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Unmasking the Secret Pain of Pastor’s Wives

While it’s common knowledge how tough it is to be a pastor’s kid, no-one talks about how tough it is to be a pastor’s wife. No-one told me that pastor’s wives are handed masks when they walk in the door.

masksMy husband used to be a “bivocational elder” — he helped lead our church in addition to his full-time job and responsibilities at home. Because he co-led with three others, one of whom was the full-time pastor, I didn’t expect to find myself on a pedestal. But I did.

What to do? I was young, naive, and had much to learn (I still do). And like most people (right?), I learn by making mistakes. How does the saying go? Fake it til you make it? If they expected perfection and I couldn’t deliver, I would fake it. The mask was part of the job, so I put it on.

At first, it was comforting. Masks are insidious like that. They promise armor for the soul. I could cloak my whirling doubts and fears, questions, weaknesses, immaturity, and pain at being misjudged behind a plastic smile. I just had to say “We’re fine, God is good, and she’s a miracle,” appear at all the events, smile, and maintain proper submissive-wife posture. Then no-one would criticize.

But inside, behind the armor, I was shriveling up like a slug in salt. I wasn’t fine, God didn’t appear to be good because of all he allowed to happen, and when I didn’t sleep through the night for months at a time, she didn’t seem nearly so miraculous. But admitting my struggles wasn’t an option.

I had already seen what happens to people who fail in public ways. Heaven help you if someone catches your deception. We Christians preach grace and forgiveness seventy-times-seven, but we withhold it from leaders caught in sin. One strike, you’re out.

Wearing a mask eliminated the option of getting help. I feared confiding in anyone. Yet my hypocrisy burned like acid. I talked a good talk about authenticity and accountability and deeper relationships that I contradicted with self-censorship, sweeping my story under carpets, and calling in damage control if anyone dared go there.

I wanted the mask off. I needed it off — it was killing me. But if I reached my fingers to my mask’s edge and began peeling it off, someone slapped my hand away. I learned that if you reveal too much, they’ll use it against you. If you’re not perfect, you’re not qualified. (It’s no wonder churches complain of people’s unwillingness to help.)

No-one told me that the mask is permanent. Even after we left the official position we had, we weren’t free. I’ve tried to rip it off, and in part I’ve succeeded, but the process has left me scarred and gun-shy. I struggle to trust people with me. My mask is mostly down, but I wear thick armor of mistrust to protect against the rejection I expect when they see who I really am.

The worst part is I still stand at the door of the church handing out the standard of perfection and the mask to meet it to the current leaders. With all my scars, with all the knowing-better I carry, I am putting others through the same misery. I’m ashamed to admit that I catch myself expecting too much of those leading the group of Christians we gather with each week. It seems to be ingrained in human nature to hold our leaders to impossible standards and then rip them apart when they fail. I find myself also doing the opposite: expecting them to fail and allowing my cynicism to hold them at arm’s length.

How do I stop? I don’t want to perpetuate this torturous existence on others. I want to be a part of healing and nurturing, not destroying those who step up and shoulder responsibility.

I’m seeking a middle ground between believing (i.e. demanding) the best of people and expecting the worst. How do I give others what I most hope they will extend to me — the freedom to make mistakes and grow over time? I want to be a woman who forgives, encourages, and helps, instead of criticizing, complaining, and removing those who mess up.

How have unreasonable expectations hurt you? How do you try to avoid placing them on others? Why do you think we do this to each other? How can we build up instead of tearing down?


Life: unmasked buttonIt’s Wednesday, which means it’s time for another life:unmasked link-up. Join me and share the vulnerable messy truth about you and God and how God is at work in that mess. My only rule for participating is that you visit and comment on at least one other post in the linky (perhaps the one right before yours?) so we can build a community of encouragement. Also, will you include a link back to this post (it is here: ) so your readers can participate as well? Thank you!

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