An Interview with Gail MacDonald by Linda Moore
The Barna Group (Barna.com) recently released a report titled “The Resilient Pastor.” The report compared responses to an interview conducted in 2015 with 512 Protestant senior pastors and another interview conducted in 2022 with 584 Protestant senior pastors. The results showed a significant and troubling downturn in a pastor’s self-perceived overall well-being.
Pastors were asked to rate their satisfaction from excellent to poor in six areas: 1. Spiritual well-being; 2. Physical well-being; 3. Mental and emotional health; 4. Overall quality of life; 5. The respect pastors receive by those in your surrounding community; 6. Having true friends. [You can find the actual percentages from these interviews on Barna.com by searching for “Resilient Pastor reports” or “7-Year Trends: Pastors Feel More Loneliness & Less Support.”] The largest percentage point drop was in the pastors’ “overall quality of life,” which dropped from 42% in 2015 to 18% in 2022.
To address this disturbing trend, by design reached out to Gail MacDonald to elicit her insights. Gail has been a pastor’s wife for over 40 years. Gail and her husband, Gordon, have served in four churches as well as a parachurch organization. Gail led ministry wives’ retreats for Focus on the Family for 10 years. Today they continue to minister to the body of Christ through mentoring, teaching, and writing. Gail is the author of the book, “High Call, High Privilege.” The following is the gist of a conversation between Gail and Linda Moore, director of by design and herself a pastor’s wife.
Part 1 of 3
Linda: What did you think about the statistics from the Barna Group report “The Resilient Pastor”? Barna research observed this downward trend beginning in 2017, even before the pandemic became a factor.
Gail: All these statistics are indeed alarming. Sometimes, we New Englanders don’t affirm our leaders much. All of us need to work at this so it becomes part of our congregational culture. Gordon and I have loved being pastor and wife for decades, but we have never been in leadership during a pandemic. That event changed everything. We needed to affirm our leaders even more, but it was difficult with people leaving churches all over the country. Pastors and their wives were left guessing why people were leaving. It only added to their confusion and disappointment.
Also, one of the areas of deep concern to me is the research that showed pastors have few true friends. If this is true for any wife, I pray she encourages her husband to make this a goal. Even if it takes time from the family, he and she will be the better for it. Men need men just as women need women. My husband worked hard to find close friends when he was around 47. It has made all the difference for him and for me.
Linda: What does a pastor need to meet these challenges?
Gail: William Carey was the founder of modern missions. He was a plodder and said, “I can plod and persevere, that is my only genius.” He had much sadness in his life and lots of loss. His office burned to the ground. All his financial records, papers, and books from the previous 40 years were destroyed, but he just plodded through. Also, his wife was seriously depressed throughout much of her life.
How did he become a plodder? When he was a little boy, he was always mastering things others said he couldn’t do. For instance, he loved to climb trees. His mom feared he would fall, but he kept climbing trees until he mastered the hardest of them. He persevered. And he lived this way in his ministry.
But what if the pastor is not a plodder and he derives his motivation from the affirmation and enjoyment his flock has of him being their pastor? If it is more of a feel-good thing rather than a determination, the pastor may have to ask the Lord for a determined, follow-through spirit. He can’t live only seeking the “well done.” This is often when a loving, wise communication between him and his wife makes all the difference. She may be a special gift to him when challenges come. Praying together about the challenges brings closeness and power to both the marriage and ministry. One potentially encouraging sign for the pastor who persevered through the hard times of the pandemic is that he may now find the community around him being more supportive.
Linda: What are some other suggestions to help the pastor and his wife?
Gail: The most important gift that we can give to our ministry couple is prayer and encouragement. Right from the start, most, but not all, are operating out of a call from God in their life. And when you have a call on your life you take things very personally, more so than people who think of it as a job. What happened in the last three years has brought about confusion, anxiety, and self-doubt, because pastors found it so hard to see half of their congregation leave. Many of those never returned. What made it more difficult was that often, but not always, folks didn’t even say good-bye or why they were leaving. This puts the ministry couple into a no-win situation. Many became heartbroken. Some have fallen into anger and bitterness.
They thought these people would be there for them, and when that didn’t happen, it was devastating. When folks leave and never return, what effect might this have on the well-being of the one presumably called by God? Was something wrong with him? Was his preaching not to their liking? Sometimes it was hard for husbands and wives to keep from having moments of conflict over all these things. We are human. These are some of the reasons the data Barna shared is true.
Bottom line: our pastor and his family need our faithful prayer support. Whenever we tell them we are praying for something specific they have made known, we must be careful to check back to see how they are doing; has Jesus been especially close during this time? Otherwise, they may not believe we really did pray. These are things that engender a quality relationship between the parishioner and the ministry couple.
Stay tuned for the next two parts of this series, coming soon!