5 Things Your Pastor’s Wife Wishes You Knew: Dispatches from the Front Lines

I knew two things when I was young. First, that I wanted to be Amy Grant when I grew up. Next, that I would settle for writing the descriptions on the backs of shampoo bottles if the Amy Grant thing didn’t work out.

I also knew what I did NOT want to be: a pastor’s wife. I screamed, I cried, and I swore up and down that I would never, ever, marry a minister. This was, as you can imagine, troubling to my parents — two wonderful individuals who just happened to be, wait for it, pastors. My relationship with my parents’ jobs was tumultuous, at best. My outbursts left my parents scratching their heads on many occasions, wondering what they had done to deserve me.

So, imagine the shock — theirs AND mine —  when I married a minister. Because you know what they say about “never saying never.”

And I don’t regret the decision, either, on most days. Over the past 18 years, Christian and I have built a wonderful life together.

Sometimes, however, I feel a lot like that child who wants to fling herself on the floor, screaming and crying that she doesn’t want to do it anymore.  I knew this role would be tough. Sometimes I think it might even be tougher than I had anticipated.

There are some women who seem to have been born for it.  Take my mother, Lola, for example. My dad recently retired, for the second time, from a church in the Orlando, Florida area. Her stint as a pastor’s wife lasted over 40 years. And can I say that she rocked that job?

Lola was the epitome of the best pastor’s wife: she sang, led songs, organized. A distinct childhood memory of mine was of the smell of pot roast when we got home from church on Sundays.

“I just tried to be supportive,” she said. “I tried to make his job easier. I didn’t put on any airs, didn’t try to be something I was not.”

I often feel as if other women are doing a better job than I am — like those couples who invite us to worship via gigantic interstate billboards.

I understand that there are many types of pastor’s wives; there are some of us who feel comfortable on that interstate billboard and some who don’t.

Others, for various reasons, sneak in the back door five minutes after church starts. My reason is that I hit snooze too many times before I drag myself out of bed.  Other reasons are a little more selfless.

“I’m the last to show up for a reason. I want everyone else to get a seat, or to get a doughnut before I do,”  said Jamie, a pastor’s wife in the Des Moines, Iowa, area.

One thing is for sure, though: life in the ministry is stressful. Ninety percent of pastors report working 55 to 75 hours per week.

“Your pastor works way more than you think he does,” said Kristen, a pastor’s wife in the Midwest, “and struggles with the burdens of many on his shoulders.”

“My husband works six to seven days a week,” added Jamie, “and can go weeks without a day off.”

Eighty percent believe that pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families.  Seventy-five percent report a significant stress-related crisis at least once in their ministries (pastoralcareinc.com, 2017).

Here are five more things that some of us wished that people understood about us:

#1.  Sometimes we wish our husbands would have “normal jobs.”

I realize that there really is no such thing as a “normal” job: every profession has its ups and downs, its advantages and its drawbacks.

Having no weekends off has been hard though, especially since I went back to work full-time. When I was a stay-at-home mom, weekdays and weekends often blurred together. Friday night’s sparkle lost a little of its luster.

But there is something special about Friday afternoon, isn’t there?  After having worked 40 plus hours and endured all of what life had to throw at us during the week, the mental brittleness that has accumulated over the week gloriously dissipates. The entire weekend looms with endless possibilities.

This is generally not how the pastor’s family approaches each weekend. There are really no such thing as weekend getaways — or “getaways” in general.

Particularly when the other spouse works. This goes for holidays, too. Christmas means work.  Easter means work.

“It’s difficult watching everyone celebrate holidays with their own families and tight knit circles of friends,” said Kristen, “while usually spending them alone ourselves.”

Jamie said that she didn’t expect that, “so much of our lives, who we are, how we work as a family, our routine would revolve around the church calendar. It’s tough giving up my husband at night, on weekends, and on holidays.”

Personally, I have learned to embrace Thanksgiving — a holiday where there are no church obligations. I love Thanksgiving: the food, the family, the parades, the long weekend. I have happily adopted it as my favorite holiday. I look forward to it, year after year.

#2.  We don’t always want to be there. 

I guess there are always a few pastors’ wives that this doesn’t apply to, but sometimes our hearts are just not into it.

