Jenna (not her real name) was one of the most beautiful women I had ever met. Her fine eyes moved easily into a warm smile and a lovely toss of blond hair curved around the flawless skin of her face and neck. Graceful and slender, she laughed easily and, for that reason, I felt she must be happy with life. Although I did not know her well, we had exchanged pleasantries in the lunch line at a pastors' retreat and had chatted on other district occasions. One could not miss her beauty, and her quiet charm — which I mistook for a quiet spirit. Her husband pastored a modest church in a large, neighboring city and, from all appearances, loved her dearly.
On a white, northeast winter Sunday, while her children and husband were in church, she committed suicide in the parsonage.
When I heard the news, a chilling wave rose in my heart, then settled like gray dust all over my thoughts. I was in the early throes of my own dark valley, and was genuinely frightened to think someone so lovely and gracious could have concluded her valley so terrible. At that time in my life, I was at home with three children, five and under, and enduring the tumult of post-partum adjustments, a new church assignment and an unfamiliar parsonage. The people in our previous church, who had loved us and cared for us for five wonderful years, were far away and I was only just becoming acquainted with our new parishioners.
It was a very dark time for me. I did not want to trouble my husband by confiding in him, as he was enduring his own upheavals. For months, that same chill would overtake my thoughts regularly. I cannot say mine were thoughts of self-destruction, but thoughts of escape became more and more magnetic. I called desperately to God and he enabled me to hang on, but far from triumphantly, I felt. Eventually, after a remarkable series of God-ordained events, the chill lifted.
Jenna's experience, and my own, precipitated in me a desire to put an arm around other pastors' wives who endure such dark periods. So I developed a questionnaire that I administered at a subsequent pastors' and wives' retreat. Dr. Cecil Paul, who was at that time a psychology professor at Eastern Nazarene College, graciously consented to administer this same questionnaire to a number of pastors' wives at a mid-west retreat. From the answers to those open-ended questions, a second, more quantitative questionnaire was developed. The responses of 72 women have been analyzed and distilled into some practical advice on how to encourage your pastor's wife. Although she may not be enduring such a dark night of the soul now, it is likely that, at some point, she has or she will. As a caring husband or layperson, you may be able to help.
Let me introduce you to the average pastor's wife of this survey. She is 39.1 years old, has been in the ministry 12.2 years, describes the ministry most often as rewarding, exciting and challenging. On a scale of 1 to 10 (1=poor, 10=super), she feels 7.45 about life and 6.78 about herself. Fifty-four percent of these women had only positive words when describing their role, 24% used both positive and negative words, and 12% used only negative words. Sixty-three percent of respondents, when asked what they liked most about being in ministry, said meeting and helping people. When asked what they disliked most about the ministry, 47% mentioned expectations others have for them. The top two things that bothered them most were people who reject God after all their efforts, and not having enough willing workers. They felt the greatest pressure from themselves (23.5%) and were most discouraged by unresponsive people (44%)
Eighty-eight percent of all respondents answered yes to the question, "Have you ever experienced periods of depression?" The average age of onset of this depression is 31.8, although a statistical analysis indicates a wide spread. Twenty-five percent said this experience had occurred once or twice in their lifetime, 23% said once or twice a year. For most, the time of onset was within the first 5 to 6 years of ministry. When asked to describe this experience, the terms "general discouragement and mild depression" were used 77% of the time. Seventeen percent suggested "deep depression" described their experiences and 17% had thoughts of self-destruction.
If, as I suspect, most had experiences like mine, they would admit to recurrent, obtrusive thoughts of escape in some irresponsible manner.
It is important to remember that most of these women feel positive about their role and find satisfaction in what they do. Most do have times of mild depression, as do women everywhere, which frightens and exasperates them and cripples their effectiveness. It is apparently a surprise to most of them. Since you are reading this, you care about your pastor's wife and genuinely want to encourage her. Here are some suggestions.
1. Ask God to help you with your expectations of her. (The number one reply to the question, What I dislike most about the ministry is ... was "Expectations others have of me.") False expectations remind me of buying clothes from a catalogue. Remember the last time you perused your favorite dress/suit catalog to select a dress/suit for the district assembly or for your professional workplace? As you looked up from the catalog page, you could well imagine the striking way the outfit would fit and feel and the lovely sense of well being it would generate. But, if you have purchased clothing from a catalog, you know that reality is seldom what you anticipated. Wisdom and time refine your catalog expectations. Let wisdom and God's grace refine your expectations for your pastor's wife. There are some things she will be and many things she will never be. Let thanksgiving cover the former and grace the latter. If she is discouraged, it is likely that she is not measuring up to her own expectations of herself (56% of pastors' wives who experienced depression suggested one reason for their depression is low self-esteem). Let her find her role in the church; don't expect her to be suited for every job that needs to be done.
