We’ve talked about pastoral burnout before on this blog–about what a big problem it is for Christian churches, many of which are now scrambling to find qualified leaders–but there’s one aspect to that burnout that we haven’t covered much. That aspect is the burnout of those pastors’ wives, which can happen totally independently of their husbands’ burnout or alongside it. Their burnout might even be worse than that of their husbands, but these wives’ predicament gets next to no attention in Christian eyes. It’s happening for a very specific reason, too, and tells us something specific about the religion–though the women facing the problem don’t realize it yet. Today I’ll show you what this problem looks like, what the women dealing with the problem make of it, and what it means for the religion as a whole.
This is seriously the saddest group of people I’ve encountered lately in Christianity. I’m warning you now: this was hard for me to write about, and it may be, in turn, hard to read about. But I think it’s necessary as the endcap to our series on Meaning and Purpose in Life. These women represent the darkest side possible to the way Christians regard those topics: the counterpoint of truth to the mythology they’ve built up over the years.
Here, then, is their story.
Meet the Wives’ Club.
The Pastor’s wife is the only woman I know who is asked to work full time without pay on her husband’s job, in a role no one has yet defined.
Ruthe White, What Every Pastor’s Wife Should Know (1986)
Pastors’ wives are a very special bunch of women in fundagelical culture. Pastors themselves get called (which is Christianese for “they really wanted to do this thing, so they’re saying a god told them to do it”), but pastors’ wives usually just go along for the ride and often have no idea in the world what awaits them should their husbands ascend to the pulpit. Even the women who think they totally want to be a pastor’s wife when they’re younger, before they’ve even met their husbands, don’t usually know what’s involved.
Part of the reason for their ignorance is that the role of a pastor’s wife is shrouded and veiled–on purpose. When I was Pentecostal, it wasn’t until my then-boyfriend Biff (later husband) started aiming for ministry that I got to know some of the other ministers’ wives and learned what they had to do to support their husbands. Even then, I got a kiddie version of the experience.
Ironically, our denomination’s Bible College (that’s like a seminary, but way less rigorous and scholarly; they function as indoctrination stations for fundagelicals) had a series of courses for women who wished to become pastors’ wives; the courses involved how to type and file, host a gathering of other church ladies, and maybe lead a Sunday School class or play the keyboard to accompany the singing of what would probably be a very small church to start off with. To my knowledge, however, the soft skills involved weren’t really covered–and neither were the hardships of that life.
A pastor’s wife is the living embodiment of her husband’s authority and rule, to those Christians, so she absolutely has to live up to their expectations of what a Christian woman should be like–times ten. She has to be godly (that’s Christianese for “living up to the purely subjective vision of Christian femininity that her judges maintained in their heads”), a perfect mother, a solidly loyal and obedient ally of her husband’s, tireless, generous to a fault with her time and resources, and able to function by herself for long periods of time.
What’s even worse is that many denominations demand that their pastors be married–preferably with children, too. Many churches also require that their pastor have no divorces on his record–which means that a pastor who divorces will very likely lose his position. This requirement turns out to have practical advantages for the church, which gets two workers for the price of one. But it also means that the woman involved here will have to work for no pay and no recognition–and often not even acknowledgement of her contributions to the church.
The lucky woman who fulfills this role will quickly learn that she will be receiving little to no support from her tribe. If she gets frustrated, she can’t say so because a proper Christian woman isn’t ever supposed to be frustrated. If she is exhausted, she still can’t refuse a request to bake cookies for Sunday School or drop everything to rush to the hospital with her husband to comfort someone sick. If she feels lonely, she can’t seek companionship because people don’t want to hobnob with the pastor’s wife for a variety of reasons–and she can’t ask for that companionship from her husband, because chances are he’s super-busy right then. She must be smiling and polite to everyone–or the tribe will leap with both feet upon her to punish her for not conforming to the image they have in their heads of the perfect pastor’s wife.
In a very major way, a pastor’s wife lives in a fishbowl that even her husband might not see. Her home must be spotlessly clean and organized, because if it isn’t and a congregant sees it, it sure won’t be her husband who gets the sniping afterward. If her church has a dress code for women, she must follow it to the letter at all times. Her children must be perfectly well-behaved, because if they mouth off to someone or get caught doing something off-limits, it is not their father who will face the tribe’s wrath.
And not a bit of what I’ve just described is fully outlined to these women before they take the leap.
They only hear the sanitized version of what pastors’ wives face in their everyday lives. It’s not till after they enter the role that the reality hits home–and by then it’s too late to back out.
