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Care For The Pastor's Wife, Too!

Sarah Jane Wessels, B.Th., Dip. Biblical Counseling Studies

Number 219

Burnout and depression are no strange occurrences in the pastor’s life. A look into the factors that cause stress in the ministry as well as the effect that it has on the minister discloses the most shocking facts.

Pastors' Wives Hurt, Too

The pastors’ wife is the secondary, innocent, victim of these stressors that so badly effect her husband. In addition to this there are stressors that affect the pastor’s wife because of her unique position. Many pastors in South Africa left the ministry lately. A psychologist who devotes a large part of his counseling practice to pastors estimates that seventy percent of these cases are related to wives that cannot cope with the demands that the ministry brings about.

Research into high medicine bills of South African pastors revealed that about 73% was stress related.

What's The Problem?

Many congregations have a preset role-prescription for their pastor’s wife. Often these prescriptions arrive from a handed-down tradition that has long been outdated. She has to cope with baggage that has been the norm in churches since early ages. For instance:

• The pastor’s wife is expected to be in charge of women’s affairs.

• She must know everything about the Bible.

• Her house must be open to every member of the congregation, and it must be tidy

• She has to put an example) twenty-four hours of every day, with little or no regard to her own privacy,

• She must be on 24 hour "on call" duty for telephone service.

• She may not work outside her house, as this makes her an unfit Christian mother and  "undedicated" pastors’ wife.

• She must be "well-dressed" and well-groomed even if it is still early in the morning.

• In many churches the idea that women are sub-ordinate and men are the head of the households and must be in charge of church affairs.

This listing of expectations merely touches the tip of the iceberg. Yet it does illustrate some of the basic issues facing the pastor's wife.

Prescribed Role Expectations

Pastor's wives who strive to fulfill the types of expectations listed above begin assimilating an identity which reflect and aspires to the congregational role-expectation about who she should be, what she should do, when she should do it, where she should (and shouldn't) do what she is supposed to do, and why she should do what she does.

Though others may expect her to derive her sense of self from the role-prescription her husband, the congregation, and society at large have for her, she may become dissatisfied, frustrated, anxious and even angry as she becomes more of what everyone wants her to be and less of what she really is.

Typically, this estrangement from her sense of self may arise from the fact that she...

• probably did not study theology so that she can teach others with confidence,

• may not have a background in psychology and other related disciplines so that she can handle people well, and

• may be a post-modern enlightened Christian who is a unique and sparkling person in her own right, but do not fit into the role-prescription, and

• may have a profession of her own and not be immediately available for congregational ministry at their every beckoning.

With one or more of these factors present, conflict often develops between who she is on the one hand, and who she should be according to the role-prescription of the congregation together with her own role-expectation, on the other hand.

The Results: Guilt...Or Worse!

Often the results of this conflict is guilt. The pastor's wife may harbor intense feelings of guilt when she cannot meet all of these expectations by so many, many people. As her sense of guilt entrapment increases, she may try to deal with her guilt by increased efforts to become the person she is expected to be. Unfortunately, these efforts are doomed to a cyclical heightening of the cycle of guilt.

This usually leads to severe depression; and all she did to deserve this was to love the guy so much that she married him "for better or for worse" - in many cases unaware of what lies ahead for her.

Typical Stressors
Three Reactions To Stressors

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. For each anxiety, there's a corresponding reaction to deal with each anxiety. The Pastor's wife who is caught up in the "well-intentioned" predicament of being everything to everybody but nothing to herself is prone to at least three major categories of reactions.

1. Anger:

For pastor's wives in the younger group age (20 - 30 years of age), the anger feelings may be very strong. Many of them are furious and feel like blaming God and everybody else, but they are brought up not to be blamers or to shift their blame. Though they would like to blame God, for some blaming God would be a severe sin which is severely punishable. So they end up blaming themselves. They become depressed and harvest thoughts of "bringing everything to an end". This may mean divorce or......?

