Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Caring for Ministry Wives

The Washington Post recently reported that one of the largest seminaries in North America plans to offer a women-only concentration in "home-making." Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas, hopes that the program will focus on assisting ministry wives on the ministry of "hospitality in the home--teaching women interior design as well as how to sew and cook." In addition, these women students will "also study children's spiritual, physical and emotional development."

From the face of it (not having memorized SWBTS's mission statement), it does look like this program is "off-mission" for a theological seminary. And yet, Southwestern's attempt to address the needs of future ministry wives raises an important issue to which seminaries, presbyteries, and local churches would do well to pay attention: namely, the need to care for ministry wives. And this is because our lack of attention to supporting the entire ministry family is destroying these families "in Jesus' name."

All too often, ministry wives bear the brunt of their husband's ministerial calling. While their husband dedicates himself to caring for the needs of the congregation--often working 50, 60, 70-hour weeks in doing so--the ministry spouse is expected to bear the absence of her husband with grace, dutifully raising their children as a single parent, sacrificing family meals for session meetings, and dealing with either the ambition or exhaustion of her ministry-focused husband.

Not only this, pastoral confidentiality often means that the ministry wife is the last to know what is going on (even when it seems the rest of the church somehow knows); or, on the other side, church members use the ministry wife as a conduit of gossip and (mis)information that they hope she will relay to her husband. She bears all things, internalizes all things, tries to smile at all things, and cries over all things.

And sometimes ministry wives fail--because the local church fails, their husbands fail, the support system fails, and they fail. But above all, I wonder if our (i.e. churches, presbyteries, and seminaries) failure to recognize, name, and attempt to talk about the challenges of ministry for a couple's marriage contributes to all of this.

It is one of the areas of discovery that my colleague, Bob Burns, has uncovered in his research through the programs of Covenant Seminary's Center for Ministry Leadership (CML)--ministry marriages are a signficant contributor to sustaining pastoral excellence (or pastoral failure); and we continue to wrestle over what his findings mean for Seminary education at our shop. And that's why, while Southwestern's answer may be wrong-headed, at least they are trying to think through how to support future ministry wives.

Maybe our presbyteries, seminaries, and local churches need to engage in a sustained and meaningful conversation about tangible and meaningful ways we can support and care for ministry wives. We need to do this for the sake of our sisters, for the sake of the church, and for the sake of Jesus' name.


Anonymous said...


I think you raise a good point. I also think there are several layers to this problem.

One is that we cannot contain the role of "ministry wife" into one model and therefore, we have to ask the question of what does it look like to care for women with varied interests both in and out of the church? This is obviously my gripe with the program at Southern. Is this the care that ministry wives need or is it emotional and spiritual support? Aren't we talking about the loneliness of a calling to ministry that is true for both spouses and not a new set of recipes?

What is the practical difference between "ministry wife," "docters wife" or "salesman wife." What would it look like to care not just for the women, but for the men who in God's name should not be working 70 hour weeks. How can our sessions become more involved in our accountability? I sense that the break down of marriage comes because we fail to put our marriages first, either by hiding behind the needs of our congregants, workaholism, our children, or a many number of other illicit loves. It seems easier to shepherd others and ignore our families.

I don't think any of my thoughts here are particularly new or poignant. My marraige is the number one thought on my mind and as my husband and I think about church planting, the loneliness and the potential for hiding looms large. May God protect our marriages!

A Place For Ministry Wives said...

You may be my new hero.

I just started a blog for ministry wives...and "oh" how their responses resonate the need for "care" in a way that so many fail to recognize.

Anonymous said...

Wow! That is so refreshing to me as a minister's wife. I am so hurt and frustrated by the expectations of being at all the church functions with perfectly behavied children and a joyful spirit. I feel like it is more about that church than about God. I am also made to feel guilty and unsupportive when I express my frustrations with my husband's schedule. I often do feel like a single parent, and I fear that my children will resent this as well. I do not know how to help my husband understand that Jesus should be our life and not church. I believe it should all be an over flow of our relationship with Him and I know my husband sacrifices his own spiritual relationship. I don't believe that is what God wants from us. I think it needs to first over flow into the family and then to the church and the world. I've been so disillusioned by all of this. I thought I would have spiritual intimacy with my husband, and yet that is the last thing we have. All spirituality seems to be external and focused on others. How I long to just pray together as a family or do a devotional together, or have my husband ask me about my personal relationship with Christ. He asks everyone else. Don't get me wrong, he is a wonderful loving man. He's just never had anyone set an example, and he certainly isn't learning it at seminary. I think he knows he should be doing things differently, but he doesn't know how. I would love to know any ways that I could help him without nagging him.