Sometimes you’ll hear a pastor give a testimony (that’s Christianese for a sales pitch that vaguely resembles events in that Christian’s life) involving his professional path that features a quick mention of him asking his wife for “permission” to enter the ministry.
Obviously, in these stories the wife always encourages her husband to follow his so-called calling–otherwise he wouldn’t be standing there on the pulpit, right? But we do not ever hear about the men who asked for their wives’ permission only to have the idea rejected out of hand. The women in these stories always say yes–sometimes it’s a qualified yes, but it’s always a yes. And the men are always so wide-eyed and astonished and happy that their wives agreed to this change in course.
I’ve literally never heard one of these stories that ended with the wife telling her husband that no, she absolutely didn’t want him to become a minister, so he kiboshed the idea and became a plumber instead. There may well be a few of them out there–Christianity is a huge religion, after all–but I’ve sure never personally heard of any of these mythical women. Their agreement is always presented as part of a package of good signs telling the husband that he’s totally right, his god did totally call him to ministry.
A married couple in fundagelicalism is regarded as one person in a lot of ways, most especially in ministry. A minister needs a wife very much to handle all those day-to-day things that he won’t have time to do. Plus, if they’re out of agreement about something as serious as his calling, then he might not do as good a job; the imagery I heard back then was of two oxen that were trying to go their own way while pulling a plow–they both had to be pulling in the same direction or the master driving them wouldn’t get the work done! (Yes, I know it’s insulting and degrading to be thought of like that, but that really is the metaphor people used in my neck of the woods–and proudly at that.) So a wife’s permission is considered to be one of the signs that demonstrate that “God” totally spoke to that man.
Since fundagelicals also generally consider promises binding forever and ever (at least until they themselves must break one), a pastor’s wife who decides she needs to get out of it is in a real pickle. She can’t quit the role–because then her husband’s “calling” will be questioned. If he’s still new at the job, he might not even be allowed to minister anymore. She might as well become a sex worker, when one considers the damage she’ll do to her husband’s witness (that’s Christianese for someone’s reputation with the tribe–someone with a bad witness is going to have a tough time getting into and staying in ministry, while someone with a good witness could pretty much get caught in the act of assaulting a child and the tribe will still show up at the trial with supportive messages on banners to lift his spirits).
This is one promise that all but cries out to be broken, but the women stuck in these roles typically don’t feel free to do that.
The Broken System Is Always Perfect.
There are a lot of reasons why the fundagelical social system is such a brutal disaster for the women who inhabit it, but there are three main reasons why it’s especially hard for pastors’ wives.
If a Christian tells someone that a real live god personally told him or her to go do something, then it’s really hard for anyone else to contradict that notion. Generally speaking, only someone with way more authority than the Christian in question can do it–and even then this pushback is not always successful. A woman doesn’t have anywhere near the authority needed to push back against a man’s word, in fundagelical culture.
The situation is even worse for the unfortunate fundagelical woman who finds herself married to a man who’s gotten some sort of personal revelation from the Christian god: she’s considered to be under his authority and subject to his rule, so she really can’t gainsay him without facing a lot of fallout. He might well take her refusal as a sign that “Jesus” really does want him to become a minister–that kind of bizarro logic figures into quite a lot of testimonies I’ve heard.
If something goes totally pear-shaped with the “calling” that a Christian receives, then the blame gets laid purely upon that Christian’s shoulders. So a pastor’s wife who feels herself sliding into burnout often gets blamed for feeling frustrated, exhausted, drained, and angry. In Christianity, the system is always perfect; it can never be the problem. So any problems a Christian has while struggling within it must be that person’s fault. They did something wrong–even if their judges can’t tell what they did that was so bad.
If someone does publicly mention having a major problem in their life in that culture, their tribemates have a limited range of responses to that problem; the ones they do have are guaranteed not to help at all. In the case of burned-out pastors’ wives, if they ever dare reveal that they’re suffering, chances are really good that they’ll be told to do more of the stuff that is already totally failing to help them: to pray more, to volunteer more, to give more of themselves. Here’s one example of exactly that crazy-making nonsense in the wild. That’s all fundagelicals have in their toolbox, so if those things aren’t working already, then the solution will always be to do more of those things. (This cultural issue is also the reason why Christians tell their doubting peers that they need to pray more and read the Bible more often, and that’ll totally cure their doubts.)
One of Christianity’s central teachings is that their god doesn’t give people more than they can take, which is not only demonstrably untrue but pernicious and cruel besides. So if someone feels like they can’t take another moment of the demands upon them, I can guarantee that that person will be told that they need to do more Jesus-y things and if they do enough of that, then their god will totally help them endure their current trials and more–unless he doesn’t, in which case they’re obviously sinning or not doing enough.
