personally observed how a pastor’s wife has shared information with someone she trusted, only to have that relationship go sour, and everything that was shared was weaponized and spread as gossip.
If a pastor’s wife isn’t careful, she will get hurt so badly over time that she will put a wall around her heart to protect her from more hurt. This makes it virtually impossible to get close to anyone. She will crave relationships, need relationships, and yet feel that it is completely impossible for her to have those life-giving relationships. It will feel to her like she is confined to a cage by herself, looking through the bars at everyone else who seems to be enjoying relationships.
It is quite possible that behind the smile, your pastor’s wife is being squashed by loneliness. You don’t believe me? Just Google “pastor’s wives loneliness” or any other similar phrase to learn of how loneliness is a pandemic running rampant among pastors’ wives.
Friend, if you sense that your pastor’s wife is hard to get to know, please know that there is probably a lot going on in her heart that you don’t understand or realize. She has probably experienced so much hurt that she is just trying to protect her heart from more hurt.
So, reach out to her in love. Let your love be unconditional. Instead of taking from her, think of how you can give to her. And just try to let your relationship with her be one that heals her heart, that fills her back up. After all, if your pastor’s wife is emotionally whole, it will help her husband, which will in turn help your church.
3. She Feels Like Part of a Package Deal
When a church calls a pastor, they often expect his wife to engage in ministry, too. Essentially, many churches believe that they can get two people for the price of one.
It has been my observation that most women who are married to a pastor are industrious. They find a place to serve and they get busy, unless they are simply worn out from a previous church assignment.
But it has also been my observation that some pastors’ wives say “yes” much too often because they are afraid of the consequences of saying “no” to the wrong person. Many pastors and their wives know that the “behind the scenes” of ministry can be incredibly ugly. Some of the people who look the most holy on Sunday mornings may act like Satan himself when in private communication with the pastor or his wife. So, rather than create even more battles for her husband, the pastor’s wife might say “yes” far more than she should because she simply doesn’t want to cause more problems for her husband.
4. She Feels the Scrutiny on their Parenting Skills
There are multiple reasons why many pastor’s kids (PK’s) go bad. But for every joke that has been said about wayward PK’s, there is a pastor’s wife whose heart is broken over her beloved child.
Sometimes, as she grieves over her wayward child, she may be tempted to resent the circumstances and people that created the problem. She realizes that there are pressures on her family and her children that would never be there if her husband wasn’t in the ministry. She realizes that most of the other kids in the church will get a pass if they develop a bad habit (“Well, they are just going through the difficult teen years.”). But if the pastor’s kids do the very same thing, I have observed how church members will step in to rebuke the pastor’s kid.
I have heard my three sons tell me repeatedly that while there are some aspects of being a PK that have been a blessing to them, they also acknowledge that it created a lot of difficulties in their life at church and at school. They have been unfairly treated by adults at church and are mocked by their peers at school (“Oh, you’re a preacher’s kid. You can’t watch that movie, can you?”).
So, the pastor’s wife feels overwhelmed in trying to raise her children correctly. She desperately tries to protect them from the pressures and injustices they must endure at church and at school because of their dad’s calling. She also tries to protect their heart (and her own) as she attempts to continually fix the hurts or put a positive spin on them to diminish the pain.
5. Her Identity Is Tied Up in Who She Married
We rarely ever refer to a woman by the title of her husband:
- The chef’s wife.
- The teacher’s wife.
- The architect’s wife.
- The doctor’s wife.
And, yet it is completely normal for people to refer to the “pastor’s wife.” I’ve used that phrase throughout this article and no one has thought anything about it.
While a pastor’s wife loves her husband, she may feel like such a title swallows up her own identity. She is only seen and valued for who she is married to.
That is why so many ladies who are married to pastors get a full-time job outside the church. They want to remind themselves, and others, that they are their own person. They have value, just like their husband, but also apart from their husband.
A very precious lady in a church that I pastored many years ago, knew what it was like to be a pastor’s wife. She had been one. She also knew of the pressures that were being put on my wife. She often called Kim, “the First Lady.” I loved it when that precious senior saint called my wife by that title because it expressed value for my wife for who she was, and not necessarily for who she happened to be married to.
6. She Rarely Gets Acknowledged
This sometimes happens because of point #5. When someone treats the pastor’s wife with care and respect, especially if that means that they receive a gift or public recognition of some sort, it can make others jealous. I know of a pastor’s wife who asked her husband to cease any positive references of her from the pulpit because it was putting a strain on relationships with other women her age. Many of them were beginning to ignore her in conversations and not invite her to gatherings that she had previously been included in.
But, even apart from that, if the pastor’s wife happens to be at a caring church, her husband will periodically get thanked for the job he is doing. Each Sunday, people will tell him how they enjoyed his sermon. Periodically, people will say how much they appreciate his leadership or his care for the people of the church. All this occurs while overlooking the contributions his wife has made.
Most pastors, if they are honest, would say that they wouldn’t be nearly the man they are apart from their wife. Their wife has been God’s gift of grace to them, enabling them to demonstrate many of the qualities that the church finds attractive in their pastor.
