Helpful traits in a pastor’s helpmeet

February 11th, 2014 / By: Gary Ledbetter | Editor / comments

I could not exaggerate the benefit my wife has been to my ministry for 37 years. She’s been an example to me, a confidant who always supports me and tells me when I’m wrong. She helped me with college and seminary, took a few classes herself, cared for our kids while I traveled all over, hosted other people’s kids in our home at all hours and became a co-worker who made every effort of mine she touched more creative and fruitful. An important component of this is her own commitment to ministry, made before we ever took notice of one another. My ministry is our ministry is her ministry also.

I’ve seen other men similarly blessed with wives who became ministry partners and multipliers. Although each of these couples is unique, some similarities I’ve seen in these women seem important. 

A call of her own: The best ministry wives I’ve known are themselves ministers. At times, that ministry may be focused almost exclusively on home or children but as a rule these wives are influential in the lives of other people through writing, prayer, teaching and personal counseling. One cluster of accomplished women I know well maintains relationships through Facebook, strategic phone calls and texting, even when separated from their disciples by miles or oceans.

A commitment to her husband’s leadership: Regardless of who is smartest or who has the most earning potential, a husband is ultimately responsible for the leadership of his family. A wife’s call is to submit to his servant leadership, even when she does not consider him very servant-like, or much of a leader. Ministry wives who take a defensive or aggressive stance in response to ministry challenges are subverting their too-timid husbands. A search committee once asked me about an acquaintance who’d been fired from his last church. They quickly got around to their main concern: His wife answered most of the questions they asked him about his former church. The new church called him and then fired him a few months later. While the situation was more complex than I can explain here, things might have been different—he might have been different—if she’d trusted him and trusted God in a more demonstrable way.

Commitment to her husband’s call: While some vocations may allow a wife to be disengaged from her husband’s work, this one does not. The boundary between workday and home life is very blurred in ministry families. I’ve seen this be a source of great tension in some marriages. Neither he nor she had any idea how total a commitment to ministry can be. When the hours are irregular, the pay disappointing and the criticisms personal, “What have you got us into?” can be right under the surface. Ministry life is not normal if anything is normal. The understanding that God’s call is “ours” rather than “yours” makes a huge difference during hard times.

Diverse friendships: These outstanding helpmeets have friends of greater and lesser maturity levels. From peers or even mentors they draw advice for the challenges of their own lives. What they have learned or are learning they pass along to women who’ve not walked with the Lord quite as far. Women are great at this collecting relationships thing; great ministry wives use their personal networks as a means to build up other people, families and churches.

Negatively, I’ve seen ministries curtailed because the wife in the partnership has lacked one or more of these characteristics. I hesitate even to mention this from a negative point of view. But Paul was not wrong when he said in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 that married men and women have divided interests—pleasing a spouse and pleasing the Lord. Most of our generation would say that a man or woman’s first priority is to the Lord, the second is spouse or family and the third loyalty is vocational ministry. Paul could be pointing out that the first and third priorities are only separated by the second. A person’s living out of God’s call is affected by the one he marries. For her and for him, a spouse moves from outside your priority list to the highest place granted to created beings. That happens whether you’ve followed God’s leadership in the decision or not. A ministry wife exerts force on her husband’s ministry. That force can push against forward progress or with it. Before you marry, your call to ministry is more important than your prospective spouse. Due consideration and desperate prayer must be given to the decision to move her above your ministry in your personal priorities. While that is the right place for her, you must consider if she is right for that place.

That said, our families cannot be our only priority. Paul said that pleasing a spouse and pleasing the Lord are divided interests, struggling for primacy when time and attention are short. That does not mean that a pastor neglects his family in order to build a church. Neither does it mean that he neglects his ministry because his family needs him. The pendulum between those priorities seems to swing wildly one way and then the other. It’s not an easy balance or tension to maintain. I really don’t think it should be easy. When push comes to shove I pick my family, but push doesn’t come to shove very often.

Churches, work more intently to disciple young men and women headed for vocational ministry. Pastors, you have a lot of experience and leadership to share with young people who’ve not yet married or considered the importance of a spouse in ministry. In our day I get the sense that most young people arrive at seminary or at their first ministry location with less grounding than our churches could have provided. Personally, I’ll confess that I learned more from trial and error than I should have. 

Husband, love the wife you have married as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. If you want the benefits of a ministry partner who multiplies your effectiveness, nurture her, encourage her, pray for her and include her in your ministry as if she’s important. If we are the leaders of our homes, and before God we are, then we are responsible for her spiritual development to a greater degree than any other person.

Married ministers, there are resources available to your wife, especially in a place like Texas. Classes, online and live, conferences, good examples and even books and videos, can help her see that not only is she in good company as she faces the challenges of a ministry family but also that other women have found ways to flourish among the challenges. Do whatever you need to do so she can gain strength from these resources. Southwestern Seminary offers classes and a rich selection of experienced ministry wives for those who can participate in their programs. Pastor-wife retreats and women’s conferences allow her to gain a network of friends and counselors. Helping her participate in these events will bear sweet fruit in your life and in the lives of those God places under your care.