A few months ago, an older woman in our church approached me. “I owe you an apology,” she announced. “When you moved to our church, I thought you were just a bit of fluff. Pretty to look at, but without substance. I was wrong, and I’m sorry. Now I know better.”
She went on to share some compliments, but, honestly, I wasn’t sure how to respond. Most compliments don’t start out so backhandedly, and most insults don’t finish with praise.
It’s hard to act casual when people make wrong assumptions about you. It’s painful when your whole life is focused on helping and serving them, but they are determined to find things to dislike or criticize. Some personalities are more hurt by this than others, but I don’t think being criticized or misunderstood is enjoyable for anyone. Especially when all you want is to help others see more of Jesus!
Here’s the reality: there’s absolutely no way you can live in ministry without facing criticism, without being misunderstood, without getting hurt. The question we have to ask ourselves is this: How do I respond when these things happen?
And the answer God has been teaching me through the years? Be at peace.
So, for what it’s worth, here are a few things I’ve been learning along the journey as a pastor’s wife.
IT’S NOT ABOUT MAKING PEOPLE HAPPY.
My personality feels the dislike or indifference of others very deeply. I have an innate sense of fairness and justice, and when someone else has a wrong opinion of me, I feel this almost-overwhelming need to go and make it right. But I’m learning that if I obsess about the people who misunderstand, I will have little time left to accomplish anything good.
You can never make everyone happy all of the time. And that isn’t really our goal anyway. Our purpose in ministry is to bring people to Christ, to attempt to model a life of leadership, family values, and dedication to biblical principles. If we focus on making people feel happy, we’re likely to lose sight of what really matters.
So focus on following Jesus and doing what you know to be right—in a spirit that demonstrates kindness and compassion. And be at peace.
IT’S OKAY TO BE YOURSELF.
Of course the last pastor’s wife did things differently. The next pastor’s wife will, too. Maybe your predecessor played the piano beautifully and was a great cook, and those aren’t your strengths. But are you a great storyteller, or do you have the gift of making beautiful decorations? Maybe you give incredible Bible studies? Embrace that.
Be confident in the gifts God has given specifically to you. It’s great to learn from other ministry spouses, but don’t try to become someone else. They aren’t you, and you aren’t them. And that is perfectly okay. Be at peace.
STAY FOCUSED ON WHO MATTERS.
When you live in the fishbowl of ministry life, everyone thinks they have a right to express their opinion about the pastor’s family. That’s probably not going to change anytime soon. You can try to please them all, and run yourself ragged in the process. Or you can step back and ask yourself, “Whose opinion really matters to me?”
To me, there are three opinions that truly count: God, my conscience, and my husband. If I’ve checked with God, and my conscience is clear, and my husband approves—that’s all I need. Other people may think what they like, and it may not feel nice when they criticize, but I can stay calm because I’m already in harmony with the ones who matter most. Be at peace.
There may be times when you choose to stop doing something that you feel is acceptable, simply out of respect for someone else’s feelings or convictions. That’s great, as long as you remember it’s something you’re doing out of courtesy and not because you’re rearranging your identity to pacify someone else’s dictates. Ask God to remind you of who He created you to be, and be at peace.
REFUSE TO RETURN THE FAVOR.
Never. Never. Never engage in gossip or inappropriate criticism of others. When people come to you telling stories about others, let them know clearly and unmistakably that you will not listen to, participate in, or initiate gossip.
When you experience conflicts of your own, seek to follow the principles laid out in Matthew 18. Talk directly with the person, and if they don’t respond well, bring another spiritually discerning person along. If that doesn’t resolve the situation, take it to the larger body of believers. But even if you have to pursue these multiple steps, be at peace.
I won’t pretend that I’m always at peace, every single time. Nobody’s perfect! But there is incredible freedom in letting go of worry about being criticized and fear of what other people think and focusing more on being in harmony with God and my spouse. And that freedom allows me to increasingly be at peace.