The Troubled Pastor’s Wife Part 1

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.

Not fun.

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.

While she lays sleeping,
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.
I try to get undressed without the light,
And quietly she says, “How was your night?”
And I come to her and say,
“It was all right,”
and I hold her tight.


And she believes in me!
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!
But she has faith in me,
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.


I stumble to the kitchen for a bite
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.
I fumble with a melody or two
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

This entry was posted in Perspectives, The Kingdom of God. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to The Troubled Pastor’s Wife Part 1

  1. Christie says:

    I find it hard to empathise with many of the above comments as I don’t really see the value in “official” church ministry because it typically demands a lot at the expense of relationship. I would think it a good idea to possibly pray for God to lift the mesmerising spirit from the relationship and ask God to point out the win/win to aim for…can’t hurt to give it shot, right? A question to pose to those in ministry: how much of the work/activity is asked of by God and what is just created by man for what he thinks God requires?

    On a more personal note, I was single till I was 35 years old. I remember telling God when I was about 12 or 13 that I never wanted to be in a mismatched marriage. I meant it. Don’t know why I adopted this view so doggedly so early in life but allowing God to bring the right partner was something I took seriously from very early on. So, as my 30’s approached, I began to wonder if anyone suitable would come along. Dealt with a lot of loneliness and judgement for being single because there was, ‘nothing wrong with me’ (terrible to assume that there would be if I had chosen singleness). Why didn’t I just go online and find someone? etc… People thought I was waiting to marry Jesus. What I wanted was someone who loved God but wasn’t tied into all that ‘Christian’ activity. Well, it finally happened and though he was unsaved when we met, and significantly younger than me, we are a right match and that did nullify many of the above issues many ‘ministry’ couples face. I don’t mean to sound smug, there is a price to pay for every choice. I was incredibly lonely for 15 years. Then, upon marriage, I was ostracised for the age gap. Geez…anyway…

    I just wonder what was agreed to as a couple before many of these ‘widows’ walked down the aisle or was it just assumed that things would go a particular way? I know that you can’t turn back the clock but what was the common ground/attraction (other than ministry) when you first met? Is there anything that can be done within the ministry that you can do together?

    I expect it would be very hard to marry someone and then have a huge change in values at some point during the marriage while the other partner continues to value the old things. I imagine that many pastors wives loved what their husbands did for a living until they had kids and were home alone raising them…tough stuff.

    Regarding birthright, my husband and I have both chosen a tough field to pursue with hours that aren’t family friendly. If we both work at the same time, our son will be an orphan. We can’t have a healthy marriage if either one of us works 15 hours a day and doesn’t see the rest of the family. So, we’ve decided to tag team it. I’m mostly at home for the next 5-7 years and then he’ll mostly be at home the next 5 years. Yes, it means we have to live in a smaller house and sometimes miss out on opportunities for work but it’s a win/win for the family. He is working to be independent at what he does so that when he works, we can still see each other for a good chunk of time each day but it is costing us financially…anyway, that’s just our story to date, hoping that anyone else out there can find a win/win too.

    • SLG says:

      A bit grim, Christie. Have you looked at the Bible stories lately. God has produced a lot of triumph out of what on the surface appears to be socially impossible structures.

  2. Arthur, I wonder how much more Marion’s husband would succeed IF he paid more attention to first things first. I am of the understanding that first comes our relationship with our Abba, then there is your spousal relationship, then children with our ministry in the fourth position not the first. Many Christians feel the people we serve come first but I do not agree. I am not suggesting that it is easy, but I have observed a lot of empty messages coming from empty vessels because their personal lives are not in alignment with Abba’s order of each day.

  3. smithtalitha says:

    Arthur, I know you know it but you have SUCH an amazing gift with words and the way you express an idea is like looking at the most beautiful drawing done in pencil of a person’s face – every detail is so visible and much better than a photograph!
    It is a delight to read your newsletters because it’s not just the words you use, it is the wisdom that comes with it and it’s clear how you flow with Holy Spirit to bring change, insight and relief as far as you can!
    Thank you for the many hours of writing you do as well as research and the sharing of your own life so we can stay motivated not to give up but take another step forward.

