When NOT to Leave Your Church (Ministry Wife Edition)

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“How do we know when it is time to leave our church?”

It always breaks my heart to hear this question come from a ministry wife because she doesn’t ask it unless she and her family are feeling they are no longer effective in their current position or worse – the idea is being forced upon them in the form of attacks, accusations, and/or flat other rejection from people they hoped would always love them.

It’s an unfortunate reality that it is hard to fight one’s way back from this place of doubt and so often times we don’t even try.  We assume if we are feeling this despair it must be God telling us it is time to move on.  Notice how many times I am repeating ‘feeling’?  Feeling, feeling, feeling.  There may be times when we can trust our emotions as a confirmation of the Spirit’s leading but after a lot of years living the life, I can confidently tell you our feelings are the last things we can trust.

Are you feelin’ me?

So if we can’t trust that way our stomach sinks when we walk into our church, that anger that rises in us when our husband is maligned, that insecurity that says that circle of church women in the foyer are whispering about you, then what can you trust?  Well, girls.  The answer isn’t in a what but a Who.  Though certainly not an exhaustive list, I’m going to share some principles with you that Luke and I have followed on when NOT to leave.

 

1.  Don’t leave unless every biblical solution to conflict has been followed.

The church on earth is an imperfect entity filled with sinners and led by them.  Scripture tells us we war with one another because we do not get what we want. (James 4:1)  Relationally, we can either have our way or we can have our relationship but one of those always has to give to make room for the other. If we burn down the town to get our way with our specificities in tact then also let us remember that the bridges most often burn with it.   The firestorm may not be of our making but heaven help us if we don’t leave room for being wrong or at the very least the maturity to stand on another side of an argument from a brother or sister and keep our matches (and our pastor’s wife cards) in our pockets.

 

2. Don’t leave over a perceived lack of influence.

One of the greatest joys of ministry life is watching those people in our care blossom under the equipping of the Word and rise to assume their God-ordained place of service within the Body of Christ. One of the greatest discouragements of ministry is watching the others keep their seats Sunday after Sunday after yet another Sunday if they bother to come at all. It is very easy to get caught up in gauging effectiveness by response and when that doesn’t come – well – maybe it is time to move on.  Maybe the next pastor’s family will be what they need to compel them from complacency to calling.

While we have our eyes on the masses is it possible we are overlooking the baby steps of the ‘ones’?  That one quiet family who has been visiting for months and just requested a meeting for membership? That one man who has been devouring the Word and now volunteered to fill an open teaching position?  That woman who has been stuck for a very long time and made the first step in connecting by jumping into the car on a Girls’ Night Out? That one young couple who listens intently to every sermon and in the ways relevant to them are putting in to practice those principles of wisdom that will change the entire course of their family?  They are out there but we have to focus to see them.

 

3. Don’t leave without clear scriptural leading  and/or confirmation from prayer or other trusted confidants OUTSIDE the church.

If your family is like mine, you remain in a constant state of evaluating your ministry and this question we are addressing of leaving is the one that dances on the edge of our hearts and minds more than any of us want to admit. In those times when we HAVE left – and they have been few thank the Lord – it has not been on a whim or impulse.  It was because over the course of time and not just one page-flipping, finger-pointing session of Scripture reading that we both strongly sensed that God was moving us on for both our sake and that of the church.  As if that weren’t enough, in all of those circumstances there was also another opportunity for ministry that had presented itself (i.e., we weren’t just quitting) and therefore we found ourselves discerning God’s will in that decision. We also sought wise counsel from trusted friends in ministry who were not connected with our current church and could give us objective advice and encouragement.

And can I insert a little practical advice here?  It is NOT ungodly or greedy to consider the provisions of a future ministry for your family in helping make that decision. Please don’t misunderstand, Luke and I have taken on ministry assignments that we were completely compelled by the Spirit to accept with no understanding whatsoever how we would survive financially. (And I will add high praises here for our current church who is beyond generous and more than provides for our every need.) But there is also nothing wrong at all with knowing your family’s needs and letting that be a consideration as you weigh options.  Sometimes it is more a matter of the church exercising faith in providing for the minister than it is the minister agreeing to work for the salary that can not possibly support your family.

