Filling out superwoman’s bodysuit is a tough job. Mothers and wives juggle family, finances and household matters, not to mention a full-time job in some cases. Well, donning the superwoman cape can be even more challenging for a pastor’s wife.
In addition to the superwoman role, she also is in the spotlight of an entire church and held up as an example for female members. Plus, many pastors’ wives are partners in their spouses’ ministries. It can leave a woman depressed, lonely and lacking confidence, not to mention exhausted.
“I really struggled with expectations,” said Lori Wilhite, whose husband, Jud, pastors Central Christian Church in Nevada. “A mentor once told Jud, ‘Your wife will make or break you in the ministry.’ I took it and only saw that I could break him in ministry.”
“There was a period [when] I monitored every single word that came out of my mouth. I was afraid to talk to people,” Wilhite said. “I showed up at events and did things because I felt like had to. … I tried to be the perfect pastor’s wife. I had this unrealistic expectation of myself.”
Wilhite is not alone. Eight in 10 pastors' wives say they feel unappreciated or unaccepted by their husbands' congregations, according to a survey by the Global Pastors Wives Network. In the same survey, 80 percent of pastors’ wives responded that they wish their husbands would choose another profession. Similar GPWN surveys revealed that "wives' issues" is the No. 1 reason pastors leave their ministries, and the divorce rate among pastoral couples is similar to that of general public, around 50 percent.
"The church becomes their husband's mistress, and they in many ways [wives] lose their identity," H.B. London, former vice president of church and clergy for Focus on the Family and author of Married to a Pastor, told Time magazine. "The expectations [for pastors’ wives] a lot of times are overwhelming. Although they enjoy what they do, they deal with anger."
Wilhite said there was also isolation in being a pastor’s wife.
“It was the first time no one would talk to us,” she said, because of their role in the church. The isolation, coupled with her expectations led her into a downward spiral of depression, Wilhite recalled.
“It began a long journey in Him to where I finally felt comfortable with the position the Lord had placed me in,” she said. When she realized that depression was commonplace among wives in her role, she wanted to create a connection where they could support one another. And so, in April 2008 she began a website for pastors’ wives to find support.
“Coming out of a season of depression and wrestling with expectations, isolation and insecurities that I was facing as a Pastor's Wife, I searched and searched for something online that would be a support and encouragement to me in my role,” she said in an email to the CP. “I came up empty.”
“… I knew that there had to be other hurting pastors' wives out there that needed support. That [is] when Leading and Loving It started to take shape,” Wilhite explained.
“There needed to be a place for those connections – for them to know ‘I’m not the only one struggling! I’m not alone.’ So I started Leading and Loving It to fill that need.”
It began with Wilhite simply blogging five days a week. “It was dang hard! I didn’t know who was reading it,” she exclaimed. “I try to be as really real and honest and vulnerable as I can.”
“Our mission is to connect, encourage and equip pastors' wives and women in ministry. We do that through the blog, virtual community groups, Local Events, Online Conferences, and retreats. Our hope is that we give ladies the gift of not being alone in their struggles,” she told CP.
“But I just wanted to encourage the heck out of them. You know, 88 percent of pastors’ wives struggle with depression,” Wilhite said. “Anger, bitterness, loneliness – and the isolation of the position makes it even more intense and difficult.”
The website grew and about a year in, Wilhite realized Leading and Loving It was growing past the point where she could handle it alone. She formed a team of L&L community leaders to manage the incoming traffic, as well as new requests and chat rooms. The virtual community now has members in more than 40 states, some U.S. colonies and also in other countries.
Now, virtual groups meet once a month with a video chat. They deal with common issues and “provide practical ways to preserve your family life,” she said. There are also online conferences – there is a weeklong conference scheduled for January 2012 – and the communities hold local events around the country, such as pajama parties and “Mad Hatter” teas.
Leading and Loving It is a place where pastors’ wives can encourage each other, get help, meet women in the same position and just – well, vent, Wilhite said.
“For so many years it was taboo [for a pastor’s wife] to have friends, much less ‘virtual’ friends, or community – but why not? Leading & Loving It has been the best thing I ever plugged into!” Eleana Garza, a member of Leading and Loving It, told CP in an email.
“Lori Wilhite and the rest of the L&L It ladies are genuine. They have become my virtual world besties,” said another member, Julie Trevino, in an email.
“In the past, I had actually avoided other pastor's wives because of negative experiences early on,” said Crystal Johnson, a virtual community group leader whose husband has been in the ministry for 12 years, in an email to the CP. “When we first began this journey, many of the pw's I encountered had become resentful towards ministry … . I chose to steer clear because I didn't want to develop those same bitter attitudes. I think of those women now and wonder how many of them could have been helped if they had a group like this and chose to not do ministry alone!”
“Since finding Leading and Loving it, I have begun to embrace my role as a pastor's wife at a whole new level,” Johnson highlighted.
Wilhite had some advice for Christians regarding pastors’ wives:
“Give them the grace to let them be what they are called to be,” she said. “And just say thank you. People underestimate how huge a simple thank you is.”
“And pray for your pastor’s wife.”
For other pastors’ wives, Wilhite admonished, “Whatever we’ve compared ourselves to – the ideal perfect wife that we all fall short of – we have to redefine it. We have to redefine what ‘typical’ is – not perfect, sharing in struggles and trying to grow and become a better woman in the world.”