I have had enough. Reading the other posts is reassuring that I am not losing my mind but that there are many other pastor’s wives who are experiencing this. It’s a lonely road where you can’t talk to anyone about it without being judged because of your position. .
Hopeful JVA, Pastor Burnout
All these facets of Christianity’s broken system combine to produce a sort of hell on Earth for pastors’ wives. They aren’t free to confess how little they like their lives or to push back on the demands put upon them. They can’t tell anybody that they don’t want that life anymore. They can’t let up on their Happy Christian Marriage illusion or their husbands may lose their jobs, throwing the family onto the streets with not a nickle to their names and no support at all from their onetime church family (that’s Christianese for the church a Christian joins; they are as much like a real family as a monster truck rally is like a symphony). And if someone does by some happy chance sympathize with these women at all, all that person can do is parrot fundagelical talking points, meaningless aphorisms, and advice that is worse than useless.
Above all, the women embarking on their new lives as pastors’ wives literally have no idea what’s coming their way. There’s no shortage of resources online and in print about the topic of being a pastor’s wife–but none of them talk much about the reality of the role. It’s always presented in the ultra-sanitized version that I received once, as if it’s a sales pitch–which it is, very much.
Nobody ever talks about the reality these women are wading into beyond veiled references to the role’s difficulty–and anything that might sound critical is always balanced with glowing descriptions of the supposed rewards they’ll reap for their great sacrifice.
In seeing the folklore presented about pastors’ wives, it reminds me of how a lot of people describe parenting–no matter how hellish their descriptions get, they always end one of their grisly anecdotes with oh but it’s sooooo worrrrrrth it! and all the other parents nod and smile tightly. If they don’t, they know that a whole village-full of outraged parents will soon leap upon them to tear them apart for violating the code of secrecy. Pastors’ wives have the same fear, and for the same reasons.
(And yeah, it really rattles me that I almost joined their ranks when I was Christian, and I sure as hell had no idea what I was signing up for.)
The worst part of it all is that Christians do sometimes engage with the topic of burnout among pastors’ wives. Their solutions, however, are less than effective. They can’t even really engage with the problem realistically and fully, so they’re not going to be able to fix it. A real fix would require the rejection and overhaul of the system itself, too, and I don’t see many fundagelicals clamoring to do that.
Desperate, Unappreciated, Discouraged, and Alone.
HELP WANTED: Pastor’s wife. Must sing, play music, lead youth groups, raise seraphic children, entertain church notables, minister to other wives, have ability to recite Bible backward and choreograph Christmas pageant. Must keep pastor sated, peaceful and out of trouble. Difficult colleagues, demanding customers, erratic hours. Pay: $0.
–Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, “Pastors’ Wives Come Together,” Time.com.
The fantasy life presented to women considering life as a pastor’s wife makes it sound difficult but rewarding. The reality is considerably different: it’s downright torturous, with little to no reward or appreciation.
While a number of Christians have taken it upon themselves to address this issue, they simply can’t engage with it squarely. They therefore can offer no tangible support available for struggling wives that those women can utilize without drastically penalizing themselves and their husbands.
One site, Music Academy, offers a list of signs that indicate that a person is burning out. This list will look very familiar to pastors’ wives: constant exhaustion and drained feelings; unexplained headaches and bodily aches; a desire to isolate oneself; feeling that nothing one does makes any difference or is appreciated; feeling helpless, like there’s no way out; and cynicism and negativity towards life. But it’s hard to imagine any woman reading that list and recognizing herself in it and yet being able to take advantage of their solutions. The author of that post suggests that women “slow down, get support, and reevaluate life.” Of course, not one of these options is actually available to pastors’ wives.
Another site, All About God, cites some unnamed study or other that indicates that about 80% of pastors’ wives describe their lives as desperate, unappreciated, discouraged, and totally lacking in support. (Surreally, the post ends with them issuing a downright bizarre call for conversion and repentance–as if their description of the terrible lives of these women is a compelling reason to convert.) I’m just surprised that the number is as low as they claim it to be. I’d say it’s closer to 100%, myself. They offer no options at all to women in this situation.
One older pastor’s wife writes movingly of the stress that women in her role face, but you can see that balancing act on full display; she has to constantly reassure her readers that no no, really it’s allllll worrrrth it. She even has to couch her blog entry’s title as a question: “Do Pastors’ Wives Ever Face Burnout?” (as if there’s a question about it). In her post, she describes the desperation of the women seeking a safe harbor to talk about their hardships–and how frustrated she is with her peers for not even acknowledging or recognizing that pastors’ wives might need support or help.
