“There you are,” a woman whispered in my ear as she grabbed my elbow during a church gathering. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”
Startled, I braced myself. You never know what a statement like that could mean, especially at a church gathering. Did I leave the trunk of my car open (again)? Did one of my kids have an accident involving bodily fluids? Did my husband need my help? The woman held onto my hand, leading me from the back of the meeting room, where I was standing, into the lobby area. Was someone critically in need of prayer? Was a baby being born in the bathroom? Did someone leave a pumpkin latte out here with my name on it?
Instead of revealing any of those urgent situations, my friend pointed to the ceiling. “Look, see? The air-conditioning isn’t cold. You have to get it fixed.” I breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh! The air-conditioner? I don’t know how to fix the air-conditioner. I barely know how to read a Celsius thermostat.” She thought about this for a second and laughed. “But you are the pastor’s wife.”
Great and Fearful Expectations
Both my husband and I had wanted to minister overseas before we were married. My husband spent a summer in the Middle East and fell in love with the people, their culture, their language, and their food. Dave is constantly trying to come up with more ways to incorporate shish tawook into his diet. For my part, a few months after I began walking with God in college I read Let the Nations Be Glad! with some friends. If you’ve ever read this book by John Piper, then you know why I applied for a passport after finishing the first chapter. I was excited to serve the Lord overseas and felt like I was ready to go yesterday. We began a five-year journey in seminary where both of us would earn degrees. We got married three weeks after beginning our first class in our first semester and took on multiple jobs to stay afloat. During breaks from classes we led numerous short-term overseas mission trips for college students. I was so excited to do ministry overseas and for my husband to be a church planter. It seemed especially sweet that we were given the opportunity to explore ministry opportunities abroad while we were still in seminary.
But despite my knowledge of how ministry was a privilege, there was one thing about all this that terrified me. I was certain that I would never be able to measure up to everyone’s expectations. All over the world, wherever we traveled, it seemed that my fear of man was confirmed at every turn. “You know you have to homeschool if you go abroad,” one missionary said. “You don’t have much time left to learn how to read music,” a pastor’s wife warned me. “What your husband really needs most is a full belly of home-cooked meals and a thrilling sex life to keep him going,” a book for ministry wives instructed. The churches we visited all over the world had so many varying ideas of what their pastor and his wife were to be about. Every time we came back from a whirlwind trip across the globe, my head would spin with the world of expectations—lead the women, step back and disciple others to lead the women; be attractive to please your husband, be demure and have a [literally] quiet voice; model godliness, model brokenness. Don’t embarrass yourself and your husband through your ignorance, immaturity, or inexperience in ministry. And by all means, do everything in your power to keep your husband and children as godly as possible so that he will not be disqualified from the ministry. (Note: salvation is from the Lord, not the pastor’s wife.)
I might have been too paralyzed to even pack my suitcase if I had taken all these ideas too seriously. Just thinking about expectations can make a minister’s wife want to throw in the dish towel at the first potluck.
Where Does the Minister’s Wife Fit In?
Our husbands need so much support, from studying in seminary to chairing elder meetings to organizing details for the church budget. We see them engaging in relationships with leaders in the community, visiting people in the hospital, praying on the phone with church members, sending e-mails to staff, and hunting for resources in the library. We’re with them in the middle of much of this labor of love. It’s easy to get caught up in the expectations and roles debate and leave it at that. But I think too many conversations regarding ministry wives are centered on who she is and what she ought to do, and we spend so little time talking about who Christ is and what he has done and will do. Discussions of our ideals and expectations are healthy and helpful insofar as they do not distract us from loving our Chief Shepherd, our husband, and the church whom Christ died to purchase for himself.
In case you don’t have time to read the rest of this book I’ll just put my cards on the table—I think wives of ministers need encouragement and refreshment in the Lord, and we find that hope and help in the gospel. This idea isn’t new or scandalous, but with all the things clamoring for our attention I think we (I!) could use an opportunity to recalibrate our perspective and set our gaze on eternal things. After all, why would we want to wade around in shallow puddles of man-made ideals when there is the incomprehensible ocean of the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge for us to dive into (Eph. 3:18–19)?
I can imagine that you might be thinking a variety of things as you read this, depending on your perspective of what a ministry wife should be. Perhaps something about the idea of having this role shaped by others’ expectations unsettles you. But maybe you can’t think of any realistic alternatives. After all, everyone has expectations placed upon them—everyone. A good question we ought to ask is this: Where are these expectations coming from? Frankly speaking, there are no verses that outline the expectations of the formal office of ministry wife because there is no such office prescribed in the Bible. The Bible does assume that some pastors will be married, so there are qualifications that such men (if they are married) be “married to one wife.” But there is no formal role for their wives detailed in Scripture. Despite the absence of this formal role in Scripture, many a ministry wife is viewed as a staff member, an honorary elder, and even a copastor. It’s no wonder that ministry wives feel pressure and loneliness. I imagine that when most of us scan the landscape of ministry ahead, we are overwhelmed, and this is the predominant thought that comes to mind.
I have a lot of hopes for this book. I want to dig deep into what the Bible says about who we are, what ministry and the church are all about, and how God uses weak people to do his will on earth.
My prayer is that this book would be used to equip and encourage you. I realize that your time and energy are in high demand, so I want to honor that and drill down to the things that matter and let you draw out the implications for your unique life and ministry. I’m hoping that this resource is refreshing, because the grace of God can give us a humility that smiles rather than sweats when it comes to talking about the work of pastoral ministry. Speaking of not sweating the personal stuff, I should go turn on the fan in my room. Our air-conditioner might be broken again.