Perhaps the week was particularly difficult at work, or our children — or life, for that matter — gave us an unusually hard time.  So, when YOUR excuse for not showing up for church on Sunday is because you’re busy, we totally get it. We are busy, too. We would love to sleep in on Sundays.

We feel as if our lives revolve around church throughout the entire week, in some form or another. There are always preparations to be made, meetings to attend, endless talk about the church. By the time we get to Sunday, church can be the very last place we want to be.

But when bad things happen — to us, to friends, to our family — it is hard for us to be there at all, even when church is the exact place we should be.

When my husband was deployed to Iraq in 2006, I spent much of that year hiding. I can count on one hand how many times I showed up to church.  I think I could disappear because it was a larger congregation; I wasn’t so easily missed.

When I did show up, the questions were well-meaning, but repetitive. They reminded me that he was gone. Once, I went to a different church and ugly-cried through the entire service. I scared my children — and probably several other people’s children who were sitting in my general vicinity.

I have heard that people often stay away from church because crap happens in their lives, sicknesses or deaths, that makes it emotionally tough to answer any questions at all. Sometimes just a hug and an “I am so happy to see you” is perfect.

#3.  We have seen the best people — and experienced the worst. 

I have met some of the best people in our churches.  Amazing, loving, giving people who were the best kinds of witnesses. When my kids and I were alone for those 15 months  my husband was in the Middle East, a church family consistently brought us dinner every single week. We were easy to please: our weekly request was always spaghetti and meatballs. This was something we looked forward to; most of the time we ate frozen dinners. The members of this family are some of my very favorite humans, even to this day.

One of the best things about being a pastor’s wife, says Jamie, “is the incredible love and support that people give to us on a regular basis. It’s so humbling.”

“One of the hardest things we had to do,” said Lola, “was that we said goodbye to a lot of good friends. The upside to this was that we have friends all over now.”

Pastoral counseling appointments are always confidential. Other meetings, however (sometimes unfortunately), are not. My husband has tried to protect me from the worst of it because I am sensitive: conflict gives me nightmares. Humans are messy. My husband is much more gracious about this than I am — maintaining that their brokenness is just proof that they “need Jesus.”

Just like in the “real world,” people in church can be quick to criticize. That “sticks and stones” nonsense?  Total crap. Words hurt, damage, leave scars. It can be even tougher to hear criticism about a spouse who is trying really, really hard.

Kristen’s worst experience in church life came when she and her family were told there was no room to sit in the congregation.“That was a low point in a rough call.”

“I take it personally when people are rude to my husband,” said Jill, a pastor’s wife in Florida. “Putting my heart and soul into a church and having things go badly…it’s hard on us as a family.”

It is unusually easy to take it personally. Although the church is a “business,” albeit a 501 c 3, it does take an exceptional amount of emotional energy to make it a success.

#4. We’re lonely.  

This is surprising to some.  We expected this role to be difficult at times, but not lonely — not when we are, generally speaking, surrounded by people.

Kristen has been surprised it.  “Being away from my home, my family, my friends. I didn’t expect to feel so incredibly lonely.”

Up until our most recent move, I didn’t have close friends. Especially in the church.  There has always been a feeling that we need to keep people at arm’s length.

I feel as if I can’t talk about personal things with people in our church. I am, by nature, a fairly private person: my regular conversations would never, ever be anything like Carrie Bradshaw’s.  There are, however, some occasions in life that call for a good “girl’s talk.” Maybe it is just me, but I feel that girl talks are not necessarily appropriate to have with parishioners.

My husband and I fight, the default behavior of my kids sometimes seems to that of “brat,” and my house — I will be honest — sometimes looks like the Tasmanian devil flew through it with little to no abandon.

But, still, this has come as a surprise to certain people we have allowed into our lives. The “you’re a pastor, so how can you…” — fill in that blank — haunts us. No family is perfect. No individual is perfect. The occupation has been held against us. I am going to go out on a limb here, but I feel that every single pastor’s family has felt emotionally beaten down at least once in its ministry.

What has changed since we moved to Florida is that one of my closest friends is a Jehovah’s Witness. We agree to disagree about our respective faiths, we respect each other, and we encourage each other in our own faith walks — as different as they may be. For the first time as a pastor’s wife, I have a safe place to go to if I need to have a girl talk.