The author of that post ends lamely by concluding that why yes, pastors’ wives need help, but that they can’t reach for it without retaliation from the loving ambassadors of the Prince of Peace that they all serve. She offers no solutions at all, probably because there really aren’t any, and it seems unlikely that any Christians who aren’t already on board with her ideas will ever read what she’s written, much less start rallying for changes in their church culture at home. Her one suggestion, that it’d be really nice if Christians acknowledged that sometimes a pastor’s wife needs a sabbatical, isn’t given with any hope that her tribe will actually act upon it–or even agree with it.
A heartbreaking post from Ministry Today begins by assuring readers that “this is not a feel-sorry-for-us article,” because heavens forfend that someone might seek sympathy for their pain. The author of it goes through a 10-point list of all the stuff that pastors’ wives must do to fulfill their role. And this post does the same balancing act we’ve seen in the other posts in its 10-point list of stuff that a pastor’s wife should do if she starts feeling burnout–and offers the same non-solutions to them that everyone else does: pray more, do more, don’t ever ask for anything for yourself, don’t ever ask for affirmation, and most of all don’t ever give up because then your children “will not fulfill their destiny.”
It’s the most conciliatory-sounding post of the bunch, but also the most horrific and repulsive in my opinion in its veiled threats and its completely nonsensical advice. A woman reading it will come away with the certainty that she must continue to live a lie, under threat of her rebellion affecting her very children.
A Tentative Revolt.
I feel all that the other wives go through. I’m depressed , I wanna give up, I don’t live up to the standard and expectations of the church, I sin.
Michell, Pastor Burnout
Despite the demands put upon pastors’ wives, though, they are somehow finding ways to express their very real desperation and anguish. The internet has finally given them the refuge from their lives’ frustrations that their tribe has refused to allow.
Through forums that allow them anonymity, these women are finally giving voice to their despair and anger.
A site called Pastor Burnout offers up dozens of these women’s stories. It begins with a pastor “of a large church in two locations” whose wife has just told him that she suffers from depression. His response, of course, is to pray together more often–and to meet with a “pastoral counselor,” but he’s despondent because “sometimes she does not want to pray.” I’m betting she wasn’t really enthusiastic about meeting with the quack counselor he found, either. In the comments to that post, dozens of women respond; many of them aren’t actually talking to him, seeking instead to simply unload their own pain now that a man has given them tacit permission to talk about their situations.
One woman, Liz Levesque, talks about how much her husband adored being a pastor–but she “was a blip.” He got accolades and praise; she was “barely noticed.” And she handled every bit of the childcare and housework tasks because he was always tired. Her husband didn’t heed her warning signs–even when she quit going to church altogether for three years. Finally, she flat-out told him that he either quit the ministry or she was taking the kids and leaving; to her relief, he chose his family over ministry and got a job in the secular sector. She advises the OP (original poster) to put his wife first or he might lose her entirely. (It sounds like eventually he got his wife to the quack counselor, realized that he was depressed too and covering up his real emotions, and started healing his relationship.)
Over and over again, women share their pain on that site. One woman, “Senior Pastor’s Wife,” talked about how sometimes she just locks herself in a bathroom stall at church to cry. Another, “29 and Holding,” talks about how her family is suffering financially and lacks proper health insurance–and she is lonely, so very lonely. Another talks about feeling “stuck” and being unable to leave because if she does, her family will be “buried financially.” Another declares that she feels guilty about how she feels, that her role is “life draining,” but can’t even talk about her feelings to her husband. “Minister’s Wife” was downright shocked at how nasty Christians can be, and hints that she never would have married a minister if she’d really known what lay in store for her (she blames her depression and her growing desire to skip church on Satan–really). “Michell” cries out that she is terribly depressed and despondent–and ends by citing Bible verses that are meant to prop up her flagging resolve.
“Am I crazy” is close to simply deconverting over her experiences–including verbal abuse by her hypocrite husband.
“After 30 yrs I’ve had it. I’ve lost my love of Church. . . I am at a loss. I can’t do anything right. . . It should be a love a joy but instead it is my heartbreak,” says another anonymous woman.
“I’m ready to walk away,” says a depressed woman, relaying how much drudgery she is expected to do as her husband’s helper–even though he cheats on her constantly. (Her solution is to ask for the other people on that site to pray for her.) She is joined by another pastor’s wife whose husband informed her in their 16th year of marriage that he was unfaithful to her and had only married her because their denomination demanded that pastors be married. Many other women outline similar hypocrisy in their husbands.
