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The pastor’s wife

January 2020 | by Alan Thomas

Nowadays when submitting research articles for publication in scientific journals it is standard that we complete a disclosure statement to declare any conflicts of interest (COI) which might have influenced what we have written. Thus, I realise that for this article I need to declare my COI:

Conflict Of Interest Statement: The author declares that he has known many pastors’ wives and has known some very well. It is highly likely that they have influenced the content of this article.

How many offices?

There has been a longstanding debate about the number of church offices. Should a New Testament church have two (elder/pastor/overseer and deacon) or three (elder and minister/pastor and deacon) or more? But in all the discussions and articles and books, has the ‘office’ of minister’s wife been discussed? No. For the good reason that it doesn’t exist in the New Testament. Yet whilst it does not exist in the Bible and thus in our theology textbooks it has too often appeared as a de facto office in church life.

When arriving in a new church with her husband many a minister’s wife has found she has inherited an important, though undefined, position.

She is expected to lead the ladies’ meeting and to organise the weekly visit to the nursing home for senior women and to visit the sick and to provide hospitality every Sunday to several church members and to clean the church building and to arrange the flowers and to teach in Sunday School. It goes without saying that she will also be a fully involved member, attending every regular church meeting and all the additional meetings. And of course she will support her husband and the family at home, running the household so he can be free for the church 24/7. But unlike her husband she gets no pay and has no formal authority or status in the church. She is in office but not in power.

Sadly, it can be even worse. Whenever there are problems in the church the burden will fall on her husband and she will have that especially difficult task of supporting him without knowing what is going on. He is upset but can’t say why, confused but unable to explain. She offers her blind solace. It is worse still when he himself becomes the focus of discontent and criticism. He might be able to seek support from his fellow elders or from ministerial colleagues in other churches. But where does she go? It can be a very lonely existence.

If I were writing this for my academic colleagues they would read it as a joke. Very funny, they would say, your churches are truly contemporary because they are populated by female superheroes! But this is not a joke. It is a sad indictment of recent life in (some of) our churches. My observation and hope is that this sad practice is fading away, though I’m concerned a different view of the pastor’s wife may have emerged.

BOGOF

There seem to be fewer such offers nowadays, but several years ago ‘Buy One Get One Free’ (BOGOF) offers were common. As you were about to buy your usual tins of cat food at ASDA you would notice a BOGOF offer on a rival brand. Or as you reached for your usual shampoo you noticed next to it on the shelf was the latest upgrade for shinier hair and offered on a BOGOF deal.

When appointing a new minister how many churches today adopt a BOGOF approach? If there is an advert it doesn’t say that they want a married minister so that they get his wife for free, but it often appears to be an unwritten assumption. I have known single men who learned that they were rejected by churches because they were not married (but praise to those churches which have appointed single men!). After all, the church was small and wanted every extra member it could get, so the prospect of a BOGOF wife was too good to turn down. It is even better if the married prospective minister has not only a wife but children!

The BOGOF approach to calling a minister seems to reveal a different problem in our churches doesn’t it? The traditional unofficial office of minister’s wife took advantage of and misused good Christian women. The BOGOF view appears to reveal a worldly concern with numbers.

Let her be herself

The funding debate in the NHS rumbles on with voices increasingly pointing out that what you get for free you don’t value as much. My concern with the BOGOF mindset is that the pastor’s wife arrives as a kind of appendage or, perhaps better, a bonus. But she should be admitted to the church like every other new member, valued as a new member in her own right, and then treated like every other member. Someone might say: but as the pastor’s wife she is in a special position. True, so perhaps treated like the wives of other elders, who also may sometimes be privy to information not more widely known in the church.

But my point is that we want to encourage her to be herself, the best ‘herself’ she can be in the Lord’s service. Do other married women have paid employment? Let her. Do other women wear trousers? Let her. Do other women wear hats? Let her. She may bring all kinds of talents and energy to her new church, if so then praise God. Or she may not. I am reluctant though to say in contrast that she may just be ordinary, because in my experience and observation pastor’s wives are extraordinary. Remember my COI.

Alan Thomas is a professor and consultant in psychiatry and elder at Newcastle Reformed Evangelical Church.