When a pastor is criticized, his wife will likely be tempted to become offended on his behalf against the one bringing the criticism. Because she loves him, she may want to defend her husband from all attacks, criticisms, and corrections.
That can be the initial temptation, and it may seem appropriate, but it isn’t. Instead, she can play a different and much more important role, one that can make all the difference in the heart and life of her husband.
Let me explain.
Preserving and Sharing Content
When criticism arrives, the pastor is wise to share the criticism with his wife. But in doing this he must protect his wife from these predictable temptations. He does this in these ways:
First, he should examine his own heart and his motives, humble himself, and review a biblical understanding of criticism’s value in his life.
Second, and as much as possible, he should listen to the criticism and correction with an objective ear, not being preoccupied with the attitude of the one bringing it, nor becoming distracted by details in the criticism that may be inaccurate. Further, the pastor must learn to separate any concern he might have about the person bringing correction from the content of what he is saying. He can then turn to his wife, share those points of criticism, and ask: “Can you confirm this from your experience? Do you see this in my life?”
Third, when he shares the critical observation with his wife, he should avoid letting the conversation deteriorate into criticizing the critic. He must avoid the temptation to merely seek her support, her defense, and her agreement.
My Wife and My Godliness
Nobody knows us better than our wives. And if there is any level of accuracy in the criticism brought to my attention, there is nobody I trust more to help me see it than Carolyn. By protecting her from very common temptations, and by providing her with the content of the criticism, I can allow her to play an invaluable role in helping me discern the legitimacy of the correction.
Countless times Carolyn has made all the difference in how I have received correction and responded to it. Many times over the years I would have simply dismissed the correction of others if not for Carolyn’s helping me to perceive what was accurate in it.
Each husband needs the kindness of his wife in this way. But again, this isn’t my preference! Many times I have found myself sharing the criticism I have received, assuming she would join me in dismissing both the criticism and the critic…only to realize that as I am talking, her facial expression suggests there is some legitimacy to the criticism. An ominous feeling sweeps over my soul as I realize she isn’t going to confirm my disagreement and dismissal of this criticism!
But this is an act of kindness on her part. It’s obviously not kindness as I would prefer it. I would prefer to only experience Carolyn’s kindness through her supporting encouragement, her loyalty, her defense of me (and she provides me with all of these). I would prefer that she join me in disagreeing with criticism, not helping to confirm its accuracy!
But I have learned that God’s kindness comes to me in many forms, and one form is through a wife that will not become offended on her husband’s behalf, but will instead come alongside him, help him perceive where his critic is accurate, help him see where sin remains in his heart, and help him seize the redemptive purpose of the criticism.
And even though I don’t desire her help in confirming criticism, by doing this Carolyn has shown herself to be the suitable helper I so desperately need.
Speaking of Carolyn, she has wonderfully addressed this very same topic (but from the wife’s perspective) in a blog post we published back in 2008. You can read her comments here.
When I was the senior pastor of Covenant Life Church
, I scheduled the entire pastoral team to attend at least one conference, or an abbreviated seminary course, per year. Looking back over the years, this practice has borne much fruit—personally, relationally, and theologically. Together we were sharpened in our doctrinal discernment and were deepened in our love for the Savior and his church. The fruit from these times has been immeasurable.
During these trips, we’ve heard great preaching and teaching. But we’ve also used our meal times (and late evenings) for discussion and application. We spend time encouraging one another, at times correcting one other, and contemplating the future together. We think much, laugh much, and eat much—all to the glory of God.
Something is built during this time together that makes a discernable difference in our relationships with each other and our service to the church we love.
Conferences like Together for the Gospel
provide a unique (and all too rare) opportunity for pastoral team building, for deepening friendships, unhurried discussions about doctrine, and strategic planning for the church. Is it my hope that this will be the experience of all pastors attending the conference.
