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Podcast: Help! I’m Married to My Pastor

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Wisdom from a Pastor’s Wife

In this episode, Jani Ortlund discusses the joys and challenges of being a pastor's wife. She reflects on what it's been like to be married to a pastor and immersed in full-time ministry for nearly five decades, shares advice related to how a ministry wife should respond to criticism of her husband, and offers encouragement for the woman struggling with unrealistic expectations and a lack of close friendships within the church.

Help! I'm Married to My Pastor

Jani Ortlund

Help! I’m Married to My Pastor is written for ministry wives who feel alone, afraid, and stressed to the limit, reminding them that God will work out his good purposes through even the hardest moments of ministry and marriage.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:32 - Looking Back on Four Decades of Ministry Together

Matt Tully
Jani, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.

Jani Ortlund
Matt, thanks for the invitation. I’m thoroughly delighted to be with you.

Matt Tully
You and you husband Ray have been married for how many years now?

Jani Ortlund
Forty-nine years! We met fifty-two years ago and we’ve been married for forty-nine years.

Matt Tully
Wow. Does that feel like an accomplishment? Do you have a sense that this is a big milestone?

Jani Ortlund
It does. It also feels like a great answer to prayer. I’m just so grateful for the man that God let me marry.

Matt Tully
As you think back on that forty-nine years, how much of that time has your husband been in full-time ministry?

Jani Ortlund
Almost all of it. He was in seminary our first four years of marriage, but he was a youth pastor during three of those years, so he was employed by a church and in ministry then. Throughout all of our life together he’s been in ministry. Even when we moved overseas and he was working on his doctorate, he was helping at our church there in our little village.

Matt Tully
So that was always part of the package—when you agreed to marry him you knew that you were headed for a life of ministry as well.

Jani Ortlund
Yes, I did. That’s unlike some of your listeners who as pastor’s wives wonder, How did I even get here? This isn’t what I bargained for when I married this man.

Matt Tully
Even with that knowledge that you were marrying someone who felt a real calling to full-time ministry, what were your expectations about what married life and ministry life together would be like?

Jani Ortlund
When I met Ray, I knew he was very energetic and adventuresome and I thought he would be more of a youth pastor for most of his life, but the Lord grabbed his brain and had him use that more and he got two master’s degrees and a doctorate. So I was surprised throughout our marriage on how the Lord led him. He’s been both a pastor and a professor. I didn’t have a lot of expectations. I was just kind of hoping that I could follow the Lord as closely as Ray did and support him and be a help to him in his ministry.

Matt Tully
Was your dad a pastor, or did you have any close family friends who were pastors when you were growing up?

Jani Ortlund
My dad was not a pastor. It might help for you to know that my family was not a believing family when I was born; but through the ministry of our local church where our parents took us to Sunday school, we all became Christians—all six of us: the four kids and my parents, with my father being the last one of all. So I was a teenager before my dad became a Christian. We loved our church and we loved our pastor, and my parents always respected him and spoke very highly of him. So I grew up in a home where the pastoral role was deeply respected.

Matt Tully
What was your relationship like with your pastor's wife when you were growing up? Did you have a friendship at any point?

Jani Ortlund
No, I didn’t. I knew her by name and we had them into our home on occasion, but I didn’t have much of a relationship with her. I had more of a relationship with our youth pastor’s wife who was closer to me in age—just maybe 8 to 10 years older. My first relationship—close friendship—with a pastor’s wife came in our very first ministry after seminary. Ray was serving at a large church and he was on a team with four other pastors. That team was being led by a man by the name of David Roper, and his wife Carolyn has been a mentor to me through the years—she still is. Also, Ray comes from a home where his dad was a pastor. His mom was really a beautiful example to me of what a ministry wife could look like and how she can really help in that ministry.

Matt Tully
Taking a big step back and speaking to this broad topic of being a pastor’s wife, what would you say is maybe one or two of the best things about being a pastor’s wife?

