Lori Wilhite and Brandi Wilson write about the pressures that pastors' wives endure in their new book, Leading and Loving It: Encouragement for Pastors' Wives and Women in Leadership, with a focus on 10 universal challenges women in leadership face while serving alongside their husband in ministry.
As the wives of megachurch pastors Jud Wilhite and Pete Wilson, and founders of LeadingandLovingIt.com, a ministry resource for women, both Lori and Brandi share the lessons they have learned in helping their spouses lead a congregation. They reveal raw confessions that make a pastor's wife an average woman despite her leadership role and the idea that she has it all together.
Leading and Loving It: Encouragement for Pastors' Wives and Women in Leadership gives readers tools for understanding that not all external pressures and expectations are important while providing answers on how to deal with the 10 specific challenges that pastors' wives face: dealing with influence, expectations and the pedestal, personal calling, marriage, raising kids, friendship and lonliness, time and balance, criticism, burnout and discouragement, and change and transition.
An edited transcript of Lori Wilhite and Brandi Wilson's interview with The Christian Post is below:
CP: This book is a result of the confessions made by pastors' wives on your blog's website who took the liberty to shell out their confessions, that by all means are normal, but perhaps not seen as normal to the average church member. What was the most surprising confession you heard that triggered you both to want to write this book?
Lori: We already had a passion and a really strong tug in our hearts to work with pastors' wives. We had already started Leading and Loving It, which is a ministry for pastors' wives and really that post that day was really just about trying to make that one person feel normal like the rest of us. But what it unleashed was many hundreds of confessions as comments, and what started out as pretty funny turned really sad. We felt a commitment to helps wives because so many were dealing with disillusionment, depression and discouragement, so many wanting to quit and walk away and we just felt a renewed heart to help these ladies.
Brandi: What continued to shock us was that after 18 months, that post would still get comments (it's no longer up because of the book and obviously we needed to protect some people) but it wasn't the funny ones that really made us want to put this book together, but rather the painful confessions.
CP: You two say the typical pastor's wife is dead, what do you mean by this?
Brandi: I think we all have some preconceived notion in our head when you think of pastors' wives. I grew up in a small Southern Baptist church and every pastor's wife that I came across had expectations placed on them because their husbands preached on the pulpit every Sunday and it was often to play the piano, teach Sunday school and put together the best potluck. But because of that, they didn't "fit" and they were kind of lost and they didn't know what being a pastor's wife really looked like. We strive really hard to help every woman recognize their own uniqueness and that being a pastor's wife isn't about just fitting some kind of role but about you being who God created you to be.
Lori: For a long time we held up a standard about a woman that doesn't exist. What we thought typical was – that typical woman – she wasn't really out there. I've never met a woman say, "I'm the typical pastor's wife." So it's really about dispelling that myth because we're all comparing ourselves to this myth that doesn't exist and we're all falling short but really, maybe there's a new kind of typical.
CP: Then what's her realistic image?
Lori: It's not that typical person we've made up in our minds. Maybe typical is the woman who is trying to figure out who God created her to be and live that while loving her family and serving the community God placed her in and whatever roles and gifts that she has, and kind of live life imperfectly but grow in her faith – that's typical.
CP: How did you narrow down the list to 10 specific challenges that pastors' wives deal with? What is so special about each of them that merits their own chapter?
Lori: We've done a ton of polling in the last 10-15 years of pastors' wives and it doesn't matter how big or small your church is or what style your church is or denomination you're part of, these came up every single time, they just seemed to be the 10 most universal challenges. My friend actually just got back from working with pastors' wives in Kenya and she said, "You wouldn't believe it, the same 10 things!" So clearly these are universal challenges.
CP: Before a woman walks into ministry alongside her husband, is it necessary for her to know from the beginning to embrace her shortcomings and brokenness so she doesn't hop on a pedestal created by herself or the congregation? Or is this something that she can only learn along the way?
Brandi: I sure wish I knew ahead of time!
Lori: I think it's something that you hear before you enter ministry but it's one of those things that you embrace by being in ministry and walking in it daily. We knew we were marrying pastors but we didn't come from pastor homes so we didn't really know what that entailed until we were living it. I remember early on in ministry, a senior pastor's wife told me, "Leadership is very lonely" and I remember looking at her and thinking, "Aw, that's really sad for you because you're not as fun as Jud and I are and we'll never be lonely," but I hadn't been in ministry very long and when we got to that place, like everybody does, at least I had that to hold on to, I thought, "ok at least now I know it's not just me."
CP: When I read about Kimberly in the book, who appeared to have it all – a great husband, six growing planted churches, a home in a great city, but was struggling with her marriage after finding out that her husband held extramarital relationships, and she later became a single mother of five, unemployed and living on welfare after her husband resigned from ministry – I wondered why pastors' wives find themselves in desperate situations but don't ask for help before things collapse? Why continue upholding a pristine image at their own expense?
