Life in the Fishbowl

Why Pastors' Spouses' Need Support

Rachel Boehm Van Harmelen

(Article first appeared in the December 8, 2008 issue of the Christian Courier)

An online community for pastor’s wives, www.pastorswives.org, is titled: “Thriving in the Fishbowl.” While many pastors feel their profession has moved beyond the “glass house” phenomenon of an earlier era, pastors’ families cannot escape the reality that they still play a central—and highly—visible role in the church. That role, even today, comes fraught with expectations and a level of scrutiny that can be uncomfortable, and even stressful, at times. It’s a reality that extends to the pastor’s spouse and family as well.

The Christian Reformed Church’s Sustaining Pastoral Excellence (SPE) project provides resources, programs, and grants to support pastoral health and well-being so that local church ministry can thrive. An important part of allowing pastors to thrive in ministry is ensuring that the pastor’s spouse and family are supported, too.

“We as pastors’ spouses often live under a tremendous weight of expectations from others but also from ourselves,” explains Elizabeth Nanninga, whose husband, Rick Nanninga, serves Brighton Fellowship CRC in Brighton, Ontario. “As pastors’ spouses, we desire to listen and support our spouses, yet many of us have had not training in handling the weightiness and multifaceted layers of church ministry,” says Nanninga.

Support Through Peer Groups
Peer groups can help equip pastors’ spouses to deal with the challenges they face, says Nanninga. She recently became part of a pastors’ spouses peer group called Pastors’ Spouses Share Together, or PSST for short. “We come together regularly to listen, learn, love, and release. We meet at one of the member’s homes for share and prayer, with a discussion of topics relevant to our situation,” Nanninga says. Recent PSST study topics have included healthy boundaries, family care, spousal support and relationships with church. “We have a good mix of those who have been in the ministry a long time and those who have just started, so we can learn from one another,” she says.

Thanks in part to the grant they receive from the CRC’s Sustaining Pastoral Excellence project, Nanninga and her peers recently benefitted from a three-day retreat, a break from their normal routines to spend uninterrupted time in prayer and fellowship. “It was a great way to help us connect and open up and get to know each other better,” Nanninga says. “We all felt so blessed to have this opportunity to connect as pastors’ spouses. Our group has a feeling of hope and a real potential for care.”

Lori Heilman has also experienced the benefits of being part of a pastors’ spouses peer group. Her group, called First Ladies of Classis Heartland in the state of Iowa, has become a haven for her and the other spouses involved. “Our group is safe place where concerns, struggles, and joys can be shared with complete confidentiality,” Heilman says.

“I think healthy pastor families are vital if we want a pastoral ministry to be effective,” says Heilman, whose husband, David was ordained in 1987. “Pastors are often under a lot of stress, and often, the spouses have no way of knowing what exactly is going on. Many church matters are confidential, so the pastor isn’t free to discuss things,” she says. “If the pastor’s spouse doesn’t have support and faces these challenges alone, it definitely puts added stress on the family.”

A peer group provides a place where spouses like Heilman can speak openly and ask questions of others who have faced similar challenges. “I think we all feel free to call on the other members of our group for advice, encouragement, or prayer whenever we are facing a struggle,” she says.  Heilman’s group, which also benefits from an SPE grant, was started by a few seasoned pastors’ wives who wanted to reach out and help spouses who were new to a life in ministry. “God has blessed our group beyond what we ever would have imagined,” Heilman says.

For the Many Hats You Wear
In addition to providing grants for pastors’ spouse peer groups, SPE also sponsors bi-annual conferences to recognize and encourage pastors’ spouses. “For the Many Hats You Wear,” a conference held this past September in Grand Rapids, Michigan, did just that for the 84 pastors’ wives that attended. Although the conference was open to pastors’ spouses of either gender, only women responded to the invitation to attend the conference this time around.

“The conference for pastors’ spouses helped me as a woman, as a mom, as a wife,” says Ruth Ann Schuringa, whose spouse, Erick, serves a church in Brampton, Ontario. “I was rejuvenated spiritually and I connected with new and old friends,” she says.

“If pastors’ spouses are supported appropriately, they can begin to feel a full part of the congregation, using their gifts where they are gifted, having friends like anyone else,” Schuringa says. While Schuringa says she has always felt well supported in her role as pastor’s spouse, she has witnessed situations where a lack of support has led to despair. “Some pastor’s spouses become bitter because of the hurt, the lack of friends, the unfair demands made on them and their kids,” says Schuringa.

Marlene Vanderburgh became a pastor’s spouse when her husband, John, entered the ministry as a second career in 2005. At the time, the couple had three children and had been married 11 years. Vanderburgh she says she is “still learning” about her role as pastor’s spouse, and the conference supported her on that journey. “It helped me tremendously,” Vanderburgh says. “Being with other spouses and hearing their joys and stresses made me realize that I am not unique in my role. The conference also helped me realize that being a pastor’s spouse is a role and not solely who I am,” she says.

Bernice Steenbergen on the other hand has 19 years as a pastor’s spouse under her belt. Her spouse, Henry, was ordained nearly two decades ago, and together they’ve served churches in Ontario, B.C. and now Alberta. Steenbergen attended her first pastors’ spouse conference two years ago in Toronto, Ontario, and attended again this past fall in Grand Rapids. She recalls listening while the M.C. opened the Toronto conference with a simple, heartfelt thank you to pastors’ spouses on behalf of the whole denomination. “I choked up,” says Steenbergen, her emotions taking her by surprise. “The speakers’ words caught me off guard. I really hadn't thought to attend the conference because of any need,” Steenbergen says.

What Steenbergen found so moving that day was the realization that she was appreciated and valued for the role she had played in the church’s ministry. Perhaps what pastors’ spouses need more than anything else is the easiest of all gifts for churches to give: simple gratitude.