I remember the first time someone called me the “first lady” of my church. Thirteen years ago, I was a brand-new church planter’s wife on vacation in California, and coming from a Canadian context, I had never heard a pastor’s wife referred to in this way before. I didn’t know whether it was an honor bestowed or a burden to bear, but it made me uncomfortable.
Many of us feel pressure to fulfill this nebulous role of “pastor’s wife.” For church-planting wives, the lines between “wife” and “support staff” can be blurry. What does it mean for us to be our husband’s “helper” (Gen. 2:18) and intimate “companion” (Mal. 2:14), and yet not be a “co-pastor” with him? Do we need to be a ministry asset in order to be a good pastor’s wife? And how do we discern when we cross the line from helping to meddling?
In church planting, it can be hard to discern where our husbands’ personal concerns end and the church’s business begins. Sometimes my husband’s burdens necessarily become mine, but I’ve learned to hesitate before jumping in. I am not called to pastoral ministry like he is, and I am not supernaturally equipped for the role in the same way that he is. God has made me fit for a different role in His kingdom, and knowing the difference between my and my husband’s responsibilities is essential for my personal sanity, the health of the church, and the harmony of our marriage.
Not My Responsibility
In my early years as pastor’s wife, I was confused about the nature of wifely support. Church planting can be lonely work, and I felt that if I was not constantly “in the know” and bearing every burden with my husband, I was neglecting my God-given role to help him. This was a mistake.
When God made Eve a helper fit for Adam, there was an implied unity. They had a common goal to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28), but Eve was not Adam’s clone. She had her own unique role to fulfill in God’s kingdom. This unity and diversity is also true of the Church. It is one Body but has many members. We each have different gifts, “according to the grace given us” (Rom. 12:4–6). A pastor’s wife has different gifts (and a different role!) from her husband.
Many of us struggle in a church planting scenario because we are running too much in our husbands’ lane. Even if no one puts pressure on us, it’s easy to take on too much responsibility. We may imagine that if we do A, B, and C correctly, we can make our husband’s ministry a success, but that is not a burden that God means for us to bear.
Biblically speaking, there are only two offices in the Church, and “pastor’s wife” is not one of them. Because of this, I’m wary of any special expectations being put on a pastor’s wife. We are called to be our husbands’ helpers, lovers, and companions (Titus 2:4), and at the same time, we are free to fulfill our unique roles in the Body. Keeping this distinction in mind is helpful because it protects us from false guilt on the one hand and overstepping on the other.
When His Burden Becomes Mine
Pastoral ministry is not a 9 to 5 job, and it’s not the kind of job you can leave at work. Emergencies, staff management, and difficult counseling situations can drain a man of his spiritual, emotional, and physical resiliency. Every so often, the job affects my husband deeply, and when that happens, his burdens necessarily become mine.
During difficult seasons especially, your husband likely needs his wife more than he needs a body to fill ministry gaps. Because you are uniquely called to be your husband’s wife, your ministry to him is invaluable. Someone else can do the bulletins or kids’ crafts at church, but only you can be his wife.
For my husband and I, knowing when he should share with me is often more important than how much he should share. For example, 10 p.m. is not a good time! He will sleep like a baby after unloading all his burdens on me, and I will be up all night stewing on his pain and discouragement.
When he does share his burdens with me, I’ve found it’s almost always better to say less and pray more, especially when I am initially hearing about difficult church dynamics. My initial gut reaction to want my husband vindicated is rarely helpful to voice, but thankfully, the gospel puts everything in perspective. It’s only in light of God’s love for us that I am able to diffuse my martyr mentality and say something that’s actually helpful.
The apostle Peter holds Sarah up as an example of mature femininity precisely because she was “a holy woman who hoped in God,” and he says we are her children if we “do good and do not fear anything that is frightening” (1 Peter 3:5–6). When we respond to difficult church dynamics with bold-faced hope in God’s promises, it helps our husbands. This doesn’t mean we are unable to empathize or grieve ministry losses with them, but it does mean that we don’t give in to the temptation to bitterness and suspicion. We don’t fume, rant, or speculate about people, and we don’t stir up sinful responses in our husbands. Instead, we let our speech and demeanor testify to the hope we have in Christ.
Our ministry will inevitably overlap with our husbands’ ministry because of the oneness of our union (Mark 10:8), but it’s important to understand the distinction between our role and theirs. Some pastors’ wives take on a more public ministry role in the church and others are quiet, behind-the-scenes prayer warriors. Whatever your gifts and disposition are, none of us should attempt to bear the weight of pastoral ministry. Instead we are free to love our husbands and serve the Church in whatever ways God has gifted us to serve.