By Megan Hill
Writing this article is scary.
When the editors of The Aquila Report asked me to write about pastors sharing confidential information with their wives, I hesitated.
See, I’m a pastor’s wife, and, eighteen months ago, I wrote about this topic on my blog. The post was called “What Not to Share,” it was linked by Tim Challies, and then the comment section of my normally sleepy site exploded with outraged opinions. “Oh my gosh!” one person wrote, “You shared counseling appointments? . . .Yikes!”
Similarly, pastor Brian Croft recently wrote about sharing at his Practical Shepherding blog. The reaction wasn’t a whole lot better. Said one commenter: “The fact that ‘sharing’ confidential information is a topic makes me reluctant to ever go to my pastor again!”
Naturally, I’m a bit leery of bringing it all up again.
Of course, the blog comment section is not a bastion of well-reasoned argument. But after reading the comments on both pieces, I’ve realized something:
What we have here is a disconnect. The people and the pastor view confidential information differently.
While pastors and their wives are wrestling with the issue of how much and which confidential information to share with one another, the general public is shocked . . . shocked to find that we share anything.
One explanation would be that Brian Croft and I, with our semi-transparent ministry marriages, are on the fringe. Exceptions, perhaps. But I don’t think so.
This week, I interviewed ten pastors’ wives. These are women from five different denominations with situations ranging from campus ministry to military chaplaincy to solo pastoring. One has been in ministry for a single year, one for more than thirty years. The group includes women who themselves have counseling degrees and medical licenses.
And, the thing is, all of these women hear something from their husbands about otherwise confidential information.
I really tried to find someone who didn’t. Even two women who are no longer in ministry (one through retirement, one through divorce) were insistent that a pastor can share with his wife.
Another woman told me she had heard a seminary professor address a group of seminary wives, endorsing complete openness, and warning them: “If you can’t handle it, you should just grow up.”
Not every ministry marriage shares to that extreme, of course. There are a variety of factors, requiring great wisdom (see the blog posts I mentioned above) that determine whether a pastor will tell his wife certain information.
But I think it’s safe to say that some degree of sharing is the norm. This is not surprising to ministry families. It can be very surprising to other people.
Before I explain why we have this disconnect, let me say that many of the angry blog comments reveal what we who are in ministry know only too well:
Pastors and their wives are sinners, and they sometimes hurt the people they are trying to help.
In many churches, sadly, pastors and their wives have been guilty of gossip and slander. They have shamefully spoken aloud what the disobedient do in secret. They have used knowledge as power. They have failed to love neighbor as self.
Pastors and their wives have also made errors in judgment that, while not malicious, were foolish. They have not bridled the tongue. They have unintentionally, thoughtlessly damaged the public character of others.
As a result, people have been deeply hurt, and the name of Christ has been brought into disrepute.
I am not defending such selfish or foolish behavior. And, I am not ignoring the fact that such things have happened, do happen, in churches. Come, Lord Jesus.
Assume, though, that we are talking only about cases where the pastor tells his wife, the information goes no further, and both of them maintain a spirit of charity toward the people involved.
People want others to think the best of them, and we should. Godly love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.” (1 Cor. 13:7) No matter what they know, pastors and their wives ought to seek, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “the maintaining and promoting. . .of our own and our neighbor’s good name.” (Q. 77)
But we still have people who don’t like it when a pastor shares with his wife. And, as I see it, they are starting from one (or more) of these culturally popular assumptions:
My problems (or sins, or needs) affect only me, and their solution is my responsibility alone.
Like social media, the church is an arena where my image ought to be tightly controlled. By me.
In my relationship with my pastor, there is a special, inviolate situation called “counseling” which is subject to stricter rules then the rest of my interactions with him.
And that expectation gets imposed on the church.
But pastors and their wives often don’t see it like that. The reality is, the church is something altogether different than a doctor’s office. And your relationship with your pastor is not your relationship with a therapist.
The church is a body. An organic being in which each part is affected by the other.
And this is why pastors and their wives share with one another.
The problems and sins and needs that people bring to their pastor are not isolated letters to a remote advice columnist. (Nor are they unusual or inherently interesting, as some might suppose. We’ve all dealt with the same things. The root of murder is anger, says Jesus, and of adultery, lust.) Instead, the issues people have are part of their whole, eternal self. And their self is part of the body. And that body is the responsibility of the pastor, its under-shepherd.
Pastoring is a long-term commitment to a comprehensive relationship. A pastor tells his wife because what happens to the church happens to him. And what happens to him, happens to her. (That’s the way marriage works.)
Here’s the thing I wish people knew: when your pastor tells his wife something about you, it’s not really about you.
This is what I heard from the pastors’ wives I interviewed:
“If [my husband] is sad, I’ll notice. So he tells me.”
“If I could give any advice to a pastor, I would say keep sharing your heart with your wife. She loves you and is there for you. She does not need all the details, but she needs your heart and your vulnerability.”
“[My husband] is very open with his life. He tells me everything pertaining to his ministry. He tells me details of counseling sessions and personal information of those he ministers to and with. He processes through talking and he feels connected to me when he can share his life with me.”
“I need to be a listening ear. We have had situations where [my husband] felt betrayed in the church. . . I am glad he shared those things with me. It was hard to hear, but I am called to bear his burdens as he is mine.”
For pastors and their wives, it’s not about the secret information. It’s about the fact that having certain secrets can burden an individual and damage a marriage.
In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed article, David Skeel wrote about religious freedom in the US military. He argued that the military is entitled to play by slightly different rules than a 9-5 corporation. To set the debate in context, Skeel explained the nature of the military, an explanation he could have been making about the church:
“The military isn’t simply a profession---it’s a life.”
Likewise the church, and your pastor’s investment in it, is not merely a profession, a social club or an organization of volunteers. It’s a life.
How can we bridge the disconnect between people who want standardized confidentiality and pastors and their wives who want to bear one another’s burdens?
First, pastors should understand that the expectation from many of their church members is complete privacy. Today’s pastors—perhaps unlike pastors in a previous era—will need to explain clearly if their practice is to share information . . . with anyone. This includes church leaders and the congregant’s family members, as well as the pastor’s spouse.
But I’d also like church members to acknowledge that their pastor is giving his life to the church. And that most of the time, when he tells his wife something about you, it’s not really about you.
Megan Hill is a pastor’s wife in Mississippi. She and her mother write Sunday Women, a blog about ministry life. This article was originally published on The Aquila Report and is reprinted by permission.