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Unmasking the Secret Pain of Pastor’s Wives

While it’s common knowledge how tough it is to be a pastor’s kid, no-one talks about how tough it is to be a pastor’s wife. No-one told me that pastor’s wives are handed masks when they walk in the door.

masksMy husband used to be a “bivocational elder” — he helped lead our church in addition to his full-time job and responsibilities at home. Because he co-led with three others, one of whom was the full-time pastor, I didn’t expect to find myself on a pedestal. But I did.

What to do? I was young, naive, and had much to learn (I still do). And like most people (right?), I learn by making mistakes. How does the saying go? Fake it til you make it? If they expected perfection and I couldn’t deliver, I would fake it. The mask was part of the job, so I put it on.

At first, it was comforting. Masks are insidious like that. They promise armor for the soul. I could cloak my whirling doubts and fears, questions, weaknesses, immaturity, and pain at being misjudged behind a plastic smile. I just had to say “We’re fine, God is good, and she’s a miracle,” appear at all the events, smile, and maintain proper submissive-wife posture. Then no-one would criticize.

But inside, behind the armor, I was shriveling up like a slug in salt. I wasn’t fine, God didn’t appear to be good because of all he allowed to happen, and when I didn’t sleep through the night for months at a time, she didn’t seem nearly so miraculous. But admitting my struggles wasn’t an option.

I had already seen what happens to people who fail in public ways. Heaven help you if someone catches your deception. We Christians preach grace and forgiveness seventy-times-seven, but we withhold it from leaders caught in sin. One strike, you’re out.

Wearing a mask eliminated the option of getting help. I feared confiding in anyone. Yet my hypocrisy burned like acid. I talked a good talk about authenticity and accountability and deeper relationships that I contradicted with self-censorship, sweeping my story under carpets, and calling in damage control if anyone dared go there.

I wanted the mask off. I needed it off — it was killing me. But if I reached my fingers to my mask’s edge and began peeling it off, someone slapped my hand away. I learned that if you reveal too much, they’ll use it against you. If you’re not perfect, you’re not qualified. (It’s no wonder churches complain of people’s unwillingness to help.)

No-one told me that the mask is permanent. Even after we left the official position we had, we weren’t free. I’ve tried to rip it off, and in part I’ve succeeded, but the process has left me scarred and gun-shy. I struggle to trust people with me. My mask is mostly down, but I wear thick armor of mistrust to protect against the rejection I expect when they see who I really am.

The worst part is I still stand at the door of the church handing out the standard of perfection and the mask to meet it to the current leaders. With all my scars, with all the knowing-better I carry, I am putting others through the same misery. I’m ashamed to admit that I catch myself expecting too much of those leading the group of Christians we gather with each week. It seems to be ingrained in human nature to hold our leaders to impossible standards and then rip them apart when they fail. I find myself also doing the opposite: expecting them to fail and allowing my cynicism to hold them at arm’s length.

How do I stop? I don’t want to perpetuate this torturous existence on others. I want to be a part of healing and nurturing, not destroying those who step up and shoulder responsibility.

I’m seeking a middle ground between believing (i.e. demanding) the best of people and expecting the worst. How do I give others what I most hope they will extend to me — the freedom to make mistakes and grow over time? I want to be a woman who forgives, encourages, and helps, instead of criticizing, complaining, and removing those who mess up.

How have unreasonable expectations hurt you? How do you try to avoid placing them on others? Why do you think we do this to each other? How can we build up instead of tearing down?


Life: unmasked buttonIt’s Wednesday, which means it’s time for another life:unmasked link-up. Join me and share the vulnerable messy truth about you and God and how God is at work in that mess. My only rule for participating is that you visit and comment on at least one other post in the linky (perhaps the one right before yours?) so we can build a community of encouragement. Also, will you include a link back to this post (it is here: http://joyinthisjourney.com/?p=1843 ) so your readers can participate as well? Thank you!

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  1. Joy, love this post. Too much emphasis is placed on church duties and performance and not enough on growing up in our salvation. Once you’re a Christian, there’s a prevading expectation of how you will act –but what about a growing relationship and how to do that? We need to cultivate pursuit of growing in God and not performance.

  2. Amazing post. I can identify, being a young pastor’s wife myself… It was a shock two years ago when we came into this position, because like yourself I didn’t know there were such expectations of me. I am even a pastor’s kid, but I hadn’t seen it from this angle. I think for me the way that I have (begun to) take off the mask has been the painful process of just living honestly. As hard as it’s been, for me I’ve just had to let it all hang out so to speak. I have realized that God was asking me to set a precedent for women in our community, not of perfection but of a willingness to be imperfect before a perfect God. And it’s hard because I really like to be a vision of Martha Stewart perfection every time someone comes over or I run into them in public. But through being authentic and our church community trying to live out the same way as a whole, there has been incredible breakthrough. God is working through our collective unmasked selves. Thanks for this post and your continued willingness to talk about these things!

