The role of the pastor’s wife

I should go on record from the outset and state that I am neither a pastor nor a pastor’s wife.* I would like to think, though perhaps erroneously, this admission does not preclude me from comment. It stands to reason that if ‘pastor’s wife’ exists as a role in the church, the average member should be au fait with the position and understand its function. Equally, if no such role exists, the average church member needs to recognise why not and the implications of that reality. That, at any rate, is my defence for discussing this topic.

There is one undeniable reality surrounding this issue – there is such a thing as a pastor’s wife. Some pastors are married and, like it or not, their wives have crossed the imperceptible divide from ‘wife’ to ‘pastor’s wife’. So, we must accept that pastor’s wives do exist. The issue, however, revolves around whether this label is merely a factual descriptor of an objective reality or whether it, in some way, represents a role in the church.

Let us start by tackling what I, rather facetiously, called ‘the imperceptible divide from “wife” to “pastor’s wife”‘. The truth is that if we are going to refer to ‘pastor’s wives’, prior to her husband becoming pastor, the woman was not merely a wife but was a teacher’s wife, a lawyer’s wife, an electrician’s wife or whatever depending on her husband’s previous job. It is, for some reason, only poignant to add the husband’s job to the term ‘wife’ upon his calling to the ministry. As an objective descriptor of reality, it seems odd to only bother with it in the pastorate. Either it is a worthwhile descriptor which should be applied across all occupations or it is of almost no value and should be dropped (for further discussion on this point see ‘Using the term pastor as a title‘). It is made all the more stark for women who have careers of their own. Why is it that their husband’s job title outranks their own? Such women are not only pastor’s wives but may be teachers, lawyers, electricians, mothers in their own right.

Although an oddity within the working world, we must nevertheless concede that ‘pastor’s wife’ is a factual description of a woman married to a pastor. However, how far can we say it is a specific role within the church? To put it bluntly, it isn’t. There is no recognition in scripture of any such office (for those who do not recognise pastors, these same arguments apply to the office of elder too). The wife of a pastor, or specifically elder, is only mentioned as part of the qualifications for eldership in 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6. In each case, the emphasis is on the man to be ‘the husband of one wife’. There is no instituting of an office in the church nor is there any definition of a specific role.

Why is this significant? All too often churches expect pastor’s wives to carry out an endless list of duties without the benefit of a contract, salary or even gratitude. It is almost as if the church sees the pastor’s wage – specifically assigned to him in exchange for his pastoral work for the church – as also buying his wife’s service too in some sort of buy-one-get-one-free labour bargain. But, if pastor’s wife is not an office outlined in scripture then to expect a pastor’s wife to be more active, more involved and carry a greater burden than the average church member is unfair and unreasonable. It strikes me the reason church ministry is the anomaly which insists on referring to the wife of a pastor by her husband’s job is specifically to encourage this sort of deal.

We may argue that part of a wife’s role is to support her husband in his work; indeed it is. However, it is not the woman’s role to do her husband’s work. Nor is it the woman’s role to do auxiliary work because of her husband’s position. Nobody would expect a woman to become a TA and work gratis for a school simply because her husband was a teacher. At the very least, were she to undertake the role, the school would pay her a salary but there would be no compulsion to go for the position because of her husband. Most people would rightly agree this is appropriate. Why then do these basic principles suddenly not apply in the church? It is perfectly possible that churches may find roles which they believe are best carried out by the pastor’s wife. That is fine, but she should not be expected to do the role for nothing or in a way that any other church members would be able to do it. Equally, if she does not want the role for whatever reason, she should not be compelled to take it.

The pastor’s wife is not a role or office within the church. It is a factual description of a woman married to a pastor. Therefore, she should have no more burden or expectation placed upon her than any other member of the church. All too often pastor’s wives are expected to plug all the gaps in the church and to take on all the jobs that other members are unwilling to bear. The pastor’s wife must already act as a support to her husband who is unable to unload on anybody else in the church. This seems burden enough! Churches need to be sensitive to this and recognise that pastor’s wives are not simply there to plug gaps in the church and act as cheap, compelled labour.

*I have since become a pastor. My view on this issue has essentially stayed the same.