Sometimes I read something that just strikes a nerve. Actually it happens a lot but sometimes it really strikes a nerve. Today I read something that did just that. The article was on the impact of a pastor losing his job on his wife, When You Are No Longer A Pastor's Wife.
My husband is—now—a former pastor; the words still seem surreal. Unfortunately, the term “former pastor” isn’t unique to our situation. Many men walk away, willingly or not, from the ministry (I am thinking of believers who, for a season or the rest of their life, turn from an earlier call of pastoral leadership for reasons other than gross misconduct). According to an article from 2012, nearly 800 Southern Baptist pastors are terminated each year; that is just one evangelical denomination. Paul Tripp has accurately labeled the pastorate a dangerous calling.
Since this situation affects so many ministers, my husband had many outlets to turn to: other pastors, his mentor, support groups for wrongly fired pastors, and historical precedents. He, like other men before him, could take comfort in thinking, Take heart, Jonathan Edwards was fired from his first pastorate, too.
Strangely, there are fewer avenues that address the proper response for the wife. Perhaps this is because the term “pastor’s wife” is nebulous and undefined in the first place. Initially, I bucked the phrase “pastor’s wife,” citing the ill-informed stereotypes. However, as the years have passed and the Lord has changed my heart, I have grown into the role. I thoroughly enjoy ministering to those in need and especially treasure the opportunity to teach, love, and share Christ with teenagers and children.
However, because we don’t share our husbands’ responsibilities or spend every day at the church, we don’t see or experience the less desirable things: the conflict, the emotions, or the sin in many of our churches.
First a thought about the wives of professional pastors. As bad as the professional clerical model is for the men who are employed as pastors, it is doubly destructive for their family and especially their wives. Sure there are undoubtedly some women who love the extra attention being the wife of the pastor brings and most pastor's wives would never say what they are feeling but I think for most wives it adds an additional degree of difficulty to the already incredibly complex calling of being a mother and a wife. Just as many people in the church scrutinize the children of pastors for any transgression, real or imagined, the wife of the pastor gets even more scrutiny. If the kids are not being perfect angels during the sermon, if they run in the church building, if they are not perfectly groomed, people look at mom. She of course needs to likewise always be cheerful and impeccably dressed, often serving as an additional resource for the church. It kind of comes with the territory. It is also incredibly damaging.
Second, this notion that you can fire a pastor is so contrary to Scripture and does so much violence to the Biblical understanding of church leadership and what it means to be an elder that a conversation about the aftermath of a pastor being fired should be unthinkable. Sadly it is not. The essay cites a 2002 report that shows hundreds of pastors are fired every year just in the Southern Baptist Convention alone. These aren't men fired for misconduct or moral failing, they are mainly fired in struggles for control of a local church. When I type those words it makes me literally sick to my stomach. So many people craft essays allegedly defending the "Bride of Christ" from any criticism but they tolerate a system like this where men are hired and fired like fast food workers. I posted this comment on the Gospel Coalition webpage (as a fun sidenote it seems I have been banned from commenting on their Facebook page, apparently no dissenting opinions are permitted for the moderators. I was shocked that my comment on the actual article made it through moderation).
You could hardly craft a better example of everything that is wrong with the professional pastoral model than this essay. One cannot be fired as a pastor just as one cannot be hired as a pastor, being a pastor has nothing to do with a title or your place of employment. It is what you do and who you are. The damage this entire system has done to the church, to the men who are engaged in ministry-for-pay and their families is incalculable.
As I have said so many times, you don't start pastoring because you get hired and paid to do so, a man is called as an elder because he is already being a pastor. Furthermore, being able to prepare and deliver a sermon and beg and cajole people to donate to "the church" has nothing to do with being an elder/pastor. The men employed in the ministry-for-pay system are largely professional religious lecturers with a smattering of amateur psychology thrown in for good measure. Some of them might be pastors and many are not, just as many actual pastors in the church have never delivered a sermon or gotten a single paycheck from a local church. In short we have managed to completely divorce the true meaning of the tern "pastor" from the cultural understanding, reducing it from a recognition of a life worthy of emulation to a job title like bus driver or orthodontist.
Lest I be accused of being anti-pastor or anti-leadership (or rebellious or anti-authoritarian or whatever), I am actually just the opposite. I know three guys who are elders of a local church in our area, two who have their own small businesses and one who works as an employee of the first two. They are godly men and great leaders and don't draw a salary from the church. When we lived in the East Lansing area we met with a Plymouth Brethren gathering and, kooky dispensationalism aside, the elders there likewise worked for a living and took nothing from the local assembly, instead giving rather than receiving (Acts 20:35). All of them are men I wish I was more like. In short they were actual elders. We need more men like that, not fewer.
Every year churches hire and fire thousands of religious employees and the seminary system churns out replacements for the clerical meat-grinder. The ravaged landscape of families chewed up and spit out by this system are one of the tragic testaments to the deeply flawed and destructive professional ministry-for-pay system. It is high time that we end the soft, subtle domestic violence being inflicted on the families of the church.