“Lis Van Harten” the Wife of the Pastor shares her Story!
The introduction went as it almost always did, “This is Lis, the pastor’s wife.” I smiled warmly, gave a hearty handshake, and attempted to clarify who I was by saying, “I’m the wife of the pastor.” Smiles would falter a bit. Confusion became apparent. Sometimes the conversation just moved on from there and sometimes someone would ask, “What’s the difference?”
To me, there was a significant difference. When I heard “the pastor’s wife,” it made me feel as if I’m was an appendage to my husband—the pastor. Don’t get me wrong. I strongly believe that “the two shall become one.” This was actually part of our wedding text. But in our oneness there are still two distinct people who should be seen and valued as such. I’m a unique individual with likes, dislikes, gifts, and opinions. I have my own hopes, dreams, and issues.
I loved that my husband was the pastor. That he was called into ministry. And I was eager to walk alongside him, supporting and encouraging him as I was able. What I didn’t want was to be seen as “part of the package.” Kind of like a two-for-one deal. The church had called my husband and was paying him for the work he was doing. I wasn’t part of the hiring.
I’d heard too many times, and still do to this day, that some churches expect the two-for-one deal when they call a pastor. A spouse who will do all sorts of things/ministry for the church just because they’re married to the pastor. I took this information with me as Dave and I went into the first interview with a church who was considering calling him—his first call after seminary.
I started this new journey by asking if I could be at the interview the search committee would have with Dave. The committee graciously agreed. The day came and the interview was ticking along nicely. Then I was asked if I wanted to say anything. If I recall correctly, a couple of decades have passed so this is a bit fuzzy, I said something like, “I’m not your average pastor’s wife,” and then went on to explain what that meant. I wanted to lay my cards on the table, if you will, so the church knew what I could and would be willing to do and what wasn’t going to happen—like playing the piano. Not something I can do.
Looking back, I probably could have phrased things differently but as a newbie at this pastoral thing I did the best I could. (At that point I hadn’t made the switch to “wife of the pastor.” Today, I wouldn’t even use “wife of the pastor.” Lessons are learned as we go along.) The wonderful thing was that the stage had been set. The committee had a glimpse into who Dave was and who I was. It was enough to lead to further conversations, a call, and some years of ministry.
I was very blessed by that congregation. They never “assumed” that I’d do something. They allowed me to choose what I wanted to do. I could enjoy tasks that fulfilled me and steer clear of those that drained me. They also treated me in the same way they treated the other wives and mothers in the congregation. There were very few comments that those married to pastors too often hear or hear of. Things such as:
- I’ve noticed that you don’t stay very long in the fellowship hall after church.
- Why can’t your kids sit still in church?
- Can you tell your husband that he missed the mark on that sermon?
- I’ve noticed that you’ve missed two Sundays in a row. (As in, “I’m tracking your attendance.” Not, “I’m caring for you.”)
Being married to a pastor can be a wonderful experience, and it can be deeply challenging. No one can understand what it’s like unless they’ve lived it. You may think you can relate but even when full of kindness and care, you won’t be able to entirely relate. Too often a pastor’s spouse is a very lonely person. Friends in the congregation can be very risky. Family is often far away. People say things to the spouse that they wouldn’t say to most other people. At times, the pastor will share things with their spouse that they aren’t able to share with anyone else. Often the result is that spouses are left with heavy burdens and nowhere to go with them.
Every other year, Pastor Church Resources hosts a conference for women—who happen to be married to pastors. (Male spouses have told us they aren’t interested in such a conference so we focus on women.) It’s an oasis of understanding and grace. Being with people who really get it is truly life giving. Yes, they’re all married to pastors. But at the conference, they aren’t the “pastor’s wife” or even the “wife of the pastor.” They are themselves. What a gift!
The next time you go to introduce the person who is married to a pastor, why not go with, “This is Rebecca and she’s an artist.” Soon enough the link between Rebecca and the pastor will be made. Which is all good and fine. But let Rebecca be Rebecca first.