What qualifies me to write this piece, if anything, is that I am a pastor who has been married most of my life. My wife Margaret and I did this entire ministry thing together, having married the same year I started pastoring, and that was 52 years back. Every church I served as pastor, she was there and deeply involved. She has heard more of my sermons than anyone else, and knows me in ways I do not know myself. Therefore, her assessment of me is probably more dead-on than anyone else’s, including my own.
And that’s what frightens me.
They asked Dwight L. Moody if a certain man were a Christian. “I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t talked to his wife.”
If anyone knows, she does.
(Note: I write–as is obvious–from the standpoint of the pastor being a man. There are godly and faithful women leading churches across the world, and we thank God for them. I have no experience with their situation or knowledge on how their ministries are different from mine. It would be presumptuous for me to pontificate on what they need.)
The pastor’s wife can hurt or help him “better” than anyone else.
When two people go into a “hug,” they drop their guards and become vulnerable. Some individuals we meet in life refuse to allow themselves to love and be love, lest they be hurt by the one they were trusting. Most of us decide that’s too big a price to pay, that we are willing to run the risk in order to receive love and express our affection.
When a pastor and his wife divorce, the departing spouse can wound him for life.* If the split is her doing, the rejection can be devastating. No words cut as deeply, find his soft spots, and leave him gasping for air the way hers do. While that is true of any divorce situation, it has special significance for one called by God into the ministry. After all, this man is doing the strangest work on the planet: He is representing the great invisible God with the message of Jesus Christ to a people who do not always appreciate either the God or the messenger. And now, the departing spouse has just about made it impossible.
(*I’m not naive. I know that sometimes the husband is the one betraying his wife, and that divorce can be a mutual decision and have a thousand causes. However, I have observed in far too many cases wives divorcing their preacher-husbands because “I do not want to live that life,” “I did not sign on for life in a glass-bowl,” and “He was not a preacher when we married and I am not cut out for this.”)
The spouse who stays with the preacher through thick and thin, believing in him all the way, loving and praying for him, is a jewel in the Heavenly Father’s crown. And, truth be known, she’s rare as one too, I expect.
My wife was attending one of these women’s ministry events our denomination puts on from time to time. A number of pastors’ wives sat on a panel, discussing the preacher, his fragile self-esteem, and how the wife keeps him tethered to reality. One said, “I tell him, ‘You may be Doctor So-and-So up there in that pulpit on Sunday. But remember, I saw you two hours earlier in your boxer shorts.’” Everyone laughed, but not everyone appreciated what that woman did.
I’d give a dime to know what her husband thought. (Turn the tables and ask how she would have felt had he announced to the world that he had seen her this morning in her undies.)
The pastor’s self-esteem is something like loose cargo on board a storm-tossed ship. It careens from side to side, sometimes high and sometimes low, always threatening to do damage. Unless someone helps him bolt it to reality, that unstable ego is going to get him in trouble.
That’s what a faithful wife can do: help him fasten down his self-esteem.
The pastor does not need his ego inflated.
Some women read these magazine articles saying men are vain creatures, that they need constant assuring that they are wonderful and sexy and attractive. The woman who lures a straying husband away from his faithful wife, those articles say, made him feel important, listened to his fears, and bragged on his accomplishments.
A wife will read that and come away disgusted that men are so self-centered, so needy, and so weak. And, if she takes that as gospel, her way of helping her preacher-hubby will consist of telling him how wonderful he is, inflating his fragile ego, puffing him up. All the while, she’s feeling guilty for lying to him and ashamed for not being able to speak the truth.
That is not what he needs.
He’s not stupid.
He knows he’s no more wonderful than anyone else. He is not on an ego-trip for Jesus. He does not need a constant reassurance that “You’re the best preacher,” “You’re great,” and “You’re the best looking minister in the denomination.”
Any wife who does that and any preacher who feeds on it has more problems than we can address here.
What a pastor needs is encouragement.
