This might be a picture that has been painted of a pastor’s wife: Sitting quietly beside her husband in the front row at church service, usually with the kids in tow (and in check). They are the model mamas, the super supporters of their husband’s ministry.
But while PKs – what we affectionately call our pastor’s kids – largely grow up in the church spotlight, PWs – or pastor’s wives – have entire histories that easily slip unnoticed, eclipsed by the enormity of their husband’s ordainment and the roles they’ve been typecast in. Who are these women, really?
For International Women’s Day on March 8, we met up with 3 PWs – Debbie, 37, Eeleen, 36, and Esther, 34, to chat about being a woman with a God-given calling that just happens to include motherhood and being married to the minister.
Before you were “the pastor’s wife”, who were you?
Debbie: Norman and I were both marketers in large MNCs. I loved my job as a marketer. If I hadn’t become a mum or wife, I might have been a career woman, busy climbing the corporate ladder!
I never expected I would one day introduce my husband as a pastor, when he took up God’s challenge to serve His Kingdom instead of joining his dream company at the time, or that I would one day leave the marketplace to join him in full-time ministry to “market” something different: The sanctity of life!
Eeleen: In my 20s, I was serving full-time in a para-church organisation doing music evangelism and building worship and prayer movements in campuses and churches. The call was always to bring worship to the nations, and I was blessed to minister in many different countries as an itinerant minister.
My husband Ian and I met because we were passionate about the same areas – worship, prayer, youth and creative ministries. He had been a ministry staff in church for about 7 years when we started dating.
Esther: Elvin and I got married when I was in my final year at university! I love teaching, I love children and I have been serving in children’s ministry since my teens, so I guess I’ve always regarded myself to be an educator.
God gave me a very clear word that I would be in a leadership position in school when I first started my career in education. And my career progression was fast – by third year, I was a subject head, and in the following year, a head of department. Becoming a vice-principal was on the cards too.
With a husband in ministry, who were you known as to others?
Debbie: In a small church like ours, with just over a hundred people, it’s easy to stand out as the pastor’s wife. But because we both started out in the marketplace, I wasn’t the traditional pastor’s wife – and I knew I could never fit that mould either. And that’s okay.
With Norm pastoring so many people even beyond our church and working on big projects like TrueLove.is and the X Creative Conference and with 3 kids to manage, it’s also easy to sit out of the spotlight, as much as we desire to attend events together.
But while he is out there in the news, Norm has always made the effort to shine the spotlight backstage too. He always lovingly acknowledges each time I stay back to hold the fort at home – which is just as, if not more, important than our public ministries.
Eeleen: When we got married, I moved to Ian’s church, where he’s employed. It was something I did willingly, but it definitely wasn’t without sacrifice. I did miss having a community with whom I had a long history with and where I had my own sphere of ministry and influence.
The home is just as, if not more, important than our public ministries.
Naturally, a lot of people knew who I was by virtue of being “Ian’s wife” – my co-workers used to joke that I could start a webpage called mushiniang.com (牧师娘 or pastor’s wife). In the new church, I had to introduce myself so that I could find out their names.
It took a while, but over the years I’ve built my own friendships, integrated into the community and eventually started leading worship, directing bands and discipling younger people – like I’ve always done.
Esther: Elvin always had a full-time calling, which I was aware of even before we started dating 15 years ago. I was very happy and ready to offer support when he became a children’s minister one month before the birth of our second child. I mean, educating and nurturing children had been my specialisation all this while!
I was highly encouraged to focus on taking care of the household so that Elvin could be released to serve fully in church – maybe even leave my job to support his ministry and calling. It was common for other ministers’ wives to do so.
But Elvin firmly believed in my marketplace ministry. Even when we both ultimately went full-time with The Treasure Box we continue to operate on these values: That family is our first church, our spouse is our first ministry and our children are our first disciples.
What are some of the struggles with a husband in ministry?
Debbie: Pastors rarely get a day off, and nights are often spent on ministry work, so when I was still in my marketing job, our working hours conflicted with each other. Family time was also tossed into the mix. We had to take time to communicate our needs and recalibrate our schedules.
We also had to learn how to cut back on our spending habits to live a little more humbly. When Norm left the marketplace, we took more than a 50% cut on our family’s income – a tangible adjustment not just for ourselves but also our children.
And now with me leaving my marketplace job as well to focus on the Heartbeat Project, it has been even more humbling to see how God has provided for us and how He will continue providing for our family. Norm and I do have our moments where we think that we’re crazy for doing this.
We’re raising our kids to know that we’re not rich, but we have more than enough.
Eeleen: Naturally, we don’t share the typical structure most families have where they have weekends together. As ministers’ weekends are spent working, I’m generally solo parenting. With Ian having several night meetings during the week, it also means I often have to shoulder long nights and put the kids to bed on my own.
Being in ministry on a single income also means we don’t earn as much as those in the marketplace, but God really does provide supernaturally for us time and again. We’re raising our kids to know that we’re not rich, but we have more than enough.
