A new study from LifeWay Research indicates that while most pastor’s wives (PWs) love the ministry, loneliness and isolation are also part of their experience. It’s not a surprising finding. My answers to the survey questions would have been in line with most of the answers given by the respondents. And their answers line up with what I’ve heard from many ministry wives over the years. We love our husbands. We love our families. We love our churches. But church conflict, life in the fishbowl, and the pace and pressures of ministry take a toll. When ministry life gets hard, we have few people we can share those burdens with.
As with any research, the reasons why this might be are hard to pinpoint. In part, the loneliness and isolation PWs experience may be part of larger societal trends. Research indicates that most Americans have fewer close friends today than in years past. While our plethora of social media challenges promise connection, they fail to offer genuine intimacy. Another factor may be the stage of life pastor’s wives are in. The LifeWay study indicates that younger PWs are more likely than older PWs to experience feelings of loneliness and isolation. More younger PWs are also working, and younger PWs are more likely to have young children at home. Balancing career, family, and church doesn’t leave a great deal of time for investing in friendship.
But I think the larger issue has to do with the uniqueness of ministry life and the nature of female friendship. As linguistics expert Deborah Tannen has written in her book, You’re the Only One I Can Tell, sharing secrets and talking over our troubles are the communication currency of female friendship. By sharing information about myself, I offer my friend a piece of myself and invite her to reciprocate. But pastor’s wives can find it difficult to participate in this reciprocal pattern of secret sharing and talking over our problems. The fishbowl nature of ministry makes sharing common stressors such as problems with our finances or our families challenging. If we talk about our challenges making ends meet, it may be seen as complaining about the church’s pay package. Talking about our frustrations with our husbands and children carries similar risks. And talking about conflict within the congregation—a common source of stress for PWs—is only possible among a very limited number of people with whom that information can be both safely shared and understood.
What then can we do to help lift the burden of isolation and loneliness for pastor’s wives? During our fifteen years in ministry, I have been greatly blessed by the relationships I have developed with other ministry wives. Some of those connections have begun in online PW communities. Others have begun within our local community. Relationships with other women who understand our circumstances and are safe to talk to are golden opportunities for PWs to develop meaningful friendships.
But few opportunities exist for local PWs to meet regularly and build relationships. Baptist associations are good at creating networking opportunities for pastors. Our husbands have opportunities to participate in peer groups, ministerial prayer breakfasts, and associational meetings where they see each other on a regular basis. Fewer networking opportunities exist for ministry wives. Associations and local ministerial alliances could provide a great service by offering a regular fellowship opportunity or ladies night out for ministry wives. State conventions can sponsor PW retreats. Churches can provide funds for pastor’s wives to attend state and national conventions along with their husbands, and event organizers can help by scheduling PW events at times working PWs can attend and by providing childcare for those who need it. Friendships are formed as PWs have the time and opportunity to spend networking with one another.
The PW experience doesn’t have to be a lonely one. Networking with other women who share their experience can help pastor’s wives meet their needs for friendship and intimacy.
Bio: Leigh Powers is passionate about helping women find hope and healing in God’s Word. A pastor’s wife and mother of three with fifteen years of full-time ministry experience, she is a freelance writer, Bible study and devotional author, and a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Renewed: A 40-Day Devotional for Healing from Church Hurt and for Loving Well in Ministry (FaithWords, November 2017) is her first book. She blogs regularly at www.leighpowers.com and at www.pastorswives.com. You can usually find her with either a book or knitting needles in her hand—and sometimes both.