What Pastors Shouldn’t Tell Their Wives: The Danger Of Too Transparency

Megan Hill, a Presbyterian pastor’s wife, has been writing about what pastors tell their wives and what they should tell them. I can answer that question in one word: nothing. By nothing, I mean “no confidential information.” A pastor may tell his wife what he would tell other members of the congregation but no more. Of course he may ask for prayer. Of course he may tell his wife that he had a tough counseling session or a tough session meeting but he shouldn’t say with whom or “confidential” becomes a little leaky.

I understand that we live in an age of hyper-transparency, that many live in in full view of the digital public via social media. That reality, however, is no argument for ministers giving in to the temptation to share with their wives what they learn in session (consistory) meetings or in counseling sessions. What happens in session (consistory) stays in session. What happens in the counseling room, unless it involves a criminal matter or needs to go to the session, stays in the counseling room. It certainly does not go to the pastor’s wife.

This is not sexism. It’s mercy and wisdom. The pastor’s wife is not called to the pastoral ministry. She is not an unofficial co-pastor. She isn’t ordained (or shouldn’t be). Her vocation relative to the visible church is to be faithful to the due use of ordinary means, to love her husband and family. That’s it.

There are five reasons why the pastor’s wife does not need to know what the pastor knows.

1) Few things are as difficult in ministry as knowing what pastors (and elders) know. I have seen the burden add lines to the faces of pastors and ruling elders. Watch a newly elected ruling elder’s face the day before he takes office for the first time and the days after. There is often a discernible change. Pastors are called to carry this burden and to lay it before the Lord and to trust him with it. Those who learn to file it somewhere survive and those who do not, for whom it remains in the forefront of their consciousness, they will not likely survive pastoral ministry. The pastor’s wife is not a ruling elder or a minister. She’s not called to carry that burden.

2) It’s better for the pastor that his wife not know. When a pastor comes home from a difficult house visit (huisbezoek in Nederlands) it’s a great relief to see his wife, who is blissfully unaware of what just transpired. If she knows then he never really leaves it behind. There is no refuge. The session meeting just changed locations. That doesn’t help him. He needs her, sola gratia, to be free to love him and the rest of the congregation in the freedom of not knowing. He needs that more than he needs an ally against that obstreperous session member or that seemingly intractable counseling case.

3) It’s not good for the pastor’s family to know everything that is going on. One leak may lead to others. If the pastor’s wife is not called to know and carry this certainly the children are not equipped to deal with it. Leave them out of it. There is a reason that pastor’s kids can grow up bitter toward the church. Pastor’s need to resist the temptation to find vindication for themselves by unloading their burdens on their children.

4) Her view of the congregation isn’t trained or freighted or weighted down with the knowledge of what is happening in each family behind the pleasant facade. That’s as it should be. She shouldn’t know. She should be free to go on as if nothing happened. That’s important. There is grace. People do repent and move forward. Sure, everyone in the congregation can see the turbulent waters but they can’t all see what’s beneath. She’s free to be a prayer partner a and friend in a way that perhaps the pastor cannot be. Knowing what the pastor knows does not enable her to be unfettered in her life as a member of the congregation.

5) It’s not good for the congregation. Trust is a difficult thing to foster and it is easily damaged. It may take years for a congregation to trust the minister enough to confide in him and to seek from him the help they need. A careless word to his wife may destroy all that in a moment and that trust may never be restored. The members of the congregation should not look at her and wonder what she knows about them.

Please don’t misunderstand. The pastor is not a priest. He must keep the confidences that he may but when it comes to criminal matters or those things that must go to the session then he his bound to do it. Nevertheless, most things should be kept in confidence and those right between the minister’s ears. The good news is that, as the years pass, many of them just sort of slip away into the ether. I know that I’ve heard many things but right now, as I write, I can’t remember many of them. I can see faces and tears but no particulars come to mind. It’s a mercy.

