At a recent pastors conference hosted by Insight for Living, one pastor’s wife asked me an insightful question. I’ll share her question with you, as well as my thoughts on it, so that you might pass it along to your wife, if appropriate. This woman asked, “What is the greatest contribution a wife can make to a man in ministry?”
Wonderful question. Let me respond directly . . . to your wife.
Be Secure in Who You Are
One of the greatest contributions you can make to your husband is that you be very secure in who you are. Pastors’ wives often feel they need to be something everyone else wants them to be. Some of that responsibility falls on us, as pastors, and I understand that. But it’s so important that you know who you are . . . and then be who you are.
Be a Person of Objective Support
From that place of security, it’s important that you be for your husband a person of objective support.
Notice how I said that. Objective support. You’re neither a shadow nor a doormat. Furthermore, you’re not there to agree with everything. Some of the things you don’t agree with will be very helpful to him. But how you go about expressing your disagreement is very important.
Remember, the goal is objective support. Both terms are essential.
Cynthia has learned how and when to question something I said in a sermon. But she has cultivated the ability to do it in a way that I feel supported by her. Younger wives tend to talk about it on the way home from church . . . not a good time! We pastors feel pretty fragile, even defensive, on Sunday afternoons. So it’s important that you learn how to say what you have to say.
Remember the wives of leaders in the Bible? They had great influence . . . for good or evil. If you can remind your husband that you support him (even when you may disagree with him), he can face any challenge the ministry hurls his way. But if he doesn’t have your support—if he doubts that you believe in him—he may eventually quit the ministry in a pit of depression.
I’ve seen it happen.
Be a Trusted Confidant
Finally, it’s important to keep his confidences. There are some issues I deal with that Cynthia does not know about—but they are very few. If I say to an individual, “No one will ever know this,” then I really mean no one will ever know it. But I’m careful when I say that. I usually add the caveat: “I may tell my wife about this, but she’ll make a burial of the information in her mind.”
It is helpful for me to confide in my wife. Your husband needs that too. Assure him of your confidentiality.
Be very secure in who you are. Be a person of objective support. And be a trusted confidant.
He has so very few.
I don’t want to intensify your guilt—not at all. But let me go ahead and say that it’s probably true that some of you are neglecting the home, and the ministry has become your mistress. Believe me; I understand how that can happen. I confess that there were periods in my own life when that occurred, which I have shared with you before.
Having been there, I’m telling you: it isn’t worth it.
My word to you is to learn the difference between being engaged in ministry and being controlled by it.
May I Say the Obvious?
You still have a family!
- They still long to have lunch with you.
- They still love to get a phone call.
- They want to know wisdom from you outside the pulpit.
- They still yearn to have an arm around their shoulders.
- They still want you to make time to sit on the back porch and kick back and listen.
- They want you to attend their ball games and go to their performance and see you relax . . . really relax!
- They still want to know that you can do more in your spare time than study.
- And they really want to hear you laugh!
They are the ones you will leave in your legacy—the only ones who have your blood and your name. They need you. They want you.
After all, they’re the ones who could write the unauthorized biography. Oh, what a thought! I won’t go there.
Words Worth Pondering
Let me end this entry by quoting from a book you should get if you don’t have it. Ken Gire, in his little volume A Father’s Gift: The Legacy of Memories, closes with these reflective words.
What pictures will my son remember
when he comes to the plain granite marker
over his father’s grave?
What will my daughters remember?
Or my wife? . . .
. . . I’ve resolved to give fewer lectures,
to send fewer platitudes rolling their way,
to give less criticism,
to offer fewer opinions. . . .
. . . From now on, I will give them pictures they can live by,
pictures that can comfort them,
and keep them warm
in my absence.
Because when I’m gone, there will only be silence.
And memories. . . .
. . . Of all
I could give
to make their lives a little fuller,
a little richer,
a little more prepared
for the journey ahead of them,
nothing compares to the gift of remembrance—
pictures that show they are special
and that they are loved.
Pictures that will be there
when I am not.
Pictures that have within them
a redemption all their own.
