What is a Pastor’s Wife Supposed to Do?
Shepherding the flock of God can prove one of the most exciting, enriching, and satisfying duties a man can undertake on this side of heaven. Yet shepherding the flock of God is not a particularly safe enterprise. It is a life-work that exposes the man of God to a multiplicity of trials, deep disappointments, searing heartaches, and haunting questions from within and without.
The pastor serves God’s people as leader, preacher, teacher, counselor, overseer and chief intercessor. He must perform spiritual surgery and apply healing balm to the souls of his people on a daily basis. And in all of this, the undershepherd bears the unrelenting burden of his accountability to the Lord of the universe for the spiritual watchcare of a flock for whom the Good Shepherd laid down his own life.
Brothers, we are not sufficient for these things, and we know it. A proud pastor is an oxymoron–or a moronic ox, if you will. None of us is either worthy or capable of such an undertaking. But God is rich in mercy. Jesus has sent the Comforter to aid us in our frailty–to counsel, encourage, strengthen and help us in the great cause to which we have been called. And for most pastors, God also graciously provides a human helper–a woman–to walk at her husband’s side as his covenant helper in this grand mission to exercise stewardship of God’s flock.
The pastor’s wife is certainly a rare species with a very peculiar calling. She is one flesh with the pastor. And if he is worthy of the title, this means she is one flesh with a difficult man. If she is worthy of her calling, it also means she has laid down the “normal life” on the altar and slit its throat in sacrifice to God.
The pastor’s wife will often keep her husband’s long hours, shoulder his pressures, feel his disappointments, and suffer his defeats–often as profoundly and as deeply as he does. She will be thrust into the role chief analyst of both his sermons and his administrative innovations. She may well be called upon to catch grammatical errors and to sniff out inconsistencies in his letters to the church, to befriend that woman in the assembly others prefer to avoid and to brainstorm solutions to problems no one else can solve.
She is often the single human agent of God who can accurately evaluate her husband from God’s perspective–the single voice that helps him navigate safely through the beclouding opinions of those, on the one hand, who see not a single weakness in him; and those, on the other hand, who cannot bring themselves to admit he has a single redeeming quality. God only knows how many days a few well-chosen words of encouragement from her lips are all that stand between her husband’s perseverance in the pastorate and his permanent resignation from the ministry.
I do not think pastor’s wives are to be pitied, nor is pity what most of them seek. I do not propose to shield her from her responsibilities nor to eliminate the painful experiences she is called to endure for the glory of God. Such trials are intended by the Great Shepherd to deepen her faith and character. Let us make no vain attempt to exempt her from the Refiner’s fire.
Yet it is fitting to recognize that her relationship to her husband places her in a uniquely vulnerable position–a reality that will concern those who genuinely love the church of Jesus Christ and long for its health. She is one flesh with the pastor, yet she is not a pastor. She is a member of the flock, yet uniquely susceptible to the pressures the shepherd of that flock endures. In this unique position she is exposed to peculiar pressures, and to not a few stray bullets.
But I submit that one of the most significant trials many pastor’s wives suffer is a needless trial for which her well meaning husband is ultimately responsible. Many a pastor places upon his wife, or permits others to place upon her, ministry expectations that are not rooted in the wisdom of Scripture but are staked in the quicksand of human tradition and our cultural milieu.
The Bible pointedly addresses the functional ministry of the pastor. He is to be a man–a “one woman man.” He is to lead the flock of God, to protect it, to care for it, and to feed it. He is to restore the fallen, to seek the lost, and to pursue the spiritual health of the assembly he serves. But what specifically does God want his wife to do?
I exhort those who shepherd, or someday will shepherd, the flock of God to faithfully shepherd your wife by purposefully and biblically steering her ministry in the local church you serve. By extension, I also challenge those who are actively involved in a local church to embrace a biblical philosophy regarding the ministry of the pastor’s wife and to influence your assembly in that direction. I exhort you to do this for the glory of Christ and for the health of his church.
In pursuit of this goal, we ask the question: What is a pastor’s wife supposed to do? What specifically is her divine calling in her unique role?
