Question: Who Pastors the Pastor’s Spouse?
MW USA’s co-director Ruth Lapp Guengerich raised this long ignored question during the Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) 2013 biennial convention in Phoenix. Ruth led a seminar titled: “Healing & Hope for Spouses of Pastors.” As a pastor’s spouse, her goal is to foster conversation to an oft-overlooked group of MC USA members: pastors’ spouses. Questions during the seminar were put to the group of men and women such as: How do you receive spiritual nurture? What are the social challenges of being a pastor’s spouse? Have you ever thought about who will do your funeral or your spouse’s funeral? How does being a pastor’s spouse affect your ability to worship Sunday mornings?
The spouses attending, both young and old, shared their challenges in marriage, and the gifts of their marriage to pastors. Though it is a pressing topic there is very little literature about and for spouses of pastors. Much of what is available focuses on the spouse being totally supportive of the pastor, with little insight into the challenges of a pastor’s family life. A 1998 publication, The Pastor’s Family: The Challenges of Family Life and Pastoral Responsibilities by Daniel L. Langford, is a compilation of Langford’s reflections from his experiences as a pastor as well as his wife and children’s reflections on some hard times. Langford is brutally honest about his own mistakes. His book is a helpful accounting of one pastor’s family, but more writing is needed for this significant part of our church family. Ruth encouraged those present at the seminar to think about writing their stories and asked them to think about how they would title their story, or chapter of a book.
“We want to be loved and accepted for who we are, not because we are the pastor’s spouse,” Ruth stated. She recalled feeling lonely many evenings at home alone. It is difficult to argue with someone who is, “Doing the Lord’s work.” But over the decades as a pastor’s wife she reclaimed herself by making choices that reflected her needs and desires. She finally realized she did not have to attend every wedding, ordination, funeral, commissioning, or other event where her husband was officiating. While she does attend most functions of their church, she has found the freedom to choose to go or not, in order to take care of herself.
Ruth posed the questions: How do you live out mutuality in your marriage with your spouse who is a pastor? How do we serve each other and truly submit to one another in marriages with all the demands of a pastorate? A couple attending the seminar shared their desire (since both are pastors, sharing a pulpit) to, “Be a member…we just want to be a member of a church and just sit in the congregation…not lead it.” Other participants in the seminar said the church can both suck life from them yet can give them so much life.
Where some pastors’ spouses were unclear about what their roles should look like, there was a common theme that did arise during the conversation: the importance of creating a life outside the church. Having work, duties and friendships outside the congregation and church where their spouse pastors offered renewal and respite from the demands felt as a pastor’s spouse.
A great collection of ideas for how to garner healing and hope as a pastor’s spouse were offered from the seminar attendees:
- Join or start a group for spouses of pastors in your area—there is great support from people who are walking the same journey—both the joys and pains. Groups can be places to vent, safely share, and learn how to cope.
- Commit to a weekly date night with your spouse and stick to it.
- Practice being honest and saying, “No.” Declining an event can be a one-word sentence: “No,” and nothing more. No explanations. No excuses. No reasons. No story. No drama. No more than just no.
- Find a Spiritual Director and take charge of your own self-care.
While there was extended sharing about the challenges of being a pastor’s spouse during the seminar, there was a resounding agreement that there are blessings and joys to being a pastor’s spouse that are greater than the sum of the struggles.