#5.  We are really, really proud of our husbands.

Although we share the difficult moments, we are also there to experience the best moments. Very few people have what it takes to get up in front of people and be vulnerable, interesting, thought-provoking, AND entertaining every single week. Ministry, I believe, is a calling.

“We are doing this because God called us to,” said Jill. It is also rewarding.  “Working really hard on VBS or a musical or cantata and seeing it all come together is one of the best experiences,” she added.

Kristen continued, “I think it’s an amazing thing to be able to share the Gospel, shepherd congregations, and walk alongside so many different types of people from call to call […] the bonds we make with people in our congregation, because we have no family here, those bonds can run deep.”

We are proud of our husbands — what they do every day and what they have sacrificed for their ministry. And although it is not where I saw myself when I was little, I wouldn’t change a thing.

© 2017 Mary Ann Magnell ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

There is no such thing as the “good old days.”

I am reading America’s Women: 400 years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines by Gail Collins. It is a collection of stories about American women from the Colonial era of New England in the late 1500s through the 1960s.

As I read this book, I realize that as Americans, the majority of our modern day “woes” stem from our technology: it isn’t working, it isn’t working fast enough, we can’t find it. We are hopelessly attached to our iPhones as if by invisible umbilical cords (that if for some reason these devices are momentarily misplaced – even if just for a moment – we feel a palpable anxiety that must be anything BUT healthy).  Our problems, so ridiculous to some, are referred to as “first world problems,” which according to Urban Dictionary are defined as, “Problems from living in a wealthy, industrialized nation that third worlders would probably roll their eyes at.”

Life is tough, yes; to some, it is crippling. But life before modern conveniences was physically and emotionally arduous – almost beyond the imagination of our modern minds. For example, because I have a tendency to experience wanderlust myself I used to think that the pioneers on the Oregon Trail, or those who managed those first treks toward the Wild West with their belongings, children, and wagons in tow, seemed like one big adventure.

Those first pioneers were arguably the original American thrill seekers. Their homes on the western prairies were sod houses and dugouts. When it rained, the leaky “roofs” made a mess of the insides, turning the dirt floors to mud. A girl from this time wrote that the family carried the water out “in buckets.” She continued, “Then to keep us nerved up, sometimes the bull snakes would get in the roof and now and then one would lose his hold and fall down on the bed, and then off on the floor.”  Snakes were a common topic in the diaries of frontier women; a woman in Texas wrote that she killed 186 snakes in one year (Collins, 2003, p. 225).

There were unique threats for every season. Blizzards in wintertime could strand a family for weeks; bugs tormented them or ate their crops in the warmer months. “Clouds” of grasshoppers would appear and eat everything in sight. According to Collins, “they ate the peaches off the trees and left the pits hanging” (p. 227). Fires were a danger from lightning strikes or from campfire sparks in late summer to autumn.

I will never not be grateful for the simple effectiveness of a window screen again. The summer presented challenges for these people in the form of gnats, flies, and mosquitos. I recently saw a quote on Twitter that said, “If you think you are too small to make a difference…try sleeping with a mosquito in the room.”  A swarm of them is almost unbearable to think of, particularly since there was little to no relief. To keep the mosquitos away on the plains, the women would burn buffalo chips.

In the Southwest, beds were moved away from the walls of their homes – at least two feet – to minimize the chances of scorpions falling on them at night. Fleas were everywhere, as well. Native Americans’ homes were temporary and could be burned down when fleas became too much of a problem; because the pioneers’ homes were more permanent, burning the place down to solve the infestations was not a viable solution (p.227).

Women’s health was another struggle. Even though we have a limited knowledge of medicine today – we still have not found a way to effectively eliminate cancer humanely, cure auto-immune disorders, or kill viruses –  doctors know far more today than they did 100 years ago. As a woman, I am thrilled about this.

Because take obstetrics and gynecology, for example. In the late 1800s, doctors were regularly removing women’s reproductive organs to “cure” everything from anti-social behavior to over eating. By the time 1900 rolled around, an estimated 150,000 unfortunate ladies had undergone an ovariectomy (p. 252).

