The harsh reality of second-degree conflict

By Pauline Doerksen

I served as a pastor’s wife for 27 years. During that tenure, there was a time where I had to navigate my way through a season of conflict. I am pretty confident when I say that everyone has had to deal with conflict. It may be to varying degrees and intensity, but we all have those times when we disagree or clash with someone over something and we must have difficult conversations to work things out.

For the most part, conflict involves at least two people. There is another dynamic, though, that I call “second-degree conflict.” Maybe this term does not immediately make sense so allow me to clarify.

We have heard of second-degree burns. Those are burns that have penetrated through the first layer of skin and have affected the second layer. We have also heard of second-degree murder where a murder happens that was not planned and orchestrated. It is more a result of something that happened in the heat of the moment. Both of those “second degrees” were unplanned outcomes. Their origin of intensity carried over and had an impact on far more than one might have expected.

When I use the term “second-degree conflict,” I am referring to the conflict experienced by those that may not be involved in the direct conflict itself, yet are plunged into having to navigate through that same conflict in somewhat of a bystander position.

This happens when you are not the one directly in conflict, but you must somehow navigate your way through all the damage that it causes. How do you discern when it is necessary and appropriate for you to speak up, defend, support, walk away, agree or disagree with, or move on?

Having served as a Program Director for Kerith Retreats for the last six years, I have had the privilege of hearing the stories of numerous ministry leaders and their spouses. As they shared their experiences of conflicts in ministry, I noticed there were similarities among those whose spouses were reeling from significant second-degree conflict. Part of the reason that I could pick up on these similarities is because they were very true in my own experience.

I realize that those of you reading this are all living out your own story and some of these similarities may not describe your situation. However, there may be some expressions of struggle that may surprise you by being so close to what you are experiencing right now.

It is very common for pastors’ spouses to be involved in ministry from a volunteer position. They are not formally on staff with clearly defined responsibilities, but this does not mean that they are any less involved. When a significant conflict arises that involves the pastor directly, their spouse often struggles with knowing how to navigate things. If these conflicts intensify and go on for longer periods of time, it takes a significant toll on both the pastor and his or her spouse and family. To be clear, these spouses desired to be supportive and faithful to the calling of ministry that God has placed on them. A large part of the struggle was that many of their feelings and thoughts felt anything but godly.

I have put together some of the thoughts and struggles from my own experience along with those mentioned by other pastors’ spouses who have lived through second-degree conflict. Notice I said, “We lived through it.” That is nothing but the grace and mercy of God!

We didn’t all experience all of these, but this is a list of struggles that have been expressed over and over again. I want to be very clear that these struggles are expressed regardless of who is at fault in the conflict or who is exercising humility. That would lend room for a whole other article! Suffice it to say, these struggles come from a conflict that was not easily resolved or may have gone on for longer periods of time.

  • It feels like I am in the middle of a faith crisis. Sunday school answers frustrate me. The structure by which I ordered my faith seems to be crumbling out of control. God may be good all the time, but the things I am going through are certainly not good. How do I process that?
  • Has God really called us to endure this? Did we misunderstand? What did we do wrong?
  • I have been praying and asking God to bring resolution, unity, trust and redemption, but he is so silent. Why isn’t he answering our prayers?
  • I feel like I am just pretending when I show up at church. I put a smile on my face and try to be polite but inside I am raging. How can some people greet me and pretend to be so nice when they stab my husband in the back during meetings or while talking with others?
  • Church no longer feels safe.
  • Who can I trust? Can I really trust anyone?
  • I have had to pull away from some of my friends because of the conflict between their spouse and mine. For that same reason, I have pulled our kids away from some of their friends too.
  • I am not part of the formal meetings where conflict is trying to be worked out. This means that I am always receiving information second hand and it’s difficult to interpret the full meaning behind words that are being said. It also means that I do not have the opportunity to respond directly.
  • Is it okay for me to respond on behalf of my husband? I do not want to undermine him but my inner “mama bear” is clawing to be let loose. How do I know when it is appropriate to say something or to remain silent?
  • It breaks my heart to see how this conflict is wearing down my husband. His energy, joy, confidence and value have plummeted. He only sees his weaknesses and often doubts that he has God-given strengths and giftedness.
  • It frustrates me that my spouse has become more irritable and seems like he/she cannot enjoy engaging with me or our children.
  • I am hurting deeply but I do not want to show it, especially to my spouse. I do not want to add more burden on them or for them to feel like it is their fault.

