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Life Inside  (And Outside) the Fishbowl

by Jim and Connie White, Virginia Missions magazine, Summer 2003

She paused and daubed her eyes and patted her moist cheeks with the Kleenex wadded in her hand.  More than half of the other 11 people in the circle also had tears welling in their eyes. 

Her story had aroused their sympathy and connected with their own pain.  Each one in the circle was a pastor or pastor's wife, and each came with deep wounds inflicted by church people.  They also shared a sense of disillusionment with the church in general.

When she regained her voice, she continued.

 "We started receiving anonymous letters critical of everything we did.  According to them, my husband's sermons were boring, I ignored church people, and our children were troublemakers. The worst of it was I had nowhere to turn.  I couldn't tell my friends at work because I didn't want them to think less of the church.  I couldn't tell my church friends because I didn't want to stir up controversy.  I had no one with whom to share my pain except my husband and there were times even he didn't understand."

This scene from a retreat led by the Ministering To Ministers (MTM) Foundation is not fiction.  The wounds are real, the pain intense.  Most had either been dismissed from church positions or had resigned under pressure. Three couples were from Baptist General Association of Virginia churches and could attend because Virginia Baptists paid their way through the BGAV portion of the Cooperative Program.

MTM, a ministry organization based in Richmond, Va., has kept many fired ministers from leaving church work altogether. MTM Executive Director Charles Chandler wants to reverse the figures in a survey that shows that 54 percent of fired ministers never return to fulltime, church-related ministry.

Through the Alma Hunt Offering for Virginia Missions, 68 ministers in transition benefited from the “Ministers’ Care Program.”

Unrealistic Expectations

If "nobody's perfect," it goes without saying there are no perfect families.  Yet, pastors' families often live with the expectation that they will model perfection, and do so under intense scrutiny. 

They live in a goldfish bowl. The children shall attend all church activities and shall be well groomed and well behaved. Moreover, they shall possess a spiritual depth that exceeds their years and sets a standard for others in the church.

When they err, they're seen as a direct reflection of the parents' theology and parenting skills. When they excel, they have merely met expectations.  Some will interpret any special recognition they receive as undue attention just because they are the ministers' children. 

In addition, the pastor's wife shall participate in all church activities and lead many of them, never complain, always be sweet, keep a spotless house, and be so fashionably groomed and attired that church members who meet her at the mall may introduce her with pride to their friends as "our pastor's wife."  No family can live on a pedestal.  It isn't normal or healthy!

We live in a highly critical time.  Just look in the political arena.  Knocking public figures off their pedestals has become a national pastime.  This super-critical mindset has seeped into the church and found people eager to cast stones —even at their spiritual leaders.  Rather than honor those who labor in Christ's church, many congregations seem bent on exposing and exploiting their weaknesses.  One piece of the deceiver's lie is that we will feel better about ourselves if we trash somebody else. 

Where Are We Headed?

Even Barney Fife can figure this one out.  If you criticize church leaders enough, they will become discouraged and disheartened.  Eventually, they will stop trying to do anything significant, and they may even quit.  Many churches, to their shame, employ this strategy to get rid of their pastors.  They keep turning up the heat until they run the pastor off, or he resigns in frustration, or he "feels the call" to some other place. 

But, what are the results?

How can we hope to be used of God to transform our communities powerfully when we keep shooting ourselves in both feet?

What Can We Do?

First, change the standard. If the axiom that one is either part of a problem or part of a solution is true, what can earnest church people do to build healthy church relationships with ministers and their families?

A quick review of New Testament lessons gives simple, but not easy, answers. First, believers can hear Jesus saying, "Judge not." Next, we can remember his telling followers to remove the beams from their eyes before attempting to remove splinters from others' eyes. Finally, we can apply Ephesians 4:32 to all of us: "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another just at God in Christ has forgiven you." Tenderhearted love sees ministers and their families through compassionate eyes and sets a standard for a healthy fellowship.

Practically speaking, giving life to Jesus' teachings within the church presents a God-sized challenge. Church people can replace mean gossip with earnest prayer and sincere kindness.

Even in situations when the minister has personally wronged the church — and that happens — the people can apply kindness. They can work through proper channels to resolve the problem without maligning the minister or his family. More often, church people have issues because the minister has "failed" them personally, and they "lash out" at both the minister and his family. Even if their disappointment is justified, attacking (or ignoring) the minister and his family is never acceptable.

Second, set a new course. Every new endeavor begins with one step. The most effective approach to building a healthy relationship between the people and ministers/families is to replace negative, critical thinking with energetic encouragement. Look for the right and the light in others. 

Third, support wounded ministers and their spouses. Contact such organizations as Ministering to Ministers Foundation, Inc., or recommend one of the many BGAV-sponsored wellness retreats for pastors and their families. Soon pastors' wives will be able to contact a web page especially for them to view articles of support and to voice their frustrations and concerns.

When we can develop healthy patterns of relationships with our church staff leadership, the church itself will become stronger, happier, and healthier. As this occurs within churches, God's kingdom advances.

MTM Executive Director Charles Chandler puts it this way: "Healthy ministers help produce healthy churches. Healthy churches help produce healthy communities."

This article appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of Virginia Missions magazine of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board (VBMB) and is used with permission. Jim White was a pastor before joining the VBMB in Richmond, Va., to direct the Empowering Leaders Team. Connie White is his wife.