A POPULAR BUT DEFICIENT MODEL OF HER JOB DESCRIPTION
The majority of pastors around the world carry out their ministries in smaller churches. The discussion at hand may prove less applicable to those serving in larger church settings. But in smaller churches a fairly entrenched, if somewhat fuzzy, list of ministry expectations awaits the new pastor’s wife upon her arrival. This unwritten job description is generally assumed. It is seldom, if ever, rationally defended. This description will vary from church to church, but it tends to reduce itself to the basic notion that she is to serve as the assistant pastor to the women.
No one, of course, will articulate this expectation, for when it is stated so baldly it rings hollow in our biblically trained ears. In fact, few if any will have ever zeroed a critical thought upon the matter. Yet many parishioners will default to the base-line expectation that the pastor’s wife should shepherd the women of the assembly.
Accordingly, her unwritten job description will ape that of her husband’s. She will be expected to serve as director of women’s ministries; that is, she will guide and provide visionary leadership to the ewes of the flock, serving as ex-officio member of all women’s committees. She will be expected to function in some capacity as a teacher–she will feed God’s Word to the ewes or to the lambs of the flock, and preferably to both. She will soothe the weary, protect the vulnerable, bind up the wounded, seek the lost and rescue the wandering. In a word, she will be expected to serve as the shepherdess of the church. Or, to contemporize the metaphor, she will function as the first lady or vice president of the assembly.
For young husbands who will assume your first pastorate in the near future, I implore you to enter your post armed with the assumption that an unwritten job description awaits your wife at the door. If this assumption proves wrong, happily discard your assumption and take your wife out for dinner! But if this assumption proves right, you must be prepared to actively steer your wife’s ministry against the stream of expectations, perhaps less as a pastor and more as a husband who longs to honor God by loving his wife. If you do not exercise honorable leadership in this matter, your wife’s ministry will undoubtedly be swept along by traditional expectations and that can lead to tragedy.
Please further understand that such leadership will prove necessary not only at the start of a pastorate but for its duration. New members will join the church with an assumed job description in mind. And if their expectations are frustrated by your wife’s actual function in the assembly, tensions may arise and threaten the health of the church. An ongoing educational process will prove necessary.
A BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE OF HER RESPONSIBILITIES
As noted, The Bible clearly delineates what a pastor is to do and reveals the nature of his work–a work that distinguishes him from other men in the assembly. For instance, he must be able to teach and he must faithfully feed God’s truth to the flock by means of biblical discourse. Other men in the assembly may also teach God’s Word, but this is not a moral obligation. In fact, men who are not “able to teach” will be gifted by God to minister in other capacities. For such men it can be a matter of loyalty to Christ not to teach.
But does God’s Word similarly distinguish the role of the pastor’s wife from the function of other women in the assembly? What does the Bible say about the nature of her work as the pastor’s wife?
Proposition #1: The Bible only implicitly addresses this issue.
The obvious answer to the preceding questions is that the Bible says nothing at all! At least nothing explicitly. Unlike that of her husband, the Scriptures suggest no unique job description or peculiar function for the pastor’s wife within the assembly. Since the revelation regarding ecclesiology does not explicitly address her role in the church, I would suggest that we work from the base of biblical anthropology, inferring from that body of revelation what should be expected of her as a pastor’s wife.
Proposition #2: Her ministry responsibilities within the assembly are of the same nature as those of every other woman in the church.
I believe sufficient light shines from at least two passages of Scripture to confirm this proposition.
Titus 2:3-5: “Older women . . . are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.”
Paul’s admonition indicates that the task of the pastor’s wife, even when viewed from the context of the local church, is to grow in godly character and to cultivate a proper relationship with her husband and children. As regards teaching in the assembly, she is to be encouraged to instruct the younger women. But interestingly enough, this particular admonition from Paul indicates that the young pastor should perceive his wife as a student of the older women in the church before she qualifies as a teacher of adult women.
Yet sadly it is not unprecedented for a 25 year-old woman to be immediately collared with the responsibility to serve as primary teacher of, and counselor to, the women of her church or even for her husband to resent the fact that a much older woman in the assembly does not willingly yield this position to the pastor’s wife. Although no one would even think to entrust such a responsibility to any other woman of similar age, this great expectation is placed upon her by mere virtue of the fact that she is married to the pastor. We should recognize, vis-a-vis the common practice, that it is not at all wrong for the younger pastor’s wife to enter the church as a learner. In fact, Paul’s instructions to Titus seem to assume this for the case of a young pastor’s wife. The women of the church should seek her counsel and encourage her instruction because they have come over time to discern that she is a wise woman, not merely because she is married to the pastor.