Jani Ortlund
You get to live with a man who is whole-heartedly wanting to serve the Lord, who has trained to serve him, prayed fervently about the call that he has received, and is anxious to lay it all on the line. That is such a gift. Many wives I talk with who are not in ministry struggle because their husbands, in a sense, aren’t leading them. Ray has led me personally, and many pastors spiritually lead their wives beautifully. So that’s one of the benefits. Another one of the benefits is you get to see him work all week and then listen to what God has given your man. You know him better than anyone else in that congregation. You get to see him live out what he is speaking. That is such a privilege.

Matt Tully
I’ve heard from pastors that they can sometimes feel a little bit of intimidation, and even mixed feelings, when it comes to preaching in particular. They work hard all week to prepare a sermon that will exhort the congregation to believe the truth of God’s Word and to act accordingly, maybe knowing the whole time that they themselves don’t live up to that. And who knows that better than anyone else than how a pastor’s spouse knows his shortcomings and failings. Has that ever been a dynamic that you’ve had to navigate between the two of you—that he’s preaching this great sermon, but you’re thinking, You don’t quite live up to that yourself?

Jani Ortlund
Throughout all of these years I have lived with a man, he’s been 110% committed to the Lord. Now, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t struggled with what I like to call the “fix him fever” that we wives tend to get into. Do we have time for a little story for when that fever was raging high? Ray was pastoring at the time and it was a very rigorous ministry. He preached twice in the morning, and then we had a Sunday night service as well and he would often preach a different sermon at night if he didn’t have a guest preacher. On Sunday nights we would connect and go over how we thought it went, and I was just so good at telling him these little messages from people in the congregation, which side of his lapel he should wear his nametag on—just the silliest little minutiae. I remember one Sunday night in particular I was going on in detail about three or four comments that people had made because he was asking for feedback, but eventually he took me in his arms and turned my face to him so that I would look into his big blue eyes and stop talking. He said, Darling, I just want to tell you one thing about men. I said, Oh, okay. He said, Every man needs one person on the face of the earth who is not trying to fix them, who just thinks they’re okay and is happy with that, and is happy to let the Lord fix them. Would you be willing to be that person for me? I said, Oh boy howdy, I don’t want any other woman signing up for that job—yes! It was very important for me, Matt, to let Ray be Ray and let the Holy Spirit fix it. That wasn’t my job. The Bible never encourages wives to fix their husbands. It always encourages us to live with them in a beautiful way—respecting them, honoring them, admiring them. That’s how we free them. I was in my late 40s when I learned that; I wish I had learned it earlier. I think that although you do live up close with that man you hear preach Sunday by Sunday, it’s a great privilege to see how well he lives out what he’s preaching.

11:08 - Dealing with Scrutiny

Matt Tully
Was that a common dynamic through the years, that people in the congregation would approach you and have advice or criticisms for your husband? Did that happen a lot?

Jani Ortlund
Absolutely. It would always start with, Oh, I know how busy Ray is. Would you mind asking him . . . I’m just a little bit nervous about asking Ray this—what do you think? . . . That person told me that Ray mispronounced his name. So, I finally had to learn—and again, this was later on in my ministry time with Ray and I wish I had learned it as an earlier bride—I finally learned to say, I can see why that’s a concern of yours, but Ray would hear it much better from your lips. Here is his assistant’s phone number. Give her a call and set up an appointment with him*. Usually it didn’t go to that point because they realized it wasn’t something they wanted to make an appointment over, but they felt they could use me to get a point made.

Matt Tully
That’s such a tricky thing. Another thing that I’ve often heard discussed is that sometimes pastor’s wives will be on the receiving end of straight up criticism of their husbands. Has that ever been a challenging thing, even just emotionally to navigate? How have you sought to deal with that criticism that you either heard directly or through the grapevine from other people?

Jani Ortlund
Yes, the tongue is so powerful, isn’t it? There’s a lot of gossip that can go around, even in our Christian circles, I’m sad to say; and sometimes even slander. Most pastors, I think, are looked at with relentless scrutiny. Sometimes there really is unfair criticism, and when I hear that there’s a deep resentment or anger that rises up in me that says, No! You don’t know him! You're not being fair! It’s really hard for me. The way I have had to deal with it is to come back to whom we serve. I think of our Lord Jesus Christ. Think of the sacrifice he went to because of people’s tongues. I mean really, it was slander that sent him to the cross. He never once defended himself. He absorbed what people said about him and lived so that what they said could not be proven against him. So that’s what I’ve tried to do is not rise up in defense and say, Oh, that’s not true! and tried to start an argument, but absorb as much as I can and be as Christlike as I can in it, pray about it, and just say, Lord, I want to follow your pathway in this. You absorbed it all. You absorbed this sin of slander on the cross. Help me not to commit more sin by repeating it or bearing anger and not having a forgiving spirit.