As committed as you are to your church, there are others. You are not indispensable there. God can lead you to another church . . . and some day He will. But you cannot get another family . . . and they cannot get another you.
Your family members are the people who love you and need you the most—I mean that in a healthy way. Your wife and children want to be with you. They want as much time as possible to enjoy you. If you’re an empty nester, even your grown children still need you. So do those grandkids. Mine do too. They don’t want to lose us just because we are engaged in ministry.
If your ministry enlarges and begins to include other orbits (as mine has)—perhaps a radio ministry, a broader speaking ministry, a music ministry, or a publishing ministry—keep in mind that all of those things have voracious appetites. Just as Sunday comes every week (even during holidays) and you have to stand and deliver whether you’re ready or not, so your other commitments can suck the life out of you. Every publisher wants the next book, every blog or podcast audience wants the next post. My wife, Cynthia, reminds me often, “Radio never takes a holiday.” Those trains keep on moving, and they are hard to stop.
Now, I’m not saying don’t ever write, or speak elsewhere, or expand your ministry. I’m saying to think first and evaluate if it’s really God who is leading you. Needs will always outrun your energy. Even Jesus didn’t heal everybody. He purposely limited His ministry (Mark 1:35–38). The Judgment Seat of Christ will be about quality not quantity (1 Corinthians 3:13). Think before you add to your plate.
Practice saying, “No.”
I’ve been in ministry more than five decades. During that time I have discovered what might sound basic and obvious—but believe me, it took years to learn. In fact, I’m still growing into the reality of what it means. I have learned that relationships come just below one’s walk with God.
Even Jesus illustrated this principle by the relationships in His life, didn’t He?
- The Lord ministered to the multitudes.
- Within that crowd He had His followers.
- That group narrowed further to the Twelve, then to the three (Peter, James, and John).
- Finally, Jesus had John, the beloved disciple.
I have found that a minister of the gospel has at least four key areas of relationships.
4 Key Relationships for the Pastor
Picture these people as concentric circles around you—somewhat like those whom Jesus had around Him. Let’s start with those closest to you and work our way out.
- Your immediate circle is your family. Obviously, if you are married, I’m referring to your relationship with your wife. But prior to marriage, and now in tandem with it, you may have a continuing relationship with your parents. And then you and your wife have a relationship with your children, your grandchildren, your in-laws, and even further relationships within the family.
- The next circle out would be those who serve with you on a pastoral staff. You may serve in a church with a multiple-staff, or perhaps you are the only staff person. Maybe you employ someone on a part-time basis, or you may have volunteers. All of us have those like these who serve faithfully and consistently. Those relationships are unique.
- The third circle would be fellow leaders in the church. Perhaps they are elders and deacons, or you may have other titles in your denomination. These would be those leaders who serve alongside us.
- Finally, the fourth and largest circle represents those in our local congregation. And I’ve divided those into five categories: the attendees, the friends, the attractive, the troubled, and finally—the most difficult of all—the troublemakers.
A pastor’s relationships are essential.
I want to take my time in addressing these with you over the weeks ahead. We’re in no hurry. Relationships take time to develop . . . and talking about them does as well. These are the lives that touch us, shape us, minister to us, mean the world to us, or drive us nuts if they could.
Relationships come just below one’s walk with God. So easy to say . . . but so challenging to live.
Despite the pessimistic headlines announcing that the family is an endangered species, I refuse to sigh and give up hope. Who says “endangered” means doomed? If we’re ingenious enough to preserve the bison, the whooping crane, and the humpbacked whale, I’m convinced we can preserve the family. The “want to” is certainly there with a lot of us—especially us preachers.
Professor Nick Stinnett launched a fascinating study some years ago. All sorts of questions were asked to families from many backgrounds, cultures, and countries. His research represented a wide swath of the families of humanity. The goal? Very simply, to discover what makes families strong.
Dr. Stinnett writes of his findings:
All together, we studied 3,000 families and collected a lot of information. But when we analyzed it all, we found six main qualities in strong families. Strong families:
- are committed to the family,
- spend time together,
- have good family communication,
- express appreciation to each other,
- share a spiritual commitment,
- are able to solve problems in a crisis.
