A few years ago I took questions from an audience of women. One woman raised her hand and wanted to talk about her pastor's wife. She said, "I really want to be a friend to her." I smiled, said wonderful, and began listing off ways she could specifically care for her. Things like prayer and letting her know she's being prayed for, saying thank you for the many unseen things she does, and perhaps helping her with her small children on Sunday mornings. The woman interrupted me to rephrase her question. She wanted to know how to become friends with the pastor's wife and expressed frustration that her pastor's wife seemed hard to know.
Her question sat with me for a long, long time. In the moment, for a reason I didn't yet understand, I bristled. In the weeks following, however, I realized why. The questioner presumed friendship with her pastor's wife was inevitable, and she seemed personally offended that her pastor's wife hadn't come toward her to welcome her into her confidence.
I wish I'd thought of all this during the Q&A. I would have told her I stood with my first answer, even after she rephrased it. The way to get to know your pastor's wife is the way you get to know every other woman. Show interest in her, ask questions, engage her when you're around her, pray for her, or serve her in some way. For a pastor's wife who often gladly initiates, gladly carries conversations, gladly helps others, gladly rallies others to help, gladly hosts, and gladly listens to the cares and concerns of others, a well-placed question or a simple thank you is truly a delightful gift. A woman who cares for her, even in the simplest way, absolutely stands out as a friend and possibly a good friend.
And if I could do it over again, I would have gently explained to the questioner that her pastor's wife is just like every other woman in the church when it comes to friendship: she gets a choice who she lets in.
I couldn't think of an eloquent answer, because questions about friendship and relationships within the church often get me very flustered. This topic feels vulnerable and sensitive, because I've gotten it wrong far too many times, and I've nursed silent wounds that might affect my response with bitterness. Also, it seems that everyone has an opinion about how the pastor's wife relates to others, and I wonder if people who ask me about this will listen, really listen to my flustered, fumbling answers.
Meanwhile, the pastor's wife my questioner asked about is probably struggling to navigate all her relationships within the church. Are they friendships? Or simply warm church relationships? What can she share and with whom? Can people see her as a real person? Who can she bring into her confidence and will there ever be a person like that for her in her church?
A pastor's wife, as one recently told me, often feels as if she's relationally a mile wide and an inch deep. She may even believe the oft-repeated charge that she is not to have personal friends within the congregation, or she may feel she is stretched so thin from church-related demands that friendship isn't logistically possible for her.
I've felt all of these things and believed all of these things, even tried to live as if I were responsible to maintain friendships with everyone I possibly could within our church. For many years, I resigned myself to the idea that I didn't have a choice in who my friends were, and I walked myself down a path of loneliness, self-pity, and isolation.
Pastor's wife, I have good news for you. You do have a choice in the matter, and friendship is a very real possibility for you.
Friendship will require your vulnerability, however, and this is the first obstacle you'll have to hurtle yourself through with purpose and intentionality, because vulnerability is something we tend to tightly lock away. We point to the caveat--"but make sure you are vulnerable only with safe people"--as permission to remain holed up and self-protective. This doesn't win friends, dear reader. Here's what does:
Root out bitterness and self-pity.
First of all, other women sniff out bitterness and self-pity and they don't know what to do with it, especially if it's emanating from the pastor's wife. More importantly, however, bitterness is sin against God. God sees how you've been legitimately hurt. He saw what that person did to you, and He'll deal with that person's sin, but don't become the sinner yourself in your inability to entrust yourself to the Lord's care and comfort. The Lord is your defense (Psalm 5:11-12) and gives such secure love that you can put yourself back out there and keep trying relationally.
Don't believe your own press.
You are introduced everywhere you go as The Pastor's Wife. You may feel unspoken expectations regarding the role. You may find yourself trying incredibly hard to be what you think everyone wants you to be. But you are ultimately not a role; you are a person. The more you think of yourself as a role, the more you will find yourself performing and overanalyzing relationships, and the less you will be able to engage other women as the real person you are.
Don't take the attitude of a martyr who can't ask for help or receive help from others.
If you want deep friendships, you absolutely must reveal your physical, emotional, and spiritual needs to others. Think about how you would feel if you tried cultivating a relationship with another woman who never expressed an uncertainty, a discouragement, or a physical need. You wouldn't want to be friends with her! Start with small things, but start somewhere. (And know that friendship struggles aren't unique to pastor's wives. Don't play the martyr by using your role as an excuse to not try. Friendship rarely falls into the lap of any woman. Those who have friends have intentionally cultivated them.)
Take steps that will move you from mile wide, inch deep to life-giving friendship.
We all feel the tyranny of the urgent. Ministry can, at times, feel very reactive. We don't have time to stop and think about who we'd like to have coffee with or get to know better, because we're just reacting to the latest need. So what do we do? In order to move away from mile wide, inch deep relationships, we have to plan ahead. Who do you want to get to know better? Who are your growing friendships with? Who are people that fill you to the brim with life and fun and joy? Get times with those folks on the calendar before the church related activities fill it up. Make time in your schedule for friendship.
Know how to share.
Sometimes we feel as if we can't talk about one of the most important things in our lives--the church--with even our closest friends. But I think we can. Of course, there are details upon details that should never pass from our lips, but we can share from our own perspective without crossing any lines. In other words, if there is a difficult situation going on, I can say to my very closest friends, "Kyle has been dealing with a difficult situation and it's spilling over onto me. We feel discouraged. Can you pray for us?" Good friends will respect the boundaries but also care and pray and come alongside.
Live in a need-to-know relationship with your husband concerning the church.
You don't need to know everything. In fact, you need to know very little about what's going on behind the scenes. My husband discusses the details of messy situations with the other elders at our church and other pastors he knows. This frees me up to just have normal relationships with people within our church.
Relate with honor.
Here's a template that's helped me enormously, so much so that it's become something I literally say out loud to myself when the "shoulds" come barreling at me: I'm not responsible for everyone. I am to honor all, be friends with a few, and serve how God leads me. This means that when we go to church gatherings, we have an opportunity simply because we're the pastor's wife.
We have the opportunity to honor people with our words, our demeanor, our affection, our listening, and our helping, and we can shower folks with honor. Friendship, in which we share our innermost thoughts and feelings, is for a few who've proven true blue and wise and who can hold a confidence. Friendly with all, friends with a few.