I remember the day my oldest daughter began piano lessons. My husband and I, to the chagrin of those who happen to sit next to us in church, don’t have a musical bone in our bodies. But from a very early age, this small slip of a girl seemed to burst with music. She was extremely eager for her first ‘real’ piano lesson and immediately fell in love with her teacher. Very shortly after her lesson, the realization hit that it would take time and effort to train her small hands to move the way she wanted, and suddenly her precious music required discipline. What had seemed easy and natural now seemed somewhat daunting and difficult. Years later, she is on the point of graduating from her grade 8 piano exams and her joy in playing has increased exponentially. Turns out that Mom and Dad knew something about hard work paying off after all.
I also remember the early, giddy days of seminary when my husband and I were eagerly anticipating graduation and ‘getting into the real work’ after years of preparing. I think we were somewhat infatuated with the notion of serving in pastoral ministry and filled with excitement over all that we believed it would entail. It wasn’t that we were anticipating glamour or acclaim in the work; we had read a steady diet of missionary stories from the time we first met and thus were gently deluded into believing that we were truly ready to give up everything for the sake of the gospel. Of course, it quickly became apparent that while God wasn’t asking us to give up every material possession and comfort, he was asking us to do the hard work of everyday faithfulness, which involved giving up much of what I had expected my life to look like, and a daily dying to myself and looking to Jesus.
I was recently asked what I’ve learned over the last decade or so about being the wife of a pastor, what advice I might give to a younger me. After a bit of reflection, I came up with three main thoughts. As one of our seminary professors was fond of saying, “Every good message doesn’t necessarily have to consist of three points, but two is too few and four is too many!”
To begin with, there really is no office of minister’s wife in the Bible; no set apart vocation that we are given clear instruction about. In many ways, this strange subset within the church, called pastor’s wives, are simply called to precisely the same task as every other believer: to love Christ. That’s the first thing I would stress with my younger self. As Katy von Bora declared so emphatically, “I will stick to Christ like a burr to cloth.” Our hearts often try to push us past this lesson and move on to what we imagine are bigger and more challenging responsibilities. “I’m ready for anything,” we think, “ask anything of me!” and He gently says, “Love me,” (Matt. 22:37). We are surrounded by many loud voices vying for our attention. They boldly declare “Maybe we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” or that “you are enough in yourself.” Our weary, burdened hearts quickly reveal how wrong this is. If we were the ones we’ve been waiting for, then we’re sunk because we are unable to bring what it takes to the table. No matter how hard I pull myself up by my own bootstraps, I simply can never be enough. Thankfully, there is One who is enough and He invites us to come to Him. He invites us to cast all our anxieties on him, because he cares for us (1 Pet. 5:7); he bids all of us who are weary and heavy-laden to come to him for our rest (Matt. 11:28), and he reminds us that he is always with us, even unto the very end of the age (Matt. 28:20). There will never be a time when we graduate from this class. Wherever we are called, whether as the wife of a minister, a single woman in school, or a widow entering into later life, we must set our seat firmly at the foot of the cross and continue to rest in and learn more of our Saviour’s love for us. Any move away from here will result either in legalism or despair. So, stick like a burr.
Love Your Husband
Secondly, we must love the man we’ve vowed to love. Not exactly rocket science, I know, but it means something that we are married to Christ’s undershepherds. Although it is true that there is no Biblical office of minister’s wife, it is also somewhat disingenuous to state that fact so emphatically, as if being married to a pastor is no different than being married to a grocery clerk or a college professor. It is no accident that you are married to your husband. God did not call him to the ministry and then regretfully realize you were going to be his wife. For some of us, the fact that we are married to pastors is hard evidence that the Lord has a sense of humour, but the truth is that no matter what your husband’s vocation, God has called the two of you together. You do life together and you can’t be half in. Both of you need to be committed to the work together. This commitment doesn’t mean you always do the same things, just that you are bound together, (that ‘two become one’ thing), in such a way that you are pulling together in the same direction. I have a friend who is married to a doctor and the life she is building with her husband looks both similar to and different from another friend of ours who married to a farmer. They both love their husbands and families and are seeking Christ’s kingdom in their daily lives, but a surgeon faces different pressures than a farmer and thus leans on his wife differently. For example, Marianne (the doctor’s wife), will regularly bring her family to church by herself when her husband is on call at the hospital, whereas Annette always has her husband sitting in the pew with their family. On the other hand, Annette rarely has a holiday away from the farm because it needs continual attention, whereas Marianne will plan an entire month away because her husband has to leave in order to really relax. The ways in which each wife helps her husband is shaped by the unique character of the man she married, the particular job he has, and her specific gifts, abilities, and season of life.