“Hopeful JVA” writes that she is “on the edge” and expresses how valuable it is to her that so many other women have experienced the burnout that she feels. That relief is echoed in many other women’s posts.
And that’s all on just one site.
Don’t Worry, Everyone! One Christian Knows What to Do!
On another forum that allows anonymous sharing, Experience Project, another pastor’s wife opens up a similar discussion about her frustrations and trials. I wish I’d archived it before she deleted her post, but it’s not surprising at all that she got the full brunt of her tribe’s version of “Christian love” and felt she had to do so.
In response to what the OP shared, dozens and dozens of women opened up about their own experiences. It’s pretty much of a muchness; the women report feeling neglected, ignored, degraded, and forced into roles that they simply can’t perform. They are growing desperate for real solutions that do not seem forthcoming in their broken system. One describes herself as “Drowning in Misery” and outlines how “evil, hypocritical, [and] back-biting” her husband’s church congregants are. Another says that her life “is a living hell.”
But in the middle of all of it, “hisnaughtygirl69” charges in to announce that she’s marrying a preacher soon and is totally looking forward to her future life as a pastor’s wife, hooray Team Jesus! Oh, and says archly declares, “you people don’t know me, so please don’t judge me.” She feels “extremely blessed to have received this calling.” She is “sooo blessed that God gave this wonderful person [her fiance] to me.” When someone who actually is smack in the middle of the role thanks her for her misplaced enthusiasm, she replies with glurge: “God knows just what we need when we need it!” A pity that her sisters in the traces can’t share her joy, or even her conviction that her god helps anybody.
It’s been a few years since “hisnaughtygirl69” wrote that bombastic post; I wonder if she eventually figured out just what she signed up for and managed to maintain her chirpy attitude. It almost sounds insulting to read her brief missives, as if she’s trying to slap those other women as not being Jesus-y enough, but really she’s just echoing the folklore of her broken system. It’s not her speaking, it’s her deep indoctrination. When I first read what she wrote, I seriously winced and thought Man, reality is gonna hit this kid and hit her hard one day soon.
But the only person to respond to her was thankful to see someone that enthusiastic–in the same way as Christians tend to reward newlyweds who declare that they know everything there is to know about how to conduct a marriage. Strangely, the people with the most experience with the beastie seem like the least likely to say anything good about the teachings that produce the beastie.
When Divinely-Handed-Out Meanings Go Seriously Sour.
Most Christians feel that their ministers are divinely-called to their task, and that their tasks are greatly meaningful as well as rich in purpose. By the same token, most pastors’ wives would say (at least initially) that their god literally called them to marry their husbands and thus to become pastors’ wives. The more controlling and toxic the group is, the more gung-ho they are on this idea.
It is only much later that the women involved here realize that it’s very unlikely that any deities had any hand in how their lives or their husbands’ lives worked out.
These miserable, wretched women know very well that the system in which they live doesn’t work. But they are stuck there. They don’t know how to escape and there are very few workable options to ease their burden. A few very lucky women finally find their voices and demand that their husbands leave ministry entirely, and a few others follow the formula allowed to women in this position–to pray lots and lots–and somehow reconnect with their initial joy in servitude.
But the rest languish and think that they are totally alone, that there is no way out, and that nothing can make it better.
This is what toxic Christianity–and to a certain extent any toxic group–looks like from the inside. This despair, confusion, shame, guilt, and anger is what the religion really brings to people. This is what happens when people mistake supernatural promises for reality, and even worse try to live their lives by fairy tales and myths. This is how seriously bad it can get when someone has only magical thinking and more magical thinking to resolve a bad situation. This is the natural result of the dishonesty that is endemic in a broken system; this is naturally what happens when the group isn’t tethered firmly to reality and able to self-correct–and aren’t allowed to decide for themselves what their life paths should look like.
And the closer and deeper someone gets to the heart of a culture like that, the worse it all gets.
And most of all, oh most of all, this is what it looks like when people start thinking that a real live god is involved with any aspect of their lives.
There is only one way to win at this particular game, and that way involves walking away from it entirely. And pastors’ wives are finally taking the very first steps away by coming together to finally–even if tentatively and anonymously–voice their frustration with a system that cares so little about their needs.
We’re going to review I’m Not Ashamed on Saturday, and the hooch shall be: whatever reminds you most of your high school years! I’ll be starting at 5pm on Saturday with a cold Mike’s Hard Lemonade, with a pregame post put up earlier in the afternoon–feel free to follow along in the comments when we start!