4. Don’t leave in haste. 

Luke has been teaching an excellent sermon series on Sundays out of Ephesians 4 and one of his expressions in expositing (is that a word?) being angry and yet not sinning is to avoid “flying hot”.  It’s a thing easier said than done. Who among us has ever made a rash decision in the heat of conflict and said or done something you just can’t take back? I’ve known of ministers to resign like that – in fact we did once. Sort of. (We weren’t actually on staff. It’s long and complicated.) But the fact remains much can be resolved if we count to 10 or 4023, take a step back instead of a stomp in, and respond with a cool head instead of react with a hot one. Don’t fly hot. Don’t fly in haste. This may just be one of those things you wrestle through as a Body that will grow you closer than ever if you see the thing through to it’s end.

5. Don’t leave until you do leave. 

This one is huge because it is the place where I am the most tempted.  We have entrusted our hearts to people we consider a second family and in return have had it spliced, diced, and handed back to us on a platter by the ones you thought would guard it. And so we wrap it up and take it home and resolve to not give it back. Ever. We show up Sunday after Wednesday after Sunday and we are doing the ministry with all the affection of a robot. In fact, Siri would come across as more friendly.

Can I be your big sister here? Until the Lord has physically moved your family to the next place of service then your heart belongs in your now place of service. You can not be forwardly faithful.  Faithfulness happens right where we are, not where we want to be. Unwrap that heart – that seat of feeling and emotion and fire – bloody and wounded as it may be, and give it back. And if you can’t give it back to the people just yet then at least give it back to God and ask Him to rekindle the passion to serve His Bride once again.  The feeling will come back. I promise.

 

I am a terrible blogger but have been compelled for quite some time now to put these few thoughts to screen. I pray they find their home in just the heart who needed them.  Whether present or absent, writing daily or scarcely at all, those of you serving in ministry have my heart and I only ask the Lord to make yours mighty and strong and able for the great work to which you have been entrusted.

Ministry Wife Series: BFF’s in the Church Pews?

I received an email with a question that on the surface may seem easy to answer, but in reality can be a hotbed of controversy.  The answers could easily fill an entire book but obviously we don’t have that kind of space.  For that reason, we will address some foundational principles on this topic and perhaps delve into it more in future articles.  Here is what Patty asked:

“Besides your  husband, has God given you a best friend to share your ups and downs with?”

In short, I will say yes; however, it is a plural yes. Let me explain.

There is a quote I read a few months back by Jim Rohn that says, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”  I have no idea who this man is or what his motivation was for his comment, but I think we can apply this concept spiritually.

How you ask? Picture yourself among five other women. If you are the average, then some are ahead of you in some respect, some are beside, and some are behind.  Here is how I interpret this imagery in regard to balancing my personal friendships:

  1. Have friends you need. I have a lot of different friends whom I consider my BFF’s and all of them for different reasons.  The women who are my pour-my-heart-out-with-no-fear-of-judgement friends are ironically ones I talk to infrequently in comparison to my other buddies.  A couple of these are women I consider my spiritual mothers.  I can be vulnerable with them because they don’t expect me to have the answers and are truly invested in wanting to see God’s best in me.  I crave their input in my life because I trust their motivations where I am concerned. Can these women be found in your church pews?  I will hesitantly say yes if you use the model of a Titus Two relationship. I have benefited so much from the senior women in our congregations who have reached out with their wisdom in mothering and my walk with God. There are precautions to be taken in this area as well as the other two I will mention that we will address in just a moment.How does one find a mentor?  In my experience they will sometimes find you.  The two women I count on most in my life pointed out a gift they saw in me and spent some time helping me find ways to use it. However, there is another whose ministry and walk with the Lord was one I admired so I made the first step in asking for counsel.
  2. Have  friends who don’t need you. Luke and I were talking just the other day about some friends of ours who make us laugh our heads off.  They are always our comic relief when we are stressed to the hilt.  I’m not saying they don’t need us as friends.  Obviously, we love and pray for one another.  But they are completely and spiritually healthy and when we are with them, we can be free to talk about something besides church.  You may think that is a horrible statement to make, but you will serve God and your families well by giving yourself a mental break from time to time.  Funny friends are a great way to do that.
  3. Have friends who DO need you. Now we are back full circle to where we began.  I believe it is essential that we pour ourselves into less spiritually mature women of any age.  No doubt you can think of one woman whom you’ve recognized a spiritual gift and is not using it to its potential.  Has it occurred to you that she doesn’t know she has it?  Tell her! The only reason I am teaching, speaking, and writing today is because fourteen years ago someone told me they thought I’d be good at it and created the opportunity for me to try.  A fire was lit that still burns today.

