By Melissa Brandes
After many months, the search committee finally zeroes in on their top choice for pastor. The formal interview goes very well. He seems a perfect fit.
“Trial sermon” Sunday arrives. He preaches a solid biblical message with a great application. Later that afternoon, church leaders’ spouses take the potential pastor’s wife out for coffee while the men go boating on a lake. That evening, an elder asks his wife about the candidate’s spouse, but she hesitates.
“She’s interesting,” the elder’s wife finally says, but not enthusiastically. “I guess she’s pleasant enough. Honestly I just don’t know her well, so I can’t say for sure.” The elder doesn’t know what to think.
The elders meet two days later. After prayer, they discuss whether to formally invite the candidate to become the congregation’s lead pastor. All of the elders are enthusiastic about him, and for a moment no one dares mention the wife. But finally one elder speaks up as tactfully as he can.
“My wife did express some concerns about his wife,” he says.
The elders exchange glances.
“My wife had some reservations as well,” another elder admits, but he quickly adds, “But we’re not hiring her as our pastor, we’re hiring him.”
A few moments of uncomfortable silence go by, then more discussion, and then a vote to issue the call.
The pastor accepts, and two months later he begins serving with the church.
Everything goes well for awhile. Church attendance increases by about 25 people, people are happy, and the pastor’s preaching is consistently solid.
But then a crack appears. The new pastor’s wife speaks rather freely about others’ personal issues, causing a bit of concern and discomfort. She helps with children’s ministries, but she does so grudgingly. And then, a few months later, the elders decide on an issue, but she disagrees and mentions it to some of her new church friends.
Amid escalating unease, some relationships cool. The new pastor isn’t perfect, but he’s doing a decent job . . . and almost everyone likes him. People kind of like her, too. For the most part. But she’s a bit immature. The elders try to gently raise the issue to address it, but without success. The pastor stands with his wife. The wife feels judged, hurt, and angry. A rift is forming in the church. What should be done?
Paul offers some guidance in 1 Timothy 3:8, 11: “Deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. . . . In the same way, the women [or wives] are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.”
Apparently the behavior of leaders’ wives has been an issue since the beginning of the church. When Scripture says that two become one when they marry, this holds true in ministry as well. A church may hire a lead pastor or select an elder, but that person’s wife—no matter what she does or doesn’t do—has a role of shared authority. You cannot disconnect the two.
When Scripture is ignored, a host of problems can unfold. The best way to deal with problems is to work to prevent them from ever occurring. But how?
1. Interview the Husband and the Wife
Interviewing both husband and wife shows basic respect to both. It provides the wife a chance to ask questions, voice concerns, and be included in a life-changing decision. She is an important part of their joint ministry, so leaving her in the dark on some issues is unwise and disrespectful. Including her in the interview process conveys an appropriate sense of value, which is important as she and her husband begin their journey with your church.
The joint interview is also a good time to make sure both husband and wife are a good fit for the church. The husband must be “worthy of respect,” and so must the wife.
During the interview process, ask the husband to describe his wife’s role in the church and ministry. Make sure both he and his wife agree on that.
Ask the wife questions such as these:
- Do you feel called to ministry?
- Describe your husband’s ministry, as you see it. What is your role in your husband’s work?
- How does your husband view your role in the church? Are the two of you in agreement on that?
2. Observe How They Interact with One Another
A good marriage blesses and inspires others. But ministry is stressful. Try to determine how a couple interacts with one another. Ask,
- How have you handled stressful church situations in the past?
- Do you share all sensitive information with each other? (To the spouse) Are you OK with not knowing some issues?
- What roles do you think the church should play in helping you manage ministry stress? How could we demonstrate respect to you as a couple and as a family?
As you interview them, try to observe:
- Do they honor one another as they talk?
- Does one or the other dominate the conversation?
- Does their tone of voice reveal a mutual love for one another and an excitement for the opportunities ahead?
Pastors’ marriages have ups and downs, heartaches and joys, triumphs and trials (as all marriages do). Yet ministry can intensify challenges.
No marriage is perfect, but making sure healthy patterns are in place can be an important factor in choosing a leader. The best way to learn about a potential leader’s marriage and how husband and wife interact with one another is by interviewing both of them together.
3. Ask Yourselves Some Hard Questions
It’s important for the eldership and the entire congregation to have realistic expectations of the pastor’s wife. What do you hope she will do? Are you willing to offer grace, kindness, and space? Will you accept different ways of doing things? Will you commit to praying for your new minister’s family?
No one is perfect . . . not even the minister’s wife. She will make mistakes, and get hurt, and say wrong things. Oftentimes the wives of ministers are judged more harshly. Will your grace be sufficient for her too?
Additionally, churches often assume that hiring a pastor entitles them to his wife’s services as piano player, children’s teacher, kitchen manager, Communion preparer, etc. Any expectations of that sort should be made clear in the interview.
Many years ago the minister’s wife was expected to stand alongside her husband at most church functions. Times have changed, and so has a woman’s ability to do all these things. More women are in the workforce—and it may be necessary to make up for the financial shortfall of a typical pastor’s salary in an increasingly expensive world. Expecting the pastor’s wife to fill the gaps in church work can ratchet up the pressure on the wife and the marriage. It can cause resentment.
A healthy church will pray, support, mentor, and encourage the wife, while also giving her room to be her own person (and giving space for the children to be normal kids as well). Reasonable expectations among the elders and church are vital.
4. Consider the Perspective of Women Prior to Making Decisions
Let’s move beyond the hiring decision for a moment. The way a church makes decisions will have an impact on how men and women in general, and husbands and wives specifically, work together. Let’s face it, women and men see things differently.
When an elder or pastor goes home after a meeting, he sometimes will inform his wife of discussions and decisions. If she disagrees, it can cause him to doubt his former decision and cloud future meetings. It is better to include the voices of wives in some of the discussions.
Our church has open elder meetings, though at times they will meet privately. But they seek to include the perspective of women, which they value.
Listening to the voices of men and women is helpful in mitigating problems. It shows respect for a congregation comprised of both sexes.
5. If a Red Flag for Potential Problems Is Raised for Either Spouse, Heed Paul’s Wisdom
Approach the selection of a new pastor or a new elder (and their spouse) with prayer and wisdom. If anything during the interview process raises a red flag in regard to the husband or wife, the eldership and congregation must take that into consideration.
A red flag shouldn’t forever exclude a couple from leadership ministry, but it might indicate the timing isn’t right and that further mentorship is needed. It isn’t a matter of age, but one of character and maturity.
There is a reason Paul wrote to Timothy, exhorting him clearly that ministry is always a joint endeavor with a spouse. If either of them is untrustworthy, issues will arise. Both must be followers of Christ who are “worthy of respect.” Concessions on this issue have caused too many congregations unnecessary heartache.
A great husband-and-wife team can truly bless a church. Each can make a unique contribution. Hiring a married pastor or selecting a married man to be elder must be viewed as a package deal—the church is signing on both the leader and his wife. Be diligent and God-honoring in the process. Interview both the husband and wife. Have reasonable expectations. But when character issues and concerns in either one of them are revealed, failure to heed Paul’s admonition will come at a hefty price.
Melissa Brandes is a graduate of Ozark Christian College (Bachelor of Theology) and Lincoln Christian Seminary (Master of Arts in New Testament) and has served as a Bible teacher around the world for more than 30 years. Her passion is the eradication of Bible poverty throughout the world through teaching, writing, and Bible distribution.