    • I think one of the solutions is for brave women like you to take the mask off and live real life. It’s scary and it could be very risky. But in a church community willing to let God work through our imperfection, I think incredible growth and change can come of it. Good for you!

  3. Wonderful post and so important that it is highlighted. My own story of expectations had to do with my academic life and my career. I was a gifted, straight A student at school. My family didn’t ‘push’ me in an extreme way, but there was always an expectation that my ability would mean a place at a top university, excellent results and a fantastic job. The trouble was, I left school having no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Until I was 18 it had revolved around learning facts to pass exams and “being the best”. I got into a top university…and hated it. With the majority of my work, I felt as if I was “going through the motions”. I was socially anxious and struggled to make friends. I started to slip deeper into depression and isolate myself. I had a catalogue of mental health issues. Just over a year later, I made the decision to drop out.

    My family weren’t pleased at all. I could also tell that some good friends looked down on me slightly for my decision. “How will you get a good job now?” people asked. My mother would pointedly talk about the academic successes of other people my age from our small town. I would cry and shut myself in my room and write in my journal about being a failure and wanting to die. I went to college to train as a journalist. I was laid off three months into my first job. I was laid off from my third job. Then the recession hit. Every time I discussed my job situation and career dissatisfaction with my family, the same comments would come up – about my dropping out, my redundancies. Their feeling that if I just hadn’t been a dropout with “issues”, I would have been fabulously successful and happy.

    Not a very realistic expectation in this economic climate, or for someone who suffers with depression.

    Those days all this is behind me. I’ve recently started doing a job I’ve wanted to do for years and I love it. I love the work I do in my spare time outside the office. That “catalogue of issues” is dealt with. But the expectations on me for so many years were really difficult to deal with, and when it all came crashing down I couldn’t cope at all.

  4. I can totally relate, especially to the part about ‘if you are not perfect, you are not qualified’. Thankfully that has been the rare occasion for us, but it is still painful. As I continue to strive to care more about what God thinks than what others think, these incidents provide a clear choice to believe the gospel or not. I strive to be authentic and let people know I am just as much of a mess as everyone else, but I do believe a pastor’s wife needs to exercise caution in who you really let in deep into your soul. Not everyone CAN handle the doubts and ugly thoughts of someone in leadership. I heard someone say that you let God show you whom you should trust, and I’ve really tried to do that. It can be a lonely place as a pastor’s wife, when people view you differently, although you view yourself just like everyone else. But it is dangerous to let that loneliness lead you to desperation. It is a process of trial and error and I am definitely still learning. No one gives you a job description when you end up in this role, but it sure would be nice!

    • Finding the people you can trust is SO important. I’m so glad you brought that up. This is something I’ve had to learn, and an area in which my husband has helped a lot. He reminds me that in my quest to be real and messy, I still need to be careful about who I let in. It’s ok to have circles and to share certain things with only a few people. You’re so right about being a pastor’s wife (or a pastor) being somewhat isolating. I think maintaining close friendships outside the church may help because they are neutral and can help us keep healthy perspective on things.

    • Laura, what you say is so true. Over the years, I’ve ended up with a large number of pastor’s wives as very close friends, and also walked through the painful process of scandal and divorce with several of them. Personally my desire with my friends who are pastor’s wives is to give them a safe place where they can just be themselves, where we are friends first.

      When I worked at churches I ended up going to several pastor’s wives conferences since I was the women in ministry they didn’t know what to do with. I was amazed at the amount of real pain and desperation I saw there over and over again… and yet the hope and ministry they received being in an environment that was safe where others understood. After years in ministry I’m convinced that in many ways the life of a pastor’s wife is harder and lonelier than the pastor’s. They at least have their board and their staff etc to support them. For the pastor’s wife, if she’s struggling, especially in her marriage there isn’t the same kind of support network.

      I do think that God in his mercy will many times give the pastor’s wives people they can be more transparent with. I think Joy is right that there is such power in the act of a pastor’s wife modeling what it looks like to be honest and transparent with the other women.

  5. I’m not a pastor’s wife. I’m just a girl who sometimes leads bible studies and writes a blog. I wrote a very simple blog post about preparing a meal for a lesson and how no one ate anything. I got called out about it. Over time, my writing became less transparent. And the grace that we are to offer began to be only under these rules of “perfection” and the idea that I must perform legalistically crept into me. The funny thing is that God led me, which is a strange thing indeed, to speak to a group of our church women in two weekends on His Covering and removing masks. He showed me how I had begun to try to hide again. That I had to lay down my masks to teach about this. So I started a new blog – one where I try to again be transparent.