By the Christ’s undeserved favor, with the Spirit’s help, and in the Father’s love it can be done. It must be done. It’s a matter of divine vocation. It’s a matter of integrity. God has called his ministers to hear confessions, to offer reminders of forgiveness, and counsel but the same is not true of every member of the congregation and that is what the pastor’s wife is: another member of the congregation. Perhaps this is a practical argument against every member ministry?

It seems worth spending a moment thinking about the idea of office. In this sense it refers to functions and particularly to duties. Used in this sense, the Oxford English Dictionary defines it thus:

A position or post to which certain duties are attached, esp. one of a more or less public character; a position of trust, authority, or service under constituted authority; a post in the administration of government, the public service, the direction of a corporation, company, society, etc.

One of the major assumptions behind the post that needs to be explained is that there is an important distinction to to be made between persons and office. When a person becomes a lawyer or a minister, that person has a double identity. He is no longer a merely private person. He has a private life but when he acts in his office he is not acting in a private capacity but in a public or official capacity and in that capacity there are limits imposed on him by his office.

Consider a governor. As a private person he might well ignore insults and even threats but insofar as he holds a public office he is not free to exercise that sort of discretion because, in his office, he is no longer acting as a private person but as a public person. As governor he does not belong to himself. He belongs to the people of the state and he obligated not merely to himself and to his family but to the entire state and to the laws of the state. Thus, if someone makes a threat to the welfare of the state he must act in his office.

Ministers and elders hold an office. Insofar as they are officers in the visible church their duties, a trust, ministerial authority (i.e., they serve the Lord Jesus Christ), and they conduct themselves under a divinely “constituted authority.” Because they hold office in the visible church, ministers are not free to regard themselves as private persons. What they hear or learn in their capacity as pastors belongs to the office not to the person. That information is like the official papers of the congregation. When a pastor leaves the church he doesn’t take the office papers of the congregation. He leaves them with the church because they don’t belong to him but to the office.

This distinction explains why Reformed churches speak about the preaching and ministry the way we do. We usually describe the speaking that unordained seminary students do on the Lord’s Day as “exhorting.” We describe what ordained ministers do as “preaching.” That’s why licentiates are allowed to exhort but not to preach or pronounce the benediction. Those functions belong to an office not to a person.

Confidential information that is disclosed in a counseling session or in a session (consistory) meeting or in an executive session of an ecclesiastical assembly belongs to the office not to the person. It isn’t his private possession. He only knows it by virtue of his office. He wouldn’t know if apart from the office. It’s not his to share outside the office.

As I tried to suggest above, the pastor’s wife is not the pastor. There is no office of pastor’s wife. Her vocation is to love and support her husband. That support of her husband does not require her to know those confidences that belong to the pastor’s office any more than the confidences of the judge’s chambers belong to the judge’s wife.

Of course, the distinction between person and office entails a distinction between public and private. The pastor, like other officers, has both aspects to his life. When he speaks out of his office he speaks in a public capacity. By public, I do not mean “civil” or tax-funded, but public as distinct from private and personal. What he says is not his private opinion but the Word of God as understood and confessed by the church. Of course he has a private life but there must be a clear separation between what he says as a public person and what he says as a private person. This doesn’t mean that he has two moral lives, a private and public but he does have two spheres of responsibilities under Christ’s Lordship and under God’s Word.

There is an ambiguity here. There is another sense of the word “private.” Thus far I’ve been writing of private as a synonym for “personal” or “not official.” The second sense of private refers to that which is no one else’s business. In this sense “public” means “that which is open to everyone.” These are important distinctions in an age that has all but lost them. This is particularly true for those generations that have grown up with the internet and smart phones, who live their private (i.e., that which should be kept secret) lives in the the digital public domain. It seems as if the very idea of “private” has been eroded. Ironically, this has happened at the same time we’ve become hyper-sensitive about “privacy” relative to sensitive information. It seems as if it’s not whether information that was once private will be public but who will make it so and to what effect.

The spirit of our age tends to erode the distinction between public and private, between personal and official, but for the well being of the church and her ministry its essential for them to be retained and, where these ideas have been lost, restored.

The essay first appeared, in 2013, on The Heidelblog.