Look back over that list. There is enough there to fill out your preaching calendar for the rest of the year! When I first came across this information, I used it not only as the basis for a miniseries of pulpit messages on the family, but I also posted that list in my home. It became the topic of numerous conversations among the Swindoll tribe! I would suggest you try the same experiment with your family.
Then preach it.
I spent the first ten years of my marriage trying to make Cynthia into me. I can’t think of many things worse on earth than a female Chuck. And I’ll be honest, it almost broke us apart. We didn’t separate though, because she stayed and stuck it out.
I’ll never forget when Cynthia said to me, “I don’t want you to keep telling people we’re ‘partners’ because we’re not partners. I bear your children and I cook your meals, and I clean the house, but I’m not a partner.” Then she added, “You’ve never accepted me for who I really am.” I said, “Yes, I have.” She said, “No you haven’t.” I said, “YES, I have.” She said, “NO, you haven’t!” And I got louder and she got louder, and she finally walks away in tears. And I was left with the dishes. While doing those dishes I thought, She’s right.
We began a process that took four years to break that habit in me. It involved some serious counseling that we both sought . . . and it was very helpful. It just about wiped me out, though, realizing how true her criticism was. I did very little encouraging back then. I had picked the people I liked, and those were the ones I spent time with. The others I just used.
It was years later at a gathering with some friends from our radio program that someone asked Cynthia, “Why don’t you say some things about the broadcast?” She walked up and said, “The best part about this is that Chuck and I are in this as partners.” In that wonderful moment her statement brought a knot in my throat. She hadn’t said that word, since she had said it to me on that cold kitchen floor many years before. I finally came to realize the importance of accepting my wife.
I often remember Peter’s words to us as husbands, and how our lives at home affect our effectiveness as pastors. I’ve emphasized the result of obeying Peter’s words: “Live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7).
She has a different temperament than you and a different way of thinking. Most wives do, you know; that’s why the marriage works. I invite you to make a serious study of the fourteenth chapter of Romans. It sets forth an absence of legalism. It underscores the enjoyment of freedom, the appreciation of diversity, a non-controlling lifestyle. It’s all about accepting people as they are . . . and it also applies at home.
I’ve often found it easier to be more accepting and encouraging of the people in our congregation than my own wife. Maybe it’s the same for you too.
“So then let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another” (Romans 14:19).
Let me apply this verse by paraphrasing it this way: Pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of your children rather than creating division by tearing them down with criticism.
Are you tearing down your kids with your words? The desire for them to be strong, well-mannered, and successful children can be a strong one. In fact, too strong. You may be focused only on fixing what’s wrong, usually by pointing it out. And if we’re brutally honest with ourselves, what’s wrong is they are not meeting our expectations for what we think they should be. You played sports, so your boy should. You were Phi Beta Kappa; therefore, your child should be. You had a vibrant social life, so your daughter should. You’re musical, so your son should be, too. You’re in the ministry, so . . . (you finish the sentence).
Perhaps you have one child who’s a natural with the baseball, which pleases you because you love baseball. You share evenings together playing catch in the backyard. Then along comes another. He can’t catch, he can’t throw, and he wants to go back inside to read or listen to music. The temptation is to favor the child who is most like you and subject the one who isn’t to negative comparisons. But neither favoritism nor holding one sibling out as an example for the others will alter what God ordained for each child. (Remember Jacob’s favoritism of Joseph? Talk about dysfunction!)
Some kids love sports. Some are a whiz with puzzles and math. Some are messy and artistic and messy (they go together)! Some are structured and meticulous organizers. Some are dedicated students, while others barely squeeze by academically. Why? Because God made them that way. But if we’re not careful, we’ll see their God-ordained interests and temperaments as flaws to be fixed. We might even go so far as to make their differences rebellious issues to be disciplined, rather than hidden strengths to be developed.
Allow me to repeat my opening principle: Pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of your children rather than creating division by tearing them down with criticism.
How’s life in your home? Are you a builder?
My love affair with Thanksgiving takes me all the way back to my boyhood days. I had just turned 10 years of age and was in fifth grade at Southmayd Elementary School in East Houston.
