The cardinal sin of the pastor’s wife (apparently)

I was chatting with a pastor’s wife some time ago who told me about having committed the cardinal sin of pastor’s wives. She admitted – in a room full of pastor’s wives no less – that she found hospitality hard!

Note well, she didn’t say, ‘I don’t do hospitality.’ Nor did she say, ‘I don’t like people.’ Neither of those things are true. In fact, her husband was clear that she does hospitality well. People are always dropping in, stopping over, being fed and whatnot. No messing, no complaining, and – by all accounts – she does it well.

But the cardinal sin as a pastor’s wife (apparently) is to admit that you find hospitality hard. Which is odd given that I am fairly sure I’ve heard plenty of people affirm essentially that. And whilst I have no doubt there are people who thrive on whipping up dinner for 50 people who all to turn up on your door step without a word of warning and love doing it, I just don’t believe everyone does. In fact, I’m confident there is a lot of frazzled, behind-the-scenes fretting and stress which is quickly papered over the moment guests arrive at the door for a great many people. I am equally sure the moment guests leave, more than a few folk crash out exhausted and breathe a huge sigh of relief. The longer folk are staying with you, the harder and more exhausting it all becomes.

But this lady made this admission and said she was made to feel like she had two heads. There seemed to be a sense that no pastor’s wife worth their salt could possibly find hospitality hard. Hasn’t she read Rosaria Butterfield’s books? Her husband is as good as disqualified from ministry because of her lack of natural inclination toward hosting people, surely?

Truth be told, I suspect if this pastor’s wife were having this conversation one-to-one with a trusted friend, the reaction would have been different. I have experienced something similar in the midst of fraternals. There are ‘admissions’ that hit a sweet spot; what we might label ‘acceptable struggles’ that are lauded for their honesty and with which some folk sympathise. But there are other ‘admissions’ that, rather than generating support, lead to suspicion. A lot of what passes as acceptable or suspicious depends on the particular culture of the church, fraternal or group in which you’re sharing. But it happens far more than it ought.

You see, the issue is several fold. First is the confusion that reigns between finding something hard, feeling inadequate not doing the thing. Finding something hard is not the same as not doing it. Admitting that we struggle to love someone is not the same as not loving them. We so often associate love of the thing with being good at the thing itself, which does not follow at all – I love music but I’m no gifted musician!

We also seem to think not enjoying something means we don’t love the person we are doing it for. But this, too, is demonstrably false. I’ve never enjoyed wiping my children’s dirty bums because, let’s be honest, who does?! But does that mean I don’t love my children? Of course not! In fact, doing the thing I find difficult is a higher demonstration of my love for them. If it comes naturally to me, and I enjoy doing it, what credit is that to me? But doing stuff I find hard and unpleasant because it will benefit them, that’s loving isn’t it? In the church, if someone finds hospitality hard, but presses on doing it regardless because it is a way to love people, that surely demonstrates an admirably high level of love because they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t love you, right?

Second, an idea persists about the ideal pastor’s wife. This is unfortunate considering that there is no such role outlined in the Bible. If anything, the false insistence that such a role exists in any legitimate sense has added to the rise of back-seat leaders who insist they are co-leaders in the church with their elder husbands. Any pastor’s wife is a member of the church and called to do the same sort of things as any other member of the church. But there is no special role or office for them. The only place elders’ wives are mentioned in the list of eldership qualifications is in relation to his being faithful to her. Nowhere do the eldership criteria demand anything special or particular of the pastor’s wife that isn’t demanded of all wives. In fact, the pastor’s wife’s main duty is to love her husband, not to be the two-for-the-price-of-one dogsbody who happens to come with the pastor.

Third, whilst the pastor’s wife inevitably has an effect on her husband’s ministry, there is a false sense in which the only thing that affects anything is her ability to cook and host. Apart from being unhelpfully and quite offensively reductionist, this misses the point. Just as no pastors have every facet of ministry perfectly locked-down, most of their wives are in the same boat. For every one who struggles with hospitality, there is an extrovert who has no clue how to handle introverted women in the congregation. For every one who finds managing her children hard, there is one who so focuses on her kids she never spends time with the church. Every positive attribute can be held to the detriment of others.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive for the holiness that God calls all of his people to exhibit, but we can (and should) love pastor’s wives for what they do well (and, incidentally, pastors, elders and other church members too) rather than looking to pick holes in the areas in which they struggle. And, if they do struggle, isn’t a church supposed to help take the strain a bit? If the pastor’s wife is a member like anyone else, just as she (and all of us) will minister out of her weakness at times, so we can minister to her (and everyone else) in their weaknesses too.