Cherchez la femme

On the influence of a pastor’s wife

Asked recently what had been the greatest help in his ministry, a pastor replied, ‘It’s not a “what” but a “who”. My wife has always been the greatest help.’

He went on to talk about how, under God, she had liberated him from so many concerns by her efficiency and set him free to concentrate on the Lord’s work; how she had comforted him with her love and had often been ‘the pastor’s pastor’, bringing him back from the brink of despair to trust and faithfulness. Most pastors’ wives do a great job and their husbands and the churches should honour them – perhaps much more than they do. 

Check her out

Of course, pastors do not have to be married to have a fruitful ministry, but if they are the truth is that a pastor’s wife can either make or break her husband’s ministry. And it is for that very reason that my own wife’s advice to churches seeking a new minister is ‘cherchez la femme’ – if he is married check out the candidate’s wife. His wife is bound to have an enormous influence for good or bad upon his work. Don’t just look at his character but also hers.

Where can we land in Scripture to find a fair way to appraise a potential pastor’s wife? The answer is probably, 1 Timothy 3.11. There is an argument as to whether this verse relates to deacon’s wives or more directly to deaconesses. (Personally I’m of the latter persuasion.) But whoever precisely Paul had in mind, the verse relates to women in positions of influence in a church, and though there is no ‘office’ of pastor’s wife in the church, certainly a pastor’s wife tends to have great influence. In that respect this verse can be legitimately useful as a church thinks and prays things through. 

It reads: ‘In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.’

A malicious tongue

What must be avoided at all costs, according to Paul, is a woman with a malicious tongue. A woman who is prepared to hit out or slander others in the congregation really will not do. The NT has vivid descriptions of how destructive malicious talk can be: ‘Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell’ (James 3:5-6).

Interestingly the Greek word for slanderer is diabolos and refers to the devil. To have a pastor’s wife with a malicious tongue is to let a devil loose in the congregation with a box of matches. The man may be a good preacher, but there’s more to appointing a pastor than that. 

How do you find out about a wife’s tongue? On her best behaviour during the interview process it’s not easy to discover. But one thing that would be worth doing would be to check her social media. Look at her Facebook page. Look at the kind of Tweets and WhatsApps she sends. Let’s hope they are good, godly and encouraging, not vicious and destructive.

A worldly wife

A wicked tongue is highlighted by Paul, but there are other lesser problems which should also set alarm bells ringing when it comes to the wife of a ministry marriage. Worldliness is simply being too influenced by the thinking and values of this world. And this can get under the skin of a potential pastor’s wife in the most subtle ways.

  • Materialism

There is a culture of comfort, celebrity and luxury which is the very atmosphere of the current Western world. Many ministry couples today will not even consider taking on certain situations because they require hard work and sacrifice. In this matter, often it is not just the potential pastor’s wife, but sadly the prospective pastor too. ‘We don’t want to go anywhere without a large house, students and a Waitrose’. It is worldliness. 

  • Safetyism

This is a recently coined word to describe the ‘risk averse’ society – all tied up with the love of self – in which we now live. Current culture grooms us to believe that we are very fragile people and should not expose ourselves or our children to anything that is less than 100% secure. Instead of looking after the church, pastor and wife are much more interested in the church looking after them. For many, all sense of taking on an adventure for Christ is almost gone.

  • Isolationism

In an attempt to protect themselves from the rough and tumble of ministry life, some wives isolate themselves perhaps through pursuing their own career or over-immersing themselves in home schooling. Their husband’s work as a pastor is ‘what he does’.

What I have described is almost the very opposite of the outlook of great Christian women of previous generations. One thinks of Mary Slessor, missionary to malaria infested Calabar (Southern Nigeria) just over a century ago. In the margin of her Bible was written, ‘God and one are a majority’. She said, ‘Courage is only the consequence of conquering fear by faith’.

Like an angel?

There are, of course, no perfect pastor’s wives. But there are women who are ‘worthy of respect, … temperate and trustworthy in everything’. 

The qualities required for a woman to be given great influence in God’s church parallel those of the men (1 Timothy 3.8-9). They are to lead lives which command respect. The word used here is sometimes used in ancient literature of the angels. A Christian woman can have a certain gravitas about her – simply because, through the Lord Jesus Christ her Saviour, she knows God. 

She is to be temperate. That means not only not given excessively to the ‘wine o’clock’ evening syndrome, which has sadly been so prevalent and led to medical problems among some women during lockdown, but that she has a cool head and uses it for the good of God’s kingdom. Many pressures come upon ministry marriages. A pastor’s family, including his wife, is frequently the devil’s target. But this pastor’s wife keeps herself under control and ‘takes it to the Lord in prayer’.

Generally, she is to be ‘faithful in everything’. She won’t be perfect. But she can be trusted to do her best with whatever comes her way.

For the most tender of reasons

There needs to be a word at this point to pastors and prospective pastors. 

Sometimes a man knows that going into the ministry will be demanding for his family. As a loving husband, he has, at God’s call, chosen a hard path in life and wants his wife to be happy. For the most tender of reasons therefore, sometimes a man may be very keen to please his wife and may therefore fail to gently challenge her as he should. But if it needs doing it must be done. 

Here is a deep test of a pastor’s faithfulness. We can’t allow our families to get away with things that we would confront in other church members. Jesus said, ‘Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me’ (Matthew 10.37). And Luke 14.26 tells us to include our wives in that list too.  

The pastor is in the work of making disciples and therefore his wife must be a true disciple too – someone who is prepared to deny herself, take up the cross and follow Jesus. Such a wife as your companion, pastor, will go a long way to being the making of your ministry.

John Benton

Director for Pastoral Support

Pastors’ Academy