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Pastors’ wives under pressure in husbands’ ministries

By Ronald E. Keener

‘There is a steady decline in the wife’s faith, morals and love for the Lord, and much of it is due to the social media of texting.’

The affair started across the room in a Sunday school class when the pastor’s wife received a text from a handsome member of the congregation.

The text was a simple, “What a pretty dress, you look beautiful today.” This compliment brought something alive in her she hadn’t experienced in a long time. She began trying to remember the last time her husband – pastor of a large church – had given her a compliment.

Thus began a six-month affair before its discovery.

It is one of dozens of stories that therapist Trudy Johnson can tell about the pressures of serving the church, not as the pastor, where the strains and stresses might be expected, but of the wife of the pastor.

Another pastor discovered his wife in an affair after looking at the cell phone bill that revealed 5,000 texts back and forth in a 30-day period.

“Because our culture is getting more complicated with the general public facing more and more crisis situations – weather disasters, economic challenges – there is more pressure on the Christian church as a whole. Of course, pastor’s wives are under more pressure when their husbands are faced with more day-to-day challenges,” says Johnson.

“The advent of exploding media makes ‘the fishbowl’ life even more immediate and pressure filled as opposed to ‘the little brown church in the vale’ of times past,” she says.

Johnson observes that there is a steady decline in the wife’s faith, morals and love for the Lord, and much of it is due to the social media of texting.

“The past three years I have seen what I would call an ‘epidemic’ of pastors’ wives involved in affairs. While this may sound a bit shocking, technology is making it possible for women and men to connect in new ways. For the most part the majority of affairs I see in my clients are made possible with the technological opportunities to connect brought on by texting and other social media avenues.”

One of Johnson’s clients spoke of it in this way: “Because of the problems I was facing at home with my husband (difficulty connecting and communicating) and all the demands on my time at the church, I was starting to resent the church, my husband and God.  Eventually, everything just piled on top of everything. It’s too hard being in ministry. My heart isn’t in it. I just want to be a normal person and go to church and not be expected to do all the things I do. I don’t even know who God is anymore and I don’t think he knows me at all.”

The issues aren’t new, just the ways in which people become stressed and distant. And even though women have come a long way in the past 20 years in careers, family, individuality and autonomy, the results still haven’t changed much. There is a real double standard when it comes to pastors’ wives.

“They are held to a higher measure of perfection just by default. Sadly this happens because the man they fell in love with and eventually married is a pastor. Or even worse, their ‘dream guy’ didn’t actually decide to become a pastor until some years after the wedding day. Even though women have ‘come a long way, baby,’ for the most part, being married to a pastor means you fulfill the stereotypical image of being the perfect wife, the perfect mother and a perfect woman in general,” says Johnson.

“Pastors’ wives are very visible when it comes to appearances and roles they play. Yet, they do not have the luxury of really ‘being known’ on the personal heart level. I guess a way to say it is that ‘pastors’ wives are people too!’”

Johnson says one survey reveals that 60 percent of pastors’ wives work outside the home to help with the finances. “Typically, there is even more pressure put on them in the workplace simply because they are ‘married to a pastor.’ Also what happens is that many co-workers shy away from being friends because of the stigma of their pastoral status.  So, even in the world there is isolation as far as connecting in friendships and subsequent expectations of perfection.”

Johnson is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Colorado, working for six years at Crossroads Counseling of the Rockies, a Christian counseling agency. She is involved in both marriage and individual therapy to pastors and their wives. She says she felt the Lord tugging at her heart to develop a counseling curriculum uniquely tailored for pastors’ wives.

She has authored several counseling curriculums, including two specialty courses for Master’s International School of Divinity. She has brought her planning into a retreat format in the heart of the Rocky Mountains called “Sanctuary.”

She calls the retreats “A’nesis Retreats,” after the Greek word meaning “comfort for the afflicted, relaxation brought about by a source other than oneself, a liberating rest.” The retreats combine individual and group counseling with a professional therapist in a confidential and exclusive setting.

“I think of one tearful inquiry of a pastor’s wife wanting to come to a counseling retreat.  She could hardly talk without crying. ‘I’m done. I can hardly keep things together. I don’t know what to do,’” Johnson describes one situation.  “I asked her if anyone knew how depressed she was as I went down the list of symptoms of depression. ‘No, of course not,’ was her reply. ‘No one knows, not even my husband. I can’t tell him. He’s with a big church.’”

Even more alarming, says Johnson, is the hostility rate for this segment of clients. At 85 percent on the hostile scale, she says probably most wives of pastors are stuffing their anger and it’s coming out as depression. Another survey of pastors’ wives shown from Focus on the Family states that 88 percent of pastors’ wives have experienced periods of deep depression.

Much of the problem for couples is that many churches still think they are hiring two people for the salary of one.

“Most pastors’ wives I deal with are heartbroken that they work alongside their husbands in so many capacities, yet there is no recognition for the important work they do, Johnson has observed.  “One client of mine suffering incredible burnout after a 30-year marriage that started out planting churches, choked back the tears when she expressed that not once had she received a handwritten note of thanks from the board or church members over her contributions to her husband’s success as a church planter.”

“Unfortunately, the implications are that it is a ‘package deal’ and only the paid person is the valuable one. It isn’t so much the lack of a paycheck that is the problem. It is the lack of appreciation for all that the pastor’s wife accomplishes behind the scenes that causes pastors’ wives to become resentful and angry.

“One of my clients made a good point: ‘The problem is that I don’t have an office. My husband has an office, a place he goes to do his work.