    Bless you!
    Talitha Smith

  4. Linda says:

    As we are taught, one of the wife’s design is to help her husband learn how to love the Lord. As a female and founder of a ministry, may I address the following quote with a different perspective…..“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.”

    Maybe as a female I have little thought of failure to succeed in changing the world, although this is the commission the Lord has given me to do. My success is not dependent on MY words alone but on the power of the Holy Spirit. Even in my fallible humanness, if I were to fail in reaching the world it would not be my failure, but the Lord’s; for I know He “will” accomplish what He sets out to complete in me and He does not fail. Although I love my commission, I have no burdens of failure to accomplish a dream that did not start with me and have not been given all wisdom and total control to accomplish it.

    I’m not in a hurry, I know it takes time for me to grasp directions from the Lord and for the Spirit to digest His teachings in the people. I just keep plowing the ground as I am shown. That I am not in a hurry does not inhibit me from plunging full force into my work. My reward and joy is being given the privilege of a forerunner to spend much time with the King to receive new and wondrous approaches and strategies He has for His children.

  5. Hovey says:

    Hi Arthur,

    As a man and husband actually, I totally identify with Marion.

    [please understand though I may speak emphatically, it’s all of course just my perspective]

    I’m actually in an interesting season with my wife. It’s flipped around for us, where she’s been the limelight leader spread across 4-5 ministries, doing from 3-5 services per week at times. Raised by critical and perfectionistic parents, she desires, but really wrestles to slow down and make time for doing life. She has more recently also been wracked with severe insomnia and anxiety adding to our load. And after years of wrestling with her about her workoholism, and making almost no progress, in fact even backtracking, I’ve felt the Lord compel me to just pipe-down about it with her and to trust Him more [but with more-pointed and heightened prayer].

    I should add that I’m 7 years older and also have a pretty humbling call on my life, but due to a lot of circumstance and [me] being a person that thrives on order, I’ve found myself almost totally consumed in stewarding the domestic responsibilities of our home on top of work just to keep our household from toppling into oblivion.

    So, almost ten years into our marriage, even though we’ve both been working really hard to have a solid marriage [and have succeeded in some ways], my calling seems to keep getting side-lined because I can’t easily handle living in a world of chaos [our apartment] even though I’ve tried. I’ve sacrificed a lot for our home and marriage.

    But something astonishing has happened in the last 2-3 months: she had an extreme anxiety attack where she thrashed herself against the door jam of our bedroom and she really hurt herself. God flipped a switch in me that very moment and I realized the severity of her warfare.

    [I know that our scenario is a bit different from what you described, but I’m hoping this may be ultimately helpful to someone.]

    The switch that God flipped in me was that, as her husband, I KNEW I had to lay ALL things down. I re-realized my foremost responsibility as her husband, was to lay my life down for her as the King did for his Bride. So, in that instant, I consciously chose that even though God has called me to such-and-such, mine is to lay it all down, period. And to support her in hers.

    That’s husband-to-wife.
    Not sure how this may/may not relate to wife-to-husband.

    [bear with me]

    But I’d already been laying my calling down for years, white-knuckling it and suffering to not have my wife fully present in our marriage except sporadically [hence idenitfying with Marion]. But I’m now pretty sure I was actually fighting God on it and not truly laying any of it down.

    The nuts and bolts of it is that rather than having circumstance wrestle me to the ground on these issues, [I] decided to sideline my own calling and to pick up her mantle with her. And I finally recognized God’s sovereignty in resisting me all these years. [bare with me still]

    Sidebar: as grossly misunderstood and abused as it seems to be, I think the headship of the marriage is God’s blueprint to foster dominion along with its prerequisit: responsibility. I’m unaware of any common situation on the earth in strictly personal relationships [other than in parenting] where one human is ultimately responsible FOR another. I think the marital headship is this: at the end of life, we each are individually accountable to the Judge for our own lives. But the husband is ALSO ultimately responsible for his wife before the Judge- whether she stewarded wisely with his assistance what she was given, as Christ is also responsible to the Father for the Church.