1 Timothy 3:1-7: While each of the requirements for an overseer touches the man’s relationship to his wife in some respect, notice particularly verses 4-5: “[An overseer] must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?”
Even a modest season of reflection on verses 2-7 will reveal the vital role the pastor’s wife must fulfill. The stability of the pastor’s home is a necessary requirement for his ongoing ministry and she is obviously a major contributor to that stability. We should carefully consider the profound implications of the fact that her efforts in the home directly influence his capacities to lead the flock of God. In her role as wife, her daily labors serve to maintain her husband’s qualification to shepherd God’s flock by helping him remain faithful as the shepherd of his home.
Every pastoral couple wants to hear the accolade: “she is a really good pastor’s wife.” But there are ample false criteria upon which such a judgment is popularly based. Too often such status is conferred on the mere determination that she is a good listener, or a faithful friend to other women, an effective speaker, or a skilled musician, a stunning administrative organizer, or simply a woman who is “really, really busy serving God.”
On the authority of God’s Word, I propose that she is a good pastor’s wife only insofar as she is a faithful helper to her husband, a diligent keeper of her home, a godly mother to her children, and a solid force in keeping her husband qualified for ministry by edifying his home. Though she teach with the tongues of men and of angels, though she prove earth’s very best friend, though she win scores of souls to Christ, though she organize one mean potluck dinner, if she is not a success as the God-given helper to her husband and mother to her children, she is not a good pastor’s wife.
One ancillary word of advice to unmarried men headed for vocational ministry: do not be overly exercised with finding a woman who can wax eloquent on theology or who boasts some profound ministry skill. Find a woman who genuinely loves God, who longs to serve him, and who glories in her God-given mission as her husband’s helper. If she is willing to follow you anywhere God leads you and if she is willing to enthusiastically orient her life to yours as God-ordained helper, she is a theologian of rare quality and will minister to others with uncommon skill. Said another way, draw your sense of virtue from the unsullied fount of Proverbs 31, not from the broken cistern of corporate America’s model woman.
Married pastors, permit a further word of exhortation at this point. It is your responsibility to steer your wife’s ministry and to help her to see the stellar importance of her function as a wife and mother. Many will quickly place untold expectations upon your wife if they are permitted to do so–expectations which if fulfilled will render it virtually impossible for her to succeed as a noble wife and mother. Under the pressure of such expectations, the ministry of a pastor’s wife can directly harm the ministry of her husband, often subtly turning him into her helper.
If her ministry responsibilities are permitted to overtax her ministry to her family, she may begin to tear down her home rather than to build it up. And she may even sense that this is happening. Such realizations will inevitably lead to deep discouragement and disillusionment, particularly when there seems to be nothing she can do about it. Ironically, the chief culprit in all this is often the man who shares her bed every night. He has permitted others to dictate her responsibilities and has thus fumbled his responsibility as her loving head.
Let us affirm that the primary duty of the pastor’s wife is not to fulfill the expectations of the church or to serve as shepherdess, but rather to pursue, as one Puritan pastor put it, “connubial felicity.” But understand, it is not her job alone to set her course in this direction. Ultimately, this charting must be initiated by her husband and promoted by discerning men of the assembly.
At this juncture, just suspicion may be rising in the minds of some. Perhaps you are thinking: “I wonder if he just wants to protect his wife and excuse her lack of involvement in the church? Maybe he is arguing this way in order to defend his “cozy little family” ideal and to assure that his wife never gets her feathers ruffled. Maybe she just shows up at services like the Queen Bee and sits in the front row while others do all the work.” Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I believe that if a pastor leads his wife faithfully, she will be a model of fruitful and energetic ministry in the church. This leads to a third proposition.
Proposition #3: Her ministry responsibilities within the assembly are to reflect the specific function for which God has uniquely gifted her.
Like every other woman in the assembly, the pastor’s wife is to diligently pour out her life in service to God as the Spirit has equipped her to serve in that particular body of believers.
1 Corinthians 12:4-7, 18-20: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good . . . But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.”
Consider carefully the Spirit’s words: “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” God has a specific purpose for the unique ministry capacities with which he has sovereignly equipped each pastor’s wife. She should thus serve in accordance with God’s gifting as a member of the body in which he has placed her, not in accordance with human expectations of responsibilities inhering in her supposed position.