Matt Tully
You talked about the scrutiny that your husband has been under, but has that also extended to you and even to your kids? It seems like maybe there’s unspoken expectations for a pastor and his family that can color how people view you.

Jani Ortlund
Yes. I think as a pastor’s wife—this is true for a pastor, too, but I found it more so as a pastor’s wife, just personally speaking—there’s always the comparison game regarding the former pastor’s wife, especially if she was beloved. Maybe she was really good at teaching the Bible or really good at hospitality or really good in the children’s ministry. Sometimes comments will be made like this: Well, Mrs. Smith served in Sunday school; would you be willing to? That kind of thing. Fortunately, Ray has always freed me to be myself. He said, Honey, you’re my wife and I want you to be free to follow Christ’s call on your life, not the previous pastor’s wife’s call. You seek him and serve him in the good works that he ordained for you before you were even born. And then you’ll be pleasing him, and that’s who we want to serve. So there have been some times when I’ve felt unfairly scrutinized, but you just love ’em to death, Matt. You just open your arms and say, Now that’s very interesting. Could we get together and talk about this and let me get to know you a little bit? Because there’s something behind that—either a loneliness or a disappointment or something else that’s going on with that criticism.

Matt Tully
Do you feel like you’ve had to develop some thick skin? Is part of the job description having some level of thick skin?

Jani Ortlund
Yes. I do need thick skin, but I never want it to make me thick-hearted. I always want to remain thin-skinned in my heart so that any need, any heart cry can get through to my heart. I never want to think, Uh-oh. Here she comes again; more trouble. I want to think, How would Jesus look at her? How does he look at me? He keeps saying, Come! Come again! Oh, it’s you again, Jani? Good! You’re coming again with the same need? That’s okay. I want to imitate Christ in that. I do have to develop thick skin, but I want to keep my heart very tender—full of compassion and kindness and, in a sense, meekness that I should treat other people the way Christ treats me. He absorbs a lot from me.

17:56 - Building Meaningful Friendships

Matt Tully
In light of that unspoken—or maybe sometimes spoken—dynamic related to how people perceive a pastor and his family, and you as his wife in particular, has that ever made it challenging to develop close friendships with other women in the church? Maybe there’s this sense of “She’s the pastor’s wife,” and maybe people tend to forget that you’re also just another human being on a journey called the Christian life just like everyone else. Has that ever been a struggle for you?

Jani Ortlund
Yes, it has because generally a pastor comes into an already existing community. There are friendships there that are already built up, and so sometimes it is hard. But Ray and I have tried wherever we’ve gone to set an example of friendship, that we all need friends. We can’t be on the same level with everybody in the church. Even Jesus had his inner circle of three, and then the twelve and going out beyond that. So I’ve always tried to initiate building friendships. There have been other times when the Lord has, in a sense, raised up a friend for me. Frequently, it’s been among the staff or the leadership wives. We still maintain close friendship with people from churches we’ve ministered to in the past. So I think a pastor’s wife’s role can be very lonely, and I encourage pastor’s wives to build friendships, to be willing to give of themselves, to open their hearts and be vulnerable—not about secrets in the church that she and her husband know of, not about relationships or anything like that—but about herself, her own heart, her own needs. Walk in the light—1 John 1:7—then you have fellowship when you walk in the light. I really believe we, as pastor wives, of all people need to have friendships and not make it so exclusive that other women get jealous; but set an example for how to build a friendship, and then be open to expanding that to other women.

Matt Tully
Have you ever wrestled through how to do that—how to be honest and transparent? I think sometimes there’s a burden that comes with being the pastor’s wife and the pastor’s family where you’re expected either to live up to a certain set of ideals or you really can’t be struggling with some of the things that the rest of us might be struggling with. How have you balanced transparency between friends with a need to protect your husband, or the ministry, that you both have at a church?

