A few years ago, I was invited to a book club with some women from my church. We had just moved from another state for my husband to take a job as one of the pastors at a local church, and I was hoping to make some friends. As we were discussing the book, I shared something personal about my life (probably an over-share, since that’s what I do), and when I finished, one of the women stared me like she was seeing me for the first time and said, “Wow, you really are just like the rest of us, aren’t you?”
Completely taken aback, I laughed and said, “Well, yeah, what did you expect?” I guess what she expected, what most of us expect, is the polished perfection we see from a distance in most pastors’ wives. But therein lies the key: at a distance. It’s easy to view someone as perfect, or to be viewed as perfect, when it’s done from a distance.
Let me just shatter that illusion for you all right now: pastors and their families are no less flawed than any of you. Speaking from the experience of having been a pastor’s wife for the last eight years, our kids do indeed throw tantrums just as often as yours, we do argue with our spouses like you do, and, no, reading the Bible isn’t our idea of a good time. So why is this such a problem in our churches today? Well, from my vantage point, it’s a multi-layered issue that we all play a part in creating. First, take it from the congregant’s viewpoint:
I know most of you don’t actually believe your pastor’s wife is perfect since one of the basic tenets of Christianity is that everyone is sinful. Yet, we still have a tendency as human beings to “celebritize” our pastors and their families. We want to believe that they could be closer to perfection than we are, so that we have a model, a guidepost, to follow. We want to believe that someone else could have all the answers, could have solved the mystery of the perfect life, but that role has been filled by one person alone – Jesus. And we ain’t him, be we pastor, elder, deacon, or congregant. Your pastor has never been and will never be perfect, so don’t expect him, or his family, to be.
What does this mean practically? Befriend your pastor’s wife, don’t just invite her to mentor you. Ask her to go shopping with you because you enjoy her company, not because you want to promote your agenda at church or to talk about how her husband’s sermon upset you. Ask her advice as a friend, not a spiritual leader. And make church a safe place for her to be herself, warts and all. If she shows up to a women’s event with no makeup on, don’t ask her if she’s sick. If her kids throw a fit in church, don’t stare at her, offer to help her. And if she shares personal struggles with you, don’t judge her, be there for her. Don’t spread around the gossip of her story (especially under the premise of asking others to “pray” for her). Instead, recognize that she’s offered you an opportunity to share your own story with her, without fear of judgment, and be as vulnerable with her as she was with you.
Now to look at the pastor’s wife’s point of view: Ok, I’m just going to lay it out there for y’all. It feels really nice to be thought of as put-together. Who among us doesn’t want to be liked? But there is a little voice whispering to us all saying, “If they really knew you, they wouldn’t want anything to do with you. Who you truly are is awkward and weird at best, ugly and offensive at worst, and they would never accept you.” It’s a lie, I know that. In my head, I know that. But that little voice can cast just enough doubt to make me want to plaster the perfect smile on my face, glue it on with gobs of makeup, and cover it up with a superficial, high-pitched, “I’m wonderful! How are you?” It takes a lot, and I mean A LOT of courage to strip yourself down to authentic reality and allow people to take you or leave you. It’s much easier to let them reject the fake you than to offer your real self and be hurt for who you really are.
I don’t think that pastors’ wives have a monopoly on this issue – I think we all struggle with the cost of authenticity and decide how to present ourselves as a result. But I do think that it is compounded when you live your life in the limelight of ministry. It can feel like the “fishbowl” of life, with everyone on the outside looking in, watching everything you do. Let me be the first to say it: being a pastor’s wife is a very lonely place to be. Everyone wants to look to you as an example but fewer and further between are the people who will just accept you as you are and be your friend. And even if you do find friends among the congregants, you may never feel as free to share everything with them as you would like to. Church issues that plague your mind may indirectly affect them, and sharing your worries prematurely may not be wise.
To pour honey on this already sticky situation, the pastor himself likely struggles with the balance of authenticity and leadership that it takes to be a spiritual leader. Unless he’s the rare pastor who’s realized that people will gain more from his vulnerable disclosure of his own struggles than they will from a polished-looking facade he invents, he probably doesn’t want his wife to air their dirty laundry in the church. He may not intend to isolate his wife, but if he can’t be authentic about who he is, she can’t either. If she does, she may as well sign the divorce papers and serve them to him on the pulpit.
So what is the answer to it all? I wish I knew. But what I do know is that it starts with creating safe places in our churches where we can ALL be ourselves. It starts with me, and you, choosing to let people really see who we really are. The God of the universe created me to be who I am, imperfections and all, so why would He want me to then try to pretend I’m someone else? I don’t believe He does. I believe He wants you to be you, and me to be me, and if we don’t show that to each other, then we’re wasting our time.
Church is supposed to be the place where we all come, as equals, seeking to be more like Jesus together, but knowing we will all inevitably mess up. And messing up needs to be ok, for all of us, pastor or congregant, husband or wife, child or parent. So let’s knock people off the pedestals, recognizing they never should have been there in the first place. Jesus is the only one who should be on a pedestal – putting anyone else there is just idolatry.