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Compared to the Previous Pastor's Wife

By Gabriele Rienas

Gabriele Rienas is a pastor’s wife for 27 years and a professional counselor, lives in Beaverton, Oregon. She speaks at retreats, conferences, and events worldwide. Contact her at 503-705-9230.

Q: We have been at our church for about 6 months. I do not know the previous pastor's wife, but I am beginning to believe she was perfect. People constantly refer to her gifts and accomplishments, none of which are similar to mine. I have learned she was close with several of the board members' wives, who seem to be keeping their distance from me. How can I overcome feeling completely intimidated and inadequate?

A: You have asked about an age-old struggle for many women: comparing ourselves to one another. We tend to do so in spite of our best efforts to obey Scripture and avoid comparisons. The situation you have described is particularly challenging because it goes to the core of how you think about yourself and how you feel about your gifts.

First, I would like to bring your situation into a new light. I am pleased to hear that the members of your congregation view the previous pastor's wife in such a favorable light. This is a strong indication of your possible future with them. Since group behavior tends to remain consistent, a congregation's demeanor toward the pastor and his family tends to end up being similar as leadership comes and goes. This works in both positive and negative ways. Just like families, congregational patterns tend to repeat themselves whether it is a pattern of criticism, hostility, and avoidance, or a pattern of concern, compassion, honor, generosity, and respect. In your case, the pattern is positive, if a little overstated. You can expect the same for yourself.

The fact they refer to her frequently is more about grieving her absence than it is about rejecting you. Reminding you of their admiration for her is their way of managing the normal feelings of loss they have, and creating some distance with you before risking again. I have no doubt they will eventually risk again, especially if their previous experience was so great.

Give yourself the gift of time. You need to be wary of relationships that develop too quickly. My rule of thumb is to approach with great care anyone who seems intent on becoming close with me quickly. The fact some of the women are taking their time could well be a positive indication of healthy boundaries.

Remember also that the references to her accomplishments take on a life of their own and tend to grow larger over time. In retelling the events, people tend to edit these stories. The previous pastor's wife experienced both success and failure, as any human does.

If possible, get to know her. Meet her for coffee or contact her by e-mail. This is the best way to deal with the aura of the unknown. Let her become a real person in your mind. You will see she is human and she will become less intimidating. She will certainly be able to bring a fresh perspective to her relationship with the congregation.

Focus your attention on defining yourself and your gifts. Your insecurity suggests some ambivalence about that. Many pastors' wives struggle with the idea that people expect more of them than what they can produce. Focusing on perceived weaknesses (I cannot help with worship; I do not like to entertain; I dread having to speak in front of people), these ministry wives enter a helpless cycle of guilt and defensiveness for not living up to certain standards. Free yourself of this and celebrate the gifts God has given you.

God knows where you are and whom you serve for this season of your life. On the day of your conception God knew that today you and your husband would be serving X congregation in Y city with Z needs. God has been preparing you for this time throughout your life even as He continues to make preparation for your future. You are the perfect fit for this situation for this time. Stand tall in this truth with no apology.

Be yourself and you will find that certain people will intersect with your life in a positive way. Some of these may overlap with the previous pastor's wife's confidantes and some may not. In any case, the relationships you develop will be unique to you, your personality, and your needs.

I have never liked being compared to others and feeling inferior. On the other hand, I used to be a lot more flattered by the compliments of people who really did not know me well. I have learned that when people make quick assessments these assessments are often inaccurate and biased, and I should take them with a grain of salt and liberal doses of grace.

Offer yourself and the sum of who you are to be used for God's glory. It is He who takes responsibility for making that happen when you allow it. Throw your preconceived ideas away, and be courageous enough to be yourself and offer what you have with confidence. You are the woman for this role at this place in this time.