Megan Hill, a Presbyterian pastor’s wife, has been writing about what pastors tell their wives and what they should tell them. I can answer that question in one word: nothing. By nothing, I mean “no confidential information.” A pastor may tell his wife what he would tell other members of the congregation but no more. Of course he may ask for prayer. Of course he may tell his wife that he had a tough counseling session or a tough session meeting but he shouldn’t say with whom or “confidential” becomes a little leaky.
I understand that we live in an age of hyper-transparency, that many live in in full view of the digital public via social media. That reality, however, is no argument for ministers giving in to the temptation to share with their wives what they learn in session (consistory) meetings or in counseling sessions. What happens in session (consistory) stays in session. What happens in the counseling room, unless it involves a criminal matter or needs to go to the session, stays in the counseling room. It certainly does not go to the pastor’s wife.
This is not sexism. It’s mercy and wisdom. The pastor’s wife is not called to the pastoral ministry. She is not an unofficial co-pastor. She isn’t ordained (or shouldn’t be). Her vocation relative to the visible church is to be faithful to the due use of ordinary means, to love her husband and family. That’s it.
There are five reasons why the pastor’s wife does not need to know what the pastor knows.
1) Few things are as difficult in ministry as knowing what pastors (and elders) know. I have seen the burden add lines to the faces of pastors and ruling elders. Watch a newly elected ruling elder’s face the day before he takes office for the first time and the days after. There is often a discernible change. Pastors are called to carry this burden and to lay it before the Lord and to trust him with it. Those who learn to file it somewhere survive and those who do not, for whom it remains in the forefront of their consciousness, they will not likely survive pastoral ministry. The pastor’s wife is not a ruling elder or a minister. She’s not called to carry that burden.
2) It’s better for the pastor that his wife not know. When a pastor comes home from a difficult house visit (huisbezoek in Nederlands) it’s a great relief to see his wife, who is blissfully unaware of what just transpired. If she knows then he never really leaves it behind. There is no refuge. The session meeting just changed locations. That doesn’t help him. He needs her, sola gratia, to be free to love him and the rest of the congregation in the freedom of not knowing. He needs that more than he needs an ally against that obstreperous session member or that seemingly intractable counseling case.
3) It’s not good for the pastor’s family to know everything that is going on. One leak may lead to others. If the pastor’s wife is not called to know and carry this certainly the children are not equipped to deal with it. Leave them out of it. There is a reason that pastor’s kids can grow up bitter toward the church. Pastor’s need to resist the temptation to find vindication for themselves by unloading their burdens on their children.
4) Her view of the congregation isn’t trained or freighted or weighted down with the knowledge of what is happening in each family behind the pleasant facade. That’s as it should be. She shouldn’t know. She should be free to go on as if nothing happened. That’s important. There is grace. People do repent and move forward. Sure, everyone in the congregation can see the turbulent waters but they can’t all see what’s beneath. She’s free to be a prayer partner a and friend in a way that perhaps the pastor cannot be. Knowing what the pastor knows does not enable her to be unfettered in her life as a member of the congregation.
5) It’s not good for the congregation. Trust is a difficult thing to foster and it is easily damaged. It may take years for a congregation to trust the minister enough to confide in him and to seek from him the help they need. A careless word to his wife may destroy all that in a moment and that trust may never be restored. The members of the congregation should not look at her and wonder what she knows about them.
Please don’t misunderstand. The pastor is not a priest. He must keep the confidences that he may but when it comes to criminal matters or those things that must go to the session then he his bound to do it. Nevertheless, most things should be kept in confidence and those right between the minister’s ears. The good news is that, as the years pass, many of them just sort of slip away into the ether. I know that I’ve heard many things but right now, as I write, I can’t remember many of them. I can see faces and tears but no particulars come to mind. It’s a mercy.
By the Christ’s undeserved favor, with the Spirit’s help, and in the Father’s love it can be done. It must be done. It’s a matter of divine vocation. It’s a matter of integrity. God has called his ministers to hear confessions, to offer reminders of forgiveness, and counsel but the same is not true of every member of the congregation and that is what the pastor’s wife is: another member of the congregation. Perhaps this is a practical argument against every member ministry (and this)?
Part 2: Of Office and Person