Spouses in Pastoral Ministry: Their Role

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When the Christian Reformed Church North America (CRCNA) was awarded a Lilly Endowment grant of nearly $2 million in September 2002, the funding provided the momentum for an initiative with the potential to transform local churches and their pastors through “Sustaining Pastoral Excellence.” Since the program began working with pastors two years ago, one area that participants have identified as important to them is the role that spouses play in pastoral ministry.

The Role of Spouses in Ministry
Pastors consistently report that spouses make a significant contribution to the health of their ministry. Opportunities for pastors to develop close friendships with those outside of the congregation or with other pastors may be limited. As a result, the role of the spouse as friend and supporter becomes even more important than it is for individuals in other professions. Rev. Moon Bae Kim, a pastor at Korean Grace Christian Reformed Church in Wyoming, Michigan, explains that pastors rely on their spouses to be “a good friend. A pastor needs to be encouraged and share opinions and burdens.” 

The role of spouse as friend is important, echoes Rev. Ron Fisher, a retired pastor living in Waterloo, Ontario. Throughout their more than 30 years of ministry, Ron and Gerry Fisher say they have learned that the spousal relationship is key to being effective as both a person and a pastor. “The biggest contribution my spouse makes to my ministry? It’s contributing to my health and happiness,” says Ron Fisher.

Congregational Expectations
It is also true, however, that ministry can damage spousal relationships. In other careers, there are few—if any—expectations of a spouse’s role in an individual’s professional responsibilities. Churches, however, often have high expectations for a spouse’s involvement in the congregation’s ministry. While some spouses embrace this wholeheartedly; others simply do not wish to be involved at that level or have other responsibilities that may make it difficult for them to take on that role.

Rev. Joan DeVries, of Clarkson CRC, in Mississauga, Ontario, says those expectations can sometimes create difficulties for spouses. Being one of the first generation of female pastors in the Christian Reformed Church, she feels her gender has worked to her advantage when it comes to the role of her spouse. “I feel being a female in this way has been an advantage,” she explains. “People in the congregation don’t have as many specific expectations of my spouse [because he is male], so my spouse has been able to find his own way without pressure from people saying ‘You should do this’ or ‘You should do that.’”

A Sounding Board
Spouses often serve as “sounding boards” for pastors, and that, too, can create tensions in relationships. Joan DeVries and her husband, Frank, were married for 17 years before she entered full-time ordained ministry. “It has been kind of a journey about what I can and cannot share,” she says. Beyond the need for confidentiality are issues related to compassion for one’s spouse, says DeVries. She recently attended a mentoring conference with other pastors from throughout the Christian Reformed Church, and this issue came up repeatedly during discussions. “There have to be limits on sharing for the sake of the spouse,” she explains. “Some of the pastors I talked to were feeling sorry for their spouses who listen to so much. The pastor can talk to the spouse, but who can the spouse talk to?”

DeVries says to get around relying on a spouse as one’s sole sounding board, pastors need to have other resources to whom they can go to share their thoughts, feelings and pain. “I have developed other resources for myself such as a pastoral support group, a group of women that meets with me monthly or every other month for talking and prayer; or, if need be, I can see a counselor who can give me a different perspective on things.”

Ron Fisher agrees that while relying on a spouse to provide a listening ear can be beneficial, it has its downside, too. “It is good in that she knows me inside and out,” he says. “It is not good in that it is hard for her always to be objective.”

The Sustaining Pastoral Excellence (SPE) Program is playing an important role in creating helpful external resources for pastors, resources with the objectivity and emotional distance not always offered by a spouse. SPE has provided important funding to help local pastors participate in peer groups, mentoring programs and a recent mentoring conference, says Rev. Duane Visser, director of Pastor-Church Relations for the Christian Reformed Church. “Through the SPE program, we have encouraged pastors to build relationships with other pastors. Having these other relationships is important. It reminds the pastor and the spouse that they don’t have to carry this burden alone. There are others that can be a resource for them.”

Seminaries also have a role to play in helping pastors and their spouses learn appropriate boundaries for sharing and listening, says Moon Bae Kim. While seminarians’ coursework covers listening, counseling and issues related to sharing people’s pain, spouses often don’t have opportunities for formal training in these areas. “It would be helpful for seminaries or denominations to offer more seminars for spouses,” he says. Calvin Seminary provides opportunities for spouses to sit in on some courses, he says, and this can be very helpful.

There is little doubt that spouses play a key role in helping pastors deal with stress. However, there are limits to how much a spouse can do. Ron and Gerry Fisher point out that an important role of the spouse in addition to “just being there” is to point the pastor in the direction of professional help when it is needed. “It is important to remind your partner that it is time to talk to someone else, perhaps a trusted professional,” says Gerry Fisher.
“A spouse can detect a pastor’s restlessness, change of emotion or language,” says Moon Bae Kim. These are signals that stress levels may be reaching the breaking point. He points out the need to create some separation between home and ministry in order to protect the mental health of both the pastor and the spouse. “If we cannot, in some sense and in some aspect, separate ministry from home, both pastors and spouses can hurt each other’s mental health.”

The Role of the Congregation
Churches play an important role in ensuring that spousal relationships contribute positively to—rather than being damaged by—pastoral ministry. Ron and Gerry Fisher recall various things congregations have done to contribute to healthy family relationships. “We have been blessed with gift certificates to restaurants, with interns to take some of the load and with a year’s sabbatical for a time of healing and renewal,” says Ron Fisher, who points out that it is also worthwhile for congregations to set aside funds for a pastor to see a counselor when it is needed.

Churches can help the pastor and his or her spouse keep the home “a safe haven” says Moon Bae Kim. The home should be a place for “family time.” He adds that a congregation’s expressions of love to a pastor’s family and especially understanding the importance of pastor’s family contribute to strong and happy relationship between spouses and families.

“Congregations should help the pastor put boundaries on their time,” adds Joan DeVries. “Wise congregations realize that is not the best use of a person’s talents to demand excessive time away from spouses and families.” Because of irregular working hours and high levels of evening and weekend work, it is easy for pastors’ families to be shortchanged. Congregations can avoid this by encouraging pastors to set aside time for professional development and support, designate specific “days off” and limit the number of evenings a pastor is away from the family. Writing these kinds of things into a pastor’s contract gives the pastor “permission” to take advantage of these opportunities without feelings of guilt, says DeVries.

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