If she is a hand, she should serve as a hand, not as a knee, and not in any event as pastor to the women! If she is gifted in behind-the-scenes ministry, she should be released to pursue such endeavors without guilt. If she is not a teacher, not a leader, not a bold recruiter, it is a mistake to force her into such functions simply because she is the pastor’s wife. If she thrives on teaching and visionary leadership, she should be loosed to these endeavors and pointed to glory. Although, if her capacities lie in such areas, a note of caution should be sounded. A pastor’s wife who excels in the spotlight may struggle mightily in her role as submissive helper to her husband. It may prove considerably tempting for a woman thus gifted to find her fulfillment in the praise and responsiveness of the women of the church (and other churches) while downplaying the significance she attaches to Proverbs 31-type praise from the lips of her husband and children who rejoice in the benefits of her private ministrations to them (vs 28).
The crux of the issue is: what has God gifted her to do? She should be empowered and encouraged by her husband and the church to do that. What God has given her to do may not be what the previous pastor’s wife was gifted by God to do. And if not, resistance may be forthcoming from some in the assembly. But pastors, remember that God has providentially assigned your wife to minister to this particular body, and he may well have gifted her to minister differently than the previous pastor’s wife. She is not the previous pastor’s wife. She is not your home-church’s pastor’s wife. She is your wife. And she is who she is by the grace and ordination of God.
Permit me to address another potential misconception at this point. My burden is not that most pastor’s wives are overworked. As far as I am concerned, we should all work ourselves to death in some aspect of God’s cause. Anathema to the culture of ease and safety so many pastors and their wives are embracing these days. The pastorate should never be viewed as a profession we perform for a time in order to accumulate wealth and maintain optimal health for retirement.
My burden is, rather, that many good women are pressured to perform duties they are ill-equipped to handle and are loaded down with expectations they could not possibly fulfill. A sweet spirit and a servant’s heart enable many of these same pastor’s wives to shoulder tremendous pressures with stoic resolve. But when she suffers under unbiblical expectations, the inevitable result is a deep seated frustration and fatigue leading to diminished effectiveness in her function as wife and mother. Such a condition, in turn, diminishes her husband’s capacities to pastor, thus harming the very church she is struggling so hard to serve. This all-too-common phenomenon is particularly troubling when she is performing functions (out of deference to traditional expectations) which other women in the assembly are better equipped to perform.
A WORD OF PERSONAL TESTIMONY
How I thank God for godly men who surround me in the church I shepherd and are appropriately vigilant in their protection of my wife. This is nothing other than the grace of God. They concern themselves to protect her against unwarranted expectations and consistently encourage her in the use of her gifts–which only heightens her enthusiasm for ministry. I marvel at the energies she expends in the cause of Christ. But I also smile as I see her doing what she loves to do, and to see a church leadership that encourages her at every turn.
Beth was only 25 years old when I accepted the call to pastor the church we serve to this day. She was a godly woman, mature beyond her years. But Beth was the polar opposite of the previous pastor’s wife. Upon assuming leadership of the church, I had a difficult choice to make. I could encourage Beth to assume the various functions of the previous pastor’s wife, or I could loose Beth to use her unique abilities to the glory of God–most of which are behind-the-scenes type of gifts. Convinced the latter approach had the smile of God, I purposefully resisted asking anyone what the previous pastor’s wife did and steered Beth to “do her thing.” Not everyone appreciated my approach.
Soon after commencing our ministry, I was visited in my office by a concerned couple. They came with a long list in hand to object, in part, to Beth’s ministry to our assembly. I listened to their concerns, noting that not one word of objection regarding Beth addressed any moral deficiency or even immaturity on her part. I pointed out to this couple that the list of expectations they had read to me were an apt description of the ministry of the previous pastor’s wife. She was a remarkable woman and I continue to rejoice with the ways God used her gifts to his glory. But there is a reason my wife was not leading the women’s Bible study, not teaching Sunday School, and not performing functions of highly visible leadership in the church: she has not been gifted by God to do so. She has no sense of divine calling to function in such capacities.
After detailing a long list of vital ministries Beth was actively performing behind the scenes, the surprised couple before me queried why I did not broadcast all of this to the assembly in order to make Beth’s service more visible. They posed a valid concern, but I reminded them that she was not serving to be seen. She was serving precisely as her husband and pastor desired, in accordance with her God-given gifts.