The first thing that I would like to say to those of you that can identify with any or all these thoughts, feelings, emotions and struggles is that you are not alone in this. You are not strange, there is nothing wrong with you and God loves you even in this season. You are hurting and those feelings are valid. I would dare say that there is nothing that you may be thinking or feeling that has not been thought of or felt by another pastor’s spouse who has found themselves in a similar situation to yours.

The psalmist could identify with these thoughts as well. You don’t have to read very far into the Psalms to begin to pick up on cries of pain, the need for help, the despair and the raw expression of processing pain in the middle of a conflict.

“Listen to my prayer, O God, do not ignore my plea; hear me and answer me. My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught because of what my enemy is saying, because of the threats of the wicked; for they bring down suffering on me and assail me in their anger. My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen on me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me. I said, ‘Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.’” (Psalms 55:1-8)

As difficult as it is to read these expressions of struggle, I have withheld one of the most troubling similarities that seems to come up time and time again. Yet it is not new. In fact, the psalmist laments over this same thing; he screams of the anguish that many of our hearts are broken over:

“If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were rising against me, I could hide. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship at the house of God, as we walked about among the worshipers.” (Psalms 55:12-14)

Those that we are often in conflict with are our brothers and sisters in Christ. They are our partners on ministry teams, and we serve together with them. This adds a depth of pain that catches us off guard and rocks us to the core. It causes our place of worship to feel anything but peaceful.

These are some of the harsh realities that we deal with. And these are the reasons that Christ had to die. We need his redemption and we need his truth to speak into our lives. His mercies are new every morning and great is his faithfulness. I am not suggesting that we settle and resign ourselves to the fact that these conflicts will happen so just accept it and move on. I am hoping and praying that you will see that your struggle is being heard, validated and you remain a beloved child of the Most High God!

Secondly, I would like to encourage you to begin to take steps in practicing self-care. Several years ago I was speaking at a retreat for women in ministry. There was a Q&A time and a young woman raised her hand. Her husband was new to serving as a pastor and she wanted to know the best way to show him love and support. My answer to this new pastor’s wife was that the best gift she could offer her husband was the gift of a healthy wife. Be proactive in your self-care to make sure that you are giving attention to and developing your emotional, physical, mental and spiritual health. Many things are out of our control, but we can still do our part in caring for ourselves within those human limitations.

If you find yourself navigating conflict directly or it’s second-degree, give yourself permission to take steps to be cared for. I mentioned that I went through a season of conflict a few years ago. Here are some things that I found helpful as I began learning how to care for myself.

  • Find a safe place to be honest with yourself and a trusted friend. If you don’t have a friend at this time with whom you feel you can do this, reach out to a counsellor or therapist who can walk alongside you and help you process.
  • Limit the amount of time that you talk about the details of the conflict. I realized that it was okay to admit that I needed a bit of space from this conversation.
  • Find ways to be fed spiritually, especially if conflict is within your church. I needed to listen to podcasts, messages and attend ladies’ functions outside of my church for a while. I still continued to attend our church, but I needed a place where I could exhale a bit.
  • Find space to do things that you find relaxing – go for a walk, sit with a good book, take a hot bath, just sit in silence and meditate on one verse for a while. Explore a bit and learn what helps you to feel cared for.
  • Develop healthy boundaries. I cannot control how others behave, but I can control my response when I feel unsafe or when others behave badly towards me.
  • Give yourself the gift of time to grieve the losses you have experienced through this conflict.

These things were small steps in and of themselves. Yet over time, God used these to breathe life back into my soul.

Focus on the Family Canada’s Clergy Care is available to come alongside you to help if you need additional support. We have compassionate experienced therapists that can speak with you over the phone. They would also be able to help direct you to a Christian counsellor or therapist in your area. Do not hesitate to call if you feel it would be of help to you or your spouse. Call 1.888.5.CLERGY (1.888.525.3749) or explore our website for additional resources that you may find helpful.


Pauline Doerksen and her husband, Sam, are the program directors at our Manitoba Kerith Retreats location. For more information about our retreats, visit

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