Pure and simple. He needs someone who knows him well and loves him still to assure him that what he is doing is the most important work in the world, that God is using his sermons and pastoral care in ways that honor Christ and will eventually bless the recipients, and that he is serving well.
The pastoral ministry–that is, a man called of God to shepherd His flock made up of every kind of collection of “sheep”–can be a sinkhole for a pastor’s self-esteem. Most congregations have people who see their calling as cutting the preacher down to size, reminding him of his human frailties, and finding the flaws in his sermons and the omissions in his pastoring.
The pastor takes this as a given. He does his work, takes his lumps, goes home to his family, sleeps off the aches of yesterday, and rises to face a new day and try this all again. He keeps reminding himself that “the mercies of the Lord are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:23) and that he can “do all things through Christ” (Philippians 4:13).
But it’s hard. Anyone who says it isn’t either hasn’t been in the work very long or isn’t paying attention.
The pastor needs his wife to pray for him. She knows better than anyone the pressures he faces. Her prayers may be the most valuable ones ever raised for him.
The pastor needs to know his wife is on his team. He’s not real sure about certain deacons, and some old curmudgeon told him yesterday that he is a failure, but there is one person he can always count on. His wife believes in him.
The pastor needs his wife to listen with discernment when he is asking for input, and to give her thoughts freely and confidently.
In the same way, the pastor needs his wife to know when to be quiet and keep her opinion to herself. It’s not an easy assignment, believe me.
He needs the occasional reminder from her that she is proud to be married to a man doing the most important work on the planet, spreading the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Honestly, I can understand a woman saying, “This is more than I can do. I’m not cut out for this.” Her life is as difficult as his, and in some ways, more.
Pray for the pastor’s wife.
Pray for your pastor.
When you get to Heaven–make a note of this and hold me accountable, please–you will find out how the Father treasures every time you lift these two people of His to Him in prayer.
One final word: Please do not approach the pastor or his wife to ask something like, “Tell me what pressures you are facing so I can pray more intelligently.” This is private information which they will not be able to share with you. Please take it by faith and pray with the assurance that the Father knows their needs and will apply the blessing of your prayer wherever it’s needed most. Thank you.
(If we wait until we can do everything perfectly, we will still be sitting here when the Lord returns. Let us be up and doing.)
“Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men” (Colossians 3:23).
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10).
A minister who was interviewing for a position on the staff of my church said, “If I come as your (whatever the position was), I would not make any changes for the first year, but spend that time building relationships.”
That was it for me. We have work to do, I thought. Relationships are good, but they may be built and must be maintained in the midst of doing the work the Lord has given us.
Stephen Dill Lee, well-known Confederate general who later became the founding president of Mississippi State University and served as a deacon at nearby Columbus’s First Baptist Church, once resigned from the church’s deacon board. He said, “When I was in the service, my approach was always to charge, charge, charge. Go forward. But these deacons don’t want to do anything.”
The minutes of the deacons from those years, the early 1900s, indicate that some prevailed upon General Lee and he agreed to stay on. Then, he chaired the church’s building committee that tore down the 1838 sanctuary and built the 1908 edifice which still stands. He was a get ‘er done leader.
“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.” That has always been my philosophy.
Some of us have a running dispute over that little adage. My wife Margaret’s version goes, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” Our friend Annie insists that her approach is, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.”
I imagine that at one time or other, each of those has its application.
Margaret points out that my philosophy–if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly–seems to endorse shoddy work. To the contrary, it’s saying “Even if we cannot do it perfectly, it’s still worth doing.” I’ve drawn many thousands of cartoons for various publications over a half century, but not a one was perfect. Likewise, I suppose I preached five thousand sermons, all of them flawed in one way or the other. But they were worth doing.
Had I delayed until the cartoon was perfect or the sermon was without some weakness, we’d still be looking for the first one.
Recently, during my reading of several Civil War books, I’ve been struck by a life lesson demonstrated by the generals on both sides of the conflict.