Lori: It's out of fear. Fear that they might hurt their husband's ministry, fear that they're going to talk about them, fear that they won't have someone to talk to. Fear drives them to isolation and an unwillingness to reach out. The truth is, you can't afford to not get help and you can't afford not to bring somebody into your situation because your marriage and family is on the line.
Brandi: I think there's a lot of fear and a lot of pressure because as a wife we do feel like we're going to make or break our husband's ministry and you focus more on the break than the make part.
CP: There's a quote by Pete Wilson in the book, "Regular people who have friends are considered social. Pastors who have friends are considered cliquish," and you speak about the struggle wives face about whether to have no friends so there aren't betrayals or hurting relationships, or have friends anyway. But who do wives usually confide in among a congregation? Would you say that keeping a tight group of friends allows you to be yourself or is there still a need to keep the image of a perfect cookie-cutter life among them?
Lori: I don't think what drives a pastor's wife is to keep a pristine image, as for me, I didn't put myself on a pedestal and I didn't want people to put me up there either. And I didn't try to act like I had it all together. But you're in ministry for 10 minutes and you get burned, which happens a lot, and that makes people become withdrawn and very protective about what they share.
CP: Brandi, do you want to add to that?
Brandi: No, not at all.
Lori: Well, Lori has wonderful friends at her congregation and I really don't, but even then having the friends that she has, there are still things you can't talk about because you want to protect their worship experience and keep that good for them. They don't need to know about church politics or the harder side of the ministry. Isolation is not the answer, the answer is to find a community that you believe is safe and we believe that that safe community is other pastors' wives because we understand the same problems.
Brandi: I think relationships are difficult and that's something that I've struggled with because I do like to have people in my congregation that I hang out with and as much as I love it, it's also hard because I know things before they happen or when they are ugly and people get correction so it does make it hard. I didn't start having pastor wife friends until I hit the 10 year mark in ministry and it was an area I didn't realize I was lonely in until I met Lori. She was the first pastor's wife I met whose husband wasn't serving on the staff of my husband, so that's a totally different relationship.
CP: Sometimes women marry men who are called to be leaders and pastors, but what if that's not the woman's calling? How can she identify or fit into her husband's ministry without feeling a burden or obligated to do so?
Brandi: Neither one of us felt called to ministry, did we Lori?
Lori: Both of us felt called to marry our husbands whether they flipped burgers, taught school or whatever. We just married incredibly gifted pastors but then we had to figure out, "OK, now we find ourselves in leadership roles that we didn't plan or envision," and it took a lot of figuring it out! Now, I feel very called to ministry. I love what we do. There's no better job in the country but I had to figure out the passion God put in my life, and what He gifted me to and how to use that with the situation that I found myself in.
Brandi: God knew this is what I was going to be doing and he gave me the opportunity as much as it might hurt from time to time, this is what he created me to do.
CP: What would you two say is the most important factor in being recognized as your own individual instead of just so and so's wife?
Brandi: I used to never introduce myself as Brandi Wilson because Wilson automatically tied back to Pete and that comes with a whole list of expectations and I didn't know how to be that person. I entered ministry looking at wives who have platforms like Kay Warren and Beth Moore and I thought, "If I can't do what they do, then I can't do anything." Then I had a wakeup call because there can only be one Kay and one Beth but I knew I could be the best Brandi Wilson that God has ever created.
CP: What strain does leading alongside your husband's ministry put on your marriage and kids and how can a pastor's wife find balance?
Lori: We believe balance is a myth, it's more about what you need to lean into more at the time. When you have babies in diapers, that's going to consume 95 percent of your time and when they're gown, you might be able to do more ministry work but it's about what needs your attention most at the moment.
Brandi: It's like a Bosu ball, when you stand up on its flat side, you never maintain balance, you just shift your weight in order to remain standing, you're going left and right and that's how it is in our lives.
CP: Brandi, you talk about the "internal addiction for approval," what's one of the downfalls to this idea and would you say there's an upside to this at all considering that as a church leader, you should be liked?
Brandi: There's a difference in the addiction for approval and wanting to be liked. When you have the addiction for approval, you're not choosing to serve God, you're choosing to serve those people around you, what they think or say about you becomes more important than who you are in Christ. It's very dangerous but wanting to be liked is not as extreme.
CP: What's the one take away that you hope readers can get from this book? More specifically for the woman who is just beginning to lead, what's the one aspect of this book that she should take to heart that will help her navigate the upcoming, unavoidable challenges she will face in ministry?
Lori: The biggest takeaway is that being in ministry is a privilege, it's an honor most of the time and we can't let the challenges that come – and they will – fill the joy that God has in our lives. We should ground ourselves on the fact that God has called us to an amazing work, it's not a burden so let's figure out how to navigate the rest and take a ton of joy in what He has called us to do. And for me, that's the whole point of the book throughout.
Brandi: I would totally agree with that. I think if I knew that starting out, I probably would've handled a lot of situations differently because I didn't realize what an honor it was to get to do what we do back then.