There is a school of thought that suggests that ministers should not share anything personal about their ministry work with their wives. I suspect those men end up becoming excellent candidates for high blood pressure medication and short ministry life. As many of you know, it is next to impossible to separate ‘ministry’ from the rest of your life. The unique burdens of life in ministry exact a strong emotional, mental and spiritual toll on our husbands, and if they cannot share that burden with us, then we cannot be an effective helpmate to them. To be sure, there are occasions when a pastor has to exercise extreme discretion, even with his wife, but these times ought not to define the general tenor of your relationship together. He was not designed to carry everything by himself, the fact that he is married only underscores that fact—clearly the Lord knew he needed help!—and limited communication builds unnecessary barriers between a husband and wife. In order to encourage open communication, as pastors’ wives, we need to cultivate characters that enable our husbands’ hearts to safely trust us. Characters that exhibit the fruit of the Spirit, (Gal. 5:9) discretion (Eph. 4:29), a gentle and quiet spirit (1 Pet. 3:4), and a hospitable nature (1 Tim. 5:10).
Love The Church
Finally, the third point that I would make to my younger self would be to love the church. Not my church; not my husband’s church, but Christ’s church. That’s the kicker, isn’t it? To love—not just tolerate or put up with—this flawed, wonderful, sin-stricken, beautiful group of people who Christ bought and paid for with his own blood.
When we were still in the throes of our seminary infatuation days, Greg and I would have nodded and ‘amen-ed’ the call to love the church. Wasn’t that why we were spending all this time and money? To receive an education and training to serve faithfully and well? Weren’t we proving our willing eagerness to love? I think we may have had it a bit backwards at that time, and that’s why this point is my last one. What instead had to come first was being firmly anchored in the love Jesus has for us. When Christ commissioned Peter to ‘feed His sheep’, He did so after he asked him if he loved the Shepherd (John 21:15-18). If our focus is primarily on loving the sheep, it will become onerous very quickly—sheep (and I whole-heartedly count myself as one of them!) are often stubborn, stupid and lazy, and loving them can be hard. We cannot dredge up within ourselves a love for unlovable people, and the effort only results in exhaustion and an exasperation that leads quickly to bitterness. Years spent ministering to the bride of Christ can tempt us to look more at her than at Jesus—we see past the rosiness of our initial crush and are somewhat startled when we notice her warts and wrinkles. What used to endear her to us now frustrates and angers. But when we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the chief among ten thousand—when we remember his love for us, his patience with our sin and his mercy toward our vices—then his loveliness becomes the prism through which we see His beloved.
I was never really a ‘say yes to the dress’ kind of girl. I wore a borrowed gown on our wedding day and it was only through the concerted efforts of all my college roommates that I appeared even somewhat passable the morning of our wedding. But Greg’s astounded face when he first saw me at the back of the church sanctuary that day would have made anyone think he was looking at Cinderella in all her night-of-the-ball glory. I had briefly transformed into a winsome bride because of the love of my groom. As wonderful as that day was, it is nothing in comparison to the wedding supper of the Lamb, where we all of us, clergy and laity alike, will celebrate the union of Christ with his lovely bride, the church. We need to keep our eyes fixed on that Groom, and anchor our hope in that day, so that when times of trial and aggravation come, we see His bride through His eyes of love. She may not appear to be worth it, but He is. And the best part of this wedding story is that she becomes worthy because of His love.
My insights on being a pastor’s wife during our time in the ministry have been relatively simple: to love Christ, love His undershepherd and love His church. It’s not always easy—Greg and I were often surprised at the difficult work of everyday faithfulness, and (if I’m being honest) there are still days when it surprises and challenges us. But like our daughter trusted us in persevering in her piano practice, we’re reminded that hard work really does pay off, often producing joy beyond what we were anticipating. Our labours for the kingdom are not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58), and we will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him (Jam. 1:12). When all is said and done, the real work, the hard work that counts, has already been finished for us by Christ, who for the joy set before him endured the cross and despised the shame. That very same joy he now welcomes us to share.
Charity Bylsma is a (you guessed it) pastor’s wife, artist, and homeschooling mother of four. She lives in Ontario, Canada.