“Pastors’ wives wish their husbands understood how painful it is when pastors treat the church as their mistress.”
Don’t miss Part 1 of the interview with Kay Warren, co-founder of Saddleback Church with husband Rick Warren. In time for the May launch of her new book, Sacred Privilege: Your Life and Ministry as a Pastor’s Wife, Kay discusses the biggest issues that affect marriage in ministry.
Is there ever a time when it’s appropriate for a pastor’s wife to take a step back from ministry?
I’m not a believer in the pastor being there but you never see the wife. I don’t get that, and I think those are the couples who probably aren’t going to last in ministry. Ministry is hard, and if you don’t share it in some way together, it creates distance. How can you be intimate if the pastor’s wife doesn’t even show up at church or is resentful? How can their marriage survive, let alone the ministry?
With that said, I also acknowledge there are seasons of life when there’s some extraordinary circumstance that is depleting and stressful, and maybe you have to take a really big step back. That’s OK. That’s completely different than being disinterested or disengaged because you don’t believe in it or you don’t care.
After our son Matthew died, I completely stepped back. I didn’t go to church for four months. But it wasn’t because I didn’t care or wasn’t interested. I was grieving and couldn’t handle the people with good hearts wanting to engage me. I had to stay away. But as soon as I could, I went back and gradually increased what I could do.
You and Rick have dealt with difficult life circumstances. During those times, how have you walked together, rather than allowing the stress to pull you apart?
We have faced those times together and given each other a lot of grace and support. The thing that nearly pulled us apart was Matthew’s mental illness. I don’t know if it was because our personalities and approach to life are so different to begin with, or because loving someone with a severe mental illness takes an enormous toll on families. Probably both.
As Matthew became more suicidal, it elevated our stress level. It felt like we lived on high alert for years. That wears you down, and it caused us to feel distant from each other. I remember being afraid that if Matthew ever did take his life, it would rip our marriage up. I wasn’t worried we would divorce, but that it would destroy the intimacy and all the good in our relationship. That isn’t what happened, though.
When Matthew died—I don’t know how to explain it—but it’s as though all the decades of conflict and relational distance died when he did. We found ourselves standing in Matthew’s front yard holding on to each other while we waited for law enforcement to confirm his death. And we haven’t stopped. It’s been four years and we figuratively and physically hold on to each other. We’re closer than we’ve ever been. I think it’s because we get each other’s suffering. We know what it was like to be his parents. Nobody can comfort me like Rick can, and nobody can comfort him like I can.
Every pastor is going to go through something that is painful. Clinging to each other is the way to get through. I have a little plaque on my desk that says, “The best thing to hold onto in life is each other.” That’s become our motto.
How can a pastor be honest and transparent with his congregation while still protecting his family’s privacy—especially during seasons of hardship?
Since Rick and I both grew up in a pastor’s home, we don’t know any other life. I quote Edith Schaeffer in my book. She says that a family has doors that swing open and closed, and that all of us in ministry have to figure out when to open our lives and homes to other people. There are other times when you close the door, and it’s just you and your family.
As open as we are with our lives, there are things we have not talked about publicly and don’t intend to. They’re sacred, private, holy and they’re painful, particularly around Matthew’s life and death. But they’re part of our family’s conversation. They’re part of who we are.
I think one of the things I’ve learned after living my entire life in ministry and watching so many people fail along the way—their marriage or ministry fails, they break their vows—is this: You are entitled to a private life, but you aren’t entitled to private sin. That’s a huge distinction. There’s always going to be some gap between public life and the private life, because we’re imperfect people who don’t get it right all the time. However, when that gap becomes large and there’s more that’s wrong than right in the private life, then it’s time to get help.
In all the years you’ve taught pastors’ wives, is there any one thing they consistently tell you they wish their husbands knew or understood?
Pastors’ wives wish their husbands understood how painful it is when pastors treat the church and the ministry as their mistress. That breaks the heart and the spirit of a wife and a family when Dad has a mistress, and her name is the church. I hear that over and over. They’re not always that blunt about it, but when you peel away the layers, that’s what they’re saying.
