In my review of the literature on pastors’ spouses, I recently read Always Together Always Alone: The truth about being a minister’s wife, by Anne Brackin, a former pastor’s wife, who documented in her doctoral studies the loneliness and other feelings that many pastors’ wives experience. Many pastors’ wives have stated that they often experience loneliness or some form of depression while in ministry, and for many, it is their number one challenge. According to researchers, loneliness is defined as those “feelings persons have in the absence of meaningful human contact ... that can leave people paralyzed and helpless.” (p. 36) Even in a congregation full of people, spouses of pastors often stand alone without sincere human contact with people who truly love them and want to be their friend. It sounds unbelievable, but more often than not it is true for many pastors’ wives. The title of this book, Always Together Always Alone, says it plainly; pastor’s spouses are always together with people, yet they are alone.
Brackin believes that pastors’ wives have been in the shadows of their husbands and churches for too long and have been virtually ignored by research. Their voices, thoughts, and feelings have not been heard. Therefore, society has not completely understood their experiences. To correct this, Brackin uses her research to develop a manual that invites the voices of many clergy wives to be raised up. She develops action steps that can be used to combat negative experiences, thoughts, and feelings. And she records the voices of many pastors’ wives who have managed to overcome loneliness and embrace the life to which they have been called.
Brackin uses science and the Bible together to show pastors’ wives how they can live better lives with what God has given them. For the book, through scientific method, she developed a six-page questionnaire to capture the voices of 260 clergy wives who were active in their churches. From the survey, she identifies common themes.
Brackin documents how loneliness begins in the early stages of parish ministry. She explains that many clergy wives are not recognized by their own name or title, but are recognized by the job and cultural role of their clergy husband. There are times when the church members, or sometimes even their husbands, do not acknowledge them as a person but use the phrase “his lovely wife” or “my lovely wife” when the wife is introduced to others. Even if a name is given, many people soon forget because so much focus is placed on the attention and praise of the pastor. (p. 25) Many people think so highly of the pastor that they only see holiness, the perfect human being, and the one who is close to God. As a consequence, they cannot see anyone else who is around or close to him. The truth of the matter is that many congregants simply ignore the spouse, until they have a need to reach the pastor and see his wife as the bridge. I know from my own experience this is true. There were times when I stood next to my husband, the pastor, on a Sunday morning and some members of the church would walk past me and not speak to me, as though I was not there, but would have a full conversation with him. However, when they could not make contact with him, they would ask me to give him a note or message from them. It was something that happened over and over again.
Brackin also talks about other ways in which loneliness develops such as moving to a different congregation. It is not always easy to enter a new community and develop new friendships in places where people have already established relationships unless the clergy husband intentionally introduces his wife to the people he meets. Brackin describes other reasons for loneliness in the book such as low self-esteem, lack of social support, low social skills, and relationship dissatisfaction.
One thing that I think Brackin especially describes well is how sometimes the wife does not take her own identity seriously because she identifies herself only as a partner in ministry. A wife often takes on the identity of her clergy husband instead of her own and loses who she is and what she wants to do with her life.
Brackin documents several ways to escape the feeling of loneliness and to live fully the role and purpose God has for pastors’ wives:
1) Seek God and build a personal relationship with God. Use the Bible and other resources to help get the Word of God in your heart. Through these resources learn how to live a life of joy in spite of the fact that your life is different from the ordinary woman.
2) Look for friends outside of the ministry by following your own passion—whether paid or volunteer—and develop friendships. When you have other places to go, you will be surprised how many friends you can meet.
3) Establish your own identity separate from the church and your husband. Know that you have your own gifts and value.
Pastors’ wives must know that they—like most other women—are wonderful human beings made in the image of God. They have their own identity with gifts and purpose to serve God. When you seek God and build that relationship with God, loneliness, depression, low self-esteem, low social skills, difficult relationships, or any negative emotion that keeps you from having real joy will be eradicated.
Dr. Joyce Scott Thomas is the Associate Director of the Academy of Preaching and Celebration.
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