    So as her husband, I am accountable for the years of futility I allow my wife’s birthright to be diminished by. I’ve been hammering against those strongholds of futility for years and am just trying to find SOMETHING that makes them budge. As she’s sowing incessantly into the Body, her own design is not truly fulfilled because she’s doing it all from a place of duty. And I [along with her] am responsible for any of her fruitlessness. It’s a mystery and I don’t understand much about it although I think 1Pet3:6 gives us some clues about Sarah’s fearlessness in trusting God’s design of the headship. Qualifier: recall that the man is responsible for the woman, but the woman is NOT responsible for the man.

    * I think the above has something to do with what you mentioned a couple months back Arthur about being in the Office of Husband as opposed to just the position of Husband. What is the Office of Wife- regardless of being celebrated or being side-lined?

    YES!! I did just tell you that I laid down my calling and design!

    But with multiple, simultaneous callings on our lives, there can only be one that, when the rubber meets the road, trumps the others. Yes, this flies in the face of our pursuit of design!!! But when the rubber meets the road, how else to navigate?

    Though it’s still in-process, the net results for us the past couple months SO FAR have been the following:

    1. My wife has been set free to explore, discover and bump her way thru this process, with my covering and total blessing.

    2. God has been opening her eyes at a magnifiscent rate to see the depths of her needing to sanctify and trim back all that she does.

    3. She longs to meet me in our marriage and to find commonground in our ministering together.

    4. God HAS met us in our marriage and fortified our covenant.

    5. Perhaps the bottomline for us “design seekers” is that God has assured me that I can trust him to resurrect the things I have denied myself in following after Him with my cross.

    This may look like the “bad” self-sacrifice, and I can hear you all cringing, but I am not beat down by this. I realize that there are promises God has tailor-made just for us that we may or may not ultimately get to see in this life [Heb 11:13,39] ughh.

    But what IS our highest calling??

    I look forward to see the fulness of what he is doing in our midst, because we both know so deeply he is moving.

    Again, I don’t know how any of this will translate to the side-lined wife. But there have to be some clues in there somewhere.

    As a husband, I’ve been side-lined for years and have been wrestling the entire time to see the resolution of the tension because I know with everything in me, he has called us to walk in our design. And I am certainly no Champion-of-Suffering, but I feel at the end of the day, for me, principle must trump design.

    What do you say?

    I rejoice also because I know that God somehow wants BOTH!

    Will God resurrect that which I, as a husband and son of the Most High, have laid down? I’m not sure. My feeling is that whether He does or doesn’t, He WILL do something new and likely mind-blowing if I just keep holding on, trust him and see the big picture.

    Side-lined wives: my prayers have always been with you.

    I sure hope someone will find something helpful in all I just shared and not be further discouraged with the difficulty they’ve endured.

    • Linda says:


      You are a great writer and express yourself well. I am glad you replied. If you are wondering if it was too long, I say no, because all you wrote makes up the complete picture.

      So, much stirs in me as I read your comments. I am so happy that your marriage is not crashing, many have crashed under less stress. I am strengthened by your determined desire to search this thing out with the Lord and looking deeply at yourself as one wanting to become holy as God is holy.

      In your writing it is easy to feel the presence of the Lord. I pray many will be blessed by your shared comment.

  6. Linda says:

    I do not have answers to these sad relationships like most, but may I share a different perspective to view marriage as a pastor before marriage, if you are not already married.

    As a single female and founder of a ministry I do sometimes ponder what life could be like in marriage. So, I speak to the Lord, “Lord, if I was married my husband would not have a wife. I stay up into the wee hours enjoying you as I struggle to write and rewrite for my soul to grasp what you put in my spirit. You download to me before I rise and without a meal I go straight to my computer to type it. Often I do not eat until 4p. Meals are small, routine and thrown together so I can get back with you. You are my bread. I would not want to do this to my husband who loves me.