To benefit from the time together, you cannot lead a group through a conference or class without strategic planning. On the road I kept a theme with the guys—“What we do, we do together.” When attending a conference or a class, I was responsible for planning our time, and planning the time together was critical. I was always alert to the spontaneous, but prior to the trip there was research to be done on the schedule and various options.
My goal was to build us together relationally. I used meal times for the review of content and the specific application of content to each pastor’s life. I sought to hear from each pastor what they were learning and how they were applying that teaching to their lives. So I would make sure that several times together—at least one each day—were intentionally led.
But it wasn’t all study and conversation. There must be athletic competition in some form! There must be winners and losers. Pride must be weakened and humility cultivated. And there is nothing like competition to build character and build a pastoral team together as friends. What you do depends on the collective athletic ability of your pastoral team. Pastoral teams that are athletically inclined can play basketball or football together. For the less coordinated teams, there are miniature golf and Monopoly.
Finally, these trips also provide time to specifically honor and encourage a particular pastor and a great opportunity to identify evidences of grace we observe in each other’s lives. If possible, make sure time is set aside for this practice.
Together for the Gospel
Now, senior pastors, don’t get too excited and jump into your planning if you are attending T4G, because you have been relieved of most of your scheduling responsibilities. It appears my good friend Mark Dever has scheduled T4G tight (but he’s left the schedule pretty free between midnight and 6:00 a.m.).
I had a friend email me inviting me to play basketball at T4G, and I had to sadly email him back and communicate there is not a free moment available! There would be if I were planning the conference.
Oh, how different T4G would be if I were leading the conference (and probably less effective and fruitful, too). Yes, there would be teaching, and plenty of it. But there would be blocks of time for athletic activities. But given the absence of athletic interest and ability that seems to characterize most—but not all—of those participating in T4G and particularly our leader, Mark Dever, there will be NO TIME for anything athletic in nature. (I wish more smart guys were good athletes.)
The Wives and Children
What about the wives? Whenever the Covenant Life pastoral team attended a conference I seized it as yet another opportunity to thank their wives. They are the ones at home sacrificing and serving the children while we are away. So I made it a practice to express my gratefulness for their example and support while the men were away. On the day we left I would have gifts ordered for the wives (like flowers and Starbucks gift cards) and gifts for the kids (like Hershey chocolates) to be delivered at the homes as a small expression of gratefulness from Carolyn and me.
When we returned home, I insisted the guys take an extra day off to care for their wives and spend time making memories with their children.
And I know there are pastors traveling to T4G on their own. You have no team, no staff, no one to share the pastoral burden. You have my deepest respect. Though you are traveling alone, you will not be alone at this conference. I am certain you will meet and make new friends during the conference. And if you can make time, introduce yourself to me. I’d be honored to meet you.
So I would encourage all pastors to build into their schedule and church budget at least one conference a year for you and your pastoral team. And if you are leading a church alone, I would encourage you to attend at least one conference a year with a pastor (or pastors) from another church.
As I look back and consider all the wonderful memories and important conversations I’ve had at conferences with my friends, they have been among the richest and most memorable experiences I’ve had in ministry. And I am certain T4G will be no different.
In early March, C.J. and Carolyn Mahaney addressed a room full of couples being trained for pastoral ministry at the Pastors College. Soon these couples will return to their home churches to begin (or resume) the public and transparent life of pastoral ministry.
A question asked by one of the wives was simple: How should a wife respond when her pastor-husband is criticized? The question was asked in the context of pastor’s families, but the answer will likely benefit all married couples.
Question: Carolyn, as a pastor’s wife, how do you handle situations where your husband is criticized or there is grumbling in the church about your husband?
Carolyn: Obviously, it certainly isn’t easy to have your husband criticized. But as wives, we must recognize our role as our husband’s helper and make sure we don’t take up an offense, which would not be helpful to our husbands. And that does not take place without a fight. This is the person you love the most in the whole world, and if someone is criticizing him, you can be easily offended and want to defend him. Yet, I must realize that taking an offense would be a disservice to my husband. So it’s important that we as wives guard our hearts, making sure we don’t take up an offense, seeking to serve our husbands as helpers.
