by Jackie Katz
If I’ve learned anything in thirty-seven years of ministry, it’s that congregations have unrealistic expectations of their pastoral family. The man who stands behind the pulpit on Sunday represents God to his congregation and symbolizes a whole system of faith. To add to his burden, he is attributed certain virtues simply because of his position and then expected to exemplify them. He is supposed to be a strong leader but not domineering; preach with fervor but not offend; possess great wisdom but be devoid of pride; and study diligently but not neglect the people. In other words, he must be close to perfect.
These same dynamics spill over into the life of the pastor’s wife. After all, she is married to the man who symbolizes God to the congregation. He is “Mr. God” and she is “Mrs. God.” The church thinks it has hired two for the price of one. The wife is expected to be the ultimate example of love and graciousness, and the epitome of the Proverbs 31 woman. She will attend every church service, and sit in front where she can easily be watched. She will be fashionably – but not too fashionably – dressed, direct the children’s choir and lead the women’s ministry but not to the neglect of her children – oh, and run an efficient home on a meager budget. After all, “Mrs. God” is perfect!
The children do not escape their share of expectations, either. They are to be better behaved and more spiritual than other children of the congregation; have the ability to sit quietly through church services without squirming; avoid childish pranks; and evade sin and temptation. After all, they are “Mr. God” and “Mrs. God’s” children!
It is certainly ludicrous that some congregations expect their pastoral family to model such perfect behavior. These unwritten codes of conduct, communicated by raised eyebrows or subtle comments, are unrealistic and totally impossible to achieve. Plus, there are those who would put you on a pedestal and ask you to live a perfect life in order to be relieved of the responsibility of living a holy life themselves. They refuse to live up to their own potential of godliness and instead want to live out their righteousness vicariously through you. But, you cannot do the spiritual work of others. You must simply refuse to carry that burden.
If you don’t let go of the burden, you could face problems such as:
- Developing a rebellious spirit, with a “they-won’t-control-me!” attitude.
- Developing a compliant spirit that lures you into living an artificial lifestyle.
- Battling an inner anger that is released into your marriage, parenting and other relationships.
- Suffering from feelings of inadequacy, guilt and failure.
- Struggling with discouragement that creates fertile ground for temptation.
- Acquiring a destructive attitude of cynicism.
- Seeking the approval of people rather than God.
- Being tempted to flee your present ministry or quitting ministry altogether.
- Abandoning your faith entirely rather than coping with unrealistic expectations.
The pressure to conform is great. Many times I have found myself entangled in the confusing snare of congregational expectations. I have been able to break free by applying the biblical principle found in John 8:32, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” It is critical to search for truth and then stand on it in the face of unrealistic congregational expectations.
The Truth About Expectations
It is helpful to recognize that expectations are built into the fabric of every human relationship. Everyone has expectations. We have expectations of the congregation and they have expectations of us. Yet we resent their expectations while imposing our expectations on them. We should also understand that many expectations may be self-imposed and originate in our own thinking. A friend of mine, new to ministry and anxious to please, felt it was necessary to be fully dressed by 6 a.m. every morning just in case a parishioner came to her door. This expectation was self-imposed. Sometimes, the danger does not lie in the fact that people have expectations of us. The real danger is that we buy into their expectations and try to fulfill them. Trying to live the way we presume others think we should is stressful and foolish.
The Truth About Ourselves
We are not perfect people. There are parts of us that need to be changed. We attempt to hide behind masks so that no one will discover the truth and reject us; but the truth is, God allows for our humanness. He knows that we will fail; and when we fail, He is willing to forgive us and give us much-needed grace. That’s what the gospel is all about. We are people in process. It’s best to climb down off our self-built pedestal and refuse to pretend we’re perfect. As we learn forbearance and compassion for our own imperfections, we are better able to minister to others who struggle.
The Truth About Roles
It is risky to view the role of the pastor’s wife in a way that is more than simple identification because it often gives birth to a performance mentality. It is not a role to be performed; it is a function that God has called you to fulfill. The danger is that you will try to be all things to all people and develop a pretense of virtue that you do not possess. The title of “pastor’s wife” is not to be confused with who you really are. As Ruth Senter points out in her book, So You’re The Pastor’s Wife, “The Christian life is not performing, it is being. It’s not filling a role or playing a part, but responding to life offstage and out of the glare of the lights.” It’s better to be authentic and genuine. People can more easily relate to women who are real.
The Truth About Control
Congregational expectations do not have to control our lives. Instead, we give away the control of our lives when we fulfill others’ expectations and fail to make our own decisions. For some, this is easier and safer. It is more difficult to shoulder the responsibility of making your own choices and being accountable for them. It is easy to believe the lie that some outside ominous force controls your life. You can blame others for your lack of courage and self-discipline, but then you are left to struggle with feelings of resentment and confusion. How much more satisfying to discover your gifts, talents and abilities instead of yielding to external pressures.
The Truth About God’s Expectations
Interestingly, the Bible does not assign any specific duties to be performed in the church by the wives of overseers (pastors/leaders), but it does state expectations of her character. Because of our high visibility we are to be examples of good character to others. 1 Timothy 3:11 (Amplified) says, “(The) women likewise must be worthy of respect and serious, not gossipers, but temperate and self-controlled, (thoroughly) trustworthy in all things.” These are God’s expectations. Other than that, we are like any other women in the congregation – we are to obey the commands and instructions that are given in the Scriptures, using our individual gifts and talents for the Lord.
Managing congregational expectations is a challenge; but when you are intentional in the use of your God-given resources, you maximize your greatest potential and satisfaction.
QUESTIONS TO PONDER
- Do I feel used by others?
- Could part of my problem be my need to please people?
- Do I live for God’s glory or the approval of man?
- Is my self worth tied up in what others think of me, what I do, or in what Christ thinks of me?
- Am I proactive in defining and shaping my ministry?
- Am I limiting my effectiveness by not establishing necessary boundaries?
- Have I accepted only the assignments assigned by the Lord?