Even more gruesome was the condition of “vesico-vaginal fistula” in which, during childbirth, the wall between the vagina, bladder, or rectum ripped and left women unable to control the leakage of urine and feces through the vagina.

Johann Friedrich Dieffenbach, a surgeon in the 1800s, described it as “the greatest misfortune that can happen to a woman, and the more so because she is condemned to live with it without the hope [of dying] from it.  The skin…becomes inflamed and covered by pustules eruption. An unsupportable itching and burning sensation tortures the patient, so much so that she scratches the skin to bleeding…The comfort of a clean bed, that grave for all sorrows and afflictions, is not their lot, for it will soon be drenched with urine” (p. 118). The description continues, but I will spare you the rest: it is horrifying, almost beyond words. Yet, he manages to find those words and goes to places that I never thought possible.

And if you happened to be one of the unfortunate souls who gave birth in 1840 at Bellevue in New York, you had a fifty percent chance of contracting “childbed,” or “puerperal” fever, an epidemic transmitted by ineffective sanitation – mainly by the doctor not washing his hands. Eighty percent of these women died. Oliver Wendell Holmes campaigned in America for doctors to wash their hands, to which a doctor scoffed, “Doctors are gentlemen…and gentlemen’s hands are clean” (Burch, 2009).  In 1833, a woman who, at eight months pregnant, went into convulsions was emptied of “two-fifths of her blood over two days” and “lapsed into a coma” as she began to deliver (Collins, 2003, pp.125,126).

To add to my “thankful” list of modern-day conveniences, I am eternally grateful for elastic-waist pants, lycra, and sensible shoes. Although I am partial to Victorian-era television shows and movies and marvel in the costumes and accessories of those times, I say a little prayer of thanks when I slip on my yoga pants and my front-closure bra.

In the pre-Civil War era, gigantic skirts were all the rage. They were, however, known to catch on fire, get stuck in carriages, and “it was alleged, blew their owners off cliffs” (p. 122).  This was only one of the many eras in which “women were at war with their bodies” (p. 123). Girls who were of “courting age” were laced in corsets, in which the mother would tie the strings as tight as possible by “placing her foot on her back” and breaking some of the laces in the process.  In 1818, a mother wrote her daughter (of whom it was rumored made her underclothes large enough to slip on and off without lacing) a note that said, “If you love me, alter these corsets before I see you”  (p. 123).  Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, wrote at that time, “We in America have got so far out of the way of a womanhood that has any vigor of outline or opulence of physical proportion that, when we see a woman made as woman ought to be, she strikes us as a monster” (p. 123).

The long skirts were also susceptible to manure, mud, or expectorant (men were disgusting) that was likely to be on the ground. Livestock roamed around outside. In the late 1700s, the “tower” hairdo was popular with the upper class. The hair – which could reach up to three feet high complements of wire caging – was decorated with feathers, ribbons, jewels, and beads (p. 74).  Shoes were made out of wood at this time and had very high heels. Walking on them was not unlike walking on stilts (p. 73).

At the end of the 19th century, America’s “Gilded Age” had one benefit: larger, healthy women were in fashion. According to one Englishman, “young American women appeared to be morbidly frightened of getting thin.”  Because photography was now available, women were also becoming very aware of what they looked liked. Photographers were under increasing demands to make their “hair brighter, their cheeks redder, their skin whiter” (p. 239). Also popular during this time were elaborate hats which were “huge affairs” that had organdy, lace, flowers, and feathers attached. In 1900, a Chicago writer wrote he expected to “see life-sized turkeys…on fashionable bonnets before I die” (p. 240).

Yes, I am ever so grateful for my modern conveniences. I am no longer under any illusion that the “good old days” were anything to be pined over. I welcome technology; although, old-fashioned self-preservation skills, minimalism, and making due with what we have would be welcome in an increasingly complex, less resilient, and consumer-focused society. I recommend America’s Women as a record to how far advances have come in many ways – lest we begin to take some of these everyday conveniences for granted.

Burch, D. (2009).  When childbirth was natural, and deadly. LiveScience. https://www.livescience.com/3210-childbirth-natural-deadly.html

© 2017 Mary Ann Magnell ALL RIGHTS RESERVED