Some generals were accused of inaction, not because they were afraid, but because they were perfectionists. They had to have everything “just right” before engaging the enemy.
General George McClellan seems to have been such a leader. Put in charge of the Federal forces early in the War, he is said to have done a masterful job of planning and preparing his troops, organizing his forces, and inspiring his men. What he did not do well was actually engage the enemy with his armies and win battles.
Despairing of his inaction, President Lincoln pulled together some of the generals to formulate a plan. He commented, “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.”
He was removed and replaced by a succession of leaders until Lincoln found the one he was looking for: General U. S. Grant.
Grant was a “gung ho” fighter. His style contrasted with most of his predecessors (as well as with the Confederate generals) who liked to wage a battle, then pull back and lick their wounds for a time, regroup, reorganize, make new plans, etc. That method of warfare guaranteed that the conflict would go on and on, turning it into a marathon.
Grant’s plan was to keep pressuring the enemy. Once he pulled back to reorganize, you kept coming at him, giving him no respite, no relief, no time to get his people together to formulate new plans. By hounding him relentlessly, you made your enemy deplete his resources and run out of troops, all of which forced the war to an end more quickly.
Eventually, that’s how Grant led his forces to victory over the great Robert E. Lee.
In “Grant Takes Command,” a wonderfully readable volume by eminent historian Bruce Catton, Grant is seen as frequently frustrated by his own generals who would not move until every detail was in place. He would send a courier with a message: “Move out against the enemy tomorrow at sunrise.” The courier would return with the reply: “Unable to comply. The cavalry finds the going slow crossing the swamp. Will not be in place until sunset.”
In World War II, the U.S. Marines gave to the world the expression “gung ho!” Wikipedia identifies this as a corruption of a name for a Chinese organization which originally meant something like “work together” or “work in harmony.” However, the Marines turned it into a battle cry, a spirited call to action. Even today, we speak of certain people as “gung ho” types.
Are there church leaders waiting until all the factors are right before beginning a ministry? They should learn about faith.
By faith Abraham went out not knowing where he was going. By faith Noah built a boat far from the ocean. By faith Moses walked away from Pharaoh’s house without any assurance the Israelites would welcome him in. By faith John the Baptist stood in the desert and began preaching.
James B. Sullivan, leader of Southern Baptists’ Lifeway ministry when it was still called The Sunday School Board, once told of a church in Mississippi whose old minutes he had been reading. Sometime around 1900 they decided to construct a new building. However, they needed more money and chose to wait until they’d raised enough. Then the First World War came along and that was followed by inflation of the 1920s and the Depression of the 1930s, and then the Second World War. The 1950s were unsettled with people moving about the country and the 60s saw racial riots and a loss of confidence in the government and the Viet Nam war. Dr. Sullivan said, “At last report, that church still had not built their building.”
Waiting until all the conditions are just right.
The call to “get ‘er done” in the Lord’s work is based on a number of factors….
–the urgency of the hour.
–the reality of spiritual warfare.
–the need of our loved ones and those in darkness.
–the brevity of life.
–the will of God.
A young man I once knew was trying to establish a ministry in his apartment complex. Interviewed by a reporter, he was quoted as saying he had no intention of telling anyone the gospel of Jesus until he had been there a solid year, that he was trying to build up their confidence in him.
I wrote him a letter.
“My friend, I have been doing such a ministry in my apartment complex in Jackson, Mississippi, and have found that the turnover rate for residents in these establishments is very high. In fact, around 30 percent move in or out every year. I suggest that there is no time for you to enjoy the luxury of ‘earning their trust.’ You need to get on with the business of telling them about Jesus.”
I never heard back from him.
So, what are we waiting for? A better economy? Good weather? All the bad guys to go away? A warm feeling?
The Bible says, “He who watches the wind will not sow and he who looks at the clouds will not reap” (Ecclesiastes 11:4).
Let’s get on with it. Get ‘er done.