And unlike a physical mistress, this mistress is also related to God. So how do you get mad at God? That becomes a very complicated issue that needs to be resolved within marriages. Yes, our first love is God. But he tells men to love their wives as they love their own bodies. My generation and my parents’ generation could not separate that well. God and ministry went together. If you were to ask my dad what was No. 1 in his life, my goodhearted, wonderful daddy would have said God and the church, because that’s the way he understood it. And our family suffered as a result.
What else should ministry couples keep at the top of their minds?
I think when you forget why you’re doing what you’re doing in ministry, it’s really easy to let bitterness or resentment take over. We’ve had services on both Saturday and Sunday for decades. So for the bulk of our ministry, our whole weekend has been taken up with church. I can’t tell you how many times on a Saturday morning I see couples riding bikes together, taking a walk together. There’s a little twinge sometimes that says, “I want to be like that! Why aren’t we heading off to some fun adventure this weekend? Why have we sacrificed in ways other people haven’t? Why do we give up so much of our privacy? Why do they get to go on a picnic today while my husband is feverishly working over the last bits of his message notes?”
I’m not going to deny those thoughts and feelings. That pain does happen, but those are the moments I have to remind myself why we’re doing this. And you know, if I forget why we’re doing what we’re doing, it’s really easy to feel like God’s given us a raw deal. And that can begin to eat at you and deteriorate your passion for the calling and make you resentful of your spouse.
In a survey you took of pastors’ wives, more than half of the women who responded said their husbands do not take adequate time off. Why do you think this is, and what are the consequences?
When pastors ignore the fourth commandment, they’re not just ignoring it, they’re disobeying it. And sometimes, ministry feeds our ego but starves our soul. It’s seductive to be thought of as Superman. Those are the pastors who don’t usually take very good care of themselves and don’t take a lot of time off. Why would you take time off when everybody thinks you have to be there all the time? When we repent of our belief in our own sufficiency and then make a commitment to unplug one day a week, life gets so much better.
One of the most challenging lessons I’ve had to learn—and Rick has had to learn as a confirmed workaholic—is that it takes faith to rest. We think it takes faith to work, but it also takes faith to rest, to believe God is still working when we aren’t. So we’ve made a commitment throughout our marriage and our ministry. Our friends Cliff and Joyce Penner taught us this little recipe: Divert daily. Withdraw weekly. Abandon annually. You take some time every day to replenish your soul, you take a day off every week, and you take a vacation every year.
What advice would you give to pastors in the early, middle and late years of marriage?
In the beginning, you have the opportunity to start out right, so set it up well. Understand who you are and who your wife is. Settle that two-for-the-price-of-one thing right at the start. Begin with the understanding that you’re not perfect and your wife’s not perfect, and stay off the pedestal.
In the middle years, there’s so much grace you have to give. You’re raising a family, and kids take so much time and attention. When I was growing up in a ministry home, there was not a single time in my or my brother’s life where my parents were at back-to-school night. Not once. It was always a conflict with church. That was a huge mistake. They weren’t trying to hurt us; they were trying to honor God. But in the process, they did hurt us. In those middle years, it’s okay to miss a church event occasionally for something your child is doing. Let somebody else lead the prayer meeting Wednesday night and go to your kid’s back-to-school night. I think there should be a lot more flexibility.
In this season of our lives, we’re both 63 with an empty nest. You’d think it’s all easy-breezy at this point. But we have to be intentional about our marriage, because we’ve lived long enough and have exposed ourselves to enough opportunities to serve or take that trip or be with those people or attend that conference, that there’s a temptation to live separately, because we’re both competent and comfortable in who we are. You have to be careful. It’s easy to drift apart without the children pulling you back in every day.
You have to be intentional about seeking oneness, unity, harmony, being a team. And that never stops. That has to continue through your whole life.
Read an excerpt from Sacred Privilege »
Jessica Hanewinckel is an Outreach magazine contributing writer.