Photo by Christina Morillo
As I put away the dishes after cooking dinner for my superintendent and bishop and their wives, and struggled to get my four young children ready for church, I saw Bishop Snyder bending over to tie Luke’s shoes. What an endearing moment. I much appreciated his humble help as I was not only the wife and mother in this home, but also the pastor of the church and we had a service to get to, a service where I was also in charge.
In moments like these, I sure wished I had a wife. After all, every pastor benefits from a good wife. If I had a wife, I could have left the house early to go get the church ready, instead of cooking earlier, I could have been preparing for the service, and the children wouldn’t expect my help getting ready. At least that’s the traditional way to view the situation.
Truthfully what I really needed was a maid. Like the old musical, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” I would find myself humming, “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid.” I wished for someone to cook and clean and keep the house going while I did more critical things like prepare sermons and plan worship. Of course, when your husband runs a parachurch ministry and you only receive a housing allowance, any kind of paid help remains out of the question.
We discovered one of the best things about a church plant was no one had preconceived notions about what my spouse would do. They weren’t comparing my husband to the pastor’s wives who had preceded him and played the piano, ran the Women’s Missionary Society, planned the pot-luck, staffed the nursery and oversaw Vacation Bible School. Instead, my spouse picks up families who need rides to church, sets up the sound system, weeds the flower beds around the church, patches walls when they leak, shop vacuums the basement when rain floods in and teaches children every Sunday night. That’s just the typical list.
When churches hire a pastor, they expect their spouse (and they rarely hire a single person as a lead or solo pastor) to be free labor. Now any committed layperson should volunteer at their church in some capacity, whether it’s helping count the offering or taking a turn in the nursery or playing in the praise band. We should all use our gifts in the local church. But we really need to move on from the expectation that hiring a pastor means expecting the spouse to be a full-time church employee for free.
Some spouses have other employment, so like any other working parishioner, their time is limited. They should find some way to support the ministry of the church, but not in some prescribed way that all the other spouses have done before them. Those who are not employed and have children at home already have their hands full and limited remaining energy to help. Some spouses choose to work at the church, and they may be paid staff. Or they may volunteer in a more extended fashion, which, of course, blesses the congregation but should not be expected or required, and guilt should not be the diet of those who don’t comply.
And what about the pastor’s children? Besides expecting them to be perfectly behaved, we often expect them to add to the free labor as they get older. Of my four children, they each reacted to these opportunities differently. They all did serve in various ways, teaching children, helping with music, running the computer during worship. Some of them loved helping, others did it out of obligation. As they became adults, they had different desires in their own churches in terms of involvement, generally those who loved it at home still love it where they are now. The ones who felt more imposed on, volunteer less now, just by preference and personality. We can easily burn out our growing children if we expect too much and don’t allow them a choice in whether they serve.
We all have unique gifts to offer the church and seasons of life that differ in how we employ them. The school music teacher may want to play piano at church, or he may get too much of that at his job and he’d rather work in the nursery. The accountant may love numbers and want to be the church treasurer, or she may be tired of that and want to play drums on Sunday morning. Even as an employed pastor, my tasks have varied through the years. When I had preschoolers, I enjoyed teaching their class but, as they grew, I took on older children. Besides the constants of preaching and worship, I have overseen a ballet program, Vacation Bible School, run adult groups on race, organized phone campaigns, and taught myself to play guitar to lead worship. The same variety and change can be experienced by our other volunteers and certainly pastors’ spouses.
When we expect too much of people, whether spouses or other parishioners, or when we put them in a box of expectations, we take the joy out of serving. If people are able to choose their positions, they will serve with more passion and creativity. This proves true even for pastors with some of the optional portions of their jobs.
However, someone still has to clean toilets and fill out yearly reports and call parents when their children misbehave and do all kinds of other unsavory tasks. We can’t delegate everything we don’t like or aren’t good at, especially in a small church. But the next time you consider what your pastor, their spouse, or any volunteer does at your church, try being grateful. Not everyone has a wife, but everyone has a niche. Instead of pressing them into a preconceived mold, let’s help them find their own lane.
Katherine Callahan-Howell is the pastor of Winton Community Free Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the convener of the Embrace All Conference.1