    “The joy of loving a man, caring for him, giving to him what a wife wants to give her husband and receiving from him – these you have dimmed in me. However, sometimes the flesh wants to mourn these lost joys. But my lonely times are when others cannot connect with me by what you have in my heart for them.

    “When with others I know little more to talk about than bringing your kingdom onto earth. When I do speak of their involvement with your kingdom they are speechless and say it is awesome and global then they say it is way over their heads. Thus, soul-friends are few and far between. Would my husband be one of them?

    “I seldom get lonely because by the minute you interrupt my life and direct me – when I sit in my house and when I walk by the way. I have blurted out, ‘Lord, what man could ever compete with you!!!!?’ Do you really have a husband for me that would be happy being second in my life – taking care of the meals and home while I spend a large portion of my time with my true love, you? How could I ever say “I do” with all faithfulness to a man knowing I already have another Lover who daily pursues me and I gladly follow Him? Lord I can see ways I am incomplete without a husband, someone to become united with as you intend for a husband and wife to be, and my soul does desire this at times. However, you overwhelm me and my spirit, mind and soul is too occupied relating with you to “feel” the desire to pursue marriage however, let your will be done.”

    • SLG says:

      So Linda, yours is the argument for celibacy in ministry.

      • Linda says:

        It’s not easy pushing against the powerful way the Lord has designed us – to be married. In my case I feel it’s a matter of choosing what is best for all involved.

  7. Mary Okkema says:

    Thank you for this new, to me, term married widow.

  8. Cindy says:

    I agree….being a preacher’s kid I experienced this with my folks. Dad was consumed with his ministry. Now he is much wiser and puts Mom before any ministry. How loving he has become towards her. He’s a great example of what a marriage should be in a ministry. Thank you for sharing, Arthur. Keep speaking truth, because we need to hear it. God bless you!

  9. J. Manos says:

    Thank you Arthur! So on point! A major reason I’m not married yet. I have been in relationships with men that are consumed by their passion, no time for us and I high tail it out of there. I have also been concerned just how obnoxious I would sound if I had a pastor husband and I felt neglected because of his doing godly work.

  10. Carol Brown says:

    Truth is sometimes ugly. Perhaps it will help coming from a male. When women say these things they seem to fly overhead; at best, the words are given little weight. I even brought out scriptures that pointed out the wrong being done‹to no avail. Thank you for parsing this one. ³The second wife.²

    From: Noble Subjects Reply-To: Noble Subjects Date: Saturday, April 11, 2015 at 12:50 AM To: Macbook Pro Subject: [New post] The Troubled Pastor¹s Wife Part 1 SLG posted: “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.”

    • SLG says:

      Interesting perspective, Carol. One the one hand, I felt awkward addressing the subject never having been a wife. On the other hand, I can see your point that sometimes a guy needs to say some things about the guys.

  11. irina ruffner says:

    I finally found what your were talking about,,…I hope. I read it… I am angry now at a lot of things… I need to process my anger and I will get back if I will be able to put it into the words. Oh well, I planned to rest.

  12. Nancy says:

    Arthur, thank you for bringing to light and putting to words what is a reality for so many women! There is a sea of hurting, lonely, disillusioned wives of pastors, ministers and elders who are ministry widows and don’t have a voice because the ‘the other woman’ is a ministry. You have been their voice today!

  13. Messy and empty indeed!

  14. Rosemary Williamson says:

    That is a very sensitive, compassionate and honest piece of writing Arthur, I am once again in awe of your wisdom and insight. Thank you and ‘Marion’ for sharing this.

  15. Laurette Kruger says:

    “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.”

    Speechless……so much LIGHT in that statement – stripping away the darkness of this evil process seen everyday…

    Thank you Arthur, for putting into words what our spirits recognize but don’t have language for. May the Truth set us free.

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