I have found that if I have an unequal balance in any of these areas, friendships can become a source of stress instead of joy.  If I have too many mentors, I find myself becoming needy and feeling I don’t measure up.  If I have too many people who don’t need me, my zeal for relational ministry can diminish.  If I have too many people craving spiritual counsel, I feel sucked dry.  Your group of friends will shift over time but ideally, that is a great thing.  A changing circle of girlfriends will show your congregation you are open to new relationships and give no cause to anyone accusing you of fostering cliques.

I think it is important to establish a Friend Philosophy to guide your own church relationships. You will find all these categories of women in your congregations and it is my strong belief you should seek to open your heart to the women whom you are serving.  As a layperson reading this article, there are ways you can encourage your ministers’ wives and help them to feel loved.  With that said, here are a few considerations for all of us:

  • NEVER discuss delicate church matters with a church member.  I’ve made it my own rule to never be the person who discloses new information about a person or situation in the church unless I am asked specifically to share it via prayer request, etc.  If in doubt, keep your mouth closed!   Layperson:  Be considerate of your ministers’ wives and don’t ask them questions you know they shouldn’t be at liberty to answer.
  • ALWAYS  leave room in your life for a new friend.  Women in our church pews need to know they are loved and accepted.  You have no idea the impact of the ministry wife’s inclusion can mean to a woman whose been struggling to belong.  Layperson:  Do you feel shunned by your minister and/or his family?  Try taking the first step and inviting them over to dinner or out for an icecream.  Sometimes they don’t come because you don’t ask.
  • Never air marital dirty laundry.  It can be so tempting to tell a girlfriend about our latest argument with our man or how he never helps with the kids, etc., etc. but your church members, no matter how great of friends, are not the people who need to hear that.  You can overlook his imperfections – your friend can use them to justify a subversive attitude by looking at him as your loser husband instead of the leader of her church. Layperson: Remember your pastor       has flaws and is no more perfect than your own hubby.  Give him permission to be human.  
  • ALWAYS have one safe friend who has nothing to do with your church.

I have a lifelong girlfriend that I can call night or day and tell her any crazy thing going on in our church or with our family. (I’m looking at you, Kelly H.) She doesn’t know anyone I’m talking about.  She won’t judge.  She’ll tell me if I am wrong.  The blog community is also an excellent source of safe friendships where we can be more detailed in asking for prayer, advice, etc. when church gets stressful. Layperson:  Don’t begrudge your ministry wife for having a close friend.  Hopefully, she’s trying to do the friend thing well and is open to having you as part of her life.

I hope these pointers will help as you seek to befriend the women in your congregations. Thanks, Patty, for a great question!

Ministry Wife Series: Dinner and A Funeral

I received an email from a darling girl I’ll call Lindsey.  Her husband is new to the full-time pastorate and her note perfectly represented so many of us who struggle with finding a balance between the time required to effectively minister to the church versus the energy needed to keep those home fires burning.

Here’s an excerpt from Lindsey’s letter:

“We are having the hardest time finding a balance in our relationship and his relationship with the church, and I was wondering if you had any advice to offer me.  He is either always on the phone or with church members, or we are at the hospitals, or a funeral.  I joke with him all the time that we don’t do dinner and a movie for dates–we do dinner and a funeral.”

Been there. Done  that. Got the collection of black dresses  to prove it.

The way to address this particular issue can vary somewhat based on the amount of time you’ve served in your current position. Obviously, it is much easier to state your family priorities before accepting a pastorate so there can be no question later if you choose your son’s championship baseball game over Sister Susie’s cousin’s hernia surgery.

