Kay Warren has never known a life outside of ministry. The girl Kay was a quiet and shy pastor’s kid, imperfect but eager to please, doing her part to maintain the picture of pastor’s-family perfection.
But the woman Kay, wife of Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren, has discovered her God-given gifts and talents. She’s a leader who is passionate about ministry, an author, and a teacher and speaker to women—and especially other pastors’ wives—nationwide. She’s broken, but she’s real.
Kay has learned a lot about the sacred privilege, as she calls it, of being a pastor’s wife. Together, she and Rick planted Saddleback in 1980, and she’s been teaching other women in ministry for almost 30 of those years. Her new book, Sacred Privilege: Your Life and Ministry as a Pastor’s Wife, is a conversation for pastors’ wives. In this interview, she talks about what she wants every church leader to know.
You began teaching this message of “sacred privilege” to pastors’ wives 30 years ago. How has your view of that privilege evolved in your years as a pastor’s wife?
We’ve been in ministry nearly 42 years. When we got married, Rick was a youth pastor, so I became a youth pastor’s wife.
Growing up in a pastor’s home, I saw a lot of what it could be and a lot of what didn’t happen. Our family was strong, and my parents had a good marriage. I was OK with going into ministry because of what I saw in my own home growing up. The place where I’ve had to grow the most is in letting go of other people’s expectations of me.
I think the most personal growth I’ve had as someone in ministry is seeing myself the way God sees me: as beloved—not as someone who is accepted only when she performs or does well. I’m much more comfortable with the mysteries of life and of God. I don’t feel as compelled to fit everything into a neat, little box with a bow. When we started Saddleback, I just wanted to be the perfect pastor’s wife. I’ve let go of that and am much more content being an imperfect pastor’s wife who loves Jesus with her whole heart and loves the people God has placed in our congregation.
What’s the one big idea you want pastors to understand when it comes to supporting their wives?
The vast majority of churches in the United States are still small, which means the pastor typically wears lots of hats. I grew up in small churches, and we started Saddleback with seven people in our home, so I know what it’s like to pastor a small church.
These pastors are often expected to do it all. That’s a recipe for disaster, for burnout, for a bitter spirit growing inside. It’s a recipe for a fractured pastor’s family. What can happen is that the pastor starts buying in to the myth that he really is “Super Pastor.” Then that expectation carries down to his wife and children. It’s harmful to the pastor, and it’s harmful when he allows the church to have that expectation of his wife and children. He not only allows it, but he cooperates with it and actually puts that pressure on his wife and kids himself.
A lot of churches probably still have that old idea that it’s a two-for-the-price-of-one arrangement. When women are taken advantage of, they can become the focus of the members’ criticism. She’s expected to lead in areas where maybe she isn’t strong. She’s expected to be the conduit to her husband, the one who receives their complaints.
I think the best thing pastors can do is to get off the pedestal so their family can get off it as well. It really starts with the pastor. We’re not meant to live on this tiny ledge of perfection. We’re real people with real struggles and needs. We need Jesus just as much as our congregants do. A pastor needs to remind his congregation that they hired him. His family is there and they’re going to serve and love, but give them a little space. His wife and kids are unique people. When the pastor sets it up that way, his wife feels protected and cared for.
Ephesians 4 says pastors are supposed to equip the people for the works of ministry. And when the minister trains the ministers—and the Bible says we’re all ministers—to do the works of ministry, then the church flourishes, the pastor and his family are not burdened, and the kingdom of God expands.
How, then, can a pastor encourage his wife to find her unique, God-ordained place in ministry?
He can let her grow and give her freedom to choose how she feels most comfortable serving. Don’t assign her tasks or roles without her permission, and don’t guilt her into doing what you think she should do. I’ve found that most of us flourish when we’re encouraged, when someone believes in us, gives us space and opportunities to explore, and honors our uniqueness. When that’s the approach, a pastor’s wife has a much greater chance at finding a place that’s true to who she is and the way God gifted her.
What if he sees something in her that she doesn’t recognize in herself?
I think it’s the pastor’s role to encourage her. For instance, I was very shy with low self-esteem. I had this goal to be a perfect pastor’s wife, yet I felt completely out of my league. Rick recognized speaking and teaching gifts in me long before I did. Because he believed that I, too, had been gifted to contribute to the kingdom of God, he elevated me and pushed me to take risks. He didn’t force me. He was really gentle and consistent in affirming me and opening doors for me. He encouraged me to move outside of my comfort zone to try new things. And because he had such confidence in me, I increased my self-confidence. I realized I had abilities I didn’t know were there.
Some couples come into marriage completely differently. The wife is already aware of her gifts, and in fact maybe her gifts in leading are stronger than in her husband. That was not the case for me, but in that case, as in ours, the bottom line is oneness and unity. My goal is not to outshine Rick. His goal is not to outshine me. Our goal is to serve together.
No matter the gift mix of a ministry couple, at the end of the day they need to be a team. And each couple has to figure out for themselves what that looks like. How are each of our gifts honored in this relationship? How do we flex to make your gift apparent in this season and my gift apparent in that season? When both of your gifts are recognized and honored, then you’re going to serve together as a team, and that makes marriage and ministry stronger.