As I walked my daughter to children’s ministry at church one Sunday morning, a mom cornered me. Stuck in a difficult situation, this woman was disappointed that I hadn’t reached out to her over the past few weeks. She had expected me to show more care, to have at least made a phone call.
All kinds of feelings jumbled inside me as she talked. Concern and compassion, guilt and confusion. I wanted to both apologize and defend myself.
What about all the other people I’d been caring for? What about my own child with an upcoming medical procedure? I hadn’t called, but I’m sure I’d prayed for her. Didn’t that count for something?
While this example is extreme and not my typical experience at church, dealing with other people’s expectations can be complicated, especially for a pastor or ministry leader’s wife. Here are a few reasons why:
- Different people have different expectations.
- We often don’t know what those expectations are.
- Expectations aren’t necessarily wrong, and even unreasonable expectations can be well-intentioned.
- We may be married to Christian leaders, but we’re still human, and not only do we fail others, but we can be tempted to take things personally or respond sinfully.
For all these reasons and more, it’s important to consider how we handle the expectations of the people we serve.
Only God Is God
While it’s tempting to start unpacking all the silliness and even harm of certain expectations that people can place on a pastor’s wife, God is always after our hearts, and that’s where we want to start. When we run up against someone’s unmet expectations, it represents an opportunity to ask what God has for us—and them—in that moment.
Maybe we don’t have a certain skill set, personality, or level of education. Our season of life, family responsibilities, health challenges, or other pressing needs don’t allow us to participate in church life the way someone hopes.
We will forget, make mistakes, and disappoint. We’re finite, limited creatures. Only one person is God, and we’re not him.
When we fail to meet another person’s expectations, whatever the reason, we look to the Lord:
- He is sufficient (we’re not). “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
- He is faithful (when we’re not). “If we are faithless, he remains faithful” (2 Timothy 2:13a).
- He is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7). Even when we’re not those things and don’t behave that way.
Like Paul, it’s good for us and the people we serve to remember that none of us belong on a pedestal, but “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). We are weak, but he is strong, and unmet expectations invite us to proclaim with John the Baptist, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Ministry isn’t really about us anyway. God must get the glory.
Love the people you serve
I try to ask, “What does love look like in this situation?” I want the attitude in my heart to reflect 1 Corinthians 13 kind of love. You know, the “patient and kind” type that doesn’t “envy or boast,” isn’t “arrogant or rude” or “irritable or resentful” (verses 4-5). But verse 7 especially commands my attention when I consider expectations: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” What does living out this kind of love toward people in my church mean?
It means a lot of things and includes thinking the best of those you serve. Over the years, I’ve seen some other pastors’ wives do this really, really well. Sometimes the people they thought the best of didn’t appreciate it. Sometimes these women got hurt in the process. But they kept loving church members because they knew two things: 1) Jesus loved them when they didn’t deserve it (Romans 5:8), and 2) ultimately, loving and serving others is another way to love our Savior (Matthew 25:39).
Expectations also draw attention to something else: our craving for approval. Our desire is to be liked and make everyone happy. But while there is a sense in which we ought to “try to please everyone” to win them to Christ (1 Corinthians 10:33) and should “count others more significant” than ourselves out of love (Philippians 2:3), winning the approval of others should never be our goal (Galatians 1:10). We live to please the Lord. We find our worth in him (Romans 5:6-8), and we shouldn’t live in fear of—or be ruled by—the expectations of others (Proverbs 29:25).
Guiding principles and questions to consider
Let’s get practical. We want to love our churches, but we’ll never live up to all the expectations. So, what should direct us to say yes or no to certain expectations? We can’t do everything, so what should we do? Here are some guiding principles and questions to consider:
1. Ultimately, we answer to the Lord, and we want to hear him say, “ʻWell done, good and faithful servant’” (Matthew 25:23). Are we growing in Christian character, and are we being faithful to Christ, being good stewards of the gifts he’s given us? Do we seek God first (Matthew 6:33), regularly spending time in prayer and his Word, the true “light to [our] path” (Psalm 119:105)? Not only is this important for us personally, but growing in our relationships with the Lord and the knowledge of his Word are some of the best ways we can serve our churches.
2. In submission to the Lord, we also submit to our husbands (Ephesians 5:21-24). Congregants may have all kinds of expectations for us, but their opinions don’t matter nearly as much as our husbands’ thoughts as we co-labor in ministry. We should ask our husbands, who know and love us, “If I have this much time, energy, etc., what’s the most strategic use of my talents to help you and serve our church?” We might be surprised by the answers.
Going back to the story I began with, it wasn’t clear how to respond to those unmet expectations. I listened and owned what I could, expressing my limitations honestly. Ultimately, I entrusted this woman and her situation to the Lord who sees, knows, cares, and is able to do so much more than I can.
Situations like these remind us that even though we’re married to ministry leaders, we’re sinners and sufferers saved by grace, along with our Christian brothers and sisters. When expectations arise, we want to handle them in a way that honors the Lord and demonstrates love for others.
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