What qualifies me to write this piece, if anything, is that I am a pastor who has been married most of my life. My wife Margaret and I did this entire ministry thing together, having married the same year I started pastoring, and that was 52 years back. Every church I served as pastor, she was there and deeply involved. She has heard more of my sermons than anyone else, and knows me in ways I do not know myself. Therefore, her assessment of me is probably more dead-on than anyone else’s, including my own.
And that’s what frightens me.
They asked Dwight L. Moody if a certain man were a Christian. “I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t talked to his wife.”
If anyone knows, she does.
(Note: I write–as is obvious–from the standpoint of the pastor being a man. There are godly and faithful women leading churches across the world, and we thank God for them. I have no experience with their situation or knowledge on how their ministries are different from mine. It would be presumptuous for me to pontificate on what they need.)
The pastor’s wife can hurt or help him “better” than anyone else.
When two people go into a “hug,” they drop their guards and become vulnerable. Some individuals we meet in life refuse to allow themselves to love and be love, lest they be hurt by the one they were trusting. Most of us decide that’s too big a price to pay, that we are willing to run the risk in order to receive love and express our affection.
When a pastor and his wife divorce, the departing spouse can wound him for life.* If the split is her doing, the rejection can be devastating. No words cut as deeply, find his soft spots, and leave him gasping for air the way hers do. While that is true of any divorce situation, it has special significance for one called by God into the ministry. After all, this man is doing the strangest work on the planet: He is representing the great invisible God with the message of Jesus Christ to a people who do not always appreciate either the God or the messenger. And now, the departing spouse has just about made it impossible.
(*I’m not naive. I know that sometimes the husband is the one betraying his wife, and that divorce can be a mutual decision and have a thousand causes. However, I have observed in far too many cases wives divorcing their preacher-husbands because “I do not want to live that life,” “I did not sign on for life in a glass-bowl,” and “He was not a preacher when we married and I am not cut out for this.”)
The spouse who stays with the preacher through thick and thin, believing in him all the way, loving and praying for him, is a jewel in the Heavenly Father’s crown. And, truth be known, she’s rare as one too, I expect.
My wife was attending one of these women’s ministry events our denomination puts on from time to time. A number of pastors’ wives sat on a panel, discussing the preacher, his fragile self-esteem, and how the wife keeps him tethered to reality. One said, “I tell him, ‘You may be Doctor So-and-So up there in that pulpit on Sunday. But remember, I saw you two hours earlier in your boxer shorts.'” Everyone laughed, but not everyone appreciated what that woman did.
I’d give a dime to know what her husband thought. (Turn the tables and ask how she would have felt had he announced to the world that he had seen her this morning in her undies.)
The pastor’s self-esteem is something like loose cargo on board a storm-tossed ship. It careens from side to side, sometimes high and sometimes low, always threatening to do damage. Unless someone helps him bolt it to reality, that unstable ego is going to get him in trouble.
That’s what a faithful wife can do: help him fasten down his self-esteem.
The pastor does not need his ego inflated.
Some women read these magazine articles saying men are vain creatures, that they need constant assuring that they are wonderful and sexy and attractive. The woman who lures a straying husband away from his faithful wife, those articles say, made him feel important, listened to his fears, and bragged on his accomplishments.
A wife will read that and come away disgusted that men are so self-centered, so needy, and so weak. And, if she takes that as gospel, her way of helping her preacher-hubby will consist of telling him how wonderful he is, inflating his fragile ego, puffing him up. All the while, she’s feeling guilty for lying to him and ashamed for not being able to speak the truth.
That is not what he needs.
He’s not stupid.
He knows he’s no more wonderful than anyone else. He is not on an ego-trip for Jesus. He does not need a constant reassurance that “You’re the best preacher,” “You’re great,” and “You’re the best looking minister in the denomination.”
Any wife who does that and any preacher who feeds on it has more problems than we can address here.
What a pastor needs is encouragement.
Pure and simple. He needs someone who knows him well and loves him still to assure him that what he is doing is the most important work in the world, that God is using his sermons and pastoral care in ways that honor Christ and will eventually bless the recipients, and that he is serving well.
The pastoral ministry–that is, a man called of God to shepherd His flock made up of every kind of collection of “sheep”–can be a sinkhole for a pastor’s self-esteem. Most congregations have people who see their calling as cutting the preacher down to size, reminding him of his human frailties, and finding the flaws in his sermons and the omissions in his pastoring.
The pastor takes this as a given. He does his work, takes his lumps, goes home to his family, sleeps off the aches of yesterday, and rises to face a new day and try this all again. He keeps reminding himself that “the mercies of the Lord are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:23) and that he can “do all things through Christ” (Philippians 4:13).
But it’s hard. Anyone who says it isn’t either hasn’t been in the work very long or isn’t paying attention.
The pastor needs his wife to pray for him. She knows better than anyone the pressures he faces. Her prayers may be the most valuable ones ever raised for him.
The pastor needs to know his wife is on his team. He’s not real sure about certain deacons, and some old curmudgeon told him yesterday that he is a failure, but there is one person he can always count on. His wife believes in him.
The pastor needs his wife to listen with discernment when he is asking for input, and to give her thoughts freely and confidently.
In the same way, the pastor needs his wife to know when to be quiet and keep her opinion to herself. It’s not an easy assignment, believe me.
He needs the occasional reminder from her that she is proud to be married to a man doing the most important work on the planet, spreading the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Honestly, I can understand a woman saying, “This is more than I can do. I’m not cut out for this.” Her life is as difficult as his, and in some ways, more.
Pray for the pastor’s wife.
Pray for your pastor.
When you get to Heaven–make a note of this and hold me accountable, please–you will find out how the Father treasures every time you lift these two people of His to Him in prayer.
One final word: Please do not approach the pastor or his wife to ask something like, “Tell me what pressures you are facing so I can pray more intelligently.” This is private information which they will not be able to share with you. Please take it by faith and pray with the assurance that the Father knows their needs and will apply the blessing of your prayer wherever it’s needed most. Thank you.