Married to a minister

By Sandra Reimer

On March 22, 2006, Mary Winkler, a pastor’s wife, shot and killed her husband in their Tennessee home. Matthew Winkler’s congregation loved him. They claimed Mary was a good mother and supportive wife. Her motivation for the murder remains unknown. Winkler’s attorney told one television station, “I think the accumulations of the pressures of life in and of itself certainly would have some factor in the case.”

The media pounced, speculating on how and why a pastor’s wife would murder her husband. CNN even reported that 80 percent of pastor’s wives wish their husbands would choose another profession. If true, that is a staggering statistic.

Faith Today decided to investigate and find out what it is like to be married to a minister – and how the Canadian Church can help.

Just call me Ida

Ida and Dan Tigchelaar have been married for 36 years. For 30 of them, Dan was a Christian Reformed pastor in Ontario and British Columbia. As a young wife and mother, Tigchelaar attended the Ladies Aid meetings in her husband’s first pastorate.

The women, her peers, called her Mrs. Tigchelaar and asked her to be president of the group. She told them to call her Ida. And she said: “I have not been to seminary. I am trained as a nurse. I don’t really want to be president. And I don’t have all the answers. I’m just like you.”

When the Tigchelaars began their ministry in the 1970s, expectations for a pastor’s wife were heavy. “They wanted me to be at committee meetings and board meetings. I was also expected to teach Sunday school,” says Tigchelaar.

When Dawn Penner’s husband, Ross, was a Mennonite Brethren youth pastor, a parent asked Penner to be involved in the youth program. She had preschool children and worked as a counselor. Evening meetings were a problem.

“My gift to my kids was to be there for them and to put them to bed on time. So I resisted the pressure and was not involved.”

But there was a price to pay. When she didn’t do what people thought she should as a minister’s wife, Penner says church members gossiped, criticized and avoided her. “The more I mature,” says Penner, “the more I see people’s criticism as a sign their expectations are not being met. I don’t take it personally.” Today, Penner is executive director of Healing Streams, a national ministry that provides Christian leaders and their families with “confidential and professional resources” to restore and renew their lives.

Melanie Driedger is a counselor with great concern for pastors and their families. Her husband, Ken, was a pastor with the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination for 18 years. Driedger is also a pastor’s daughter. “The expectation used to be that the pastor’s wife was an unofficial assistant pastor,” says Driedger. “These expectations are changing as many more pastors’ wives work outside the home.”

Driedger says clergy wives are becoming aware of their gifts and are serving within the church in roles that are better suited to them, rather than taking on tasks out of duty. Ida Tigchelaar agrees. Things have changed since she was Mrs. Tigchelaar and a shoo-in for president of the Ladies Aid Society.

One big change is that women are no longer the only ones married to ministers. As more and more women enter full-time ministry, men find themselves as clergy spouses. They seem to have a different experience.

Gary Reimer, 57, is married to Mary Reimer, co-pastor of a Mennonite Brethren church plant in Manitoba. “Either I’m dull or there are no expectations,” says Reimer. “My wife became a pastor only ten years ago. I was already well-established in the church and had my own involvement.”

The high cost of ministry

Most people aren’t in the ministry for the money. Financial strain from what tends to be a low-paying vocation can add pressure to the lives of clergy spouses. In 1994, the Task Force on the Family, an initiative of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, released a comprehensive study called Clergy Families in Canada.

The report states that two-thirds of the 1,294 respondents from 21 denominations received a total reimbursement package of less than $35,000. A bit on the low side, even 12 years ago, for pastors who usually require graduate education and an average work week of 51 hours.

Margaret Byers (name changed) worked two jobs just to help support the family when her husband was a pastor. They loved working with smaller churches, but this often meant a lower salary.

Finances aren’t the only strain. Clergy spouses are supporting someone who works in an emotionally, physically, relationally and spiritually demanding job. Geof Cornelsen, counselor and director of Clergy Care for Focus on the Family Canada, says 80 percent of churches in Canada have one or two pastors for an average of 200 people. The common belief is that, 20 years ago, most pastors had 12 to 15 distinct roles to fill. Today it’s more like 40 hats to wear – everything from being a profound speaker, junior lawyer, psychologist, social worker and, sometimes, even a janitor.