  6. Incredible to see that this is a universal struggle. My parents are elders in a church and I’ve watched them face the same thing – sometimes it’s even difficult to be real around your own kids because you think you’ve just got to hold it together. There is, however, beauty in the breakdown… over and over again. It reminds us that we so need this Jesus – that we are human, that grace extends relentlessly.

    When we are clothed in His mercy, our mask is no longer something we hide behind – it kind of transforms to look like the face of Christ. It’s secure, it’s honest, it’s giving glory to the Father even when the wheels come off.

    Thanks for sharing this. I’m challenged to – even in my not-a-pastor’s-wife life – live unmasked. Thank you.

  7. I find myself in the same situation so often. I have this idea that I could be different, that I would know better than to hold the people I love to the crazy perfectionistic standards I have for myself. But becoming that woman, who “forgives, encourages and helps” is hard work – and sometimes I think I keep that crazy standard because it’s still the one I judge myself by. Maybe as we let our masks down, we will also stop offering them to others. Thank you for your honesty, and for the beautiful way you write that honesty.

  8. I’ve been thinking a lot about masks lately too. My life:unmasked post this week explores masks and the way i’ve used them in my own context. I’m sure there are many pastor’s wives who will be blessed by reading this post. I have a few friends in that situation that i’ll be sending this link to!

  9. Hey there girlfriend…we’ve already talked about this. You and I – it’s crazy how much our stories match up.

    So I’ll share mine again in your linky, because the more we talk about it, the less it will happen, I promise. I look not to our generation, but the ones coming after, the ones who will walk in greater freedom and authenticity because women in our generation said, “Enough.”

    Be brave – those who can’t take it will fall away. Those who resonate will defend you militantly. Those who are suffering in silence will speak. Your bravery is allowing Christ to set the captives free, bind up the brokenhearted, and trade ashes for crowns of glory.

    Love to you. Hugs. Peace. Joy. There is a new day and a new dawn coming.

  10. I appreciate this post! Especially this line: “I find myself also doing the opposite: expecting them to fail and allowing my cynicism to hold them at arm’s length.” I tend to have zero expectations for everyone. (If I expect nothing, then everything is a pleasant surprise and I’m never disappointed.) Because I recently experienced betrayal and hurt in the church where I was in leadership, I’m finding my heart even more apprehensive of church leaders. I let my guard down once, became very vulnerable, and was severely burned by others in the leadership circle. Now, as I’m looking for a new church community, I’m fighting against expecting failure. I’m fighting against maintaining distance. I’m fighting against creating a facade of relational investment. But man, is it hard. Thanks for the questions you mentioned, good things to chew on.

  11. I wonder if this is issue grows exponentially with the size of the church?

  12. Thanks for being so naked and stuff. Helps me embrace my inner nudist. ; )

  13. I wonder if masking is just a Christian cultural reflex. I felt the same way, although we were only small group leaders. Especially once cancer hit…and Amy got sick. Slowly, I came to realize that I wouldn’t be considered a “good” Christian unless I had enough faith and we were both healed. Since that hasn’t happened, I ended up running for my life from religion. I’m going back, a piece at a time, but instead of a mask now, I find I just put myself on a long, long leash. That way I don’t have to get too close to other people. My failures seem smaller from miles away, and intimacy just doesn’t happen. Walls and masks…both for the same purpose, and both insulate us from the redeeming Grace I think Christ intended as one of the main benefits of Christian community.

    Love this, Joy! Thanks for linking up.

  14. My dad was always in a leadership role in any church we were in growing up and my mom was in women’s ministry as long as I can remember either teaching, discipleship, or leading in some way. So, I grew up practically being a preacher’s kids; even though dad was never a preacher we were looked at and expected to act that way. So, I grew up wearing masks. Whatever was wrong in our house, in my life, in my world, I was not allowed to show it. I great up being the “Good Girl”. Even after coming back home after a failed marriage, I was still viewed as the good girl and expected to act as such. Having my blog has been helping to free me from these masks and has started to allow me to be a little more transparent. I still have a long way to go, but it’s not easy and I completely get where you’re coming from in this.

  15. My heart hurts for you Joy. It is so unfair how we expect pastor’s wives to be perfect. Your words on how grace is preached yet never shown is so true and I have found it especially so in rural and small town churches here in the south. Not only for pastor’s wives, but also for anyone. We shoot our wounded too often.
    I’m not linking up this week as I’m taking a short leave from my blog during our church’s 21 Days of Prayer & Fasting. I’ll still be reading though. Thank you for sharing your heart.

