This summer my husband, Chris, celebrates 10 years in the ministry. Back in July 2002, Chris stood in front of synod to be approved as a minister of the Word. I stood in the audience holding our daughter Arwen, proud that after five years of study and near-poverty, we were about to start something new. Chris would be the one called by a congregation, but we would be answering that call as a family, and all our lives would change. Here are some of the lessons and challenges we’ve encountered in our ministry since then.
After five years of study and near-poverty, we were about to start something new.
Lesson 1: Your family and friends will not always understand the choices you make to follow God’s call. After spending the summer looking over church profiles, reading between the lines of mission statements, and visiting congregations, we packed up or sold nearly all we owned and moved to a small town in Alberta. My mother was horrified. She’d never dreamed that Chris’s call would take us so very far from her. Our Grand Rapids friends wondered why, with dozens of Christian Reformed churches in town, we were going so far away.
Challenge 1: You might find yourself doing things you never expected to do. When our first church told us that they were calling Chris, we were surprised. They hadn’t met us or even set up a phone interview. While we were in awe of their confidence, we told them we would have to visit before making our decision. Chris had just turned down a call from another church because, while the church seemed like a good fit on paper, when we visited we realized that the church was deeply divided. It was not the right church for us to start off in ministry.
This church, on the other hand, was far from everyone and everything that was familiar to us. But after meeting the congregation, we realized that God really was calling us all the way out there. The church leadership was supportive and united. They carefully built Chris up as a leader and gave me room to figure out how I might be involved in ministry. Being away from our friends and family also made us depend on each other in ways we’d never had to before. It gave us room to create our own family traditions and identity.
Challenge 2: It can be very easy to be alone in a crowd. When a pastor’s family moves into a new community, there are plenty of people interested in making them feel welcome and at home. It’s not hard to meet other families with children or to get recommendations for a good babysitter. People extend invitations for coffee or dinner and generally make the effort to include the pastor’s family in their lives.
But it’s easy to end up feeling alone. I was part of a weekly women’s Bible study. I had lots of people to talk to and spend time with. I learned to sew, can, knit, and garden from all these lovely ladies. But while they were mentors and companions, they were not friends in the deepest sense of the word. Even five years in, I hadn’t known the difference—not until the day Linda, the Coffee Break leader, asked God to bring me friends during our intercessory prayer time. I hadn’t realized how lonely I had been in the crowd, but she had.
Lesson 2: A pastor support team can make all the difference. At our second church, the very first thing we asked for was a Pastor Support Team. We meet regularly; they listen and pray with Chris and me and serve as sounding boards and intercessors. They hold our pains and hurts in confidence, and they know us well enough to laugh and pray with us when we need them to. They see us for who we are beyond the roles we inhabit.
Lesson 3: Confidentiality is crucial, and it will affect your home life. One of the hardest things about being married to a pastor is dealing with situations of a confidential nature. We’ve learned how to work around the issue by addressing the stress. It is enough to know that there is something really tough going on without knowing the specifics.
Confidentiality is one of the biggest responsibilities of a pastor and is often a great gift to the congregation. Sometimes church members will assume that I know what is going on in their life because they told Chris about it. But it is better to assume that if you have shared something in confidence with the pastor, the spouse will have no idea about it whatsoever.
Challenge 3: You need to love your church and its members even when they are unlovable. To protect myself and my ability to remain on good terms with my fellow church members, I choose not to attend congregational meetings. Sometimes people forget that real people fill the roles of pastors and church support staff. Dispassionate conversations about salaries or benefits—without recognition of the number of hours worked, meetings attended, and family times missed—is not something a pastor’s family should have to hear. It isn’t that I don’t care deeply about our church; it’s that I care a lot.
Challenge 4: Find your way own way to contribute. Our very first church posting was a summer assignment in Ontario. As a United States citizen in Canada, I couldn’t work, so I spent my days reading and exploring the area. Every summer, the youth group participated in a Christian service program, spending four days a week cleaning, painting, and sorting items at ministries and service organizations. One of the organizers asked Chris if I would help drive the kids to the beach on their day off. Chris knew better than to answer for me. Instead, he encouraged the person to ask me directly. I was happy to help, but happier to be asked.
Lesson 4: Learn to say no. As a pastor’s wife, I have encountered people who simply assume my participation in church activities. But I have to remember to be a wife too, and sometimes that means saying no to worthwhile endeavors. That’s why I sometimes scoot out of the fellowship hall to take Chris and the kids home and why I insist that our family time be respected.
As a family, we have made several choices to protect ourselves from running ragged. We sometimes say no to delightful invitations because we need to be home to recharge. We insist on a day of rest every week. And we let dinnertime phone calls go to voicemail. Those are small things, but they keep our family together.
Lesson 5: Be kind to yourself and to your spouse. In ministry, we tend to be our own harshest critics. No one else knows better how much more you could have done or how you wished it had been done better. No one else is as aware as you of how noisy your children are being. Chris used to have me read his sermons. But we’ve discovered that there are enough critics out there, and so I no longer sit around grading his efforts. That is not to say that we always agree, or that my opinion isn’t valued, but I try to listen with a different ear.
Challenge 5: Notice and appreciate those around you. The church is filled with people who do simple things every day to keep it running. Elders and deacons serve the church, usually after putting in a full day of work. The custodian and the sound crew work behind the scenes. Often we only notice their contributions when something goes amiss: the wrong song number is listed in the bulletin or someone’s name is misspelled.
It’s important to take the time to say thank you. Appreciate the work others do on your behalf, visiting the sick, making meals, and planning worship. Harsh words of criticism often stay in people’s minds much longer than words of praise. They come back in moments of stress and weakness, diminishing their confidence and their motivation to serve. So next time you see someone serving, remember to thank them and let them know how much you appreciate them!
I am incredibly thankful for the many opportunities to serve we have been given over the last 10 years. The challenge is to remember what a gift it is to serve.