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Wives of pastors often struggle with loneliness, stress

| Sunday, Sept. 6, 2009

Life in the fishbowl can be tough for the wives of preachers.

Undefined expectations, along with the demands of family, church and community, can be overwhelming, experts say.

"Some churches have higher expectations for the pastor's wife. She's almost like the first lady," said the Rev. Donald B. Green, executive director of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, an ecumenical agency of 26 Christian faiths from 10 counties.

That can increase stress on family members and lead to feelings of isolation and inadequacy for the pastor's wife, said Janice Hildreth, a pastor's wife who started a Web-based newsletter, , several years ago to offer practical and spiritual encouragement to the wives of pastors.

"It's not a pretty picture trying to be perfect," she said.

Loneliness is the No. 1 issue impacting the wives of preachers. Their marriages are not immune to divorces, and some wives, consumed by loneliness and depression, commit suicide, said Hildreth, 60, of Garden City, Idaho.

About 50 percent of the 2.2 million marriages last year will end in divorce, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The divorce rate among pastors is comparable.

Surveys by the Global Pastors Wives Network show that 80 percent of pastors' wives feel left out and unappreciated by church members. An equal number wished their spouses would choose another profession.

Blogs posted by preachers' wives offer a glimpse into their lives.

"Spent two months curled up in a ball on the floor thinking it was due to baby No. 4 but later realized it was due to depression. Had intense marital problems the entire summer of '07," a former pastor's wife wrote on a blog for preachers' wives. Her husband eventually gave up his ministry.

Green, 62, recently marked his 35th year in ministry. He credits his wife of 40 years, Kathryn Elizabeth, with making numerous sacrifices to help his career. The couple has three adult children.

His wife knew the challenges of being a minister's wife and was willing to be the major bread winner for five years while he finished school, Green said.

"She has sacrificed much over the years to support my various calls, especially the stress of relocation, career opportunities and friendships," he said.

Kathryn Green, a paralegal, made it clear early in her husband's career what her role would be.

"I am not the associate pastor," she said. "Too many times churches seem to think they are getting two people."

The "two for one" syndrome is common, especially in smaller congregations, said Nancy Harding Burgess, founder of Heart and Soul Connection, a Georgia-based support network.

"They should set boundaries. There's a lot going on. There's so much crisis," said Burgess, a pastor's wife who said she twice attempted suicide.

The wives of preachers said they can feel unappreciated, are sometimes discouraged and often feel disconnected from their spouses, according to surveys by the Global Pastors Wives Network.

"It can be isolating. Working outside the home helps," said Kathryn Green, who counts few pastors' wives among her friends.

The wives of some clergy were forced to lower their expectations when their husbands changed careers, said Tracy Ritchie, the wife of the Rev. James H. Ritchie, a United Methodist Church pastor in Natrona Heights.

"This is a second career for some people. ... They started out in the business world and went into ministry. Their spouses signed on as bankers' wives, and now they're unhappy," she said.

After the Rev. Justin Judy, 30, and his wife, Stephanie, 33, had their first son, the congregation at the church where they were serving expected them to play Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus in a Christmas play, Stephanie Judy said.

When she said no, it didn't go over very well.

"There was quite a backlash. ... They said, 'That's not what a pastor's wife should do," ' she recalled.

Her husband, pastor at Grace United Methodist Church, said he established boundaries for his three callings: pastor, husband and father.

"I work hard to keep them separated," he said. "When I'm home, I'm a father and husband, but my kids know that I might also have to be a pastor."

Making friends can be complicated for the wives of preachers, Stephanie Judy said.

"It's difficult to make friends because when people hear you're a pastor's wife, they don't want to be themselves," she said.

Just as challenging is overcoming the expectations of congregations.

"They need to realize we're all different," she said.

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