For pastor's wives in the middle-age group (30 - 50 years of age), anger and apathy may prevail. Pastors wives may act untouched and put on masks that will please and pacify those who wants them to fit into preset patterns. They become like ducks that let water run from their backs, acting against their real nature. As pastors wives mature toward their 50th birthday, apathy may replace the anger.

Pastor's wives of those who are in their mature years of ministry or about to retire (50-?? years of age) seem to respond in such a way that if the anger surfaces again, but since they still are unable to face it or deal with it they resort to all kinds of blame shifting tricks.

Whatever their age or length of experience as a pastor's wife, unless pastor's wives can break free of the "identity-conformation" crisis, these anger-related reactions will continue to be evident.

2. Identity Crisis:

Pastor's wives in the younger age group (20-30 years of age) generally begin their tenure as pastor's wife by an initial yielding to the pressure. They try to please everybody... including God. This results in their impression that God is the "big boss" who has very stringent rules, especially for Pastor's wives. The results is an all-too-common identity crises.

In the middle-age group (30-50 years of age) most pastor's wives can no longer bear the strain and start fighting for who they are. They are more mature than their younger counterparts. But their youthful zest sometimes gives them a certain boldness or audacious courage courage to spit it all out aloud. Some may perceive this as blatant arrogance. At this stage many a pastor’s marriage cracks. Many of them leave the ministry because their wives can no longer cope with their crippling identity crisis. 

Fortunately, by the time the long-term pastor's wives mature they finally develop a sense of self. They have changed remarkably from who they were at first. Unfortunately, this may come at a great price. They may become emotionally independent from their pastor-spouse and "go their own way."

As a result of their painful growth and discovery of "self," they know that they cannot blame God or anybody else for their past. The wiser pastor's wife may grieve their "wasted youth." Yet, they grow out of their grief by re-calling their basic personality their "idle youth."

Deep down, however, they still long for their happy, joyful, spontaneous and secure "self" which they once were. For many, this may cause much loneliness and the painful experience of the "dark night of the soul.".

3. Family Dysfunction.

Family dysfunction, contrary to the expectations of many, is as common in families of the congregation as it is in the manse. Unfortunately, pastor's wives who adopt the dysfunctional role mirroring the expectations of the congregation may incite other family dysfunctions.

Family Systems Theory posits that the power of the family system is such that whenever one member of the system starts in dysfunction, others in the family will respond in such a manner as to bring the family to "equilibrium." Such equilibrium is established in mainly two ways.

First, equilibrium can be achieved by somehow altering the dysfunctional behavior in such a way that it become a healthy, functional response.

Second, equilibrium can be achieved as others in the family system respond, change and adapt their own respective dysfunctional responses.

Often professional family therapy is needed in either of the above scenarios. In the first case, it may take the encouragement of a professional therapist to finally give the pastor's wife the "permission" to be her self. In the second case, the therapist may be needed to deal with a larger problem of a dysfunctional system. Indeed, perhaps some of the erratic behavior of "preacher's kids" may be due, in part, to having been raised in a "Christian" family which is hostile to the development of the "self."

Some Case Histories

Below are some helpful real-life illustrations of some of the dilemmas and conflicts mentioned above. These are intended to help readers recognize one or more of the symptoms commonly found in dysfunctional pastor families. Though the people and the situations mentioned are real, the names have been changed to preserve confidentiality.

Pastor's Wife #1: "Judy"

Judy is Pastor Carl’s young wife. He is the minister in a small-town congregation. She is a post-modern girl who loves to express her feelings and enjoys combining her Christian meetings with symbolic activities. Carl shares her insight, but he knows that his hyper-critical, hyper-fundamentalist congregation is not yet ready to accommodate new ways.

