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Pastors’ Wives Gather Online for Mutual Encouragement

October 28, 2020
Photo by Gwyneth Zylstra

I’ve just spent a few days with some remarkable women who are each in a unique role in their worshiping communities—and in the Christian Reformed Church in North America. The biennial pastors’ wives conference organized by Pastor Church Resources took place last week, Oct. 21-23. It was scheduled to be held in Albuquerque, N.Mex., this year; however, like so many other conferences and events in 2020, it was moved to an online format because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Though I am not a pastor’s wife, the online format allowed me as a reporter to join with the 82 registrants in the conference for plenary sessions, workshops, and some of the discussions, and to share communion with them at the end of the event. Participants included women of various ages—some new to the role of pastors’ wife, some nearing retirement and a new season of church life, and many in between. All are married to pastors in the Christian Reformed Church.

The conference theme was “Interwoven: Strength and Courage,” based on Joshua 1:9, where God encourages Joshua in his unique role of leading the people of Israel into the promised land, saying, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Plenary speaker Rev. Lesli van Milligen shared stories from her own experience as both a pastor and a pastor’s wife, reminders of God’s promises in the Bible, and tips on how to stay connected, growing, and journeying with God in the life to which he calls each person.

Ruth Ann Schuringa led worship, playing piano and singing from a church location through Facebook Live; song lyrics were sent by email to allow participants to sing along, each from their own location.

Workshops covered topics such as resting in God, thriving in ministry, dealing with hurt within ministry contexts, and supporting a husband in his “first-responder” role as a pastor who works to meet people’s deep needs, often amid unexpected or difficult circumstances.

Listening to the speakers and to the participants in smaller break-out discussions, I realized that there is a lot I have never understood—or even thought about—in the role of “the pastor’s wife.”

In some churches, there is an expectation that the spouse of a pastor will help lead in worship, serve as a church administrator, volunteer as a ministry coordinator, run the church library, or fill other roles needed in a congregation. Often, a pastor’s wife and family are also held to a higher standard of dress, behavior, and service than are other members of the congregation.

It can be hard for a pastor’s wife to fully integrate into the life of a church or to share struggles with members of the congregation. Because churches are very relational, rejection by a congregation is even more painful than difficulties or failures in other types of careers.

In the safe context of the pastors’ wives conference, the participants had an opportunity to share hurts, joys, challenges, and blessings with others who have experienced similar feelings and situations.

I could understand why many of the attendees were at the conference for the third, fourth, or even eighth time. A few women whose husbands are about to retire from ministry expressed sadness that soon they will not be able to join with this biennial gathering. At the end of this year’s conference, many attendees made plans to create regional or interest-based small groups online to stay connected for mutual encouragement and support.

Marlene Vanderburgh has attended all eight pastors’ wives conferences, and she noted, “I go back every two years because I have found it to be a safe place to share joys and difficulties.”

Robin Winter, attending her fourth conference, agreed, saying, “One of the best things — and a reason that I would come back again — is reconnecting with other pastors’ spouses and hearing how they are doing in ministry and in their lives.”

Monica Groothof, another attendee of all eight conferences, reflected, “This is a gathering of women who have been given a tremendous opportunity to serve their God by each serving in ministry with their husband in their own unique way. Being able to return every two years has allowed me to reconnect with women who have shared wisdom and advice or have given me a listening ear over the years — but, over time, I have had the privilege of being a listening ear for someone else and maybe even giving a word or two of advice.” She acknowledged that the necessity of meeting online rather than in person was disappointing, but she was grateful to the organizers for finding a way still to gather and connect.

The church where Gwyneth Zylstra and her husband serve in ministry decided to facilitate a full “retreat” experience for her by covering the cost of a vacation rental about 40 minutes from her home, so that she could step out of her routine and fully tune in to the conference experience.

“We were encouraged to find a way to rid ourselves of distractions in order to maximize the opportunity for rest and refreshment — such an integral piece of purpose of these events,” said Zylstra. She explained this to the council of their church and noted that she and her husband had booked a nearby AirBnB. The church agreed “without any hesitation” to cover that cost, she said. “We felt and feel very loved and cared for by our church leadership.”

Zylstra noted that while she missed the face-to-face fellowship and casual break-time conversations that an in-person conference allows, there were some benefits to having this year’s gathering online. She noted, for example, that the randomly assigned break-out session groups meant that she mixed with most of the conference participants in discussions, in which attendees could see each person’s name and face in the online conference window and people could share stories with the whole group in a way that’s harder to facilitate in the space needed for a large group gathering.

The planning team worked to recreate and transfer as many of the good elements of a live conference as possible to the virtual one this year, sending each participant a parcel with a number of fun and meaningful items, including a personalized greeting card, an insulated mug, candy, a bookmark and coloring page, a notebook, Play-Doh,® a devotional book, tea and coffee mixes, a set of handmade greeting cards to send, and a communion juice and wafer set that allowed participants to share in the sacrament together.

To cope with potential technical difficulties, the planning team included instructions and a troubleshooting guide in the parcel as well as in email attachments, and they had people on hand to answer questions throughout the conference. Emailed plenary session notes and discussion questions helped conference attendees prepare or follow along with presentations and the related conversations.

Lis Van Harten, director of Pastor Church Resources, is a pastor’s wife and was part of the planning team for the conference. She noted that since the conference could not take place in Albuquerque this year as planned, the 2022 event will be scheduled to take place at the Hotel Albuquerque at Old Town.

With PCR’s conferences for pastors to be held in alternating years in the future, the next pastors’ conference will take place in Albuquerque next fall, said Van Harten. She added, “Pastors will be the first ones to enjoy the location/venue, and pastors’ wives will do so the following year. And that will be the pattern going forward.” Conferences for pastors’ spouses — including the husbands of women in ministry — have been discussed, but surveys suggest that there is little demand from male spouses for such a conference.

Groothof is already looking forward to the next pastors’ wives conference, concluding, “There is nothing else quite like gathering with other women who are walking the same path as you—worshiping, laughing, learning, and praying together—and walking away knowing you have a sister in faith who has your back, no matter where you are.”