That was a defining moment in our ministry. This couple was not to be blamed. We shared an honest, frank discussion that ended amicably enough. But I remember to this day the temptation to yield to the pressure and to make substantial adjustments, bending Beth into the mold of popular expectations. And the truth is, she would have cooperated fully–to her detriment, to the church’s detriment, and to mine. But by God’s grace I held my course against that stiff gale. I chose to shield my wife from unfounded expectations and to give her wings to fly with her God-given gifts. And she has soared!
Only on rare occasion has Beth led a woman’s Bible study, but she is my most trusted counselor of women, displaying time and again a firm grasp of the proper application of biblical truth to daily life. She has never spoken at a ladies retreat (not yet!), but now that she is middle-aged, she is enjoying a fruitful one-on-one ministry to younger women in our church. She has never served as a Sunday School teacher, but she has rendered care to many children in our home and has profoundly influenced many of them in the ways of God. Why she has no interest in standing before others and speaking when she has so much to say, I will never understand. Why the woman who delivers so many “home runs” during informal counsel has so little capacity to address an assembled audience, I will never comprehend. But God does, and that’s all that matters.
Beth has never personally organized an all-church meal, although she is always found helping at such meals and has won many hearts with her cooking (some of our “Men’s Breakfast” faithfuls have to be restrained from canonizing her!). While she has never provided visionary leadership to any particular ministry, countless are the people she has built up and helped through various spiritual and physical trials. She is one of the hardest working women I have ever known and she is a strong force for God in our church.
But above all else, I can say with full conviction that any success I have known as a pastor has more to do with the kind of woman Beth is in our home than with any skill I may possess or any effort I may have made in ministry. At every turn, in countless ways, she makes me a better pastor and a better man. I could never use my capacities in the way I use them if she was not the wife and the mother that she is every day of her life.
And she is happy in all of this. And in all of this we feel the smile of our Creator. He it is who designed for Adam a suitable helper. He it is who described the noble wife as one who orients her life to her husband and brings him good, not calamity, all the days of his life. He it is who gave us the vision that a husband can be respected in the city gates because of what his wife accomplishes from home-base (cf. Proverbs 31). How happy are they whose God is the Lord!
I do not broadcast the joys of candy because everyone understands that joy without hearing from me. I broadcast the joys of my relationship to Beth in the context of ministry because it pains me that so many do not seem to experience our joy.
I remember speaking some years ago to a 23 year-old pastor’s wife. She was ecstatic with the opportunity she and her new husband had to serve God’s people. The prospect of life together in the service of God is a hope difficult to match and her exuberance indicated as much. But not long after that conversation, Beth and I spoke again to this same woman. Her enthusiasm for ministry had vanished. She relayed to us the horrors of ministry in a church which was placing expectations upon her no young woman could possibly meet to anyone’s satisfaction. Blinded by tradition and blinded to his responsibility as her protector, her husband offered his wife no help. She was on her own and suffering. And today he is on his own–suffering the consequences of a bitter divorce.
By no means do I intend to suggest the church this man served was responsible for this couple’s divorce. Nor do I intend to suggest this pastor’s failure to steer his wife’s ministry in the assembly was the root cause of their marital demise. I do believe, however, that traditional expectations concerning the supposed job description of a pastor’s wife contributed to this couples divorce and resulted in no small loss to their church’s health and no small assault on the glory of God in the community they were seeking to reach for Christ.
I am convinced that confusion regarding the role of the pastor’s wife is systematically hindering the cause of Christ in far too many churches. We must get the job description of the pastor’s wife right. There is too much at stake to ignore this matter–not the least of which is the honor of Christ whose body we serve and whose wisdom we ride to glory.
Her job? She is the pastor’s wife, nothing more. She is the pastor’s wife, nothing less. As she faithfully fulfills this high and noble calling, as she runs her race in order to enhance her husband’s effectiveness in ministry, she will receive no accolades from her culture and few if any from those believers whose traditional expectations she disappoints. But as she honors her Maker’s design and faithfully pours out her skills in the advancement of the Church for which Jesus died, she will feel the pleasure of God. And that is all that really matters here, and all that will matter for eternity.
This article is adapted from a lecture Pastor Dan Miller delivered at the Foundations Conference of Central Baptist Theological Seminary on October 14, 2003.
Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version