Navigating the Complexities of Relationships in Formal Ministry

As my husband and I take a step back from formal ministry for an undetermined period of time to find rest and renewal for our own souls, I have begun the slow, deep and at times painful process of reflecting on both the joys and the pains that have come with being the “pastor’s wife.” One thing that stands out to me in my early reflections is the complexity of our relationships as people in ministry. We have all at once felt so close to people, and yet so incredibly distanced. We have felt so privileged in the intimacy granted to us and also so sorrowful because of the barriers that felt so hard to overcome. I have a feeling that much of the emotional fatigue that we are currently recovering from is rooted in the tremendous effort required to navigate such extreme dynamics in our relationships for a prolonged period of time.

Before going on, I need to preface the remaining reflections with the declaration that we had the most amazing and supportive congregation and Board that we could ever ask for. When my husband mysteriously lost his voice for many months, our church family did not give up on him and gave him all the time (and some generous financial assistance) he needed to get proper medical care. What is a pastor without his voice, and yet they loved and supported him as their pastor through the whole process. I could go on and on about how supportive our congregation was to us, but that merits a whole other post in and of itself. By sharing the struggles, I do not mean to be ungrateful. It is simply inherent, I believe, in being in formal ministry. Or at least it was, in our experience.

Joy and Privilege

In the years that my husband spent pastoring our congregation, he has had such privilege to officiate weddings, funerals, and baptisms. This is not just about ceremony. This means we have sat with couples as they prepare to make a lifelong commitment to each other. We have heard their more private struggles in learning to be so vulnerable with another person. We have heard about their hopes and dreams with regard to their relationship, children, career and ministry roles. We have sat with families in hospital rooms, in their living rooms, and in funeral homes as they felt either the cold shock or the burning slow grief of losing a loved one. My husband has sat with individuals who have shared their spiritual journey with him and have sought his counsel in the significance of making a public declaration of their personal faith through baptism. What privilege, what intimacy, has been granted to my husband, and at times to me, because of his ministry role. We have shared some of our friends’ most significant life moments in the most personal way. This has been a true gift, encased in trust that has been more valuable than gold, from each person.

Distance and Sorrow

It is so curious, and so confusing, to experience such depth of relationship and yet, simultaneously, feel so much distance from people due to factors that are often hard to identify, much less directly address.

One clear factor is the ever-present gap we feel between our own brokenness and the expectations you feel others may likely have – or the expectations you have of yourself – for you to have it all together, to have it all figured out, all the time. Of course there are, and there should be, high standards for people who assume formal ministry positions. That said, my husband and I are broken people. God has been unspeakably good to us, but our lives have been pretty ridiculously hard at times, and we have not walked away unaffected. If you get close enough, you can see the patchwork that sometimes strains to hold us together when we are stretched. I think sometimes people in formal ministry roles feel that patchwork shouldn’t be too obvious, lest it somehow hinder the confidence and faith of their congregants. I think sometimes the world pushes for untouchable leaders and the church expects the same, forgetting that God’s ways are upside down and He uses the broken before the mighty. But we forget that, so we don’t want to let the patchwork show too much. It’s a hard balance – being authentic versus being vulnerable to the point where someone might decide you are not fit for ministry – especially when everyone’s got a slightly different idea of where those lines are drawn.

The other factor is the sense you get that others struggle to let you in when you are in formal ministry because of their own shame, fear, theological / political / moral disagreements, or their own misunderstandings / misperceptions about your expectations of them. Some people decide they want a distance from your role and therefore must have a distance from you as a person because it feels near impossible to distinguish the two. This is especially painful if you as a person have had a relationship with them, and then they later decide down the road for their own reasons that they want or need distance from you because of your role. Sometimes, you just miss your friends.

As with all big topics, there is much more that can be said about all these things. For this season, what my soul longs for is two-fold. First, I want to come back to having a relationship with God not so that I can be something to or for other people in my “ministry,” but because He knows my name, He knows where I have been, He gave His life for me, and I love and need Him for all these reasons and more. Second, I want my relationships to be a bit less susceptible to the extremes I’ve described. I just want people who know me, know where I have been, who can sit with me and be stupid and shallow and real and deep and fun and serious and love God together in all our messiness because we’re messy people. I want others to feel they can be the same with me. I am hopeful during this season of coming back to the basics. Rediscovering God, rediscovering others, rediscovering myself.