You see her weekly—composed, polished, smiling. She sits at the front in a seat many are too intimidated to choose for themselves. She greets you earnestly, emphatically, genuinely happy to see you and the hundreds of people around you. She remembers your name, asks how the family member is feeling after you requested prayer for them weeks ago. She’s equal parts inviting and intimidating, someone you want to know but are worried for her to know you.
She’s your pastor’s wife, and beneath the smiles and hugs and appearance and prayers, she’s most likely painfully, desperately, achingly lonely.
When we think of the work and calling of ministry, we generally tend to think of our pastor, of his late nights, hospital visits, spiritual studies, and tense board meetings. Ministry is hard. Rewarding, but hard.
Growing up, my best friend was the daughter of our church’s pastor. I practically lived with them and saw first-hand just how much work went into pastoring a church, even a small one. I was sitting at the dinner table when our pastor had to leave and rush to the hospital to be with a member. I was up late watching movies when phone calls came in after midnight. I was at the grocery store when he was stopped and held in conversation while the ice cream melted.
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I saw behind the curtain, as it was, to witness the financial stresses, the under-funded projects, the complaining and warring members, the egos and feelings and expectations that were constantly thrown his way with the expectation that he immediately solve each problem in a way that made everybody happy.
I saw all of this, remember all of this, yet I was still not prepared when I married my husband and we dove into full-time ministry.
I remember our pastor rushing out into the night, but I didn’t notice his wife staying behind to take care of us kids, pray, and alert other church members.
I remember our pastor performing funerals and weddings and baby dedications but somehow had missed his wife handling preparations, schedules, meeting with grieving and excited families, being a shoulder to cry on and an expert to rely on.
I remember the church members bringing cakes and gift cards and presents to their home during pastor appreciation month, but somehow never noticed our pastor’s wife wasn’t honored in any notable way.
I didn’t realize until I was my husband’s partner in ministry that my calling as his wife was just as important as his, that I was as much a part of ministry as he was, that God wanted to use me even if my name didn’t have a bunch of academic letters behind it. I realized that while I felt fully prepared for the reality of ministry, I was not prepared for the reality of being a pastor’s wife.
It took almost no time at all to realize that as glamorous as I thought it must be to be half of a holy team, it was actually quite isolating. Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware of how important the work of ministry is, how vital the prayers and support of a pastor’s wife are. I know it’s good work, I just didn’t know it could be such lonely work.
Your pastor’s wife, as glamorous as she may seem seated on the front row with her hair done and her smile shining, is, in all likelihood, very, very lonely.
It’s not for lack of opportunity. Plenty of people want to befriend the pastor and his wife. Plenty of people are thrilled to spend time with them, to hug them on a Sunday and talk with them throughout the week. Lots of people want a piece of the pastor’s family, but there’s only so much to give.
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The expectations of a pastor’s wife are monumental. She’s probably learned the hard way how high the expectations are and how far people will go to voice their disappointment in her for not being who they think she should be. She’s probably so well-dressed because she receives messages weekly that criticize what she wears. She likely doesn’t accept many social invitations because she knows her presence will make some people uncomfortable, like they can’t be themselves. You may feel as though she cares about you but still keeps you at arm’s length because I promise you she has been hurt, deeply hurt, by people in the very church she’s dedicating her life to.
If her car is too nice, she’s criticized for spending too much. If she’s dressed too casually she’s told she doesn’t represent the church well. If she goes to a graduation she’s offended someone by not attending their party.
If she lets people get close, she is terrified they will hurt her. Again.
Pastor’s and their wives can become a status symbol for church members, like trophies that tell the world how holy they are to be so close to the minister. Many people want proximity to their pastors, not relationship. Getting close to church members can be like playing with fire for a pastor and his wife.
They’ve been used, gossiped about, lied to, criticized, and deeply, deeply hurt. They’ve poured themselves into others and been told it wasn’t enough. They’ve seen members leave over petty arguments, members leave over the volume of worship, members leave over offense, leave over egos, leave over social media posts, leave because they didn’t like a deacon, a member, an offering plate.
Because of the deep connections and emotions that exist within the church, it can be a prime breeding ground for pain and resentment, gossip and strife, jealousy, and judgment. And when it comes to your pastor’s wife, it can be a place of profound loneliness.
She’s been hurt. She’s been used. She’s been criticized. And she’s terrified of it happening again.
She worries she’ll incur judgment for her social invitations or offense for not inviting.
She worries that expectations will be so high of her that she can’t form a friendship without being expected to be a mentor, as well.
She’s a normal woman, flesh and blood, with a sense of humor, a big heart, favorite shows, favorite candies.
She jams in her car, has bad days, and wakes up with morning breath. She struggles to raise kids just like you do, spends time finding the right GIF or emoji to reply with. She’s so much more like you than you realize, but she’s been told so much that she’s not allowed to be that, she’s hesitant to let anyone know it.
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Your pastor’s wife is probably lonely.
But you can help.
You can pray for her. You can greet her genuinely. You can text her, tweet at her, message her. You can contact her for reasons other than needing something from her. Invite her to a movie, to a girl’s dinner with no agenda apart from friendship. Invite her over, take her out, sit next to her in church. Pastors and their wives are often accused of only befriending elite people in the congregation, only caring about big tithers or prominent people.
The truth is that their list of friends is quite short, but not because of money or prestige—it’s because they’ve been used and hurt so much that it’s simply not healthy or safe to find friendships within their own fellowship.
I attended Bible college while engaged and married. I took multiple ministry classes, studied Greek text, read books about pastoral counseling and pastoral expectations and pastoral meetings. I learned about church bylaws, nonprofit laws, and duty-to-report laws. But for all of my preparation for ministry, despite the years I spent in a pastor’s home, I was never prepared for being a pastor’s wife.
It’s likely your pastor’s wife wasn’t, either. And she’s probably pretty lonely.