The Separation of Church and Mate

How involved should the minister's spouse be in the church?
That depends on who you ask.

Andrew and Kim Beunk are rookies in ministry. More than a year ago, they lived comfortably in Mississauga, Ontario, where each had fast-track career — Andrew, 30, as a mechanical engineer and Kim, 31, as an elementary school teacher. That's when they heard the call to drop everything and head into full-time Christian service. Their first stop was Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich., where Andrew is in the master of divinity program and Kim takes courses in marriage counseling.

Rod and Nancy Thole and Craig and Pat Apel have a good idea about what awaits the Beunks in their new life. For the more than 15 years that each couple has served churches, the Tholes and the Apels have encountered ministry's highs and lows. They remember what it's like to be where Andrew and Kim are — young, zealous ... and some time unrealistic. They wish that an older, more experienced ministry couple had told them what they're about to tell the Beunks.

Over coffee and dessert one evening at my home in Grand Rapids, the veteran couples meet with the Beunks to discuss the reality of ministry life as they know it — specifically, how involved a minister's spouse should be. Here's what they say:

What's the reality? How involved are you as a ministry spouse?

Nancy: Rod has been a pastor for nearly 15 years. During that time, I've taught Sunday school and worked in the nursery at every church, because I have a real love for children.

Rod: Nancy does more than she realizes. She's also the Sunday school superintendent, she picks up people for church, fills in at the nursery when people don't show up, and sets up chairs, She's a true servant.

Craig: When we began in ministry 26 years ago at a tiny church, Pat was involved with me. The church had no youth program, so Pat and I started a kid's club. But as the churches have increased in size over the years, I've told the search committees that Pat's priority is to be a wife and mother.

Kim, how involved do you expect to be in the church?

Kim: I have two small girls, and taking care of them is demanding. Andrew and I have also decided that our family will be my priority. But I will still be very involved with him in the ministry.

Andrew: For example, Kim and I have talked about doing pastoral visits and even marriage counseling together. Kim's already taken a class on marriage counseling at the seminary. Sometimes it may be awkward for me to visit a new mother who doesn't look or feel very good. In those cases, it would be natural for Kim to make the visit. Honestly, I don't know how all this will work out, but we definitely want our ministry to be a team effort.

Pat and Nancy, how did you decide how involved you would be in the ministry?

Pat: During our first 20 years in ministry, I participated the most. Though my focus has always been my kids, I was very involved in all their activities and in the church. Now that my kids are grown, I work in customer service at Zondervan. When I get home at 6 every night, I don't want to have people over or go out.

Nancy: I agree with Pat. When you work outside the home, there is a lot less time to do things in the church. We used to have people over for marriage videos and dessert in the evenings [before I started working].

How do you handle members' expectations about your involvement?

Craig: I make it clear in the interview process that Pat will take her turn working in the nursery, but that she will do only what she is comfortable doing using her gifts. She is not going to teach the ladies' Bible class or play the piano just because she is the minister's wife. Some members have a hard time getting over their [unrealistic] expectations, but most understand that my wife is no different from any other member.

Nancy: Every time we go into a church, Rod lets the interviewers know that they are hiring him and not both of us. He makes it clear that I will do what I want to do and help where I can, but I will not be on every committee.

Rod: We've never experienced resistance to that approach, and people have never treated Nancy poorly because of it.

Kim and Andrew, you said earlier that your ministry would be a full partnership. How do you react to reality as described by these couples?

Kim: What I'm hearing from everyone is that ministry is a full partnership and that the wife of the minister can [be part of her husband's ministry] by just being there for him. That's what I want to do — to make our home a secure and stable place for our family.

Andrew: Our call to ministry was not just of me, but of us. In fact, Kim knew before I did that God was calling us. And because we see this as our calling, I see Kim's involvement as significant.

Kim, how will you deal with members unrealistic expectations?

Kim: I'm just going to have to feel my way through it, using the gifts that God has given me, and not just responding to others' expectations. Since I was an elementary school teacher, some might expect me to be the Sunday school superintendent, and that's okay. I love working with kids. That's just a really big part of who I am. I think working with kids is something that I will do in the church naturally, unlike playing the piano.

What's the most important thing Andrew and Kim should know about handling expectations as they head into ministry?

Nancy: Set up your own expectations from the beginning, in the interview process. Let the congregation know then how involved you plan to be.

Rod: Be transparent; admit that you have weaknesses, though you don't have to tell everyone what they are. Have a great relationship with each other, because it affects everything you do.

Pat: Be yourself. Members really do like it when you are genuine. I did something really stupid one time, and some members said, "Oh, we like you, Pat. You're just like we are!" I think the key is building relationships.

Taken from Pastor's Family magazine, Dec. 1997/Jan. 1998.
Article copyright © 2003, Judy Waggoner.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
Used by permission.

Judy Waggoner lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.