“Your husband is in seminary. What would he think about what you’ve done?”
I was 21, and these words shattered my heart. They have become a haunting soundtrack to some of my darkest days, and their rhythm has sometimes been hard to escape. It was the first time my husband’s position had been used as a weapon against me. It would not be the last.
I’ve written before about my fear of pedestals, about how sometimes people want to build them for my husband, how I know that the building of them is often followed by the smashing of them. Pastors are often seen and analyzed but not known, are often viewed as a smidge more God-like than human-like. I’ve learned that pastors and the members of their families are supposed to say they’re sinners, but any actual proof of this is unwelcome.
Overall, I enjoy being a pastor’s wife. There’s something special about being fully immersed with a specific group of people together, of knowing them well and leaning on the Holy Spirit together to discern how they can best be served. But there are some unique challenges that ministry families face, and I have learned that when people know about these challenges, they are grateful for the inside scoop and eager to show kindness in whatever way they can. And I think we all have permission to gently express the things that are hard for us, in our unique jobs, in our unique families, with our unique giftings. How will I know if you don’t tell me? How will you know if I don’t tell you?
So this is me, telling: Pastors' wives have a unique set of challenges, and I think the primary challenge is one of community.
Sometimes people do not want to be my friend because my husband is a pastor. Sometimes people want to be my friend because my husband is a pastor. Both make me feel funny.
On many occasions, people have come to our house, and they feel weird to sit at our table, like it is somehow different than other tables and wasn’t smeared with yogurt just ten minutes prior. I’m sad because I’m just Caroline and he’s just Luke, and we just want them to feel comfortable here. But they aren’t. At least, not yet.
Because our relationships are often strained, distorted, or awkward at the onset, many will caution younger pastors’ wives that they must be careful whom they trust, that they must be sure not to share family or church struggles with anyone.
I am sure this advice comes from a kind, protective place, but in my ears, it sounds like that hammering -- like I’m building a pedestal, or reinforcing it. It sounds like it’s part of my job description to keep my pastor husband up there, to make sure people are forever able to idolize him, to think he’s not perfect, but pretty darn close.
This approach is a softer way of using my husband’s position as a weapon, but it kills by degrees. It suggests, “You must sacrifice connection and authenticity because your husband is a pastor. You can tell people about your struggles when they’re way in the past, but you cannot speak of them as they are being endured. You must take this road alone. You must encourage everyone else to share struggles and confess sin, but you must not do it. It is not safe for you.”
Many pastors’ wives live their lives in fearful isolation, unsure with whom beyond God Himself they can share their pain and concerns, and we rarely get to interact with one another because we are, for the most part, in different churches, completely busy in completely different circles. Because ministry is relational at the core, our families get tangled up in ministry issues. Our husbands get to address the issues head-on in meetings, but the wives rarely have a viable place to sort through the complexity.
But I don’t know how to minister and how to build friendships and accountability if I keep everyone at an arm’s length. And I don’t know how to build a thriving marriage if our problems and pains can only be spoken about within our own walls. Precious pastors’ wives, trapping ourselves inside our homes with our pain and struggles? This is not the way.
Since that hiss, “What would he think about what you’ve done?”, God has better attuned my ears to snakelike patterns. How silence when connected with sin and pain-- anyone’s sin and pain -- is nearly always devilish. How hiding is not a noble pursuit for anyone but actually an overflow of shame. How none of us has to bear shame anymore because Jesus took it. How storytelling -- the gospel story and the real way its themes play out in my life -- has always been the thing that loosens my chains.
I have six chairs at my table, and I feel the most grateful when women are huddled around it studying God’s word or exchanging embarrassing stories, and I want them to feel comfortable at my table. Greer drops clumps of oatmeal all over it, and Adelaide once colored on it in green crayon, so these precious people are certainly welcome to open up their Bibles and hearts right here. It’s scary sometimes because, you know, he’s a pastor, but we won’t get anywhere if we are all pretending like we have our act together. So I will go first, and I won’t wear any makeup, not on my face and not on my soul. I am fully prepared to let God be the only perfect One in my story.
Do I need to pursue my relationships wisely? Absolutely, and James teaches me that wisdom is the one thing God said He’d give generously without judgment. I’m counting on that. Will this determined vulnerability hurt me? Yes, from time to time, but the years of stoney smiling hurt more. Will people betray me? Yes, but betrayal has been part of the ministry game since Judas greeted Jesus with a kiss.
Rather than building walls, may we lean on the Holy Spirit to know with whom we can generously share our hearts. May we faithfully create vibrant communities of believers in which pastors’ families can fully participate. May Jesus strengthen us to go first, to come out of hiding, to silence the hisses with the holy hum of togetherness with God and one another.