However, most of the time we find ourselves a few months or maybe even a few years into our current ministry and have zealously said ‘yes!’ to every request made in hopes of making Jesus proud and assuring the people you are worth all that money they pay you. So what do you do when the candle that has been burning from  both ends finally meets in the middle?

1. Evaluate the Situation

The most important gifts you and your husband can give one another are those of honesty and patience.  Is he spending too much time away from home?  Does he put the needs of others in front of your family’s needs? Is his mind somewhere else when he’s with you?  Then girls, it is time to talk! Don’t let those feelings fester into private resentment and bitterness.  An honest assessment of where you are and where you would rather be relationally is step one in working together toward a solution.

 

2. Prayerfully and gently let your husband know how you are feeling.

Proverbs 21:19 rightly says, “Better to live in a desert than with a  quarrelsome and ill-tempered wife.”   As with any situation that comes up in your marriage, the approach  affects the reaction.  “Honey, I’m really concerned about how hard you are working and how very little we see you”, will be received much more calmly than, “I am SO sick of you being gone all the time!”

Put yourself in your hubby’s shoes. Most likely he isn’t any happier with the situation than you are but doesn’t quite know where to draw the line between personal and church life. I can promise you he will be more willing to find a solution if you are a refuge for him rather than another battle he must fight.

 

3. Avoid growing bitter towards the church for your husband’s preoccupations.

It can be so tempting when things are not going well in our marital relationship to seek someone or something to blame – in this case the church who is taking him away from us. Often Our husband’s tendency to overwork has nothing to do with any actual criticism but rather his own sense of What will people think if I don’t make sure the youth have an outing every single month or if they see my vehicle at home during the 8-to-5 hours? My own husband can be guilty sometimes of putting way more pressure on  himself than anyone has ever placed on him.

In Denise George’s book, What Women Wish Pastors Knew, she reports that a majority of the women who responded to her surveys, “worry that a pastor’s role leaves him with ‘insufficient time’ for his own family.1 This revelation is a confirmation to me that–though certainly unfair expectations are placed on our families–the congregation isn’t always the source of the burden. Sometimes, it is our hubby’s own work ethic and fear of being seen as the stereotypical, ‘only-has-to-work-one-day-a-week’, preacher.

 

4.  Determine a plan of action together and be patient as it is implemented.

If you have determined that your schedule needs to change, then decide together how to streamline hubby’s calendar. Can he plan visits for one day a week instead of spreading them over five? If you are an associate pastor’s wife, can you help with some planning related to your next event (youth, choral, discipleship)? Can he publish scheduled office hours for counseling/etc. so the congregation will know convenient times to meet.  Obviously, there will always be emergencies that arise and blow the best laid plans out of the water, but knowing he is trying and that you are a part of the solution instead of the “dripping faucet”  that sends him running out the door will make these times much easier to accept.

Most importantly, be patient with him as he incorporates these plans into his schedule. As with any new thing done in church life, you can’t make ten changes at once. Choose one thing and once working well, move on to the next.

 

5. Involve the church leadership in your plan of action. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being honest with the church and telling them when you are overwhelmed. There are wise and unwise ways to do this but for now just know that the same positive attitude in which you approach your husband when the schedule is out-of-kilter should be the same heart in which you talk with the leaders of your church. I believe the majority of parishioners want to love and support their ministers and are willing to do whatever is necessary to encourage healthy relationships within the body and in your personal family.

 

What Can a Church Do?

My husband and I are blessed to be part of a congregation who demonstrates their love in intangible and tangible ways.  Here are a few ways that church members can acknowledge the importance of the ministers’ family:

  • Give a gift certificate for a night out and arrange for  babysitting if necessary.
  • Send them to a conference you know they would enjoy.
  • Do you have a favorite couples’ devotional book?  Give them a copy.
  • Pray for their families to be strong, healthy, and encouraged.
  • Go out of your way to recognize the signs of burnout in your ministers and express your support. Let him know if he’s working too hard and give him permission to relax!

These are just a few suggestions for turning Dinner and a Funeral back to Dinner and a Movie.  Thank you, ‘Lindsey’, for a great question!

References:

1.  Denise George, What  Women Wish Pastors Knew (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 138.

 

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