Wives and Burnout

It struck me last week while watching David Murray’s video on burnout in the ministry that pastor’s wives have an impact on if and why burnout happens. This is not always the case – many things are out of our hands, and sometimes a husband will burn out no matter what we do. Often, wives are powerless to stop something that they can see coming. But we can always pray (and must, regardless of how things are going!), and we can also take measures to make sure that we are not contributing factors. Growing up in a manse and seeing countless ministry couples, the cases I’ve seen of wives contributing to or causing burnout tend to fall into two categories: the co-burnout helpmeet and the high-maintenance wife.

I have fallen victim to the first option. The “let’s-both-work-as-hard-as-we-can-all-fall-and-spend-Christmas-holidays-sick-in-bed” option. The wife encourages the husband to do as much as possible in his ministry while she takes on the house and kids. It seems good at first, because productivity initially goes up as the husband puts in 80 hours at work and the wife does everything around the house, from taking out the garbage to catechizing the children. But in the end, husband and wife run parallel lives, each absorbed in trying to keep up in their own sphere and not succeeding because they have too much to do in too little time with too little support from the other. In situations like this, personal and family devotions often get squeezed, a marriage can become merely functional, and the kids suffer from a lack of thoughtful, deliberate time with dad and mum.

A wife prone to this pseudo-productivity needs to realize that encouraging a husband to do the maximum possible at work is not actually helping him or the congregation or the family. It will lead to burnout in the church and the home, as the initial productivity devolves into a failing attempt to keep up the pace. She also needs to realize that productivity is not the same as fruitfulness, which always begins with a deep, growing relationship with Jesus flowing from time in the Word and in prayer. It is healthy for both people in this scenario if the wife says, “Honey, I think we could use a day off. Is there a way I can help this happen?” That would be a start.

The second way a wife can contribute to burnout is by demanding, expecting, or even simply allowing her husband to do a majority of the house or child care on top of his ministry work. This is the “I’m-tired-so-he-does-all-the-laundry-because-he-loves-me” option. It seems like this is a good idea because it can be dressed in a husband’s genuine love for his wife, and it results in the wife being very rested. But it, too, leads to burnout for the man. There are seasons of life (pregnancy, moving, sick children or elderly parents, etc.) that are more demanding, when a wife really does need her husband’s regular help around the home. But some ministers are working 40+ hours in the study and another 20 or 40 at home doing the dishes, feeding the kids, dusting, etc., because their wives expect or allow them to use the nature of ministry flex-time to do double duty. The husband gets the family and home set up for the day, spends 8-10 hours at the office writing sermons, studying, counseling, and comes home only to throw a load in the washer, clean up supper, put the kids to bed, and vacuum before falling into bed so he can do it again the next day.

A healthy wife prone to this dependency needs to realize that expecting or allowing a husband to shoulder the burden of housework while he is also serving as a minister is not actually helping the congregation, kids, or the marriage. It is making a husband into the helpmeet instead of being his helpmeet. It will lead to burnout in the church and the home, as the man spends himself double, facing heaps of things to do on all fronts. It is healthy for both people in this scenario for the wife to say, “Honey, I will have everything done when you get home today so that you can rest after all your studying.” That would be a start.

Both of these errors, though they seem to be opposites, are essentially the same. They ignore the needs of your husband’s body and soul, contributing to burnout. They both have a wife actively encouraging or passively allowing a husband to work beyond his physical and mental limits, either all at work, or divided between work and home. The balance of ministry, family, and personal rest will be different for every family, according to the energy, giftedness, and health of the husband and wife, and according to their situation: the number, age, and health of the children, size of the congregation, etc. This balance will look different for a woman with five small children married to a seminary grad than it does for Mary Mohler, for example. But in any case, a wife must prayerfully find the balance of freeing her husband up to do the good works to which he is called, and helping him do so rested, refreshed, and supported from the home. As far as it depends on us, we wives should be enabling our husbands to do what they can with what they have for God’s glory. That way we can fulfill the role that God designed even before He created woman – helpers fit for our husbands. “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:18). While we cannot always prevent burnout, we can keep ourselves from contributing to it.