My husband and I have been in full-time vocational ministry since the day we were married. People ask me what it’s like to be a pastor’s wife, and I tell them I don’t know what it’s like to not be one. His calling colors every part of my life in a way that’s difficult to explain and, in a way, difficult to understand even for myself.
Some well-meaning people, wanting to ease whatever pressure they imagine I feel, have cheerily explained to me how I am no different than other women in the church and should not imagine I had to “do” anything. During one such recent conversation, the well-meaning person was interrupted twice as they were speaking: once by a volunteer who asked me to pass along the visitor cards to my husband, and the second time by a new visitor who “just had to meet the pastor’s wife” and had been pointed in my direction. “As you were saying…” I said, hoping the irony had not been lost on them.
The difference between church relationships and friendships
The truth is that being the pastor’s wife is not a biblically assigned role, nor is it a job, but on a weekly and even daily basis every pastor’s wife must navigate social scenarios and church situations that arise only because she’s married to the pastor. I’ve mostly learned to embrace this, because I see how God has given me influence and how I can use it to honor Him and bless others. But in all my years as a pastor’s wife, by far the most difficult consequences of my husband’s job to navigate have been friendship and social relationships.
Just this morning, my husband told me we’d been invited to dinner at someone’s house, and we discussed whether or not we could commit the date they’d offered. I felt immediately overwhelmed, because I thought about the emails with similar requests waiting for a reply in my inbox. I’m grateful for the invitations. I also want to remain open-hearted to everyone in our neighborhood, everyone in our community group, everyone on our staff team, all the parents of the kids on our children’s sports teams, and everyone in our church at large, but the deepest truth is that what I really want is friendship. I’m surrounded by lovely people and countless relationships, but relationships don’t always equate to friendship, and I tend to forget that.
Fellow pastor’s wives, we must have a hearty understanding of what friendship actually is, because after years of ministry, we tend to lose the ability to discern between a relationship and a friendship. We may even feel as if we’ve lost ourselves or our ability to make friends beneath the busyness of ministry. So let me remind us: Friendship always starts with this idea of mutuality.
Many times, being open-hearted to others as the pastor’s wife means being a listener and an initiator, two things I don’t mind at all being. But friendship is not about always listening or taking the lead; friendship is about mutuality.
I think back to the invitations in my inbox. Does the woman inviting me to coffee need counsel or does she want to get to know me? I often don’t know until I’m sitting across the table from her. If there are sparks of mutuality, in which I’m asked questions or there is some sort of interest and care shown toward me as I do for her, I may have a potential friend. And I thank God for those women.
I can practically hear your rebuttal through the computer screen: it’s not as easy or clear-cut as that. Yes, but having discernment is the necessary first step toward friendship. We must allow ourselves the freedom to distinguish friends among the many relationships we have. We also cannot steward or pursue friendships we can’t even name. We are limited people and must draw lines somewhere, whether it’s regarding our time, our money, or our relationships.
If discernment is the first step, risk-taking is the second. I hear from so many pastor’s wives who are desperate for friendship: the mutual care, mutual conversation, mutual enjoyment and mutual initiation. Too often, however, they’ve been told they can’t have good friends in the church, they’ve carefully crafted excuses that have only served to keep them isolated, and they’ve been hurt—painfully, devastatingly hurt—in ways they usually must keep silent about. Perhaps some have even heard from others that they aren’t allowed to have friends, because it might be showing favoritism within the church. All of these sentiments have made us fearful of taking risks.
For the pastor’s wife, pursuing friendship can absolutely feel risky. What if the friend ends up leaving the church? What if she shares a confidence? What if she doesn’t reciprocate vulnerability because she fears the pastor finding out? What if the friend won’t understand what ministry demands of our time?
But taking risks is worth it, even if some of our fears come true. We need friends in order to help us grow, to carry our burdens as we carry theirs, to help us be whole people who are not stuck in ministry-mode all the time. The benefits of finding friends far outweigh the risks.
To take the risk means being a consistent initiator. I long ago had to get over the fact that I have to be the initiator most of the time. Nursing bitterness about this does nothing to help me make friends. And, anyway, I’ve found that the treasures are often hidden from plain sight: they are women who have a natural empathy for me in my role and don’t want to impose. I can tell from my interactions with them that I really like them, and so I invite them to my home or to coffee, planning ahead with those I want to cultivate friendship with before all the church activities fill the calendar.
Pastor’s wife, friendship is possible. And not only is it possible, but it’s necessary. You may navigate social situations that others don’t, but in every believer’s need for life-giving friendships, you are no exception. Take the risk and initiate today.
Published May 29, 2017