Esther: Elvin didn’t seem to have a real day off with the family. With Mondays as his day off, I was at work and the children were in school. On weekends, he was busy with meetings or being in-charge of something. On weeknights, there were more meetings.
We tried to adapt by lugging the whole clan to wherever he was serving, but there wasn’t real family time. Family time is bonding, communicating and getting to know each other better. Being everywhere together is not necessarily family time.
For a while, I literally took on the role of a father in “support” of Elvin’s ministry. I taught my children that Elvin was not around when we went out on weekends because “papa is giving his best to God”. They were genuinely proud of him, but it really affected Elvin that they no longer needed him to be around much.
How do you do ministry together?
Debbie: Now that we’re both working on the Heartbeat Project full-time, Norm and I have become official colleagues! It has definitely been a new learning curve despite having been together for 18 years. We’re very different people with different working styles – but we’ve seen how this can complement rather than conflict.
Of course, working with family, sometimes we unintentionally have higher expectations or shorter fuses. I’ve learnt to not only respect Norm as my husband, but also as my pastor, mentor, colleague and best friend. No other company except God’s Kingdom would allow this collaboration.
Our family is our first church, our spouse is our first ministry and our children are our first disciples.
Eeleen: Ian and I are blessed to be able to use our gifts together, as we did before the kids came along, but it looks very different now with a family. When we do partner closely, it’s very fulfilling to see how much more powerful and effective we can be, whether it’s helping people though relationships, co-leading worship or writing a song together.
I currently serve alongside Ian by volunteering with the youth/young adult ministry team, which includes attending staff meetings and leading in different aspects of the ministry. My husband is very pastoral, wildly creative, visionary and prophetic. I help to complement that by adding structure and programming, attention to detail, aesthetics and advice, and also taking on the bulk of the kids and chores especially during crunch time.
Esther: Supporting Elvin’s years as a pastor taught us a few things: Firstly, that God has a special call and purpose when two become one. Secondly, this purpose is not solely one party serving the calling of the other party. It is a collective effort to discover God’s purpose for a family. Thirdly, it’s a partnership, with common goals and aligned vision – not at the expense of each other.
Both Elvin and I left our civil service jobs in 2018 to start The Treasure Box – a dream that started during Elvin’s years in full-time ministry. Through that pastoral season, we realised that parents are the gateway to their children’s spiritual growth, and we wanted to provide help for families to discover the treasures of knowing and experiencing God together.
How did you discover your own ministry?
Debbie: It all started at a Burning Hearts conference 3 years ago where God gave me a vision. I saw myself running on a “treadmill of life”, running non-stop and clocking a lot of distance – but from another perspective I was still in the exact same position. It struck me that I needed to move from a life of success to one of God’s significance.
From that day, I kept asking God what’s next. And with each obedient step, He gave more revelations and clues. In Proverbs 25:2 it says, “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings to search things out.” And while in Israel in 2017, He showed me His heart for children facing abortion.
It was after the most gentle yet powerful prodding from the Father that I managed to move from “someday” to “today” and “every day”. I’m now anchoring the Heartbeat Project, a platform that provides stories and resources for Christians to converse about life and abortion.
Eeleen: These days, I’m happy to serve in our local church – planning programmes, mentoring young people, training worship leaders and supporting couples in their relationships.
Ian and I are determined that we will continue serving the Lord no matter what season we’re in, not centre our whole lives around our kids. We’ve been able to better figure out our kids’ routines and the ideal windows for me to be at small groups or serving on worship teams again.
Ian is also quick to champion me and take the kids when I need to go minister outside. I am currently involved on a volunteer and project basis with para-church organisations like Awaken Generation, Cru Singapore and LoveSingapore.
Of course, my main ministry is the high call to be a mother. Ian likes to say that God gives us children so the parents can grow up, and it’s so true! It’s infinitely easier on some days to lead the masses in worship than it is to teach my child to obey. I love encouraging and supporting new mums because I remember how lost I felt.
Esther: When we celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary last June, we were still in the dreaming phase for The Treasure Box. But it was that afternoon that we realised God had laid this out for us since our union. It was uniquely crafted for each of our callings, and could only be fulfilled with us as a couple and now together with our 2 little ones.
With this company, Elvin and I provide products and services for family discipleship. It was surely not an easy decision, but we both heard God clearly about this venture and knew that through it all, we’ll always have each other’s hand to hold onto – through hell and high water (a lyric from Elvin’s song on our new album, Songs for a Season).
We’ve received positive feedback and encouragement from people for the work we do, and we are still in awe of how we landed here. Getting to do God’s work with your best friend and life partner is a very powerful assurance and trust, anchored with the knowledge that God is always the centre of it all and that He will enable us.
To all the women after God’s own heart – daughters, mothers, sisters, wives and friends – keep serving Him in your own unique calling. A Happy International Women’s Day from us to you! ❤️