I am a retired pastor’s wife of 31 years, and I have seen, experienced, and survived the challenges that come in ministry. With my spouse, I have served two congregations, one that was small and grew large and one that was already large and established. One was in the North and the other in the South. One was in the center of the city and the other in the suburbs, and they both had their own set of challenges. Though they were from two different denominations, they both thrived in their communities. They were well known and respected churches that made efforts to participate in and meet needs in the lives of their people and the greater community as well.
Both churches had multiple services on Sundays, and I went to all of them, not knowing that I could choose one and that would have been enough. They were both successful churches, and each had their own expectations of the pastor’s family. I was expected to come to every church event, shake hands after each service, participate in birthday celebrations and special events of certain people, have dinner at a different member’s house each Sunday, and have my own set of keys to the church so that I could help with the opening of the church, just to name a few. As hard as I sometimes tried, I could not meet every expectation because I had other things to do and other people to look after, mainly my family.
It was through my experiences with these two churches that I developed my passion to support clergy spouses. I realized that I was carrying a lot of weight, and maybe other spouses were too, trying to live up to every expectation, especially when it was not the spouse who had a signed contract with the church. What I came to know was that I was accumulating large amounts of stress from participating in all the church activities, as well as dealing with endless criticism of me, my husband, and family and the loneliness from lack of real friendships in the church. I knew of other spouses who were encountering the same issues and decided that there had to be something to help our situations.
I began to read, research, and practice strategies and techniques that I found helpful in making better choices for myself for relieving some of the stress. I even went back to seminary after completing my Master of Divinity degree to do a doctoral degree in “Faith and Health” with the focus on the pastor’s spouse. I was interested in helping spouses to “Celebrate and Survive Ministry as a Pastor’s Spouse,” which was the title of my thesis. I learned about what most spouses go through and how, for some, the stress of ministry causes various kinds of illnesses to show up in their bodies.
Though there were a few spouses who managed to find other ways for coping with their role in ministry through developing their own ministries, many younger spouses decided to pursue their careers outside the ministry that would take their focus away from the church. For these spouses, working outside of their clergy spouse’s ministry was a good alternative, but there were still many spouses struggling. However, I was hopeful that in time I could share what I had learned from my research with those spouses who were looking for ways to have joy on the journey in ministry.
I found clarity in this passion when I finally figured out how to better care for myself, and cared for myself “first” before I availed myself to others. Caring for myself (as with many other spouses) was a major problem for me. I would put myself on the back burner and made sure everyone else had what he or she needed. I thought I could find time for me later, but my time was slow in coming. In the process of taking care of others, to the neglect of myself, I was left feeling drained, sad, and overwhelmed. I discovered that if I took care of me first, then some of my needs could get met, and I could feel better about giving so much time to others. It sounds selfish, but until I learned to care for myself first, I lived a frustrated and angry life that I disguised in smiles and flowery language. I wanted to enjoy ministry, feel happier, more loving, and have a positive attitude about the people I was encountering daily. However, I was miserable enough to want to make a change and I began to look for ways to help myself. Through my research I found strategies for self-care and began to apply them to my life.
As I became stronger in my being, I thought how beneficial the process could be to other spouses. I decided I would offer what I had learned to other spouses who I believed felt the same way I did. I began to share what I discovered about self-care. As I practiced self-care, I realized that working on me first, allowed me to be healthy, strong, and balanced in every area of my life, and I could fully engage with others who needed my help and support. I finally understood that my responses (which were mostly negative) to the challenges, unrealistic expectations, and loneliness came because I was not anchored spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically. I was out of balance, and it kept me from enjoying my service to the people of God. So I set out to do something different than what I had done before. How powerful this change was; it gave me a peace that I had not felt for a long time
In my next blog post, I will address the number one issue facing pastor’s spouses.
Dr. Joyce Scott Thomas is the Associate Director of the Academy of Preaching and Celebration.
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