As the pastor’s time is consumed with a job that is never done, his or her spouse often picks up the slack at home. Clergy Families in Canada reported that both pastors and their partners were dissatisfied with the amount of time the minister spent with their children and that clergy wives bore a disproportionate amount of responsibility for family life.

Gary Reimer recognizes that his wife does a rewarding but difficult job. “It accentuates the need for me to be supportive. There are always stresses and strains in any job. But being a pastor can introduce more extreme highs and lows.” As a man and as an engineer, Riemer says he likes to find solutions to problems. “In the pastorate, you can’t always find solutions, I am learning to listen.”

Listening is part of the life of a clergy spouse. The overwhelming responsibilities of ministering to a church often spill over into family life. According to Clergy Families in Canada, 82 percent of pastors and 78 percent of spouses found it difficult to escape from church issues at home.

When home is right next door

Ida Tigchelaar’s family usually lived in a manse beside the church. If the church was out of sugar or needed a mixer, she was expected to provide the missing items. Church members felt free to call or visit the minister at home, even at very inconvenient times. One day, when Tigchelaar had had enough, she parked her car down the street and turned off the phone so people wouldn’t know she was at home.

Another clergy wife remembers yelling for her kids to “Duck!” when she saw church members coming up the walk. They hid on the living room floor until the coast was clear.

I need a friend

One of the toughest challenges for clergy spouses is finding a close friend – one that you don’t ever want to hide from. Frequent moves aggravate the situation. Penner, Byers and Tigchelaar all said they had tried to be vulnerable with congregation members over the years, but their trust was broken.

Tigchelaar says it happened so many times she stopped sharing with people in her congregation. She and her husband became best friends and confidants. She also deliberately sought friends outside the congregation.

Not having trustworthy friends is especially hard when church relationships break down. Byers’ husband, Keith, became ill and had to go on medical leave. While he was off, the church decided to let him go rather than allowing him to return to work gradually.

Gossip was rampant, and Byers felt abandoned by church members she thought were her friends. She realized the importance of her friends at work who prayed with her and supported her. Her husband, though, didn’t have friends like that.

What support is there?

Many denominations have support staff for their clergy. The Mennonite Brethren denomination has regional pastors for its ministers. Unfortunately, in a sample of pastors studied by the Task Force on the Family, no one sought the help of denominational support staff – evidently because they felt anything they shared could threaten their employment.

Seeing a need for confidential support, the Mennonite Brethren pay for professional counseling outside the denomination for their clergy. Transdenominational ministries, such as the Clergy Care Network and Healing Streams, also provide a safe place for Christian leaders and their families to seek help.

In Alberta, the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination has started peer networks for pastors. There are also conferences for clergy and their spouses that focus on fun, soul care and emotional health. Currently, the denomination is looking for a coach to work with pastors’ wives.

It’s not all bad!

Despite the pressures of being married to a pastor, clergy spouses also experience benefits. Penner likes it because she knows she will always have a good pastor. Driedger lists blessings such as the special gifts people give at Christmas and other times as well as the honour and attention given to the pastor and his family.

Each of the spouses found being part of God’s work in people’s’ lives the most rewarding aspect of being married to a pastor. Even Byers, whose husband was fired, says being in ministry was worth it because of the changed lives they witnessed.

The clergy spouses observed that people readily confide in them, and they consider that a privilege. “I got to participate deeply in people’s journeys because I was the pastor’s wife,” says Tigchelaar.

According to the Clergy Families in Canada report, 76 percent of pastors and their mates were satisfied with being in ministry (compared to CNN’s 80 percent who wished they weren’t). Like any vocation or job, there are seasons of discontent. Geof Cornelsen of Focus on the Family says most of the clergy families he deals with are happy being in ministry.

Dawn Penner believes it’s important to allow pastors and their spouses to be weak and to obtain help when they need it. When there are no safety valves to release the pressure, tragic things like murder and suicide can happen – even to a pastor’s spouse.

No one knows yet why Mary Winkler turned on her husband. It might have had nothing to do with her life as a minister’s wife. But it did turn the spotlight on the myths and realities of what it is like to be married to a minister.


Sandra Reimer is a freelance writer from Kitchener, Ontario, who has a new appreciation for her pastor and his family.

© 2006 Originally published in Faith Today, July/August 2006. Used with permission of author.