Pastors’ wives overall are happy with their roles, but it’s imperative that they build a support network outside the church for seasons of conflict, a study of pastors’ wives found.
Amy Stumpf, professor of religion and society at California Baptist University in Riverside, Calif., and a pastor’s wife herself, was stirred to study Southern Baptist pastors’ wives after she read a Time magazine article lamenting the unique struggles of being married to a pastor.
“Overall, there was a notably negative tone to the ‘lot’ of most pastors’ wives,” Stumpf said of the Time article.
Eager to compile her own data, Stumpf took an audio recorder to an annual retreat for pastors’ wives in the California Southern Baptist Convention during the summer of 2013. She expected to beg the women to tell their stories, but she ended up having to turn away just as many as she could fit into three solid days of interviewing.
“They wanted their stories told, and they weren’t all bad stories,” Stumpf, whose husband Paul Stumpf is pastor of Colton Community Church in Colton, California, told SBC LIFE.
One of the main takeaways from the interviews, Stumpf said, was that the pastors’ wives who worked outside the home, either part-time or full-time, had higher levels of satisfaction with their role, “partly because they had a broader sense of their own life and connections outside of the church.
“Particularly when there were seasons of conflict, that provided some helpful resources to them,” she said.
A main concern of the pastors’ wives who were interviewed — about 35 in all — was that so much of their family’s eggs were in the basket of the church, Stumpf said. Their husband’s job, their friendships, their children’s friendships, and more were centered in the church.
“While that’s wonderful, they all had experiences of conflict where they realized how very vulnerable their whole life is,” Stumpf said. “If something goes bad at the church, it’s not just that their husband lost his job but they lost their entire community.
“So even those that were very happy with their church realized that there’s an extra burden of having your work and your ministry and your primary community all in the same place,” she said.
Women who worked outside the home, even just part-time, had a sense that they had eggs in other baskets, Stumpf said.
As an example of why solid friends outside the church are needed, she told of one woman whose husband had been a pastor for years and whose son was gay.
“They had to deal with that completely apart from their life in the church because they felt like that would break the relationship of that community,” she said. “They felt so much stigma, which was interesting because normally you would take those deep concerns about those you love the most to the church.
“But because he was the pastor, they didn’t know if it would go over well.”
Stumpf’s study also included written surveys from about 100 women at the retreat, and she found that pastors’ wives at churches where there was more than one staff member — and pastors’ wives at larger churches –perceived that their churches were healthier. “That makes sense because the conflict is spread out,” she said.
At the church where Stumpf’s husband is the only pastor, she said it “doesn’t matter if it’s about the water fountain, the toilet, the paint on the wall, or some theological issue, 100 percent of that conflict comes to my husband.
“So I can imagine if other people are helping to defray some of that, then that can really help a lot to make them perceive that things are healthier,” Stumpf said. “It makes sense that in larger churches the pastors and their families are sharing the burdens and the stress.”
Another surprising finding, she said, was that the longer a woman was married to a pastor, the more she perceived negative effects of the ministry on her marriage.
“You can figure out the ramifications. If we want healthy churches, we probably need to figure out how this is affecting the women in the church,” Stumpf said.
Despite the challenges, most of the women did not regret being pastors’ wives. Stumpf recalled a woman who told her a terrible story about being run off by a church.
“At the end, I said, ‘If you could do the whole thing over, would you do it?’ She was one of my highest on ‘I love being a pastor’s wife. That’s what God has called me to do. I wouldn’t change it for anything.'”
Stumpf found it interesting, she said, that the women differentiated between their feelings about being a pastor’s wife in general and their feelings about their specific experience with a specific church.
“They didn’t globalize or generalize that specific experience,” she said. “They still liked the role. They just thought that church had a problem.”
Women who claimed to have experienced a call to the role of pastor’s wife had higher perceptions of their own influence in the pastoral ministry of their husbands, Stumpf said, and they were more content. They didn’t mind their primary identity being as a pastor’s wife.
“A lot of the ones who didn’t mention a call tended to be the ones who said, ‘That’s what my husband does and that’s a hat I wear, but it is not who I am and it’s not my primary identity,'” Stumpf said.
The women who mentioned a call tended to be older, whereas the younger wives tended to say, “I married a guy who is a pastor,” Stumpf said.
“It tells me that our church culture has changed,” she said. “Our church culture is increasingly aware that many of the pastors’ wives will work outside of the home and won’t make their primary place of vocation the church.”
Churches that hired younger pastors tended not to have expectations of pastors’ wives focusing on the church, Stumpf said.
Regarding what the pastors’ wives in the interviews said they wanted their churches to know, “Mostly it was, ‘Just be a loving, kind church. Don’t get bogged down in conflict. Be kind to my husband,'” Stumpf said.
A structured and formal system of support outside the church would help, Stumpf concluded. Many of the women felt like they and their husbands were ministering all alone, and in a lot of cases they were.
Churches with multiple staff members would have a great ministry, she said, if they would reach out to single-pastor churches and include them as honorary staff members — affording them the benefits of camaraderie.
“Most of the pastors’ wives really were very happy. So contrary to the article that started me questioning, they did experience isolation, they did experience stress, but overall they were quite happy,” Stumpf said.
“They loved their churches. They were proud of their husbands and very fulfilled.”
The study underscored for Stumpf the importance of pastors’ wives developing relationships outside the church “because conflict will come, and when your primary support people are also the people who are in conflict with your husband then it makes it really hard.
“So they need to be very intentional about developing a good support network outside of the church.”
— Erin Roach is a writer in Nashville. This story first appeared in SBCLIFE.