Jani Ortlund
That’s a good question because I believe our two basic needs are intimacy and accountability. For me to walk from here to heaven—from today to heaven—I need people in my life with whom I can be intimate and with whom I can be accountable. They’ll hold me to goals I’m setting and prayer requests I’ve asked them to pray for. So to balance it, I don’t know if I do a very good job of that. I just want to set an example of openness and vulnerability in walking in the light together. I never want to share anything that Ray has said, Honey, this is between you and me. I want to be very careful to honor him in every conversation. But just last night I was with a young pastor’s wife—she’s been married four months. When she fell in love with her husband she didn’t know he was going to be a pastor. I asked her what I could pray for her about and then she asked me what she could pray for me about. Without dishonoring Ray, I could share, Well, I need you to pray that I’ll be a better support of Ray because it’s hunting season and I’m a hunter’s widow during hunting season, and I’m lonely.

Matt Tully
There’s probably a lot of wives nodding their heads right now. They know what you’re talking about!

Jani Ortlund
Ray knows that, and if I were to come home and say, Ray, I’m lonely, he would say, Oh, I won’t hunt tomorrow. Let’s go out for breakfast. But I want to free him to hunt. So I was able to share with this young pastor’s wife and let her into my heart and see, Oh, their marriage isn’t perfect. Jani is struggling with this and she doesn’t want to. She wants to free Ray, but for some reason she’s not able to right now. I think that’s really important. Who doesn’t struggle? And if we don’t open up in some sort of way, then we will be put on a pedestal. And when we fall—because we all do—the fall will be that much farther, that much harder to get up from. So I just say, Here I am, friends. I want to strive to be at my very best, but I’m going to stumble and I need you here when I do to remind me of where I’m headed and to help me get up and get going again.

Matt Tully
What do you think is behind that? Why is it so common for us to assume that pastors and their wives should have things all figured out, that they’re somehow on a higher plane and they don’t struggle like everyone does? What do you think is behind that?

Jani Ortlund
I think a couple of things. One, a hope that someone can really live a righteous, godly, almost perfectly sinless life. We all hope that that’s possible, and therefore we look for someone in whom it is possible. Plus, when we’re listening to the very words of God being opened to us week by week, we want to be able to trust the speaker. So there’s that as well. We feel, in a sense, we called you to do this, so you need to live a life that says, Follow me as I follow Christ. So there’s both of those things, but Ray and I have tried—and my husband is really better at this than I am—to say, I do have more training; I am older; I’ve done this more years than you; but I’m not there yet. I’m with you in my failings, in my sins. I need the grace of God as much as you do. Let’s go there together! Then it’s not so much, Look at me and find an example as, Let’s all look at Christ and just encourage each other along the way. I really feel, Matt, that people hope that it’s possible to attain some sort of near perfection on this side of heaven, and they hide their own faults because of that belief. So they look to their pastor and their spiritual leaders to be perfect. We do want our men of God—our leaders—to strive to serve the Lord wholeheartedly with integrity and loyalty and faith and honesty and endurance and perseverance—all of those godly characteristics, but we can’t hold them to perfection.

26:34 - Cultivating a Healthy Marriage and Family

Matt Tully
Let’s speak a little bit to the issue of marriage. That’s one of those topics that is obviously so important for a pastor and for his wife. How have you and Ray sought to cultivate and guard your marriage through the ups and downs of ministry?

