This has become something of an ‘issue’ for many men I have known in the couple of decades. I don’t know if it is because we work in a housing scheme or if the problem is more widespread. In my 20+ years in the ministry, I can say without doubt that one of the biggest causes of ‘failure’ within pastoral ministry has been down to disharmony in the marriage.
It is so important that men talk to their wives (or prospective wives) about what it means to work in a housing scheme/council estate. I know lots of middle-class wives whose comment to the church their husbands serve goes something like this: “You employed my husband, not me.” While superficially true, the reality of church planting on a scheme means that this is just not an acceptable attitude.
No Job Too ‘Low’
I find this whole sniffiness toward being regarded as: chief bottle washer, Sunday School teacher, counsellor, and cook to be completely at odds with the servant-heartedness that God commends to us in Scripture. In a scheme, no job is too lowly and it is all hands to the pump for whatever task for as long as it takes to build some momentum.
In our line of the church-planting world, a wife must roll her sleeves up with the rest of us, get her hands dirty, and partner with her man in the fight. Anything less than this will mean almost certain death for him in our particular type of ministry.
Here are some of the attributes I would consider of key importance in the wife of a church planter in a housing scheme/council estate.
1. A planter’s wife must be hospitable. What exactly is hospitality? I don’t think it should mean anything less than, “meeting the needs of fellow brothers and sisters, putting them at ease, providing comfort, expressing love and kindness.” Of course, there is then the need to look after the ‘stranger and alien’ in our midst. In short, hospitality should be about the “friendly reception and generous treatment of guests or strangers.”
The point is that by receiving strangers in our midst—either at ‘home’ or at a ‘corporate gathering’—they soon become friends and extended family members. Although ‘hospitality’ as a word is not found in the OT, it is present as a practice. We see it, for instance, in Genesis 18 & 19 with Abraham and Lot entertaining strangers. In the NT, we are given a direct command in Romans 12:13 to “practice hospitality”. Hospitality, therefore, is about making people feel that they matter, and it may take many forms.
In Niddrie, we eat together after our services on a weekly basis, and many people from the community come in and are made to feel welcome. My wife isn’t responsible for feeding them all every time, but she is heavily involved in ensuring that members of the community take it in turns to prepare and serve food. She will nearly always prepare too much food in our home in case the odd, unexpected visitor pitches up for the night or for some hot grub.
We have seen several people come to Christ through this important area of service! Without my wife, that would not have happened (at least not at that point—I must maintain my Calvinism). A hospitable wife is always flexible and not fazed by surprise guests and last-minute changes to programmes.
2. Closely connected to this, she must be a ‘helpmeet’(Gen. 2:18) in every sense of the word. I could not do most of my ministry without my wife there to support and under gird what I am doing. The way she is a help and support to me in everything that I do (and vice versa) means that I am freed up to do a lot of ministry. My home is an oasis, even when it is full, because of the atmosphere generated by the attitude of my wife.
Lots of word-studies in this area focus on what the wife should “do” but I think we neglect how she should carry herself. My wife does not serve grudgingly, instead she serves the Lord, me, our children, our congregation, and all who visit our home. She does so warmly and sacrificially. Trust me when I tell you that this is readily apparent to all, particularly the unbelievers who are often in and out of our home (some for extended periods).
3. She must be able to speak what is in accord with sound doctrine (Titus 2). A wife must be well familiar with the Word and if there is any doubt, then she must seek counsel from her husband who must ensure that he instructs her and/or points her to the right material. This can be reciprocal, but the teaching in the church is not just a “man thing.”
Housing schemes are full of women seduced by mediums, pagan spirituality, witchcraft and all sorts of strange ideas about religion. A planter’s wife must be able to give a reasoned answer for the hope within and must familiarise herself with basic apologetics. Whether she wants to or not, she is going to come under scrutiny and people are going to want answers.
4. She must not be given to slander/gossip (Titus 2). This is the curse of the female species, particularly in ministry. Women want to gossip and know all the inside details about the pastor and the leadership, and the woman they will pinpoint for this is usually the wife. An immature, ungodly, and unhappy wife can be a source of much division in this area by what comes out of her mouth. She must be wise, because if she is insecure, she can easily be seduced by those seeking friendship with ulterior motives. Real discernment is needed in this area.
5. We read a lot about how men should not neglect their families in the pursuit of ministry (and rightly so) but I wonder if the pendulum has swung too far the other way? Young men today seemed obsessed with “me time” or “family time” or “my wife doesn’t want me to do that.” Ministry is brutal in the early years of planting, and whilst we want to set good practices in place immediately, we must beware of setting out bad practices too.
God has called us to minister to the souls of the lost as we try to establish a church. Yes, our family is our primary mission field, but too many young men use this as a sell out because of (1) laziness and (2) an inability to lead their homes well. Wives must understand that the early years, especially, are hard and demanding.
6. Connected to the above point, a wife must be an encourager and not a nag. Almost every man I have let go over the last 10 years has come down to the fact that his wife is just not helpful to him in his ministry. She has seen it and the church as competition for her affections. Instead of the home being a place of love, warmth, and relaxation it turns into a melting pot of bitterness, recrimination, and arguments. The ministry here drains the man enough without the lifeblood being sucked from him when he has to go home to a battle every evening.
If this is your experience before entering ministry, then do not go near a housing scheme, for it will only expose these flaws and worsen them. A planter’s wife must be a source of spiritual vitality in his life and not an extra drain on him.
7. She must have a sense of humour. This is an absolute must on housing schemes. Nobody likes a woman who looks like she’s been asked to down the contents of a jar of pickled eggs. Banter is a huge part of what it means to grow up on a scheme and humour is a massively valued and respected commodity. I think of it as the lost spiritual gift. You have to be able to laugh through the tough times.
8. She must love the church of Christ and seek to publicly and wholeheartedly support your decisions and those of the leadership, even if she does not agree with them. She must think before she blurts out her “opinion” on everything by exercising a spirit of self-control. Discussions on such matters (where appropriate) must be done in the privacy of the home and solved by prayer.
9. Above all of these things, she must have a warm, genuine, growing, and blossoming relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. She must run to Him as her ultimate source of strength, patience, hope, love, and hospitality, and we men must constantly be leading her and pointing her back to the Saviour in all things.
The wives of church planters have massive responsibilities but also multiple opportunities in housing schemes. Their husbands open up doors that no other members can. They will be privy to (some) information that no other people can be. They will be involved in (some) sensitive pastoral scenarios. What a blessing that can be.
All of these things are another opportunity to run to Jesus and cling to Him. Allow God to mould you, refine you, challenge you, encourage you, and love you, firm in the knowledge that He who has begun that good work in us will see it through to completion (Phil. 1:6).
Pray for my wife Miriam and pray for the wives of all church planters and pastors that you know.