It's that time of year when folks are packing up and moving to new cities because of a call from God to plant a church. For brand new church planting wives, there are many adjustments, challenges, and joys ahead. Trevin Wax, who blogs at Kingdom People, asked me about those unique challenges and joys and about my book, The Church Planting Wife. I hope our conversation is an encouragement to all of you church planting wives!
Trevin: What are some of the pressures and challenges that are unique to church planters' wives (different from the pastor's wife)?
Christine: Without question, both the wife of a minister at an established church and the wife of a church planter are essential to her husband’s ministry. In my experience, however, the church planting wife’s role is more ambiguous than the wife of a minister in an established church. In a church plant, the line between the planter’s family life and ministry life is often extremely blurred. For example, in our situation, we held our church services and all church events in our home for the first six months. Four years in, we do not yet have a building of our own, so I still host many events and small groups in our home. Because of this, I bear many responsibilities that I did not have as a pastor’s wife in our prior established church.
In church plants, out of need, the wife is almost like an additional staff member in the sense that she usually leads major ministries, such as the children’s ministry or women’s ministry, in addition to setting up on Sundays, printing bulletins, helping with worship, greeting, or managing the church website, all while being a wife and mother. When we served in an established church, my ministry was easy to define based upon my husband’s role, but church planting left it very open-ended. In some ways, this was difficult because I had to do many things I wasn’t necessarily gifted for or passionate about for a long period of time. But in many ways, it helped me discern what my spiritual gifts are and learn how to release responsibility for things I’m not gifted for.
These blurred lines and intense requirements create some unique pressures and challenges for a church planting wife, most of which involve maintaining healthy boundaries and priorities that keep the church plant from completely overtaking her life, her marriage, and her family. In the beginning stages, the church planter and his wife are, out of necessity, so intensely focused on the plant that it’s difficult for them to not rise and fall emotionally based on Sunday’s attendance or the success of an outreach event. The church planting wife faces almost constant uncertainty and discouragement. She may wrestle with resentment toward her husband’s calling and struggle with the lack of physical and emotional support she might find if she were the pastor’s wife in a more established church.
Trevin: You put a strong emphasis on the heart of the church planter's wife. Why is it important to remember what God is doing in you - not only through you as you plant a church?
Christine: I cannot emphasize enough how much influence I have on my husband and, thus, the church. I am his sounding board, his encourager, his helper. I am Aaron to his Moses. I am not making decisions regarding the church, but I am certainly influencing the one who does. More than starting a women’s ministry or practicing hospitality in our home, my ministry to my husband is my most important. It follows then that I must take care with this influence, which means I must take care to keep my heart soft and submitted to God. I must daily reorient myself to the gospel, root out anything that hinders me from loving God and helping my husband, and depend on the Spirit rather than my own wisdom. Every church planting wife has this responsibility to God and to her husband.
I’ve discovered, too, that it’s not healthy for me to focus on what God is doing through my service to Him in church planting. Looking for fruit or results is often a futile practice, especially in the early years of planting when growth is slow and the church is young and fragile. But I can always look to God and look for what He is doing in my heart. I can trust that as my heart is soft and submitted before Him, He will use me in whatever ways He chooses.
Trevin: You say that your calling is not to your husband, but to God. Why is this distinction important?
Christine: This is an important distinction for all wives. When Paul tells the Colossians to do everything in the name of Jesus, he follows it up with specific instructions on what this would look like for different groups of people: wives, husbands, children, and servants (3:17-24). He asks difficult things of all of them, such as that wives should submit to their husbands. How? Why? With each group, he answers those questions: “As unto the Lord.” For a wife who misses that qualifier, whose eyes are on her husband, this instruction appears difficult and confounding. But for a wife whose eyes are on God, she always has a worthy and unchanging motivation.