C.J.: Your point is an excellent one. There have been many times that I have desired Carolyn to take up an offense—“Join me in my offense against this individual.” I’m not immediately happy that she hasn’t taken an offense, but I have learned that eventually she has served me invaluably when she does not take up an offense. In no way is she defending or justifying what others have said or done, but helping me monitor my heart, and impressing upon me that a sinful reaction from me would be more serious than whatever they are saying or doing, are the most effective ways she can serve me.
Sadly, over the years we have witnessed couples in ministry where wives have taken up an offense.
And this doesn’t just apply to sinful criticism, but also to when a husband is legitimately corrected by a member of the pastoral team or a member of the church. So you need both those categories. It’s difficult when those serving with your husband correct him in a certain area or bring an unfavorable evaluation. A wife might find herself more vulnerable to taking up an offense when her husband has been corrected. I am grateful for the way Carolyn has served me by not taking up an offense. And numerous times she has agreed with the correction, protecting me from arrogantly dismissing the correction and preventing me from sowing discord among those I serve in ministry.
So, whether it’s sinful criticism or legitimate correction of me, how do you guard your heart, Carolyn?
Carolyn: Wives should carefully listen to what’s being said. If there is something legitimate, bring that lovingly and carefully to your husband. I don’t think it serves a husband for a wife to just take the side of the person bringing criticism. But if there is a degree of truth, bring that in a way that serves him.
And just helping to mirror back to him what you are hearing him say. If he is sinning in response to the criticism, where appropriate, lovingly mirror that back to him: “It seems like this is how you are responding. Is this true? Are you offended at this person? Are you bitter?” Asking skillful questions.
It takes a lot of prayer and soul-searching in our own hearts to keep our hearts free from taking up an offense. But we must have a conviction about our role as our husband’s helper and ask, “What will truly help my husband?” It will not help him if I’m adding to the temptation he’s already experiencing. If he is being corrected or criticized, he’s already got a battle he is fighting. And if I come along and agree and participate in that, it makes his battle more difficult.
My husband has gone through seasons of correction, and it’s a temptation and fight. So I find myself having to pray for those who bring criticism or correction and filling my own heart with appropriate Scriptures so I can be a true helper to him during that time.
C.J.: Yes, but where they have been accurate observations—whether critics analyzing or friends correcting—you have courageously transferred that to me. Too often I have not been grateful in the moment. Eventually, I am grateful.
Would you say that one of the biggest challenges these ladies will confront as pastors wives is will be—when they hear the criticism or correction and they find there are aspects they agree with—how to inform their husbands of that without appearing to support any sinful attitude of others?
Carolyn: Yes. And I have through the years seen wives not do that, I’ve seen the effect and the outcome, and it has put the fear of God in me. At the moment it’s not always easy to take a stand and say, “I don’t think you’re responding humbly to this situation right now.” And it takes courage. Yet we’ve seen, because we’ve been in ministry for as many as we have, some very sad situations where I think wives really could have been the difference-maker if they would have challenged or confronted their husbands.
C.J.: So wouldn’t you say that over the years that some wives misunderstood submission and honor (or so it appears)? I think that has played a role. And for some it could be fear of man—fear of husband.
I can tell you this: For any marriage, correction of the husband by the wife would be one category on my short list of most important. If I observed a wife who was reluctant to correct her husband I would be concerned with that marriage. Obviously, I’m not arguing for a contentious marriage, but correction, humbly communicated, must be part of every marriage.
Part of what Carolyn has modeled personally and taught well is what she taught at the last Leadership Conference—“Watch Your Man”—in broadening an understanding and application of “helper” to include appropriate correction. I would argue that correction is not just part of marriage but an aspect of what it means to be fellow heirs of the grace of life.
Carolyn’s encouragement has been of immeasurable benefit to me, but equally so or more, on balance, has been her correction. She has protected me when sin was deceiving me. What a gift this has been to me!