My last blog post gave you a glimpse of the churches I served with my clergy husband, and how I came to my passion for pastor’s spouses. I mentioned some of challenges I faced and how I came to understand the importance of taking care of self first. In this blog post I will share the number one issue many clergy spouses face in ministry—loneliness in the midst of their congregations.
Ministry is a service that directs others to God for the betterment of their lives as well as that of the worldwide community. It is about caring about what God cares about; doing justice so that all people may have the same opportunities to live with dignity and the basic things of life. It is about loving, being patient, being kind, working peacefully together, giving to meet the needs of others, building relationships, and creating friendships with those who are lost and alone.
Many spouses of pastors find themselves trying to be role models that display these Christ-like behaviors. Many are very successful and do a very good job with the above characteristics and though many of them have good friendships within the church, some find themselves feeling lonely in the midst of a congregation full of people.
While there are many males who are spouses of pastors, I find it best to speak from my perspective as a female spouse and how I have experienced ministry. Although, there are some difficult situations that male spouses deal with, I also believe those challenges are different from those female spouses face. For example in my research, when I asked males about their experiences as a pastor’s spouse, many of them said they had no expectations placed on them by the congregation in which their female clergy spouse serves. They are allowed to serve where they want, to come to church or not, and to have their own careers or interests outside the church without repercussions. For some, serving the congregation is a way to support their spouses and to participate in their own spiritual growth.
On the other hand, some said that they are challenged around concerns of treatment of their wives by the congregations when there was a conflict or dissatisfaction. Many feel limited as to how to protect their spouse during those times and have feelings of frustration, anger, and inadequacy to protect or take care of the situation. This is truly a very difficult issue for the male spouse, but nevertheless there is still a vast difference from what female spouses are expected to do and be concerning their role in ministry.
Most female spouses are generally very friendly towards their congregations. You will find them smiling and giving out hugs and kisses to the people of the church and community. They hold in their hearts the many conversations that can never be repeated for fear of breached confidentiality. They listen to many people but are not heard by those who surround them, the ones who take them out to lunch, to dinner, and invite them to all kinds of events. Yes, they are with people, but there is not often a heart connection, a kindred spirit, or an understanding of the emotional weight that comes in ministry with their clergy spouse. There are few people who love, respect, and can keep information confidential about what the pastor’s spouse holds in her heart. And sometimes it is still hard to confide in them for fear of them being discouraged about what is shared. Therefore, most spouses of pastors hold their thoughts in with no place to release how they feel.
Though there are many issues that spouses of pastors face, such as unrealistic expectations, criticism, betrayal, and meanness, research shows that loneliness is the number one issue.1 Loneliness that comes as a result of spouses feeling that they are not appreciated for the time, effort, and concern they put into caring and ministering to those in their congregations. Or, loneliness that comes because the same actions above are not reciprocated back to them in a way that makes them feel cared for as well. Nevermind dealing with the fishbowl syndrome, where the spouse and family are the center focus and only they are on display daily. When they are on display, loneliness for some spouses may mean feeling invisible, neglected, and lost, like their existence does not matter because they are being looked upon but not supported. This kind of loneliness is a recipe for depression.
What spouses really want is for someone to identify with what they go through and give them an outlet to express their feelings. They want to share the joys in their life without feeling that others may not want to celebrate with them. They want someone to encourage and pray with them about the things that matter in their lives; maybe even a sounding board for the many situations that come to them just because of their position as the pastor’s spouse. They want to feel a part of the congregation and want to feel like the church is a place of resolution for their needs and concerns.
There are some who believe that the spouse’s family of origin could be a possible support and this may be true. There are some spouses who find emotional support and help from their families of origin. However, many others feel frustrated at the inability of their families to understand what they are experiencing. Spouses have to be careful what they share with their families because they must be mature enough not to confront the people. An example of this was demonstrated in the family of a spouse who often talked about the struggle she was having with the congregation. Several of the family members joined the church to protect the pastor’s spouse and vote projects through in the church meetings. It caused even greater problems because the congregation became angry with the family members and accused them of taking over the church causing further division. Families can be a great place of support when family time is spent being family and not centered around church matters, especially when family members conspire to support the pastor and spouse.
Some suggest that the pastor is a good resource for the spouse. This is a possible solution if pastors are willing to take time for his/her spouse, but many pastors are busy looking after the needs of the church family, trying to keep them satisfied, and do not spend enough time and energy on the needs their own family. However, pastors who are resourceful work toward balance between the congregation life and family life, especially the needs of the spouse. These pastors live by the model that family comes first.
Pastor’s spouses are looking for a few positive people who are loving and are kind toward them, those to whom they can share their thoughts, who are trustworthy, honorable, and confidential about any information they receive. I don’t want to be disparaging about ministry, for there are many joys that are wonderful and exciting that are experienced as a child of God. Even in the loneliness and the challenges of the position as a spouse, lives are being changed, and God is still revealed in the hearts and souls of the people. Every time a pastor’s spouse hangs in there and doesn’t give up when the situations become unbearable, she may save a life for the Kingdom. Despite the role being tough, I have found that God sends positive people for love and support. It is not a whole crowd, but a few special people that love and have a heart for the spouse of the pastor.
In upcoming blog posts, I will recommend ways that spouses can enjoy and strengthen their lives so they can thrive in the ministry they participate in it with their clergy spouse.
1 See www.mentoringpastorswives.blogspot.com, www.powertochange.com, www.mrsandminister.com, and www.pastoringpartner.com.
Dr. Joyce Scott Thomas is the Associate Director of the Academy of Preaching and Celebration.
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