This same principle applies to the church planting wife. When her eyes are on a fallible husband, she may quickly tire of the sacrificial demands of church planting that his calling requires, but when her eyes are on Christ, there are deep, holy, lasting motivations to serve, practice hospitality, and care for people. I’m not saying that the wife shouldn’t joyfully help and serve her husband; I’m saying that her motivation for doing so must be her desire to be faithful to God. This is her “unto the Lord”.
In the beginning of our church plant, when uncertainty prevailed and circumstances looked bleak, I missed that “as unto the Lord” qualifier. This created conflict within me and between us because it fed resentments that I allowed to sit in my heart. It set me up against the church, playing tug-of-war for my husband’s attention. If my calling is to him, then it opens the door for me to demand my way or to only give so much, to view church planting as his job and my life as separate from that. It also means I can excuse myself from using the gifts God has given me that I am individually accountable for.
I no longer consider church planting to be my husband’s job or something that I can excuse myself from. I consider it to be our “together calling”, something that works best when we’re in it together and we both look together to God as our motivation.
In the end, it’s a small distinction because as my calling is to God, He will orient me toward helping my husband. But it is an important distinction because looking to God rather than my husband alters my motivations drastically. I can’t build a lifetime of ministry and kingdom impact based on my husband, but I can based on the worth of God.
Trevin: How have you dealt with the pressure of dealing with opposition (both from inside the church and from outside)?
Christine: Fortunately, we have not faced drastic opposition from within our church yet. The beauty of church planting is that we’ve gotten to lay foundations rather than attempting to alter foundations that have already been laid. However, we have faced opposition, some from other churches in our area. (Having said that, we have also had incredible help, friendship, and support from countless other area churches.) The most notable opposition we have faced, however, is spiritually-based opposition: Satan using circumstances to come against us and especially his work to steal, kill, and destroy in the lives of our leaders.
I haven’t always dealt with this well. To be honest, I entered church planting with what I now see as naivete. Instead of expecting difficulty and opposition, I expected that our obedience to God will yield immediate respect, rapport, and results in our community. Instead of being on guard against the enemy, I assumed that we and those near to us would not succumb to temptation. Now, obviously, I know different on both accounts.
I also know now how to better deal with opposition. I’ve learned first and foremost to attribute outside opposition to its original source rather than being easily offended and hurt by unbelievers. I now expect opposition so I’m not as surprised when it comes. The hardest part, however, has been opposition from other believers. I’ve had to forgive, root out bitterness, and learn to pray for the success and kingdom impact of those who have hurt us. This has been a sanctifying process in my heart, which is why I focus so much in my book on the church planting wife’s heart. I pray for thick skin and a soft heart.
Trevin: How do you advise church planting wives to cultivate a peaceful heart in the midst of the struggle of beginning a church?
Christine: It’s difficult to live in constant uncertainty, which is what the first year or two (or more) of church planting requires. Uncertainty, if not taken to Christ, breeds fear. If we desire peace in that uncertainty, it follows then that the lesson in church planting for the church planting wife is to feed faith rather than fear.
How do we feed faith? We go to the Word daily, searching out stories, characters, and verses of faith. My go-to verses in this church planting adventure have been 1 Thessalonians 5:24: “He who called you is faithful and He will do it”, and the recounting of Abraham’s faith in Romans 4:16-22, who “contrary to hope, in hope believed” in God, who “calls those things which do not exist as though they did.”
In order to feed faith, we also must search for and recount God’s faithfulness. Where is He working? How has He worked in the past? A vital faith-feeder for me is remembering how God called us to church planting, how He has provided for us at every turn, and how He has worked in the lives of the people in our city.
In addition, we feed our faith when we meditate on God’s character. He says He is responsible for His church. He says He is the One who changes hearts. And perhaps most important to me personally, He says He is my Father. I am not an orphan; I am a child who is nurtured, led, and provided for. There is peace in knowing I can hide in the shadow of the wings of my good and gracious Father.
Finally, peace comes when we remember what our success is. Success is not necessarily measured by external circumstances. Faith is success and our victory.