I’m not very good at friendship. I used to be the kind of friend who was as comfortable listening as unloading, but fifteen years of being a pastor’s wife has muddled my ability to be the kind of friend I’d like to be. At twenty-four, I started out with wide eyes, little discernment, and the disarming ability to overshare. At thirty-seven, I don’t recognize the guarded, untrusting woman in the mirror. The years of difficult church ministry in the small town where we transplanted our lives have unraveled my confidence in safe friendships. In my fear of trusting the sheep, I’ve often found myself to be the loneliest member of my church.
When you’ve endured broken fellowship and distrustful relationships as a pastor’s wife, the temptation to insulate yourself from your church will always be attractive. If no friendship is genuinely safe, then why have friends at all? The safer route seems to be circling the wagons at home and arming your church conversations with surface-level topics like weather or recipes.
But is that really the way God would have us exist in church community? Walled off and aloof? I’ve lived it, and believe me, it’s not necessarily better than living with unsafe friendships. Learning the right ways to be honest with church members has been a tightrope walk. At times, openness about my struggles has been met with rebuke for being too transparent. At other points, I’ve regretted being too frank with those who were only after incriminating details. As I’ve struggled to be honest in relationships, I’ve learned that there are ways to address the unique loneliness of the pastor’s wife.
Pray for a safe friend, even if she’s only in your life for a season.
At various points in my life, the Lord has brought a trustworthy friend to me when I absolutely needed one the most. In exasperation, I prayed for a safe friendship when our church imploded from inner turmoil many years ago. One day during that stressful time, a young mom my age introduced herself to me at the local library’s children’s story hour. She was a minister’s wife at another local church, and her offer of friendship was a lifeline.
My new friend walked with me through some of the worst of our church struggles, and she was a safe, trustworthy place for me to confide. The fact that she wasn’t a member of my church helped her to be objective and give me wise advice. She listened well and regularly turned me to the Word and to prayer. In turn, I was able to be a safe friend for her in her own ministry troubles. She lived locally for only three years, but I know the Lord sovereignly placed us in one another’s lives for that challenging season.
At other points in my years of ministry, the Lord has brought various women into my life for short seasons, and while at times it is difficult to be the stationary one while others move on, I’ve learned to be grateful for the seasons of friendship that helped me persevere and grow in love for my local body of believers. Those relationships have encouraged me to continue to pray for safe friendships. Peter encourages us to cast all our cares on the Lord because He cares about us (1 Pet. 5:7). The Lord isn’t reserving His concern for just the big events of life but for every distressing thing—even loneliness. If He sees the lifespan of every fallen sparrow, how much more does He care about your fellowship with the church? Pray for a safe friend and be open about who that might be.
Be transparent about the state of your heart, not the state of your church.
Between the years of truly safe relationships, I’ve had to learn to navigate my relationships with fellow church members whom I loved but wasn’t sure I could trust with my heart. It wasn’t even necessarily their trustworthiness that was the problem, but rather, my suspicion that I might be burned as I had by others in the past.
In the seasons of ministry where you want to be the kind of church member you desire others to be but aren’t sure if you should share what’s going on, there is an option for transparency that you might find helpful. Seek to be transparent about the state of your heart rather than the state of your church.
If you’re like my pastor-husband and me, a lot of your troubles and turmoil stem from the problems of the members of your church. It’s the gift and burden of ministry: their troubles become yours. While there are days I want to escape the grief of sin and suffering around me, I know that I can’t. I’m all tangled up in the sin and sufferings of our people because we are the body of Christ. When one member hurts, we all hurt.
Though we lead in this burden-sharing, we should seek to let our church friends carry our burdens when possible. Confidentiality or our unwillingness to gossip might make it challenging to share details, but we can still seek honesty in our church relationships by sharing our emotional and spiritual struggles with a situation rather than the situation itself.
For example, when you are hurt by a church member’s unfounded criticism, perhaps you share with a friend that you’re struggling to find your identity in Christ rather than in the expectations of others. You can request prayer for that without incriminating another person or having your friend take up your offense. Loneliness can be quieted when you know that someone is praying for you without having to know all the gritty details. Friendship that doesn’t demand to know everything is worth its weight in gold.
Don’t overlook the friend in your marriage.
Over the course of our ministries, there will still be times when we simply long for a faithful friend we can dump everything on without recrimination. We want a friend who has seen it all and still loves us. For this reason, my husband is genuinely my best friend. No one understands the isolation of ministry better than he does, and no one else can handle the details of church life like him. It’s likely that as pastor, he knows and carries more grief than I do.
We seek to make our home a safe place for one another. We have to work at it, but we strive to make sure we both are loving our people rather than tearing them down in our conversations. Sometimes that’s really hard. We both pray daily for each other’s relationships and for true abiding friendships that transcend our roles of pastor and pastor’s wife. Thankfully, that prayer is answered in part by our marriage. Don’t underestimate the gift of friendship built into your marriage.
Learn to look to Christ for your fulfillment.
Of all the things that answer my loneliness as a pastors’ wife, the cure I constantly return to is Christ. Before I am a pastor’s wife or even a wife, I am a follower of Christ. I belong to Him, and because of His redemptive work at the cross, He has reconciled me to God. The Apostle Paul says that when we are in Christ, we are filled with the fullness of God (Eph. 3:19). We can’t be empty when we are filled like that.
Sister, train your heart to default to Christ as the One who fills you up. Though our brothers and sisters in Christ in our churches are meant to be gifts to us, they cannot perfectly be what Christ is to us. Only He holds all things together and can bear the weight of our every sin and sorrow (Col. 1:17, Is. 53:4). Please let go of the expectation to be perfectly understood by others. Please look to the One who knew you when you were still a sinner and died for you anyway. In Him is the hope that is an anchor for our souls. Knowing that we are perfectly understood and prayed for by Him frees us up to love our people as they are and to extend grace as it has been given to us. When you find yourself fighting feelings of loneliness, go to the Word and look for the ways that the Lord is with you. Our perfect example of faithfulness is Christ alone, for He will never leave or forsake you.
Recently, a friend from my congregation met my mother. She told my mom that when she first met me she realized she would have to earn my trust. Paying for past hurts that she never inflicted, she fought for my friendship. She sought to befriend me, not my title or responsibilities or inside knowledge. While I’m not proud of how guarded I’ve become, the Lord is using my friend to teach me how to be a safe friend. I feared authentic relationships within the church for too long. These days, I’m choosing to be thankful for the various levels of friendships God has given me, whether that means risking emotional availability when I want to remain aloof or saving my deepest transparency for my husband. Looking back, I can see that God has provided companions all through my journey as a pastor’s wife and I’m grateful to remember He has been my most faithful companion of all.