One day, a lovely senior woman in our church said to me, in a very kind way, "Before, John thought that you weren't a very good minister's wife, but now he thinks you are a good minister's wife."
I knew she meant it as a compliment, and so I accepted it as one. I thanked her for telling me while I wondered, of course, what I had done wrong "before," and what I was doing better "now." But I was raised by a mother who taught me, If you don't want to know, don't ask.
During the 20-plus years that my husband has been a pastor, I have learned some simple ways church members can support their minister's family. What I offer you is very practical (and won't leave the minister's wife feeling unsettled, with more questions than answers). I think your pastor will thank you.
- Talk to us, not to other people. This is a guideline my friend did follow when she gave me her slightly skewed compliment. But when I speak to fellow ministers' wives, I hear story after story about well-meaning church members who speak to others about their concerns, questions or suggestions instead of going directly to the pastor—or, when appropriate and only when directly involved, the pastor's spouse. It takes courage to speak directly to the person with whom you have an issue, but it's the biblical move, and it shows so much integrity, even (and maybe especially) when it's a complaint. A pastor and their family will know they are loved and respected when someone cares enough to speak directly to them about their concerns.
- But not on a Sunday. Friends, your pastor lays it all out on the field—to borrow a sports analogy—every single Sunday morning. It can be tough to hear a critique of the sermon you just preached, or insights about the music or the children or the coffee, as people file past you out the door. Most of us do not have 100 or more people offering us their immediate professional feedback in a big lineup that snakes out the back of our workplaces. If you can wait, making a friendly call or sending an email later in the week is better. Besides, if you wait 24 hours, you might discover that the font in the bulletin, or even your point about the sermon, is not such a big deal after all.
- Don't share at the hardware store on your pastor's day off. Your pastor's Sabbath is likely not the same as your Sabbath. Sunday just isn't a day off for pastors. Sunday morning begins on Saturday night for most clergy households. My husband goes to bed with the toddlers on Saturday night and rises with the cows on Sunday morning. After church and meetings and visits have ended, most pastors fall into a deep sleep—the preacher's nap—for at least an hour or two, and the day is done. Or they might even have an evening service to gear up for. If you know the day of the week your pastor takes as his day off, try to leave him alone. We've had parishioners drop by our house because it was my husband's day off and they felt it would be a good time. (It is not a good time.) Let him have even just one complete day off, and he will serve you better the rest of the week. If you see your pastor at the hardware store, just wave. He's there to buy garbage bags. But your pastor loves you, so if you ask, in aisle 8, whether you can speak to him about your upcoming operation, he will say yes. But if you love your pastor, try not to do that.
- If you leave the church, leave it well. Friends, it is so hard for everyone when people leave a church because they are unhappy or feel they are not being fed. You have every right to attend whatever church you wish, but if you have to leave, leave well. Leaving well includes saying goodbye, if you can, and saying thank you for all the church gave you, if you are able. It means not gossiping and not plotting an all-out insurrection against your pastor. Leaving well means not trying to take the entire choir or the board of elders with you. It might mean an awkward meeting or two to seek reconciliation, which is good for the church. Leave if you must, but do it softly, for the sake of the body.
- Do lovely things. This is the catch-all category that offers a lot of creative wiggle room. Doing lovely things includes showing appreciation by offering free babysitting (at your house, not the pastor's, so they don't have to clean and declutter before you arrive) and gift cards for dinners, movies and other treats that your pastor and his wife might not be able to easily afford during some seasons of life and ministry. It also includes offering your cabin or vacation home for a night or two (I'm sorry, but I'm going to be really honest here and add—and this might hurt—without you there, if possible; let them go alone). Meals dropped off on the doorstep are lovely. It's also lovely to encourage the pastor's children and let them be late for church sometimes without giving them even a glance. "Lovely" is how you would like to be treated and appreciated, and then sharing those kinds of things with your pastor and their family. Lovely things really mean loving things, and there is really no limit to what they can be.
I belong to an online pastors' wives' group with the beautiful name "Flowers for the Pastor's Wife" (and flowers are always a good idea). I asked the community for insights into what they found supportive. Here are some of their ideas.
—Pray for your pastor and his family, and let them know you are doing it.
—Offer to help with their children during services and after church. (Hint: Don't offer when the kids are misbehaving, or don't make it sound like a reprimand when you do.)
—Join the church as an active member. Help out with the tasks and chores that need to be done but aren't so popular. Sometimes, especially in smaller churches, those jobs get absorbed by the pastor's family.
—One pastor's wife shared that every Christmas her church gives her a bonus check for her own spending and encouragement. That's amazing.
—Another church put a sign on their pastor's front yard that said, "We love our pastor's family." Wow!
Karen Stiller is a writer with more than 20 years of experience. She serves as a senior editor of the Canadian magazine Faith Today and as a journalist who has shared stories from refugee camps in South Sudan and Uganda, the slums of Senegal, and the countryside of Cambodia. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest and The Walrus, among other publications. She moderates the Religion and Society Series at the University of Toronto, a debate between leading atheists and theologians. Karen holds a master of fine arts in creative non-fiction from University of King's College, Halifax. She lives in Ottawa, Canada.
Karen Stiller's memoir in essays, The Minister's Wife, releases on May 5, 2020.
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