I had just nestled into the horizontal position for my afternoon siesta when the phone rang and I heard Ina's fluttering voice on the other end. She told me that her heart was racing uncontrollably. (Ina's heart was always racing uncontrollably.) She asked to speak to my husband—her pastor—who was not at home. So she settled for talking to me about that day's ailments.

Ina was an elderly, nervous widow who called incessantly asking for prayer for something—usually a perceived illness related to her racing heart or shortness of breath. You had to love her, with her ruby-red lips that spiked beyond the lip-line and her penciled-in, over-arched eyebrows that crowned her wrinkled brow. Once after church she came through the receiving line to greet my husband and me with her brow furrowed and distorted as she muttered how she was sure she had contracted AIDS. She didn't know for sure, but her nephew whom she thought might be gay had kissed her on the cheek at a family wedding, and she hadn't felt well since.

The call that interrupted my siesta that afternoon was of a different sort. This time she had an unbearable burning sensation related to her female anatomy. She asked for prayer. Now, I'm a praying woman, but I couldn't help asking—Lord, how am I supposed to pray for this? Well, I prayed and managed to say it right, because Ina was so grateful. The next church day she floated up to me in the receiving line, throwing her hands up in ecstasy and telling me that she was "Oh, so much better. Praise the Lord!"

Ministry. When the church called my husband to serve as their shepherd, whether I was prepared for it or not, I received a call, too. Sometimes it means that my afternoon siestas are interrupted with calls from hypochondriacs with strange prayer requests, or sometimes it means sitting in the pew, sinking fast, while my husband proclaims from the pulpit while preaching from the Song of Solomon: "Your breasts are like two roes!" ("How could you undress me in front of the whole church?")

The call of the pastor's wife is both consecrated in its place of privilege and complicated in its emotional ambiguities. (I say "wife" because husbands of female pastors don't seem to share the same set of congregational expectations as wives of male pastors—what church wouldn't expect that he would have full-time employment outside the church?) There is a certain blessedness in the mantle bequeathed to her by virtue of her intimate connection to the shepherd of the flock.

Article continues below

Answering the phone, in and of itself, ushers her into the inner recesses of the soul of the congregation. She becomes both listener and transmitter of deeply personal messages, some that break her heart: "Would you tell Pastor that my boy has been picked up for drugs again; that we would appreciate it if he could try to talk to him?" She can also be the lightning rod for "messages" that are not so sublime: "What does Pastor think he's doing changing the time of the evening service?" Whether with choked-back tears or gritted teeth, the pastor's wife responds with kindness: I'll be sure he gets back to you.

But this role can get complicated. Maintaining emotional wholeness and equilibrium can be a delicate dance when it comes to a wife's relationship with the church, her friends, her husband, and even herself.

A painful moment
Take the experience of my friend Miriam as an example. Her husband, Edwin (not their real names), had been pastoring a small church for five years. Edwin had, by means of his relational appeal and aggressive visitation outreach, succeeded in bringing Sylvia, a neighbor, and her three children into the fold of the church. (Sylvia's husband was an agnostic who worked too much to care about church.) Over time, Miriam and Sylvia had become friendly, and Miriam frequently chatted with her over the back fence. When Sylvia's mother died, Miriam joined her husband for his pastoral call at the funeral home.

There, Miriam quickly saw a new side to Sylvia. When they arrived, Sylvia darted over to greet them and pulled Edwin in the direction of her father. "Daddy," she said, "this is Pastor Ed. You know how much the kids are always talking about Pastor Ed."

"Oh yes," her father said. "I've heard all about Pastor Ed."

"The kids always want to know when Pastor Ed is coming for another visit," Sylvia continued. "Oh, and they love his children's sermons! Haven't the kids told you how much they love Pastor Ed's sermons?"

Sylvia gushed unabashedly over Miriam's husband throughout the entire visit, while barely acknowledging Miriam's presence.

Who does Miriam turn to when she feels as though a member of the church has a "crush" on her husband? And with whom does she share her sense of betrayal that Sylvia fabricated a friendship with her for the sole purpose of getting nearer to him? Miriam's anguish over this highlights the complex network of emotions that the wife of the pastor contends with and that must never be aired—or even hinted at—in the context of the church.

Article continues below

Miriam liked Sylvia; she thought Sylvia was her friend. So when it became apparent that this friendship was driven more by Sylvia's interest in her husband than in an authentic friendship with her, Miriam began to fear that anyone who befriended her had an ulterior motive. Of course, that was not true. There were lots of good people in the church who were sincerely interested in Miriam's friendship. But Miriam could not overcome her sense of isolation.

Three needs
This episode highlights what a recent survey sponsored by Just Between Us (JBU, a magazine for pastors' wives) confirms: The number-one felt need of wives of pastors is for friendship and community, due to an acute sense of loneliness. One woman said in the survey, "While we can't reveal deep hurts, confidences, wounds, and such … we often feel separated from other women." Another said, "I'm not sure who to trust with my feelings. Sharing frustrations can backfire." And another said, "It seems like once I entered the ministry with my husband, I couldn't have a close, true friend."

How could that be, one may ask, since the pastor's family is so revered and in such demand for social engagements, informal gatherings, and quick chats after church?

Many pastors' families, when they move into a community to assume a call, are perceived as outsiders. "Everyone else was part of the history of the church and the traditions," says one wife, adding that among the deepest struggles attendant to her husband's call was the "intense loneliness" she felt for the "first five to seven years. " "We had families who went back years and years. When we came, we were outsiders and newcomers. And there was little sensitivity to the fact that we seldom saw our families."

