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Pastors' Wives Retreat

Pastors' Wives Resource site provided by the Sunday School Discipleship Ministries International, a ministry of the Church of the Nazarene. We want to hear about your experiences, the lessons you’ve learned and how God’s Word and prayer supported and sustained you in the joys and challenges of parsonage life.

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I have seen You in the sanctuary and beheld Your power and Your glory. Ps 63:2

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We want to hear about your experiences, the lessons you’ve learned and how God’s Word and prayer supported and sustained you in the joys and challenges of parsonage life.

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National Association of Evangelicals Task Force on the Family PDF Print E-mail
Written by Kenneth E. Crow   

Survey of Ministers’ Wives: Executive Summary

The spouse of a pastor strongly influences, and is strongly influenced by, their mate’s ministry. The role that goes with this relationship seems more demanding and more important than the spouse’s role in most other professions. Yet formal training and special resources are relatively rare. Also relatively rare are studies which examine the needs of pastors’ wives.

A survey of pastors’ wives was conducted by the National Association of Evangelicals in the fall of 1989. This report summarizes the findings of that study. While there are female pastors of evangelical churches whose spouse would be male, most pastors are male and, therefore, the survey was addressed particularly to wives of pastors.

The overall pattern found in this study of pastors’ wives was quite positive. Large majorities say they enjoy their role. They are fulfilled in it. They feel adequate for their responsibilities. Their family life is positive. The role may be more demanding than many others, but, the overall picture here is of women who are challenged by those demands.

The positive experience is not, however, universal. Some wives are experiencing pain. Indeed, since the nature of the role may tend to mask problems, some of the negative aspects of the role may be more extensive than the survey indicates. The pastors’ wife role seems to require an optimistic, positive attitude. Negative thinking is discouraged. This attitude may be reflected in the responses. A second factor is ministerial attrition. Pastors whose wives feel very negatively toward their role might be expected to have more difficulty finding, and keeping, a church. And, extreme family problems tend to disqualify a pastor. Therefore, the relatively small proportion (3.4%) who would consider divorce if it were not for the church or their children, for example, may be both an indication of the extent of family problems this severe and an indication that wives experiencing problems of this nature have already withdrawn from ministry.

Problems with the role of pastor’s wife seem to decrease as the person grows older. This tendency may be due to the fact that some have worked through their unrealistic expectations. Adjustments have been made to any discrepancies between their aspirations and the reality they have found in the church. Others may have gained skills along with the experience they have gained. These improved skills may have resulted in more satisfactory performance and confidence. A less positive explanation for the tendency may be the withdrawal of many of those who suffered. Older, more experienced, wives may tend to be more positive because those who did not find a satisfying place to serve in the church have already been lost to the pastoral ministry.
Profile of Evangelical Pastors' Wives

The typical pastors’ wife responding to this survey was in her thirties (32%) or forties (30%). Most (67.8%) had at least one child living at home. The most common educational level was some college or university work (24%) with another one in five (19.6%) having completed a college degree. One-fourth (24.9%) had completed some graduate work (11.9%) or had completed a graduate degree (13%).

Slightly over half (51.1%) were full-time homemakers, although three out of five (59.8%) had a part-time (38.7%) or full-time (21.1%) paid job. Of those with a full-time paid job, the most common occupation was in education (13.9%) followed by secretarial work (9.5%) and church ministry (7.5%).

Half (51%) had been a pastor’s wife more than fifteen years. Almost one-third (32.6%) had been in that role for over twenty years. Most (57.6%) had been in their present congregation five years or less, and only 2.2% had been in their current church over twenty years.

The Sunday morning worship attendance of the church their husband pastored was smaller than 250 for three-fourths (75.7%). One-third (35%) serve in churches smaller than 100. The church was affiliated with one of nearly seventy different denominations responding to the survey.

Congregations tended to be in smaller communities. Only one in five (19.5%) said they were in a city of 100,000 or more population. One-fourth (23.9%) were in rural communities and another fourth (25.6%) were in towns with fewer than 25,000 people.


Four out of five (78.3%) pastors’ wives see their role as God’s will for their life. They believe their husband’s ministry is appreciated (70.2%). Three out of five (60%) say they are very fulfilled in the role. Half (51%) say they love being a pastor’s wife.

Slightly more than half (51.7%) feel they are adequately trained for their role. This positive evaluation of their training for the role was somewhat more likely for older, better educated wives.

