I received an email that sounded like dozens I have received during the last 20 years. I asked the lady if I could sanitize her story and turn my answer into a series of blogs, to benefit others as well. She graciously agreed.
I will call her Marion. Here is the profile.
-Married to the pastor in a pre-20th century denomination.
-Has high discernment, in a church that does not look highly on that gift.
-Struggles with the church politics and what sometimes seems to be spiritual abuse in the church.
What to do?
Well, Marion, I have never been in your shoes obviously, so I answer with a measured response. But I do have a few thoughts for you.
Let’s start with the conflict in your marriage. You love him. He loves you. He understands your spiritual journey. He knows you don’t fit in the church. He is called by God to that church for this season. He can’t wave a magic wand to “fix” the church and make it fit you. In short, you won’t leave him, and he won’t leave the church, so you are stuck in the official role of “Pastor’s Wife” in a church you don’t like and at times can barely tolerate.
I know you didn’t ask for any input about your husband’s emotions in the situation, but I am going to start there and explore a very gnarly problem that I have no solution for. Possibly airing it out will help someone, somewhere. Maybe him. Or you.
Being a pastor is an invitation to bigamy. You love your wife. You love your calling.
It isn’t always that way. Some guys don’t love their calling or their church so their relationship with their wife is a huge anchor for them, a solace after another mechanical unfulfilling Sunday routine that produced a paycheck.
That might be good for his marriage, but as a parishioner, I wouldn’t really want to sit under any pastor who is preaching the gospel for the paycheck and nothing else. So it is a common situation, but not a great one.
The flip side is equally common. The pastor’s wife is a married widow, and he has quite openly abandoned his family emotionally and is pouring everything he has into the church and the Kingdom work God gave him to do.
This solves the emotional bigamy issue, but I really don’t want to sit under this pastor either since he is in flagrant violation of the Biblical metrics for a pastor.
So we are left with the tension of finding two things hugely compelling and blatantly competing for loyalty.
Kenny Rogers captured this amazingly in his song, “She Believes in Me.” Ponder the lyrics.
I stay out late at night and play my songs.
And sometimes all the nights can be so long,
And it’s good when I finally make it home, all alone
While she lays dreaming.
And quietly she says, “How was your night?”
And I come to her and say,
“It was all right,”
I’ll never know just what she sees in me.
I told her someday if she was my girl,
I could change the world
With my little songs. I was wrong!
And so I go on trying faithfully.
And who knows maybe on some special night
If my song is right
I can find a way,
While she lays waiting.
And I see my old guitar in the night,
Just waiting for me like a secret friend.
And there’s no end, while she lays crying.
And I’m torn between the things that I should do.
And she says to wake her up when I am through.
God, her love is true!
That is bigamy.
He loves her. She loves him. He knows it and is in awe of her love for him when he doesn’t feel he deserves it.
But . . . he loves his trade. Passionately. It is what he was made for. Music is in him, and he struggles to get it out. He knows he has not hit THAT sound yet, and every day he yearns and aches to touch the world, the way he knows he was made to.
So in the wee hours, already tired, his guitar stirs that old longing, and he searches for a way to express the music that is in his spirit that has never come out.
And all the while, “I’m torn between the things that I should do.” Because he loves her. And he knows he owes her a lot. And he wants to meet her needs because of his love for her and the debt he owes to her love.
But music calls.
And she knows she has lost another battle with the competing “wife” — the music that is trapped within him.
So she rolls over and waits in line — the second wife. And he searches for the song, while guilt sits on his shoulder and robs him of the joy of walking in his design.
No one wins.
The same is true for pastors. Setting aside all of the aberrations such as pastors with a savior mentality, those who have a codependent relationship with their church, those who are after legitimacy, or power, or money, you are left with some who, like the singer, have a passion inside.
Many preachers are as addicted as the singer. They love the Word. They love study. They KNOW that there is a staggeringly large world-changing sermon in there somewhere. Week after week they study and preach. And fall short.
But in the falling short there is still the hint of that great sermon so the addiction deepens, and they go back again, with the dream bruised and diminished, but not extinguished, to study and preach.
When someone has that special SOMETHING inside, whether it is a song, a sermon or the iconic football game, God’s design is as relentless as a sex drive wanting gratification.
When that is true, bigamy is just a step away.
So Kenny did what any great entertainer does which is to repackage a pain point in our society so that the story is heavy on the pain, light on the ethics, and we end up with some sympathy for the sinner, because his sin is so elegant, or plausible, or close to us.
And religion can easily do the same, making lofty comments about The Call or The Ministry while trotting out the weary maxims about wifely submission. Denominational leaders thus deny the prevalence of bigamy and legitimize married widows as an act of God-pleasing sacrifice.
But, when you step away from Kenny Roger’s singer and the man of the cloth, it becomes much more cheap and tawdry.
Football widows. Golf widows. Or the non-wives of the hard driving corporate climbers who love the rough and tumble of the marketplace and allocate an occasional dinner and flowers for The Little Woman.
In reality, there is no difference at all between the hunting widow and the pastoral widow. One is just easier to gloss over.
So what to do?
In a dream scenario, the husband and wife are both deeply vested in the ministry, are partners together and have great boundaries so that the church does not devour their personal life.
Happens at times, but not too often.
A much more common scenario is for the wife to find her own place of fulfillment outside the church and the marriage. While trigamy greatly reduces the pain of a marriage that is an empty shell, I doubt that is what God envisioned as the solution to the problem.
The most common scenario is to bumble along managing the tension and never resolving it, like the singer did. On the one hand, not elegant. I am no fan of White Knuckle Christianity. On the other hand, there is something noble about couples who fight to have a good marriage in the ministry compared to those who give up and accept an empty shell as the price of “serving God.”
For you Marion, I have no wisdom on this one, just compassion. You love each other, but he is called to the ministry in a place where you cannot partner with him in intimacy in the ministry. That is a tough place.
I honor you for honoring him and for seeking to find a great way forward, through this impasse.
On some of the other points, I have some ideas. Here, just stripping away the denial, and acknowledging that the way religious institutions are structured these days, most pastors’ wives get a raw deal.
I am sorry. The ministry should not be that way, but the way the ministry is configured in institutional religion is messy.
Copyright April 2015 by Arthur Burk
From home, after a long week