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Ask any pastor’s wife what her life is like in the church

By Mary Henry

Church is not always safe for the wife of the pastor.

The October 2011 issue of Church Executive carried an article on “Pastors’ wives under pressure in husbands’ ministries.” One response to the article came from Mary Henry, a pastor’s wife from Lamoine, ME, who describes herself as a mother, spiritual director, mentor and writer. From the latter perspective, Henry is researching a book about pastors’ wives and welcomes comments to krmds@roadrunner.com.

Here she shares her own experiences as a pastor’s wife, which weren’t always friendly — or Christian.
Church life. I’m sure many people think of it as being a nurturing environment, safe, transparent and honest. There may be some churches out there that are this way. However, it seems to me many churches present themselves this way, and act quite another way behind closed doors. Ask any pastor’s wife.

First, there is the pressure applied by other pastors’ wives who feel they are co-pastoring the church with their husband, for free of course. Shortly after I got engaged to my husband, a pastor, we attended an association-of-churches meeting. I was taken by surprise when one after the other the pastors’ wives asked me if I was nervous about becoming a pastor’s wife. They all offered me advice.

One woman said she kept a file for each type of note she needed to write; thank you notes, sympathy, holiday, birthday, births, baptisms; you name it, she had a file for it. Another told me it would be good if I taught Sunday school. And, the one I remember the most vividly, told me all I had to do to be a good pastor’s wife was to memorize the Bible, back to front, front to back.

Left feeling inadequate
By the time we left the gathering, I felt totally inadequate, even though I had a great business background, had a great job, was active in my community, and had a jail ministry I absolutely loved. I wanted to scream and run the other way.

My husband was a 47-year-old bachelor in a small town church. When we started dating, one of the women in church who thought she would be his wife, treated me like dirt. For the 12 years I was a member of this church, this woman never talked to me, ignored me when I tried to talk to her, and went out of her way to alienate me. Did I mention she was married?

Another woman at church told me I was the worse minister’s wife she had ever known. She told me I should be on every committee, involved with all aspects of Christian Ed, and should be providing child care every Sunday. She tried to get my husband fired, and when that didn’t work, she and her husband left the church.

Another member of our church yelled and screamed at every annual business meeting. Every year it was the same thing, “Why should you get a 3 percent raise when I only got a 2 percent raise? And you only work one day a week.” My husband has a Ph.D. in systematic theology, this man had a high school diploma. Congregants sat in silence and let him rage. I was appalled to have 20 to 25 people talk over whether or not my husband should get a raise.

Church takes toll on family
Life in a church can take a tremendous toll on the pastor and his family. The young woman who told me I just needed to memorize the Bible to be a good pastor’s wife, admitted to her church, several years later, she had an eating disorder. She had hoped the church would support and pray for her.

Instead church members wouldn’t let their children go to her house to play with her children, nor would church members invite the wife, her husband (the pastor) or their children, to their homes anymore. This pastor’s wife had nowhere to turn, no one to talk to, not even God, who she felt had betrayed her in her own church.

I visited her in a psychiatric hospital where I found her devastated by the church’s treatment of her. The church asked the husband to resign. While he was waiting to decide how to handle this, his wife committed suicide, leaving her five children and her husband behind.

Churches are families, and every family has its secrets, its dysfunction. When these secrets are kept in the dark, they grow powerful, they breed discontent, jealousy, anger and resentment — and they destroy. The secrets and dysfunction hold us hostage in an environment we thought was safe.

Pastors’ wives struggle with alienation, loneliness, betrayal, judgment, fear and the demands of church and pastor. To whom do we turn to tell our secrets without getting our spouses fired? Who in our community is a safe person? Who can save us from the self-destructing thoughts that come when we are being abused in a church?

Women heal in community with each other. Confessing what we are feeling and thinking takes the power out of it, and brings into the light the darkness that builds as we try to be what others want us to be, or, as we try to desperately hold onto to our authentic lives within a church.

I am encouraged by Trudy Johnson’s Colorado retreats (www.anesisretreats.com), the websites that allow pastors’ wives to share their stories with other pastors’ wives all over the country, and Vision New England’s new Pastors’ Spouses’ mentoring ministry (www.VisionNewEngland.org).

It is good to know secrets are being exposed to the light.

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