Unfortunately, I carry my office around with me. Wherever I go I am ministering in one fashion or another. I think it’s an unwritten rule in church — no office, no pay. I guess Jesus didn’t have an office either so I should be blessed in the capacity I serve the church.  It is just hard sometimes not to be thanked or appreciated for my contributions.’”

Still, a lot of the responsibility comes back to the husband to be more understanding of his wife—and protective. “The husband himself should put the hedge of protection around his family, as this is what God calls him to do,” says Johnson. “He should be his family’s advocate with the message of priorities of family over ministry. There should be a clear message that his family will, of course, follow Christ as an example, but the expectation of perfection should be ditched. Also the expectation of 24/7 on-call has to be broken. Pastors simply must have time with their families on a consistent basis.”

“The most important indicator in any marriage as to whether or not it will make it is how couples handle conflict. Pastors and their wives deal with so much conflict outside their marriage, it is impossible to think this conflict doesn’t spill over into their marriage relationship. Giving pastoral couples tools to help them communicate through conflict, is so much better than waiting for the inevitable to happen.”

“We shouldn’t forget that pastors and their wives have a target on their backs when it comes to success of their marriage. By default, their marriage has more exposure to failure than ‘normal’ married couples. The enemy is ‘out there’ to kill, steal and destroy and how better to do that than to bring a pastoral couple down,” Johnson says.

Trudy Johnson shares additional information and insights on Web Exclusive on Church Executive’s website, www.ChurchExecutive.com.

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Where help can be found

Trudy Johnson has a blog called “Pastors’ Wives World” on her Website, www.anesisretreats.com, where pastors’ wives can connect and comment about their lives anonymously. She also offers individual and group retreat counseling sabbaticals to pastors’ wives.
www.pastorswives.org offers a community blog where pastor’s wives can visit about their concerns.  Also offered on this website are referral listings of books and helps.
www.parsonage.org, a service of Focus on the Family, gives resources and websites for pastoral marriages and advice to pastors’ wives.
Other information sites:

  • www.crossroadscounseling.net Crossroads Counseling of the Rockies
  • www.mdivs.edu Master’s International School of Divinity
  • www.SanctuaryBV.com Sanctuary, a retreat center for ministry leaders in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
  • www.APreachersWife.com The Preacher’s Wife is a blog of Lisa McKay. She is also the author of a recent book, You Can Still Wear Cute Shoes, a firsthand account of being a pastor’s wife and especially an excellent resource for wives of new pastors. She also lists on her site another forum for pastors’ wives called Christian Women Online-the Preacher’s Wife Column, www.ChristianWomenOnline.net.

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Women often aren’t the nicest to pastor’s wife

Pastors’ wives can really be “beat up” by other women in the church. There was one client in particular who was dealing with an individual thought to be the “most spiritual” woman in the church.  Invariably, this person would get the pastor’s wife alone in public and start calling her out about something the pastor did or said previously.

The wife had to stand and smile and apologize on behalf of her husband. “I felt like I was being held hostage in front of all those people. I just swallowed my natural inclination to defend my husband, suck it up, and smile.  It became so hard to do that I eventually found different routes to (literally) escape this person after church,” she said.

One client found herself trying to get caught up by bringing work home with her. “It was beginning to get too much for me, but I just kept going,” she told me in one session. “The church couldn’t afford to pay anyone to do what I was doing. I began to sink lower and lower into this very time consuming job that was part of my husband’s paycheck.  There was never any recognition I was doing this work, it was just assumed I would do it.

Now I feel like I am just going through the motions. They’ve sent me here for counseling, but honestly, I just want out of this. I just want my life back, with or without my husband.”  Sadly this crispy critter pastor’s wife ended up leaving him and the church.   –TJ

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The ‘typical pastor’s white’ is dead

Lori Wilhite founded “Leading and Loving It” that ministers to pastors’ wives. Her husband, Jud Wilhite, is senior pastor at Central Christian Church in Las Vegas, NV. She shared some thoughts of a pastor’s wife:

I think the “typical pastor’s wife” is dead. You know, that woman who had it all together, never seemed to struggle, played the piano, attended every event, and met everyone’s expectations — although she could have had some help with her wardrobe.

I’ve heard, read and said, “I’m not the typical pastor’s wife” so many times, I’ve started to wonder if she really ever existed at all — or if she really only existed in people’s minds and expectations.

Maybe “typical” isn’t what I thought, maybe there is a “new typical.” Maybe I’m typical. The more I talk to pastors’ wives, the more I realize how alike we are.

We are trying to serve God to the best of our abilities while navigating the challenges of leadership and the pulls of life. Sure, it looks different for everyone, but we are working it out.

So I think I’m just going to let what I thought was the “typical” pastor’s wife go by the wayside and link arms with other Christian women, who like me, are just doing our best trying to figure life and leadership out. I am not perfect, but I may well be typical — and that is fine by me.

“Leading and Loving It” is a ministry connecting, encouraging and equipping pastors’ wives and women in ministry. Co-leading it with me is Brandi Wilson, Cross Point Church in Nashville, TN. Leading and Loving it provides many opportunities to connect with other pastors’ wives through their virtual community groups and local events around the country.

Leadership thoughts are posted Monday through Friday on the blog. Leading and Loving It also has the Just-ONE Online Conference in Spring 2012 and a retreat in Nashville next Fall.  leadingandlovingit.com

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1 Comment for “Pastors’ wives under pressure in husbands’ ministries”

  1. Georgina G Nazareth

    I am Pastor’s wife resides in Zimbabwe. I would need Pastor’s wives counsellors in my country if you know of any. Have read challenges been faced and I am facing such problems and I need someone to help me in connection with my marriage.

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