Being a pastor’s spouse can feel a lot like living in a fish bowl. It can mean assumptions that you’ll play piano at church, cook for visitors, teach Sunday school, have a perfect home, and raise perfect children.
Recognizing the unique pressures and rewards of being a pastor’s spouse, the Christian Reformed Church’s Sustaining Pastoral Excellence (SPE) program recently hosted the first denomination-wide retreat for 138 pastors’ spouses in Toronto.
The room exploded into action when the spouses were asked to re-enact some of the unique situations they’d encountered as pastors’ spouses.
Ignoring personal boundaries was one source of stress identified by many, such as when parishioners have keys to the parsonage, when they expect around-the-clock availability, or when they use pastors’ spouses as messengers, unloading complaints about the church or pastor on the spouse.
Isolation was another stress point identified by many. “It’s hard to find your place, [a place where you can] air all the things you feel alone with. It’s very lonely,” said one woman. “When there’s conflict, the wife has nowhere to go,” said Joan Visser.
Being married to a church planter can be even more consuming. “Church-plant spouses are much more involved because planter and spouse are doing all of the work,” said Denise Stevenson, Christian Reformed Home Missions church planting and development leader and the spouse of a pastor.
Ju Hee Kang, one of a number of Korean pastors’ spouses, was surprised to find out how similar her experience was to that of other pastors’ spouses. “I thought they were only Korean pastors’ spouses’ problems,” she said.
Deb Koster, who is married to a recent graduate of Calvin Theological Seminary, says the strain starts already in seminary. Writing in the seminary’s student newspaper, she said, “It’s a high-pressure time.” Koster identified frequent uprooting, housing issues, financial burdens, and heavy course loads as some of the issues facing student couples. The seminary has programs in place to aid spouses, including subsidized marital counseling.
“I was impressed by how quickly the seminary moved to make students aware of available resources and counseling. They had a lecture which talked about the stresses that couples face,” she said.
Not all pastors’ spouses experience the same pressures. Frank De Vries, the only male pastor’s spouse at the Toronto retreat, had a different experience than many of his female counterparts.
Reflecting on his role as a pastor’s spouse, De Vries, a lawyer, said, “Nobody had any expectations. I define myself.”
Nandy Heule, a public-relations professional, herself a pastor’s spouse, observed that it’s important to learn to set boundaries. “If you’re clear about what you want to do, most people will respect it. . . . It’s important to find what we are passionate about and communicate that,” she said.
To address feelings of isolation, a number of Michigan pastors’ spouses created a group that serves as a safe place to share their unique experiences and receive support. Jim Vander May, a recreational therapist and social worker who spoke at the retreat, encouraged seeking friends outside the church as well.
Vander May advised the spouses to develop their God-given gifts and to learn self-care. “You are so much more than a pastor’s spouse,” he said.
SPE has convened a Spouses of Pastors Task Force, with the mission of supporting and encouraging pastors’ spouses. For more information, see www.crcna.org/pages/spouses.cfm.