This is being written two days before my wife’s funeral.
An hour ago, the pastor who married Margaret and me nearly 53 years ago sent a note of his love and prayers. Bill Burkett is 90 now, living in Kentucky, and seemingly as sharp and gracious as ever.
I told him, “You would have been proud of Margaret. She was a wonderful pastors’ wife.”
I know a lot of the Lord’s people who would attest to that. Over a period of 42 years, we served seven churches in four different states. Every church situation differed, the needs varied, and her roles fluctuated with each.
Once, after we’d been married perhaps 15 years, at my suggestion Margaret met with a few wives of pastors in an informal setting. The stated object was for fellowship, but the result was usually mutual encouragement and more.
Margaret was surprised to find that other pastors’ wives–almost everyone she talked with–felt the same way she did: Inadequate, unworthy, often stressed out, and sometimes a little angry at her husband for putting the church and other peoples’ needs ahead of family.
Frankly, I was glad for her to learn this. I knew the way she felt about herself–and me!–was far more common than she realized.
When she was asked to speak to pastors’ wives in a more formal setting, she would tell them something like the following….
1) Be yourself.
Churches tend to expect the new “first lady” to be the clone of the last one. Margaret would say she was fortunate to follow free spirits who did their own thing and had not set the bar too high.
2) Find your own ministry, and take your own good time about doing so.
In some churches, Margaret taught children, in others single adults or even mature ladies. From high school, she had learned to love drama and so she sometimes directed church plays and worked with pageants. She sang in the choir, ran a television camera in one church, and taught classes on “Experiencing God.”
Basically, other than be a pastor’s wife, she did whatever she decided to do.
When we were young and new in one church, some of the senior ladies assumed she would head up the women’s ministries. Margaret gently encouraged them to look elsewhere, saying that with her two small children and a husband to look after, she would not have the time for such a heavy responsibility. They were disappointed, but got over it and learned to appreciate the things she did.
Margaret would say, “They’ll get over the disappointment. And it’ll be good for them.”
3) Get your strength from the Lord, the same source as your husband (and every other believer).
Ruth Bell Graham used to say many wives expect their husbands to be to them what only Jesus Christ can be. That seems to be particularly true of pastors’ wives, and for good reason. Since most churches place expectations and even demands on her, the one place a minister’s wife turns for understanding is her husband. And, it pains me to admit, often we preachers fail miserably at “being there” for our wives.
It helps–no, it’s absolutely essential–if the wife has received a calling from the Lord for her own unique role. Pity the preacher’s home where years into the marriage the wife was shocked to learn that her man had received a call from God to pastor churches, but she herself was not sympathetic. Unless she learns to look to the Lord for her strength and direction, she will not make it.
Margaret would share 2 Corinthians 3:5 as though it had the minister’s wife’s name on it: “Not that we are adequate to think anything of ourselves; but our adequacy is of God.”
Until the spouse learns that, she will not make it.
4) Be careful about whom you allow into your confidence.
Not everyone in the church, even the well-meaning ones, can be trusted to know precisely how you feel, what you say, or what goes on in the pastor’s home.
Most churches will have a few members who delight in passing along tidbits they picked up about the pastor or his homelife. If the wife allows one of these to burrow into her private life, pretending to be her best friend, trouble lies ahead.
Some will say the minister and spouse should have no close friends in the church. Margaret and I would not agree. Some of the greatest people on the earth are God’s redeemed. Here and there in the church, the Lord will send a few choice servants to be encouragers and companions. They will be mature and gracious, gentle and patient. You can see a movie with them or play a hand of Hearts together. You can laugh and you can cry, and no one else knows.
We’re simply saying to use discernment.
5) Befriend a few other wives of ministers.
You have a great deal in common with them, even if your churches are of different denominations.
6) Stand your ground when your husband is failing as a husband and father. He needs you to be firm with him.
It’s not enough to be tough regarding outsiders; sometimes you have to be tough with the man you married. When we arrived at our first pastorate after seminary, I left Margaret with two small boys and boxes to unpack in order to begin pastoring the church. It was ignorance on my part and misplaced priorities. I wounded her severely, and we dealt with this 10 years later in marriage counseling. To this day I regret doing this. Had I been thinking clearly, I’d have realized that church had survived 18 months without a pastor and one more week would not have hurt anything if I had helped to open boxes and hang pictures.
There came a time, some 15 years after we married that Margaret served notice to me: Go with me for marriage counseling or I’m gone. I did. It was painful and time-consuming, but it saved our marriage. And our ministry.
7) Be honest, but not brutally honest.
When your husband asks what you thought of today’s sermon, you do not have to tell him everything you thought about it. Plan in advance the words to use. Every preacher is tired on Sunday afternoon and this is not a good time to criticize anything. Anticipate what he needs and plan your words.
8) Cut yourself some slack. You are not going to do this perfectly.
Your husband may be a great preacher but he is not going to be all things to all people, even if the Apostle Paul claimed that role for himself. In the first place, your preacher is not Paul and secondly, Scripture makes it plain not everyone thought Paul was all that hot either.
9) Pray that the pastor’s wife following you will be terrible.
That way, they will rise up and bless you as the best “first lady” ever. (I’m kidding. Sort of. Smiley-face goes here.)
10) Learn to laugh off slights, offenses, and neglects.
Toughen up. Believe me, you do not want to know what other people say about the outfit you wore Sunday, the way you now do your hair, or how your children behave in church. Even the best behaved PKs get criticized sometime, and even the most-loved pastor’s wife will be fair game for dinner conversation in most households. For the most part, it’s harmless and not meant to hurt. People simply love to talk. So, learn to shrug it off if someone reports it back to you. (Incidentally, the person telling you what someone else said bears watching. They are doing you no kindness.)
You’ll be needing a sense of humor, laughing not only at the truly humorous but also the not-so-funny barbs that would otherwise draw blood. Don’t let it cut. If you hand it to the Lord who claimed vengeance as His domain, you show faith in Him by refusing to dwell on it.
Have fun being a pastor’s wife. It can be a great life.
Give yourself to the Lord, take care of your family, and treasure the Lord’s church. And then one day, when you are newly arrived in Heaven the way my Margaret is tonight, all those church members will come forth and do for you what myriads are doing for her: call you blessed (Proverbs 31:28).
She would get such a kick out of that.