More than three-fourths (76.8%) say their congregation gives them freedom to be themselves. Only a very small minority (4.2%) say they refuse to accept church responsibilities. However, one in five (20.6%) feels their church thinks of them as an unpaid assistant pastor. About the same proportion (20.3%) think the church people really do not understand them.

Three out of five (57.3%) feel confident in the pastor’s wife role. However, two out of five (42.2%) say it is difficult to find time for both family and ministry. About the same proportion (40.8%) report experiencing frequent up and down emotions. One in six (16.5%) say they feel close to burnout.

The adjectives most likely to be selected as strongly characterizing their role were positive descriptions like "Challenging" (72.3%), "Satisfying” (66.8%), "Demanding" (66.3%), "Rewarding" (65.9%), and "Stretching" (63.1%). Negative possibilities such as "Routine" (18.1%), "Frightening" (20%), and "Depressing" (20.4%) were least likely to be chosen.

The larger the congregation, the more likely the wife was to describe her role as satisfying. Similarly, in contrast to churches under 100 and between 250 and 500, wives in the largest churches were more likely to describe their role as rewarding. Surprisingly, wives in churches between 100 and 250 were also more likely to describe their role as rewarding.

Younger wives were significantly more likely to describe the role as hurtful and frustrating. Wives with children at home were more likely to describe the role as stressful, frustrating, and hurtful. Wives in churches of less than 100 worshippers were more inclined to describe it as depressing.


A large majority (85%) of evangelical pastors’ wives say their marriage is healthy and compatible. Four out of five (80.8%) have confidence in their husband's fidelity. Almost two-thirds (64%) say their children like being ministers' children.

A very small minority (3.4%) say they would consider divorce if it were not for the church or their children. A similarly small group (3.7%) say their husband is closer to some of the women in the church than to them, or that they have fears about their husband's counseling other women (4.3%). An even smaller proportion (2.8%) indicate problems with an extramarital relationship of their own. Very few feel disqualified for ministry because of marital problems (4.6%). As noted above, the probable time between development of marital problems this serious and withdrawal from pastoral ministry may necessarily make such proportions quite small.

Perceived Needs

Three out of five (63.3%) wives say regular exercise is a current need. Nearly as many (55.9%) feel a need for rest and relaxation. Nearly half would like a "real vacation" (45.8%). Many (44.4%) feel a need for a trusted friend. Almost as many would like a support group (41.2%).

Two out of five (38.1%) feel a need for adequate time with their husband. Many (37.7%) indicate a need for a scheduled, weekly family day.

Developing a deeper relationship with God (55%) and spiritual renewal (46.3%) are current needs of most pastors wives. Half (51.7%) feel a need to increase their Bible knowledge. They evidently experience some conflict between this desire and the demands of their role. While, three out of ten (29.2%) find time for Bible study and prayer six or seven days in a week, this tends to be the older wives and those who do not have children at home. Daily Bible study and prayer was not a reality for a majority of these wives. Still, most (68%) describe their relationship with Jesus Christ either as developing steadily or as stable and satisfying.

Areas of Perceived Need for Assistance

The areas where the highest proportion of pastors’ wives feel a need for better ministry skills are: developing counseling skills (57.3%), learning to disciple other women (56.6%), and time management (50%). As age and, presumably, experience increased, the proportions indicating a need for these skills decreased somewhat. However, even among the group which was in their sixties a rather large proportion expressed a need for help with such skills.

Among family areas, the largest proportions would like help with understanding and relating to our teenagers (34.5%) and balancing church and family (27.8%). As might be expected, balancing these responsibilities was more of a problem for wives under forty than for older ones.

On a personal level, wives feel a need for help in coping with stress (51.7%), preparing for retirement (46%), controlling their weight (41.8%), building their self-confidence (39.3%), and overcoming discouragement or depression (34.9%). A significantly higher proportion of wives with children at home indicated a need for help in coping with stress. The need for help in preparing for retirement tended to increase with the age of the respondent.

The need for help with overcoming discouragement or depression was linked to the size of the congregation their husband pastored. While nearly one in five of the wives of pastors of larger churches needed help in this area, that proportion more than doubled for wives of pastors in churches with fewer than 350 members. Evidently the evangelical tendency to associate ministerial success with size of congregation tends to affect pastors’ wives’ sense of worth.


