Support for the Pastor’s Wife and Family: Bust the Fishbowl Mentality

January 13, 2023 Kelly Nava

I never wanted to marry into the ministry.

There. I said it. Whew.

The life that corresponds to marrying a church worker—whether pastor, chaplain, missionary, or so on—is messy and difficult. There’s no way around that. It would take a very noble specimen of humanity to seek out a life that features extra helpings of flaming devil-darts and inevitable family struggle—to say nothing of the fact that it’s a life very much on display to those served by one’s spouse’s work. But that’s exactly what it is. And people do sign up for it.

I didn’t really want to, not being a particularly noble specimen of humanity myself, but I married my husband anyway. I won’t say that I’d never wish this life on anyone, and I’m certainly not saying people shouldn’t marry church workers (definitely marry them!), but I do think a healthy approach to the life is knowing just how difficult it can be and what exactly it entails. There really could (should?) be a whole manual called So You Wanna Be a Church Worker’s Spouse.

The Reality of Critique

Let’s start at the beginning. The first things you learn when considering marriage to a church worker are that (1) you’ll change your mailing address much more than most people, and (2) everyone your spouse serves will have a front-row seat to the inner workings of your family. Let’s focus on that one. Have you ever heard people talk about life in a fishbowl? I don’t know where the term came from, but I know others have applied it to my life as the wife of someone in the ministry. The idea is basically that your family will be scrutinized, remarked upon, and critiqued heavily by those your spouse is called to serve—usually without warning or filter.

Before I write about how harmful this mentality can be, I should qualify that not everyone in a church setting behaves this way. Or if they do, it may not be intentional. It’s good to place the best construction on something like this when it does happen, but it’s also good to remind those who tap on the glass of your bowl about the Eighth Commandment too: goggling at church-worker families and inflicting outside personal opinion is at best awkward and at worst hurtful and unkind. For those who may think it is their right as a parishioner to do so, please let me state it plainly: people in the ministry and their families are only human and in need of grace too.

Gently Handle Us

It should go without saying that the life of a church worker is exceptionally challenging, therefore, the life of a church worker’s family echoes, sometimes magnifies, those challenges. The devil works hard against such families—from making even the minor act of getting to church on time with kids impossible every Sunday to catalyzing outright crises of faith within the family. The picture inside the fishbowl cannot be fully realized by spectators; there are dark places where the enemy lurks in here as well, instigating battles that the rest of the world can’t see.

This reality calls for gentle handling. Another saying springs to mind: “Be kind; you never know what someone is going through.” It’s as true on someone’s Instagram feed as it is in real life—and especially in the life of a church worker’s family. We, as those who follow Christ, bear the responsibility of kindness for His sake. Even more compelling than Instagram is the Word of God itself: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones . . . compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another” (Colossians 3:12–13). See also Galatians 6:10: “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

The Problem with the Fishbowl

What the fishbowl mentality does is destabilize the two fundamental things that should be the most supported—the family unit and the church family as a whole. So don’t give in to the temptation of judging the families of church workers when life gets hard for them. Instead, acknowledge that we are all messy people who are only worth anything because of what Jesus has done for us. Support these families and build them up. Fortify, nourish, and be present as a congregational family, not as outsiders peering in.

Break the bowl. Thwart the devil, who operates unseen and thrives on our alienation from the Body of Christ.

We Are Grateful for Your Support

I am grateful for those who have done this—who have offered a caring ear or a coffee date to this stressed-out mama; who have watched the kids for an evening, or who sit nearby at church; who have thanked my husband for the immense load he carries on behalf of others, or who have thanked him for his service to our country instead of focusing on any of our family’s struggles.

So do I always love being attached to someone in the ministry? No. Do I regret it? Also no. And this is thanks to those who have loved our family and who have been the hands and feet of God to us on this earth, especially in the ways mentioned above. Your support in this way cannot be underestimated. In fact, it has been a lifeline.

Scripture: ESV®.

Our familial relationships can be hard, whether you belong to a ministry family or not. Learn how to create a culture of grace during times of family struggles with Family Trees and Olive Branches: Creating a Culture of Grace in Your Family.

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