Of Pastors And Their Wives

Pastor's Wife ParkingOne of the most frequently recurring set of search terms that brings readers to the HB is “pastors” and “wives.” They get here from this January, 2013 post on What Pastors Shouldn’t Tell Their Wives. The combination of the terms “pastors” and “wives” that brings readers to the HB are varied. The query “why do pastors cheat on their wives” has occurred most often followed by “Pastors and their wives,” “Counseling for pastors’ wives,” “Bad pastors’ wives,” “pastors’ wives,” and “pastor’s wife.” The last three occur with the same frequency. For perspective, the search term “Green Lantern” occurs almost 20 times more often than all the “pastors” and “wives” search combinations. Together these terms are at about 40th on the list. Still, the frequency with which those terms occur together is concerning and even more so that they seem to be showing up more regularly and consistently. Some search terms spike and then, after a time, they don’t appear very often. This combination, however, seems to appear virtually daily.

Obviously, there is no way to know, in any given instance, what a search indicates. If a person searches the term “Hitler” does that search indicate that he is a Nazi sympathizer or just doing a term paper? Who knows? Still, the frequency with which these terms appear, taken cumulatively, makes one wonder whether parishioners are seeing problems and looking for answers. Are pastors searching for help for their marriages? Are their wives doing the same? It is probably a combination of all of these factors and more beside.

Special Stresses On Pastors And Their Wives
How does one interpret such data with so little context? Cautiously. Nevertheless, your pastor faces special challenges and his marriage must endure strains that, though not entirely unique to pastors and wives, are perhaps different from the pressures and strains that other marriages face. Pastors and their wives are judged publicly each week. Everything a pastor and his wife  wear, everything either of them says and does is subject to scrutiny during and after church. A congregation is a collection of sinners redeemed and being sanctified by grace. Though justification is a once-for-all declaration, sanctification is a slow, life-long process. Frequently, it seems, that process is less evident at church that it might be elsewhere. People give in to the temptation to say things to their pastors and to their pastor’s wife that they would probably not say to friends (e.g., at the market) or co-workers: “That’s a lovely dress Mrs Jones. We must pay you too much.” Such things are usually said in jest but it is almost impossible for pastors and wives not to think that there is a grain of resentment behind the joke.

Perhaps people feel free to say what is on their mind because they see themselves as employers and their pastor and his wife as employees? Yet church members have expectations of their pastor and his wife that the probably do not have of other people, even people whom they employ directly. Does Mrs Jones ever really say to the plumber what she thinking about he is dressed when he comes to fix the sink? Probably not. Of course, Mrs Jones has a relationship with her pastor and his wife that she does not have with the plumber. We see the pastor and his wife at least weekly (and optimally twice each Sabbath). We seek out the pastor for counsel and bare our souls to him in a way that we probably do not to the plumber—I imagine most plumbers would be shocked to find themselves holding a counseling session and a wrench at the same time.

I wonder if the spirit of the age (Zeitgeist), autonomy, affects church members more than we realize? Each week the pastor reads and declares God’s moral law and, if he is to fulfill his vocation, declares God’s good news for sinners. Yet he does so as a sinner and the longer he is in a congregation the more clearly the congregation will see that. Further, the uses of the law are bound to irritate an autonomous late-modern culture. In its first use the moral law teaches us the greatness of our sin and misery and our need for the Savior. In its second use, the moral law norms our civil life. In its third use, the moral law norms our Christian life (and again reminds us of our need for Jesus. See Heidelberg Catechism 115). The law certainly chafes against a culture of self-esteem. I am convinced that the root of most road-rage incidents is sheer pride: “How dare you cut offme in traffic? There is surely a correlation between the rise of the self-esteem culture and the incidence of all manner of social misdemeanors. Perhaps even the gospel irritates us in an increasingly therapeutic, moralistic, deistic culture. Perhaps we are so influenced by the gospel of therapy (e.g., the promise for “safe spaces”) that we cannot even hear the good news that Christ died for sinners and that he was raised for our justification? What does a legal declaration mean to those for whom feelings are all?

Consider the conundrum of pastoral counseling. There might have been a time when it was relatively safe for a minister to meet privately with a female parishioner for counseling but, if so, that time is long past. The dangers are obvious and twofold: 1. appearances; 2. reality. In our highly sexualized culture, where virtually no relationship is sacred, when our culture more or less demands that we put the very worst construction on the most innocent association, the very sight of a pastor and a female member emerging from an office where they have been alone is liable to raise questions. The reality is that it is frequently unsafe for pastors and female parishioners to meet together privately. Let’s say Mrs Jones is having is unhappy with Mr Jones. She goes to the pastor for counseling. He does what Mr Jones will not: he listens sympathetically. He may offer no counsel but the very act of simply listening to Mrs Jones may stimulate in her inappropriate feelings for the pastor. On the other side of the desk, the pastor, upon hearing what a wretch is Mr Jones is liable to feelings of sympathy for Mrs Jones that are easily confused for romantic feelings (especially if his own relationship to his wife is not solid). To add another complication, I have had discussions with sisters in the Lord who are deeply frustrated about this situation. They think that they are being punished and potentially denied the same sort of pastoral care available to men in the congregation. Now the pastor is potentially liable to the charge of being sexist.

These data, interpreted in light of experience, are a reminder to do one thing above all: pray for your pastor and his wife. Perhaps we think of them as “spiritual” and “mature” and, we trust that they are by grace alone (sola gratia). Mature, however, is not perfect. Pray for God’s protection of them in every way. The Evil One delights to destroy the church and its ministry and destroying a pastor’s marriage is a quick way to that end. Pray that, when your pastor faces special discouragement that he looks to Christ, his promises, and his grace for help and nowhere else. Pray that the Lord would protect the pastor’s wife from isolation and the special hardships (e.g., Garrison Keiller once told a story about an unscheduled and unannounced visit by the deacons to check on parsonage heater, which produced considerable awkwardness) of her calling.

These problems also suggest that elders have a particular duty here: to do all they can to protect the relationship between pastors and their wives. E.g., people are typically most available during the work week (when they are available at all) in the evening. To how many evenings per week is the pastor committed? Session and consistory (and council meetings) are typically in the evening. Add them to Bible studies or small groups and impromptu counseling sessions and the evenings per month can grow quickly. How often is the pastor’s wife forced to be on her own? Cops wives may be able to turn to the Police Officers Association or to the wives of other cops but Reformed pastors are often isolated, which means that their wives are may be doubly isolated, especially in small congregations.

Pastors and wives have an economic incentive to hide their problems. An executive with a major multi-national corporation can go to his pastor to seek help with a particular sin without losing his job and his ability to provide for his family. To whom does the pastor go? Like physicians and lawyers most Reformed and Presbyterian pastors have spent at least 7 or 8 (or more) years preparing to become ministers. Unlike physicians and lawyers they are not entering a potentially lucrative profession. They are taking a vocation that, historically, has been associated with poverty. Pastors may have no other professional preparation or experience. The sheer desperation created by potentially sudden poverty encourages pastors and wives to clam up and search for help on the internet rather than to turning to others for help.

Surely there are other vocations which face similar challenges but there may not be vocations that face them all at the same time, in the same way. I doubt that the Evil One is as interested in destroying IBM or Walmart as he is in destroying Christ’s church. Even if everything I have suggested her about the challenges pastors and their wives face is incorrect, the fact remains that these searches bring people to the HB daily. That fact means something and surely it means that we should pray for our pastors and their wives, that we should love them, and that we should do so by looking out for their spiritual and material welfare in light of the special challenges they face.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!