He expects Judy to compromise and do as is expected from her. He gets very tensed up when she expresses feelings and insights that deviates from the traditional and accepted way of thinking. Judy feels that Carl is not being true to himself and that in an attempt to please and fit in with his congregation he actually becomes a person who he in fact is not. This again brings stress in the family life. Judy and Carl are constantly at one another’s throat. Toward the congregation, school and friends they wear masks and perfected the art of "playing games."

Judy became depressed and has no one to turn to. Seeing a psychiatrist would be as good as admitting to the "whole world" that things are not going as smooth in their pastors household as they think, and would expect it to be. She now feels it would be better for Carl to go on with his life on his own. Where lies the solution? Divorce or would it be better if she is no longer in this world.

Pastor's Wife #2: "Rachel"

Rachel, a part-time nurse, is married to Richard. In South Africa it is a handed down culture to give the spouse of a pastor the title "minister’s wife". Rachel will often be presented as "our minister’s wife" or even addressed as "Mrs. Minister." Often these titles will totally omit any mention of her name.

The title "Minister" is the norm for the region where her husband ministers. This title, as members of the congregation and community expect, determines who she is. Indeed, this title denies her of any independent identity. All she is and is known by depends totally on her husband’s status.

When she complains of the lack of recognition of her identity, her husband Richard feels that she is just fussy and that this is really no big deal. He expects her to accept this as coming from a respectful, well-meaning community. "They don't intend any harm," he might say. "So just fall in line. What's so hard about that, Rachel?" he asks.

Rachel feels degraded and has trouble living out her own identity. She argues that nobody ever calls Richard a "nurse's husband" or "Mr. Nurse." She longs to be a person in her own right and claims that she no longer knows who she really is.

Pastor's Wife #3: "Sarah"

Pastor Steven is an extremely committed pastor. He expects his family to "understand" his calling. His wife Sarah has to work because there is no way in which they can financially survive on Steven’s salary.

A twenty-seven-year-old recently divorced member of Steven’s congregation is utterly dependent on his pastoral support. At any hour of the day she just "falls into" the manse expecting Steven’s support. Steven feels that as called and devoted pastor he has to attend to her whenever she needs him. "She is depressed," Steven says, "and threatened to commit suicide. This should not be ignored." As a result of this Steven cannot be trusted with regular chores in and around the house. Sarah feels neglected and wronged.

Steven spends long hours doing house calls and often attends meetings in the evening. When he gets home the children are already in bed. Sarah is tired after a long day’s work. Steven however needs Sarah’s comfort and Sarah feels obligated as wife to be a "good" sex partner. He falls asleep but Sarah feels used and lays awake into the wee hours of the night.

Steven’s children are expected to understand that they are "different" from other families. Steven explains that he loves them but the loving God called him to serve others even during weekends away from home. If they love God enough they will without resistance be happy to be part of this special God-called family.

All the family members have feelings of guilt because they cannot live up to expected standards. The oldest son, a teenager starts to rebel. Other children may respond by trying to win the affection of their parents by attaining perfect levels of achievement in academics, sports or other areas. Others may respond by withdrawal, indifference, or other dysfunctional responses.

Pastor's Wife #3: "Pat"

Pat is a young minister herself. She is married to John who was lucky enough to receive a call from a small congregation in the country. Pat is willing the give her talents to the congregation and dreamed about serving the Lord as minister alongside her husband.

Soon Pat realized that the congregation was still clinging to their old beliefs about women ministers. She is expected to be nice to everybody, take care of woman’s affairs, etc. However, the congregation did not recognize her calling to the ministry. Not once in the year that her husband has been serving this congregation did they invite her to conduct a service. On top of this the language used in the congregation was largely sexist, exclusive, and degrading. Nobody seems to understand her problem. Even her husband John expects her to accept the way things are and "go with the flow."

Pat is disillusioned and hurt. She feels extremely lonesome. There is nobody to talk to. She is alienated from nearly everyone...including her husband.