Another told me how she and her husband and children would leave immediately after the Christmas Eve service to drive all night in order to spend Christmas with her parents in the South. ("We had one Christmas dinner sitting in our car, eating 7-Eleven pizza," she said.) Once, when they returned after the holidays, they learned that there was a movement afoot in the church to disallow the pastor any travel during the holidays. "They have their families right here in town and so are never alone on the holidays," she said. "But they resented our wanting to leave so that we could be with our families."

The second-greatest need for ministers' wives, as delineated in the JBU survey, was finding a sense of self-worth. The problem shows itself in a number of ways. For example, one morning in church I noticed a new family I hadn't seen before sitting in the pews. So I approached them to greet them.

Article continues below

"Good morning," I said, shaking their hands. "Welcome."

They nodded.

"Where are you from?" I asked. They mumbled something I didn't catch and seemed to communicate that they would prefer to be left alone.

"My husband is the pastor," I added.

"Oh!" they said, and their eyes lit up. "It's so nice to meet you."

Why couldn't they respond to me that way before they knew I was the pastor's wife? I was the same person; my greeting had been heartfelt. Why the change in their demeanor? Did my association with "the pastor" make a difference in what they thought of me? Does being his wife give me more value than just being a nice person greeting them in the pew?

There is a flip side to the fabricated importance we enjoy by virtue of our husbands' honored role. Often, whether in receiving lines or in social settings, wives of pastors are walked past and edged out, though nobody means to do it. Once, at a wedding rehearsal, the mother of the bride introduced the pastor to every member of the wedding party without so much as a nod to his wife, who was standing right next to him.

Jill Briscoe protests, "She has a name. " (And it is not The Pastor's Wife.)

My friend Miriam's self-worth suffered when she tried to bring up the "Sylvia problem" with her husband. The isolation she already felt magnified her need for him to respond in an affirming manner. When instead he told her she was "confused," Miriam recoiled in resentment: Does he tell all his counselees they're "confused"?

That, in turn, triggered more vain imaginings in Miriam's mind, which, in turn, put more stress on their marriage ("You love the church more than me!"), which unleashed Miriam's pent-up resentment toward the church, which only isolated Miriam further and diminished her sense of worth.

The third need most expressed by pastors' wives is for clear and healthy expectations. The perceived reality is unstated and ambiguous expectations put upon her in her role.

A survey taken by LEADERSHIP journal in 1992 reveals that 94 percent of ministers feel pressured to have an "ideal family," while 77 percent said their spouses felt pressure to be "an ideal role model for the Christian family."

This can be hard on the ministry wife. She is supposed to fulfill the role of "the good wife" (by any number of possible definitions) while her children rise up and call her blessed, though pks (preachers' kids) tend to have an unusually high rate of church disaffection (and sometimes defection). Richard Willowby writes in his article "Prodigal PKs" (Pastor's Family ), "If teenage PKs feel they must sing in every youth group concert or live flawlessly because they exist in the spotlight … they may want to escape the glare of expectations." He adds, "The evening and weekend nature of church life can make ministers seem like absentee parents who don't have time or energy to be involved with their children or provide oversight."

Article continues below

In addition to family pressures, at times the ministry wife is expected to be her husband's proxy at social functions, and she is looked to for guidance and input the way her husband would be if he were there. I was called upon once at a wedding shower, without forewarning, to lead the group of 30 women in a Bible study devotional. So while others sipped punch and popped cashews and mints, I sat in a corner scribbling notes on a napkin about marriage principles derivable from Philippians 1. One woman in the JBU survey said that she wishes she could be free "not to do ministry " every time she is with people.

But there are other, more subtle expectations. An acquaintance once said to me, "You don't act like a pastor's wife." When I asked her, How does a pastor's wife act? she said that her pastor's wife always "just stood there with a blank look on her face, kind of like a mannequin."

I know that look. The comment surprised me and reminded me how easily misunderstood the pastor's wife is. Sometimes it is difficult when a wife hears her husband preach, to hear the "prophetic word" over the voice of the man who gets ticked off when she leaves the bathroom light on. Sometimes she can't get past the spot on his tie or the funny twirl in his hair. And she has heard that joke at least twice before.

That is not to say she can't be blessed by her husband's messages. But it takes more overcoming before the clear voice of the prophet can supersede the voice of the man she put through seminary.

Who does she go to when she feels the need for marriage counseling? (Who does she even tell of that felt need?) How does she get past the dysfunctions of her youth when she has no pastor to whom to unburden herself? (To her husband, these are sometimes more of a threat to his ministry.)

So while the wife is expected to be poised and wise, on the inside she may feel emotionally unresolved, relationally embattled, and spiritually lost. Sometimes standing there with a blank look takes every ounce of strength and resolve she can muster.

Article continues below

In addition to the expectations from the church, the ministry wife also receives signals from the larger believing community about who (or what) she should or should not be. I read an article recently in a leading Christian journal by a respected, best-selling author and revered speaker. She wrote that she was "shocked" to learn, when speaking to a group of pastors' wives, that 80 percent of them worked full-time outside the home. She asserted that Scripture nowhere suggests that "womanly responsibilities" included the "ambitious agenda" of working outside the home. Women in general, and pastors' wives in particular, the author asserted, ought to function as "WOTTS" (Women of Titus Two).

(Click here to read part 2)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.