This research is probably best understood as a pilot study. Convinced that understanding this role more thoroughly was important, the National Association of Evangelicals selected a manageable sample as a starting point. There is no complete list of the pastors’ wives of NAE members. However, a list was available of the slightly over 34,000 pastors and churches which subscribe to NAE materials or who have requested NAE assistance. While most of these congregations were evangelical, other denominations were occasionally included. From this list every eleventh name was selected to create a systematic sample of slightly over 3,000 churches representative of correspondents and subscribers.

Since the mailing list was in the names of churches or pastors, the surveys were sent indirectly to pastors’ wives. Ministers, or church secretaries, were asked to pass the questionnaire on to the wife of the pastor. Some pastors and secretaries undoubtedly neglected to do this. Furthermore, evangelical pastors tend to move to new assignments fairly often leaving some percentage of these churches with no pastor’s wife when the survey arrived. Therefore, it is impossible to know how many wives actually received the questionnaire. Of those who did, 570 responded.

The nature of the original list and the size of the response suggest the need for caution in interpreting these findings. Variation due to sampling error might be expected to be as much as 4% above or below these proportions in a sample this size. Therefore, without further research, general assertions regarding all evangelical pastors’ wives must be somewhat tentative.


The study provides insights which suggest directions for further research and extend our understanding of the role of pastors’ wife. Pastors’ wives will find comfort as they discover that their experience is not as isolated as it may have seemed. Denominational leaders will find suggestions of ways they can better assist the wives of their pastors. Churches will see some of the ways they can ease the load and increase the fulfillment of their pastor’s wife.

Training may be needed, especially for younger wives, in such areas as counseling, discipling tools and techniques, and time management.

The number of pastors’ wives experiencing severe marital or family problems at any single time appears to be relatively small. However, pastors and their wives are not immune for the problems which affect other people. About one in every twenty-five pastors’ wives seems to be experiencing severe problems. Furthermore, the expectations of the role, and the influence of the role on their husband’s ability to continue in ministry, may limit the resources available to these women. They may be more isolated from trustworthy help than other professionals’ wives would be.

Pastors’ wives share the common needs of busy Americans. They need help in such areas as coping with stress and preparing for retirement. They need more rest and relaxation than they are getting. And, a real vacation would be helpful. While these needs are not unique, the nature of their role may make it even more difficult than usual to respond to them. Pastors’ salaries and congregational, or denominational, expectations undoubtedly contribute to these problems, rather than to their solutions, at least some of the time.

Denominations wishing to respond with resources to meet needs identified here may find the responses regarding programs available and desired useful. The questionnaire listed several possible means of delivering resources: a national pastors’ wives magazine, a national pastors’ wives newsletter, a national conference for pastors’ wives, a regional conference for pastors’ wives, a national conference for pastors’ wives and their husbands to meet personal needs, a regional conference for pastors’ wives and their husbands to meet personal needs, local pastors’ wives support groups, and a local retreat for pastors’ wives. For each possibility wives were asked to choose between three evaluations: "Even if this resource were available, I would not be interested," "I would take advantage of this resource if it were available," and "This resource is already available and satisfactorily meets my needs."

None of these resources was perceived to be already available to more than one in five wives. Resource availability ranked in order from local retreat (20.3%), to husband and wife regional conference (19.1%), magazine (15.3%), local support groups (14.1%), regional conference (12.8%), husband and wife national conference (10.7%), national conference (5.9%), and finally to newsletter (3.1%).

The resources most likely to be selected as something they would like to have were a national pastors’ wives newsletter (64%), local pastors’ wives support groups (58%), and a national pastors’ wives magazine (56%). The resource least likely to be selected was a national conference either for wives (22%) or for both husbands and wives (28%).

The tables which accompany this summary of findings present responses from the total group as well as from selected sub-groups. Survey items are arranged by topic. The sub-groups facilitate comparison of responses to these items by their age, whether or not they have completed at least a college education, whether or not they have a full-time, paid job, the length of time they have been in their present church, the size of their church measured by Sunday morning worship attendance, and whether or not they have children living at home.

While this summary report identifies some of the general patterns found in the study, the tables provide extensive information which will allow the reader to explore specific issues in depth.

--February 1990

Kenneth E. Crow, Ph.D.
Department of Sociology
MidAmerica Nazarene College
January 30, 1990

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