Pastor's Wife #5: "Angela"

Angela is an eighty-eight-year-old Pastor’s widow. During the time of her late husband Danny’s ministry, role-prescriptions were much more direct than today.

During a recent interview with her, Angela started out pretending that nothing was "wrong" during the times that she stood alongside her husband in the ministry. But as the interview progressed Angela relaxed and amongst other things the following were disclosed:

* Though congregational members report she was a very competent and caring pastor’s wife, she never felt she was "good enough."

* Sometimes she punished her children severely because she was in constant fear that the children would not be accepted as "God’s gift to mankind" by the congregation. Indeed, the disciplines she gave was often motivated by her fear of other's personal criticisms that she was not a good "Christian" mother.

Later in the interview, it is apparent that Angela is tortured with numerous feelings of guilt. With tears running down her wrinkled checks she looked into the distance and said trembling:

"I am glad I do not have to pretend any longer..."

What's Going On?

There are numerous symptoms of dysfunction evident in the above mentioned case-histories. A partial listing of some of the more pre-dominant ones include...

* Blame-shifting: Blame-shifting, a trick as old as Adam, Eve and the serpent, is present in an attempt for the family to maintain their "homeostasis" (equilibrium). The equilibrium they try to keep in the examples above appears to be a dysfunctional equilibrium to which they have become accustomed to and protect by their well kept secrets.

* Designated Troublemaker: In order to maintain the dysfunctional equilibrium it may be necessary for the family to identify a certain member of the family as  the "troublemaker". Even if the parents know the origin and reason for the trouble, they may resist any new input that may even vaguely suggest that the system formed by their own examples and leadership of family life has anything to do with the troublemaker’s problem.

* Double-Bound Messages: The parents keep their children confused by sending double-bound messages. Double-bound messages negate what they affirmed in the same breath. The result is confusion, lack of security, etc.

Typical examples might include "I love you, more than anyone else but I can't care for you because I have to care for someone else because God loves them." Another might include, "We really love our pastor's wife...but we wish she would be like us." 

* Masks: Members of dysfunctional families often wear masks. Children are also expected to act "respectable" and be an "example of a well raised citizen" towards the outside world. Above all, "Christian" children must, at all times, be adults. Because God loves them so much, they are told, they must not have a childhood.

* Outstanding Performance: Related to the "mask" is the expectation of outstanding performance by the members of the pastor's family. In such families, it is of utmost importance that the parents perpetuate the farce of being perfect. Parsonage parents expect their children to constantly perform better than their best.

* Denied Credit For Accomplishments: Instead of giving them credit for what they have done and encouraging them to be the creative individuals God has made them to be, often the parsonage parents will tell the children that what they have done is not good enough. They always expect better results. There is always room for improvement. And, if they don't improve, there's always the guilt-laden threat, "What will the people in the church say about you, your mother, and your father??"

* Feminism: Even today in 1998 Feminism is feared in South Africa by many people who is not "adult" enough to free themselves and others. The husband’s worth lies in the fact that he is the head of the family. He becomes authoritative and dictates to every member of the family. Many women conform to this paternalistic system because they either do not know what is at stake, or do not see their way open to stand up for what they believe.

Unfortunately, many society in general and the church in particular may also be unclear relative to the Biblical relationship of man and wife, male and female. As a result of their blind acceptance of  paradigm of the community, children who do not conform to the culturally-prescribed way of life are abused out of sheer fear of losing credibility - another secret that is kept safely behind the doors of the family dwelling.

* Role Playing: Dysfunction is also evident when a member of the pastor's family is forced set aside their own identity in order to act "out of character." This role playing is "justified" by demonstrating that it is to serve a good purpose or to please the community. If the child or family member has to keep this performance up for too long, the result is prolonged inter-personal conflict which may permeate and affect the entire family system.

Some Suggestions For Pastor's Wives

Though very little has been done about these problems this far in South Africa, here’s a few suggestions that may apply in South Africa and elsewhere around the world.