Jani Ortlund
That’s such a good question. I think a ministry marriage is very important to the whole ministry that that man leads. Ray has been really good about making our marriage primary in our relationship. I know that he really cares about me and how I’m feeling. He’s shown me that in different ways. One is that he takes one day off a week. When you’re in ministry, you usually work six days a week, if you include Sunday as a workday. Most ministers also spend time on Saturday preparing. They might go to the kids’ soccer game in the morning or watch some TV with the family at night or something, but generally, Ray worked Tuesday morning through Sunday night. But on Monday, he was all mine. That really helped our marriage. The other thing that helped our marriage was I had to learn what a man needs as far as respect and admiration and loyalty. I told one story about that already. That didn’t come naturally to me; I had to learn that. I had to see that my marriage to Ray was God’s gift to me. It wasn’t a prison sentence. It wasn’t like saying, *Well, I get Ray and he has to do this . . . * No, we get to serve the Lord Jesus Christ together! The ruler of the universe who made everything, and all things were made for him and through him—we get to serve him together! That helped me in our marriage learn how to respect him, how to honor the work that he was doing, how to empathize with the pressure that he was feeling day after day. There were many evening meetings that he would have to go to and I would be putting the kids to bed myself. Well, it wasn’t as if he was just dying to be out until 10pm solving the problems of the church or spending another evening with a couple whose marriage was failing or visiting the hospital. We can’t do that now because of COVID, but for many years there would be evenings when Ray was gone. I had to work that out with the Lord. My relationship with the Lord had to come first so that I serve the Lord Christ first of all, and by serving the Lord I free Ray to minister as God has called him. I respect Ray for the ministry that God has called him to.

Matt Tully
You mentioned your kids and the impact that poor communication can have on kids. I would love to talk a little bit about kids in general. I think it’s kind of a cliché at this point that pastor’s kids leave the faith, or that it’s a really hard life for them under the microscope all of the time. It makes them maybe resentful of the ministry and even the local church. Did you ever see that dynamic at play, or with other families, and how did you and Ray seek to lead your own kids in the midst of what can sometimes be an unusual type of existence in the context of a church?

Jani Ortlund
The pastor’s kids are often put on display under a microscope and are expected to set the example for every other family because, again, we all want to hope that someone can get it right. But there are no guarantees, are there? All that Ray and I wanted for our kids was that they would love the Lord Jesus with all their hearts. And we said that over and over again. We don’t care what you do when you grow up as long as you love the Lord Jesus with all your heart! And we tried to live that way before them as well. Ray grew up as a PK (pastor’s kid) and his parents were really good about guarding him. We tried to guard our children from unrealistic expectations. We would tell them, We don’t care what Mrs. Smith said. Don’t worry. We know what you meant or what you were doing. Or, if they were running around kicking all the chairs over in their Sunday school class and we needed to be called in to bring some order to the 3rd grade classroom, I would go in and I would never say, Your dad is the pastor here, so you can’t be doing this! Think what people will say! No. I would say, We’re Ortlunds. We love the Lord Jesus. We don’t behave this way. So it was never put on the church; it was put on the Lord. He calls us to a higher level of living, and we gladly go there. This is a privilege; this is a joy! We kept speaking words of encouragement over their future. When they did blow it, we tried to say, Don’t worry. Mom and dad blow it too. Someday you won’t be slugging your brother in the face. Someday you’ll learn to control your hands. Someday you won’t be doing this. That’s alright. We all do it as kids. Jesus forgives us. He forgave me as a kid, and he’ll forgive you. Let’s keep going! Words of encouragement rather than shame, embarrassment, humiliation, and Be careful because so-and-so is watching. Instead, it’s, No, be careful because we serve the most wonderful master in the world who’s calling us to a beautiful way of life that is really worth it.

33:48 - Encouragement for the Pastor’s Wife

Matt Tully
Speak to the pastor’s wife listening right now who is concerned for her husband in some way. Maybe she’s worried that he’s on the verge of burnout; maybe she’s wondering if he’s even qualified for ministry for some reason and he doesn’t seem to see it, or doesn’t seem to be very receptive to her feedback on that. What would you say that she should do?

