This article was originally published on The Gospel Coalition.
Every church leader has been there. We arrive home after an excruciating meeting with someone whose life, due to sin or suffering, has become suddenly and painfully complex. Your wife is no dummy. A routine scan of your face and posture tell her you bear an invisible burden. Once the kids are down, she waits for the right moment to ask, “Okay, what’s going on?”
The question demonstrates her love for you, but it also betrays an important reality. Once your wife has perceived your burden, she picks up your burden. Except she’s uninformed, which can add pounds of anxiety to the load she bears.
As an elder or church leader, how should you understand your wife’s “clearance level”? Is there a baseline curiosity that mercy should satisfy? Does the one-flesh status of marriage grant full access to counseling details? Partial access? Or should there be an impenetrable firewall between our work at church and our wife at home?
Six Ground Rules
What ground rules matter most in knowing what to share? Here are six I’ve identified through a few decades of trial and (mostly) error.
1. Roles Matter
When a church hires a pastor or appoints elders, the church pretty much gets a twofer—the leader, and the unpaid consultant to whom he is married. The question is not whether they will talk; the question is whether their talk will be governed by wisdom, discretion, and appropriate confidentiality.
Early in ministry Kimm and I talked, oh boy did we talk! Church problems were an entrée we shared at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Other pastors on our team had the same practice, so we began discussing some questions. What is our understanding of the role of a pastor’s/elder’s wife in our church—a full-access partner in ministry, or a wife/mother who flourishes more with less? What passages speak specifically to what we might say to our spouse about people’s struggles? Has our understanding of this ground rule been adequately conveyed to the church? These deliberations cut a clearer path for a couple to walk when discussing delicate church matters.
2. My Heart Matters
How we talk about our pressures reveals our heart. For some leaders, their marriage is a venting chamber where every fear, offense, and trouble echoes back to their spouse. Recently, a pastor told me, “During my first few years of ministry, over-sharing was my only mode of communication.” When I asked why, he said, “Problems exposed the junk in my own heart, and I felt like I needed to unload elsewhere.” But something bad happened. He noticed his wife’s taste for ministry was growing sour. When he sought counsel and prayed, the pastor recognized he was actually poisoning his wife. By venting his unbelief and craving her sympathy, his wife became a pacifier, not a counselor.
Few things say more about the health of our heart than how we report things when we’re frustrated. Can we convey the necessary information without sprinklings of our own cynical commentary? Do we protect the motives of those involved when we report to others on the meetings? Are we seeking help to examine our heart? As my pastor-friend discovered, when it comes to discerning what to share with your wife, the heart matters.
3. The Law Matters
Did you know the law makes a claim on how we handle the information we hear as leaders? There are a few necessary questions that may help clarify our data-handling: Did I come by the information that I could share with my wife indirectly, or in my role as a counselor? If the latter, is the information protected for me (by penitent privilege) in a manner it would not be for her? Are there any mandatory-reporting requirements that already determine the path for my reporting? No pastor wants to complicate his marriage by naïvely loading legal burdens on it.
Leaders need to know the laws on clergy-penitent privilege and mandatory reporting to ensure none are being unintentionally violated by communicating with his spouse. If you want to know where the law determines discussion, talk to older pastors and church law experts. Then remember Proverbs 21:23, “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.”
4. Church Policy Matters
Wise elder bodies consider the complexity and liabilities of confidentiality and seek to arm their leaders with rules for engaging others. Laws are a help, but pastors can rarely find their notes from the one church-law class in seminary (and if you’re as far removed from your seminary experience as I am, you know the laws have probably changed anyway). Once again, questions are the first step: What is the general policy for the elders on confidentiality? How does the confidentiality policy apply to elders’ wives? What would be acceptable information to share and what would be considered off limits, and how is that determination made? Can elders gain permission for the wife to be included on details from counseling cases or elders’ meetings?
Discretion is a beautiful word, but it’s pretty subjective. Moving laws towards specific policies and converting cultural assumptions into written guidelines helps define how discretion gets particularized in each local church.
5. Maturity Matters
Personal and spiritual maturity gauges whether a wife has the spiritual health and gospel clarity to find God’s activity in complexity, or when the curtain of brokenness is pulled back on the church. A mature wife will not be easily unsettled or quickly affronted when discovering, like day-old fish, sin stinks—particularly in the household of God. She can bear the weight of confidentiality without indiscrete leaks or evenings lost in a forest of anxiety. Love your wife by knowing her and what she’s wired to handle.
If you want to calculate maturity, measure what happens when a wife’s character meets the demands of confidentiality. It’s a critical dial on the dashboard of disclosure.
6. Temptation Matters
Distinct from maturity is temptation—the vulnerable points of my wife’s soul. Does she compartmentalize well, or is she susceptible to fear? Is she prone to instinctive and vocal self-righteousness when struggles and sin surface? Is my wife tempted toward gossip or repeating matters (Prov. 17:9)?
Temptations can be reduced by wise words. Zack Eswine recommends the practice of “general venting.” It starts with a leader telling his wife there’s something on his mind: “If I seem stressed, it’s not you!” Then, offer a general category for the situation: “I have a critic on my mind, and it hurts,” or “There’s a couple who’s struggling, and I’m concerned.” Finally, give an invitation to intimacy: “The details won’t be helpful, but would you mind if we prayed together?” This approach allows confidentiality to be upheld without the wife feeling excluded.
No Easy Matter
As you can tell, finding the intersection where healthy burden-bearing meets prudent discretion is no easy journey. Ground rules help, but for couples trying to find their path, nothing replaces wisdom. So let’s end remembering this potent promise: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5).