(Image from Unsplash)
As I recall, I was still going barefoot to school—and I combed my hair, maybe three times a week. Girls didn’t matter a lot to me when I was 10! It was on a Wednesday, the day before our Thanksgiving holidays began.
The year was 1944. Our nation was at war across the Atlantic into Europe as well as in the Pacific and far beyond.
Times were simple back then but they were also rugged. Everything was rationed. Framed stars hung proudly in neighborhood windows—and sometimes they were quietly changed to crosses.
Everyone I knew was patriotic to the core. Without television, we relied on “newsreels” that were shown at the movies, bold newspaper headlines, and LIFE magazine, which carried photos and moving stories of courage in battle and deaths at sea. Signs were posted inside most stores and on street corners, all of them with the same four words:
Good leaders are enthusiastically affirming. Paul writes,
You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children. (1 Thessalonians 2:10–11)
Ever spent a Friday night on hard bleachers, in front of the father of the high school quarterback? He’s his own cheering section. Why? He’s a dad! The kid on the field is thinking, “Dad, come on, knock it off.” But his old man is standing up there, yelling at top volume, loving every minute of it. There’s no question who he’s pulling for.
Perhaps you’ve longed for more affirmation from your father. Let’s face it; encouragement goes a long way in preparing a child for life. No one should be getting more encouragement from us than our own children.
Pretty convicting stuff, isn’t it?
Good leadership balances the tender nurturing of a mother with the loving affirmation of a father. Encouragement is like an oasis in a hot, barren desert. It brings needed refreshment to weary individuals whose souls are parched from time spent in the desert of self-doubt. There’s the desert of failure when we’ve tried so hard to succeed. There’s also the desert of no progress when we so want something to happen but it doesn’t. And there’s the desert of family rejection, abuse, and a thousand other arid, monotonous landscapes of life.
In those desert experiences, we all long for an oasis where we’re able to get a cool drink of water. Though it may not have come from your father, determine it will come from you. Give the affirming words of a father, who, in speaking, dips his ladle deep in ice water, and as he pours them out, they cool the spirit and refresh the soul.
Affirming leaders create loyal followers . . . in the church and in the home.
John Donne is one of the least-known saints in history. The 17th century poet and preacher endured a life of persecution, pain, unfair imprisonment, and lengthy suffering.
It was during his term as Dean of the great St. Paul’s Cathedral – London’s largest church – that three waves of the Great Plague swept through the city. The last epidemic alone killed 40,000 people. In all, a third of London’s population perished, while a third more fled to the countryside, turning entire residential districts into ghost towns.
Donne’s life had been no picnic. Released from prison and now blackballed, he couldn’t find work. He and his wife Anne lived in grinding poverty, and Anne nearly died from childbirth more than once. Donne himself suffered intense headaches, intestinal cramps, and gout. His longest literary work during this excruciating period of his life was an extended essay on the advantages of suicide.
He decided at the late age of forty-two to seek ordination as an Anglican priest. The year after Donne took his first Anglican church, his beloved Anne died, after having borne him twelve children in all (five of whom died in infancy).
Amazingly, this was the man appointed to St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1621. With all his trials, he hardly seemed a likely candidate to lift his nation’s spirits during that era of the plague. He stayed near his beleaguered parishioners—arising every morning at 4 a.m. and studying until ten at night. He delivered sermons of such power, the vast cathedral remained crowded with worshipers despite London’s declining population.
It was then—at the zenith of his public ministry—his dread disease was diagnosed along with his death sentence. What is noteworthy is that he never “retired” from his calling—and he refused to become a passive recluse. While surviving those dark months, he stayed engaged with people. His life modeled the priceless value of enduring companionships.
Among his best-known writings are lines from his work, Devotions, written only a few years before his death. You may remember some of them:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent … if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
The importance of our staying engaged in the lives of others cannot be overestimated. Isolation is not only unbiblical and unwise, it is, in fact, unhealthy. You get weird.
Finding and nurturing a few very close companions throughout your years in ministry is a key ingredient to surviving. If you are one of those in that category—you are miles ahead of those who think they can survive on their own.
I must add — you are also rare.