Jani Ortlund
Wow. That’s a general question about a thousand specific cases, so I want to be very careful, Matt, in what I say. You feel free to redirect this or guide it if you think this is not helpful to your listeners. One thing that I would suggest, and that I have suggested to younger pastor wives, is to seek out a friend who is a pastor’s wife in another church if possible. If you’re in a denomination, there usually is some sort of way that you can get to know another pastor’s wife and find out, Is this unusual? If you can’t do that, I would encourage you to find a godly Christian counselor and at least set up one time with them and say, I’m worried about my husband. This is what’s going on. For me, it depends on the severity of the difficulty. If your husband is in deep sin—maybe you discover he has a porn addiction, or maybe you see him misusing alcohol behind the scenes, something like that—that is more serious. I think after talking to your husband about it, if it continues, I would give him a heads up and say, I think we need to talk to someone together about this. And if you’re unwilling, I need to talk to someone alone about it. Try to bring your husband in so that he doesn’t feel attacked and he doesn’t feel totally shocked and surprised. The other way that I would approach this if it’s not a terribly serious difficulty as I’ve mentioned, is just through prayer. Rather than nag him, nag the Holy Spirit! Go to him! The Holy Spirit is such a better worker in my heart and in my husband’s heart. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to say, Oh Lord, I need more patience with Ray, love for Ray, better communication with Ray. Father, before I go talk to him, fix my heart, please! Never once has the Lord not answered that prayer. I cannot look back at one time where the Lord has not helped me. So I would encourage that wife to go to the Holy Spirit and say, I need wisdom. I need guidance. You promise never to leave me. You promise to uphold me with your righteous right hand and support me. Now God, I’m counting on you to fulfill that promise now. I need it today, this week. Please. Go to God first. My life verse—I hope this is okay to say on a Crossway podcast (don’t tell Dane!)—is from the NIV (not the ESV because I learned it way back then). It’s from Psalm 62:1: “My soul finds rest in God alone.” In the ESV it says “My salvation comes from God alone.” So it’s very close. A pastor’s wife needs to learn that her happiness cannot depend on her husband’s success, on his godliness, on his wonderful children, on his latest book, on people’s acclamation or support of him. Her soul rest must be found in Jesus Christ alone. Then, she can enter into whatever circumstances are ahead of her knowing, Okay, God. You’ve got this. I’m with you. If her husband is in a depression: Lord, show me—how do I help him? What resources should I look into? Should I go to another pastor’s wife or a counselor? Should I just pray right now? Help me, Lord! When our souls find rest in God alone, we know all we need to do is take the next step with him, and he’ll open the right door.

Matt Tully
What three pieces of practical advice—as practical as you can make it—would you offer to a brand new pastor’s wife who is maybe excited as she looks to the future, is optimistic and eager to see what God does and how he leads their family, but also maybe feels a little bit apprehensive and asks, What is this life going to be like? Am I cut out for it? Am I going to have what it takes? What three pieces of advice would you offer her right now?

Jani Ortlund
That’s a good question! I would encourage her to find a promise from God that she can lean into. Maybe a life verse, as the Lord gave me years ago when my soul was at such unrest and disquiet and he gave me Psalm 62:1 as my life verse. Go to Scripture. Find a verse that you can camp on, at least for this beginning. Maybe it will change in a year or two, but meditate on it; mutter it to yourself. I think Rick Warren said this: “If you can worry, you can meditate.” So why not meditate on Scripture? Find a verse you can go to. I think another piece of advice, and I’ve mentioned this already, is don’t feel it’s your responsibility to fix your husband for him to succeed. Your husband will make mistakes; you will see those mistakes—probably more clearly than anyone—and people will come to you with those mistakes; and you might even bear the brunt of those mistakes. Don’t try to fix him. It’s not your job. Don’t engage yourself in work that the Holy Spirit has not called you to. Support him; accept him; respect him. Don’t make it your job to fix him. Live by your faith, not your feelings. Don’t let the worry of, Oh no! What’s going to happen if we get fired? Well, you won’t be the first ones. It’s alright. The Lord will be in that even. It’s okay. So, don’t try to fix him. I think my final piece of advice would be this: remember that God is no man’s debtor. Hebrews 6:10 says we serve the God who remembers. Isn’t that beautiful? He remembers! He will not forget what you have done. First Corinthians 15:58. We serve the God who remembers. Although people might not remember, they might not appreciate, they might not respect, God is up in heaven cheering you on. Ann Voskamp has taught me this: If you live for the applause of man, you’ll get it here on earth. But how much better to wait until you get to heaven and see our Savior’s smile and his open arms as he says, Well done, dear pastor’s wife! You hung in there. You looked to me; you didn’t let the world and Satan trip you up. You looked to me and you made it all the way! So look to the God who remembers, who will help you all the way, cheer you on, and reward you.


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