“I have no one to talk to!” This plea for help grips the heart of any counselor. But in this case, the speaker was a woman who served alongside her husband in ministry. She had gladly accepted her calling from God, yet she had run out of options to get help with her own problems. Loneliness, stress, and lack of shepherding had taken a toll. I wished to be the person with whom she could share her hurts and fears as I listened. The help given to women in ministry has a far-reaching impact because of the number of people who are under their care. Active steps taken now can prevent future serious problems which affect their service to the Lord.
My counseling experience indicates that many pastors’ wives feel isolated from friendships in their own church. This supports the teaching by some that these women shouldn’t develop close friends in order to prevent jealousy and favoritism in the congregation.
Loneliness is often compounded because the wife knows the private struggles of the people in her church. She tries hard to avoid gossip and revealing what isn’t meant to be known. This reality can draw a wife closer to her ministry husband while at the same time being a barrier to having a friend with whom she can share those burdens (Galatians 6:2).
The Bible’s answer is that the ministry wife should seek a woman to listen to her concerns. The biblical counselor or wise friend might even need to initiate a get-together with a lonely pastor’s wife. The Bible instructs us to listen in order to love in John 15:12–13, Romans 12:10, and Hebrews 10:24–25 (to name a few passages). I have the blessing of maintaining phone dates with several women in ministry. These aren’t counseling appointments, but “catch up” times. We share our concerns and pray with each other. We are genuine with each other (Romans 12:9a). Our times together are refreshing because we understand the loneliness that can be an aspect of ministry and seek to combat that loneliness.
Yes, we all deal with stress at times, but the ministry wife faces a set of unique stressors. She may deal with the expectations of those in her church or ministry organization. These might include unwritten requirements by the congregation to participate in leading ministries in the church, having a home open to any and all, and the flexibility to be the last-minute volunteer in the nursery/children’s Sunday School/food ministry/etc. In addition, she may feel her own inward stress to always look cheerful and have well-behaved children. A missionary wife might feel added pressure to believe that her struggles on the mission field are a sign of failure to fulfill the calling of God.
Paul writes in Colossians 1:28-29 “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” Verse 29 describes the hardship of ministry (toil, struggle, the need for energy). On at least one occasion Paul was afraid that he had labored over the people in vain (Galatians 4:11). These verses are only a few examples which give us a glimpse of the stress of ministry leadership.
The Bible’s answer is to focus on the Lord while serving him with “sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord…knowing that from the Lord [she] will receive the inheritance as [her] reward” (Colossians 3:22-24). In the future, there will be recognition for her work. The remainder of the verse says, “You are serving the Lord Christ.” She is ultimately serving her loving God. When times are difficult, she is called to trust the Lord with her cares and worries (Psalm 121).
- Lack of Shepherding
The woman in ministry is sometimes overlooked. She may not be treated as an individual with her own hurts and needs. In a small church, the pastor does many of the shepherding tasks by himself, his wife by his side. She and her husband often have no one ministering to them. I have spoken to women who have no shepherd in their own church (aside from their husband) and no overseeing body to address their concerns. If marriage problems develop, this need can feel acute.
It is also true that the ministry wife can project strength and self-sufficiency to the congregation while covering up real problems. People may not realize the pain and turmoil she and her husband experience in their relationship as a couple, with their children, or with other members of the church. Fellow leaders can assume things are going well and/or fail to see their responsibility to minister to those who minister to them. We should be aware of the shepherding needs of the ministry wives among us and encourage them to find wise advisors and friends.
The Bible’s answer is given in 1 Corinthians 12:24–26, “God has so composed the body… that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together.” Each person in the local church is important, even the quiet pastor’s wife, who seems to be coping well. This woman can be encouraged to ask the church leadership to direct someone to shepherd her soul. I know of some churches which assign an individual to meet with the pastor’s wife alone in order to encourage, listen, and address her concerns. This could even be a mentor or counselor from outside the church. ACBC instituted a get-away weekend for pastors and their wives, which served that need and was a blessing to many.
May the Lord inspire some readers to become available to help women in ministry. This builds up the body of Christ, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). Wives of men in leadership need to be built up as much as anyone else. They support their husbands but need support from friends. Let us reach out to the lonely, stressed, and overlooked pastor’s wives in our midst.