  16. Thank you for sharing your struggle. I believe that being able to name it means you’re more than halfway there! Blessings,

  17. Does a pastor’s wive’s mask differ from that which a lay person wears?

  18. We had our beloved pastor resign because of a sin he was caught in. Really quickly you see how people don’t give the grace they preach. It turned into a giant mess and it broke my heart. Some people were so angry with him, they left the church, stopped being their friends, and shunned them. I understand being disappointed but if we went into relationships with our leaders knowing and expecting that maybe they will fail and let us down, maybe we’d be less likely to put them on the pedestal and less likely to throw rocks when they fall. I don’t know. I’m so sorry you have felt you have to keep that mask on. I think as humans we want someone we can see and touch to look up to. I don’t know what the answer is to trying to find a more normal balance in our expectations. I try to be as honest as I can be and the let the cards fall where they may. Thank you for addressing such an important yet touchy subject.

    Please feel free to stop by: Trailing After God

  19. wow. I need to email you. YOU are so on target. Been there done that. More than once.

  20. This post went straight to my heart. I have become so good at putting up masks, always answering well-meaning friends with an, “I’m fine,” when really I’m crying out for community and authenticity. It’s completely my fault; I’m doing it to myself. The reason? I supposed I’ve placed unreal expectations on myself and feel that I need to be perfect and flawless to be accepted. I don’t know how to let down my guard…remove my mask. It’s a constant struggle for me, and I’m starting to see that I’m not the only one.

  21. Joy, the topic of your post is once again, very thought provoking. I’m in the group reading your sad tale who is a pastor’s wife. The saddest part of the story is the fact that you went into that position with the expectation that this was expected of you. I’m with you there. I did too. I was young, energetic and stupid. it didn’t take long for the realities of life to catch up with me.

    the first was the stillbirth of our first daughter. in 1970, those things didn’t happen as often as they seem to today. i’m not sure why! i knew one woman in the whole church who had had that happen to her 15 yrs. + b/f. she was wonderful. but our pastor’s words to his assist. pastor and wife? DON’T QUESTION GOD! if i could have, i would have bashed him in the head…but anger came a bit later. when he said it, i was still in major shock that it had happened! until that point, i was known in my family to be obnoxious in all my questions. God had always been able to handle them b/f. why not now?

    with time and confidence…and my husband being sr. pastor rather than on a staff:) i b/c known for talking straight about doubts and questions and god being big enough for all of them. there were some in our churches who found that helpful. others hated it. few were neutral about it. by the time i realized that people didn’t like honesty in a pastor’s wife, it was too late. some people were realizing God wasn’t just some vapor in the great beyond. he is real! he loved us enough to put Himself in the straightjacket of humanity so the final step of redemption would be possible. so the great “it is finished” could be said over sin and death.

    i was blessed w a husband whose priority for me was our family (which at times included my working out of the home) and didn’t consider my responsibilities to the church to be more than a regular member. it was discussed b/f he b/c pastor each time and reiterated if needed. rarely was there an issue. our children and i were involved…as members. we didn’t expect our children to behave perfectly, but to behave as christians. they were to be respectful of people in the church but could be themselves and not fake.

    did we have critics. always. rarely did our worst critics speak to our faces…as is common. but our responsibility was to serve them (cf. phil 2). of course we failed plenty. there were lots of rough patches, but God used them to grow us.

    this prob. sounds like an easy life. it wasn’t. but it was a good one. i’ve learned to love people i never tho’t i could. and isn’t that what the christian life is all about? i’ve also known some wonderful people who showed me the love of christ in ways i never would have…and were patient with me.

    if you are a member of a church, don’t put on your pastor/pastor’s wife the expectation of perfection. not possible! we need to shoe grace to one another. we aren’t her to be a bunch of pharisees. taking masks off can be very difficult. for me it took some deaths, lost jobs, major disappointments, being unaccepted by some and you name it…but the best thing that ever happened has been learning to take off the mask…and finding Christ sufficient for the pain it can cause.

  22. I love this post, Joy. How sad & how true.
    I find myself falling into judgement, too, on whether or not the leaders & spouses are playing their parts correctly. And I hate that! Surely part of improving that is being aware & correcting ourselves., right?
    I always love your honesty. Hugs to you!

  23. Catching up on your blog, and what a great post!

    I was fortunate enough to have my husband’s uncle (a pastor) say to me before my husband became a pastor, “Make sure you ask what are the church’s expectations of you. Then gently stress out that they are hiring Andy, not you. And don’t be afraid to say that right away.”

    I have even told people, right away, “I am a broken woman, in need of God grace and mercy. I fail, I stumble, I make mistakes. Sometimes I don’t read my Bible and struggle with the same feelings my neighbor might struggle with.” I have found that the more vulnerable I am, the more vulnerable people are with me too.

    At least in my stage in life (I am only 31, have 3 young girls) I am just learning and figuring things out. I am incredible thankful that in our church nobody holds me up to such a high standard that I fall short. Rather, we do this learning together. I feel free to ask questions, to ask for prayer, or for help. I know this is not always the case, and for that I am grateful.


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