So, when people acknowledge anything I may have done, I receive the praise as Kim stands quietly to the side. When I periodically point to her and acknowledge her, I don’t think people realize just how serious I am. They don’t know the guy that Kim married. They only know the guy that Kim has helped me to become.
7. They Often Struggle with Finances
Many pastors don’t make nearly enough money in spite of the fact that the Bible says they are “worthy of double honor” (1 Timothy 5:17). This verse is clearly speaking of financial remuneration because the very next verse says that “the worker is worthy of his wages” (1 Timothy 5:18).
Even if they are paid sufficiently, the pastor’s wife has the ordinary financial burdens that most everyone else has of raising a family. Yet, she also realizes that to build relationships, she is going to have to spend money. This frequently means that her family will have to spend a large sum to go out to eat with people from the church, week after week. When the financial burden becomes too great, she may crave the relationship opportunity but will feel compelled to say “no” to the expensive American habit of eating out with friends.
When children of church members come around selling everything from cookies, to candles, or whatever else is being sold for a school fundraiser, she feels that her position in the church demands that she say “yes” as frequently as possible. Then, if she does something for one church member’s child, she feels compelled to do it for the rest of them. The larger the congregation, the greater the financial burden.
She also feels the pressure to have a home that represents her family and church well. After all, church members drive by and don’t want their pastor’s home to be an embarrassment. So, there is pressure to purchase a nice home and to furnish it at least reasonably well. After all, when church members come over, the pastor’s wife wants them to feel good about her ability to keep a home. This all costs money.
She also wants to know that her wardrobe shows favorably upon her husband and her congregation because when people see her in the community, they see someone who is representing the church. All of this and more takes money.
And it is often embarrassing when her husband’s salary and package are public knowledge in the church. She knows that there will always be people in the church who think that her husband is making too much money. She also knows that each year, her husband’s financial package will be presented in the church budget meeting as anyone in attendance can discuss whether or not her husband is worthy of the financial package. This just adds to the humbling, vulnerability that pastors’ wives feel.
8. Her Career Is at the Mercy of Her Husband’s Ministry Assignment
A pastor’s wife, who wants to excel in her own career choice, will often struggle as her husband moves from one ministry assignment to another.
My own wife has excelled as a teacher. She was entrusted with the major responsibility of creating the art program for a new K-8 public school when it was just getting started. She was honored for her teaching accomplishments a few years ago by being paid as a fellow for a week at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Her list of accomplishments goes on and on … but so does her resume. Because of my various changes in ministry, she has had to quit a job and start all over again somewhere else.
I am convinced that if my wife had been able to stay at one job, she could have excelled and would be reaching a point where she could have been thinking of retiring and getting into a second career. But, because of my changes in ministry assignments, she has had to say “good-bye” to places where she was doing incredibly well in order to start all over again at a new job.
So, the stresses of a pastor’s wife aren’t simply from her job and her church. It’s also from her husband. Her job, no matter how well it is going, is always at the mercy of his ministry assignments.
9. Saying “Good-bye” Never Gets Easy
As I just mentioned, a pastor’s wife will follow her husband to his next ministry assignment which creates various challenges. But one of the big challenges brings us back to where we started – relationships.
When she finally realizes who is trustworthy and who could be a good friend, she may soon be saying “good-bye” to them as she follows her husband to the next assignment. Every relationship mountain that she may have conquered will have to be started all over again.
10. Dealing with an Abusive Husband
I had to go back and write this one after posting the 9 issues that pastors’ wives face. I received a private message from a former pastor’s wife. She told me that most church members will assume the best of the pastor and label the pastor’s wife as unstable if she is struggling. Yet, so many pastors, behind closed doors, are abusive, unfaithful, controlling, addicted to pornography, and many other things. Some other pastors, who aren’t necessarily engaged in these particular sins, give all of their energies to the church and put their wife near the bottom of their priority list as she dies of loneliness by a thousand cuts.
… and, the pastor’s wife literally has no one she can talk to. Who would listen? Who would believe her? If the church is growing and thriving, there would even be some church members who might want to shut her up just to keep things going well at the church. (Again, I know of stories that could easily illustrate what I’ve just said.)
And, once again, the pastor’s wife feels all alone. Who can she talk to? Especially if she does not have a good relationship with biological parents, or others in their biological family, she literally feels like she has no one to unload her cares upon. Counseling would be extremely beneficial but she typically cannot afford it and she is often afraid that church members would find out that she is seeking help. Life can become so lonely and painful and hopeless that she might begin to think self-destructive thoughts that she would have never entertained if she were in a healthier situation.
This has been a bit lengthy but I hope that this has been validating to pastors’ wives. You are not alone in your struggle. If you are struggling, please seek help. Whether you feel it or not, there are people who love you and would gladly help you in your time of need.
I also hope that this has helped non-ministerial folks to understand a little bit of what a pastor’s wife struggles with.
So, what’s to be done about it?
Love your pastor’s wife in tangible ways. Make her feel special. Invite her into safe, caring relationships without expecting her to be fully honest and transparent about what’s going on inside her heart. She is simply unable to talk about much of what keeps her up at nights. Forgive her and extend grace repeatedly because you never know what she’s dealing with.
If you love your church and want it to do well, then love your pastor. But most pastors would agree with me in saying:
“If you want to show your love for me, love my wife.”