2. Tell her how she has made a positive impact on your life or on God's kingdom. (The top reply to the questions, What bothers me most is ... or The most discouraging thing is ... was "Unresponsive people".) Unresponsive people are what breaks the heart of God, so this is a legitimate burden she carries, and she can understand that. But often she does not even recognize the work she has done.
Laura and I were chatting in the foyer of the church one Sunday and I was overwhelmed by how God was transforming her life. She had come to know Christ one shining Sunday morning 22 years ago as I had prayed with her at the altar the very first time she had come to church. Many years of work and much grace from God later and she has become a parole officer with an M.S.W. degree and is in the home-study program, on her way to becoming an ordained deaconess. She often leads prayer in our Sunday services and she touches God for me as I listen. She seems to speak from my heart. I told her this as we chatted, and she gave me one of the most encouraging bouquets I have ever received. She smiled as she spoke, "You have been my role model."
Tell your first lady when she has made a difference in your life. Tell her when the words of her Sunday school class have helped you make the right decision for your family. Tell her when the call she made came at just the right moment in your load. She needs to know that she has made a difference for Jesus. The thing she likes most about the ministry is helping people. Don't just say, "I appreciate you." She can easily dismiss this as a kind generality. Thank her for some specific way she has helped you. Tell her if she has been your role model.
3. Provide for her spiritually. (I deal with pressure by ... "Praying" (29%); When tempted to be discouraged I ... "Read the Bible/Pray" (37%); What helped me most during my discouraging time was ... "Prayer and Bible reading" (28%).) Ask some caring women in your church to help sponsor her in attending a prayer retreat or a women's conference. Find out what gathering she thinks might encourage her and help her get there. A few months after Jenna's suicide, I was at my lowest spiritual level when Nada came to me and suggested that I might enjoy a weekend at a local discipleship workshop. I had not spoken to her of this dark night my soul was slogging through, but she sensed it. She made arrangements for childcare for me and approached the church board for financial support for the workshop. Something from that workshop reached me. I did not come home a changed woman, but the following Sunday, I wept as I remembered the experiences of that conference and the thin slice of light that began to shine into the eyes of my heart. I am touched to tears even as I write this. You may not say just the right words to bring that light, but there is a great probability that you can help her find its beginning.
4. Pray for her, especially when she is ill, pregnant or caring for babies. (What family circumstances surrounded the experience? "Health and pregnancy issues" (29%).) She values prayer: it is the power that sustains her. When she is ill or pregnant, pray — not just for physical healing or a smooth delivery and transition. Indeed, God has called us to pray for any among us who are ill, so do pray for healing. However, do not spend all your prayer currency on these decaying bodies. These moments of physical stress also turn out to be times of great spiritual duress. Pray for her soul and spirit, that God would open her eyes to His glorious inheritance. The enemy is grinding away at her perspective. Pray for God's peace to remain in her heart.
5. Help her find someone in whom she can confide. (At the time, what helped me most was ... "Talking to someone" (31%); What frustrated me most when I was depressed was ... "Isolation" (16%).) The number one source of help in these times was the sterling listener. Many respondents suggested that talking to their husbands provided encouragement. Open the door for your parsonage couple to get away for a few days, together, alone for conversation. Offer to keep the children. Does someone in the church own a nice cabin, or lovely beach cottage? Offer it to them for all the Mondays in September. Give them a gift certificate to a charming Bed and Breakfast.
However, many pastors' wives long for a female friend in whom to confide. You may be able to provide this friendship or you may not. Don't be disappointed if she is uncomfortable talking to you. She is uneasy allowing people from the church to see her discouragement. Somehow, it seems unchristian and she is most frustrated that she cannot seem to be what she thinks a pastor's wife should be, so she may not want you to see this side of her. (That which frustrated me most when I was depressed was ... "My own feelings about myself" (29%).) If you are able to provide a listening ear, please consider the following suggestions:
Once a year, many churches appropriately honor their pastor and his wife on a designated Sunday. This blesses them. A hearty "Thank you" if you do this. On that Sunday, or on another, remember your pastor's wife, not so much with public words or gestures, but with a heart sensitive to her spirit. She will love you for it.
Conversations, letters and surveys tell us the concerns you wives in ministry have. About 45 percent of you fear physical, emotional and spiritual burnout. Nearly 60 percent of you work outside the home. Some 45 percent of you tell us you have no close friends. And more than half of you worry about raising your children.
The underlying cause for the multitude of pastors leaving pastoral ministry centers on two critical issues — marriage/family difficulties and burnout. Based on fourteen letters of concern written by wives of pastors, this book could have been entitled, "Fourteen Frequently Asked Questions by Pastors' Wives."
A well-known expert of pastors' wives shares some insights and suggestions on how pastors can help energize their wives in ministry.