1. The pastors wives should form a "care-for-one-another" (pastor pastorum) groups of their own.

Romans 15:14 (William’s) reads:

As far as I am concerned about you , my brothers [sisters?], I am convinced that you especially are abounding in the highest goodness, richly supplied with perfect knowledge and competent to counsel one another.

It is becoming a more common practice for pastors to form what is called a "pastor pastorum" group. These groups are characterized by a mutually caring for one another and enriching their "Coram Deo", i.e. their life before God.

Too many times, the pastor's wives stay at home and take care of the household while the pastors meet in supportive clusters of other pastors. Is it not time that the pastors' wives are also included in this picture?

2. Congregations should be made aware of the problem.

Once the congregation has been made aware of the unique pressures and needs of the pastor, the pastor's wife, and his family, it is necessary for congregational leaders to act on these pressures. Concerned parishioners need not necessarily "probe" into the details and personal pressures of the pastor's home. The pressures exist in many congregations.

One of the best strategies to make use of a well-trained facilitator. Such a person should visit a certain congregation maybe for a week or at least a weekend. It is preferable that this should be a woman, because for too long has men been in charge of what they think women need. After the week or weekend, a special care group may be started to establish on-going follow up in whatever appropriate way is determined. This care group should be initiated by the facilitator. It will depend on the congregation on how they will go about the continuing care of their pastoral families.

3. Offer Personal Caring For The Pastor's Wife.

Often, virtually everybody in the congregation, except the pastor's wife, has a pastor to turn to when in need or even when lonesome. Therefore it is very important that a pastoral counselor be set aside to visit pastors’ spouses in their homes and caring for them.

How this can be achieved will vary from denomination to domination and country to country. The fact that this support can be offered in many ways should be a greater encouragement to find a way to fill this important need.

As demonstrated in the case of Angela (above) often pastor's widows end up having a whole set of baggage of unfinished business. Their pastors are usually young and not experienced enough to really care for, and counsel these women. Can the church really forget them after so many years? These women of God need to be included in the caring strategy. Perhaps some of them may be effective mentors, supporting,, teaching and encouraging pastor's wives to live healthy, wholesome true-to-their-own-selves lives.

4. Healing of the memories.

Whether it be something along the line of the Truth and Reconciliation program that is currently running in South Africa, healing efforts must include the wives of active, retired or sainted pastors. Memories, like grief, sometimes die hard. The bitter memories sometimes die hardest. Offering the loving, Christian support to pastor's wives of all ages and circumstances is one of the best ways to facilitate a healing that only God can give.
 
5. To Thine Own Self Be True
No one, let alone a pastor or his wife, can offer their very best behind a facade. If driven by guilt or fear of rejection, failure or need to conform, pastor's wives can, at best, help "plug" up holes of ministry. In so doing, they will open up other "holes" in themselves.
When starting a new ministry, be sure the pastor-husband clearly indicates to the congregation that his wife has unique strengths, weaknesses, interests and ministry desires. The pastor should publicly indicate--and uphold throughout their ministry together--that her ministry is determined by God's giftedness to her and her freedom to choose to what degree and in what capacity to use it.
This foundation of actual, public support for the pastor's spouse--if maintained--sets up and upholds a fundamental strengthening of the pastor's marriage. It can  model what a healthy, Christian marriage is in that it shows two people supporting and encouraging each other's uniqueness.
Finally, it establishes healthy boundaries and expectations for  both the congregation and the clergy family of how they will respond to God...true to self. A congregation or Pastor who refused to celebrate the uniqueness of his own spouse and family members will likely be unable to celebrate the unique of God's people. 
 
Isn't that interesting: the healthiest way to support the ministry of the Pastor's wife may also be the most healthy way to support and celebrate the specific God-given ministry of each individual member.
Sarah Jane Wessels

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Copyright Sarah Jane Wessels and Ministry Health 1998--All Rights Reserved

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:03:53 PM