How do married men love women other than their wives? How can men in full-time ministry, charged with the responsibility of leading God’s people, love the women in the church or group they lead?
This responsibility cannot be avoided. We men need to genuinely love the women under our care. Both married and single women will not be effectively ministered to if they are not loved by their leader. Romans 12:9 says “Let love be genuine”, and comes in the context of the church family with its mention of one body with many members (v. 4) and “brotherly affection” (v. 10). The great love chapter in 1 Corinthians 13 is also in the context of Christian ministry within the church. Male ministers must not stand aloof and unconcerned towards women, or shy away scared. They are treasured people entrusted into our care. We must love them from our hearts.
But that’s all good in theory. How does a minister who is married genuinely and effectively love other women?1
The trouble with love is that it’s not necessarily expressed completely by performing a task or action alone; it is connected to feeling. Yes, love is a verb and love is an action and love is even a choice—but love is also a feeling! There are times when we commit to loving actions regardless of our emotions, but to never have a loving attitude in step with our actions can result in great confusion for others and potentially a mindless routine for us. To be loved well a person has to feel valued rather than think the pastor has ticked a box. We should be aware of any tendencies in ourselves to wholly replace emotions with tasks.
So how then can we make sure that we are not neglecting the women we are pastoring, while being sure that we are acting and feeling appropriately?
One difficulty is the justified concern over sexual immorality. The world keeps telling us that men only relate sexually to women, but the Bible encourages us to relate as a family. So the general rule is that men should treat older women as mothers, women the same age as sisters, and younger women as daughters. Simple—in theory. However, absolute propriety is crucial. Women are hurt, families are scarred, pastors are removed and ministries are damaged when this is not adhered to.
The single most important thing I do is to enlist the help of my wife. In our previous campus ministry, Jan took on mentoring the female ministry apprentices in a weekly 90-minute session. Jan also mentored some of the senior girls in leadership positions. This really cemented their relationships with Jan; they loved the time with her.
The critical thing is to ensure that the women I work most closely with have a stronger relationship with Jan than with me. I use the same principle at church with both single and married women. This guards against temptation all round, from me primarily and from the women involved. It makes it safe for me to love them and minister to them. If I am, or Jan suspects I am, attracted to someone, we talk about it. Naming the woman is like releasing a safety valve.
On top of all that, Jan does a better job of this mentoring than me as per the Titus 2 principle. It is a pleasure to be her off-sider in ministry in this way.
It is impossible to say everything on this topic in an article, but here are 12 principles I’ve developed over years of ministry, peppered with responses from women I have cared for.2
I aim to love the husbands of married women in my church and actively participate in men’s ministry activities. I seek to mentor and train men to grow in their God-given roles of loving, providing for and protecting others. In this way, men in ministry can have the best interests of many women at heart. A great way to value and love women is to equip men to lead their wives or future wives lovingly.
I try to show affection and care to young children, and show interest in the lives of older children. Mothers have invested heavily in their children, and for ministers to ignore their kids is a gross lack of love.
When I was in university ministry and single women became ministry apprentices under me, I actively sought out a relationship with their father. When a female university student joined the leadership team I sought opportunities to establish a relationship with their father and/or their boyfriend. This showed love to them and helped me relate rightly to them.
Sometimes, in our task-orientated mindset, we want a certain job done. We have ministry demands and sometimes it’s convenient to plug a gap with a willing woman—especially in the area of children and women’s ministry. But are these legitimate ministry demands or personal ambitions for growth? And the more important question by far is this: what is best for the woman concerned? She should be the priority, not the overall ministry itself.
Campus ministries can often foresee a massive gap in ministry to women. The cry goes out, “We need a female apprentice”. It can be so tempting to use our influence and passion to persuade a woman to fill the gap. However, we need to listen to them, because sometimes the time or circumstances in their life are not right yet, and the best thing for them is to wait another year. We must put the women before the ministry and not be impatient or assert undue pressure.
This is the flip side of the above. As men leading a ministry we can enthuse and energize women by personally asking them to do certain tasks. Noticing women and suggesting a role fit for their skill set shows we see their value. Giving them important roles shows confidence in their capabilities and multiplies opportunities to encourage them in the faith. We’re not just asking them to do the catering or babysitting.
Ensuring our women are not overwhelmed or overloaded with too many tasks also shows genuine concern. It is our duty to protect women from burnout. Women often inject more emotional energy into their ministry than men, especially when discipling other women one-to-one. Encouraging a much-needed break from ministry responsibilities, both for volunteers and employed women, conveys love, care and common sense. It shows that you care more about them personally than you do the ministry—the key principle in all of this.
Women are generally relational beings, which means they can help men be better at ministering to others. Listen to them and take on board what they say. This sometimes goes against a man’s task-oriented nature, but you learn how a woman ticks when you actively listen to her. Half the people a minister preaches to on Sunday are women, and the minister expects (or at least hopes) they will listen to him—so how dare he not listen to them at other times throughout the week. He should listen with the same intensity as he would like them to listen to him. If he can do this, he may discover that they do actually listen more on Sundays. Active listening is grossly underrated!
“I feel loved when you ask me how I am, take an interest in how I am going and actively engage in discussion about things that are important to me.”
Women do a mountain of work in support of church and other ministries. Show appreciation for this. Go out of your way to express personal thanks in conversation, email or text. No one likes to be taken for granted. Notice that I said personal as opposed to formal thanks. You can’t give an automatic and formal thank you and tick the box thinking you have conveyed love. It has to be a heartfelt thank you that connects emotionally with the woman you are thanking. This too is grossly underrated. Amongst the women I surveyed this was overwhelmingly helpful for them:
“You noticed the church work I did and took the time to thank me.”
“You notice and praise my efforts.”
“You value my contribution… and give positive feedback.”
“You tell me that you value the work I do.”
There are times in a woman’s life where they need exactly that: time. There may be some relational difficulty, work stress or health issue. There may just be a big decision they want to talk through. To love them we need to make ourselves available to talk things through. This is often after a gathering, but sometimes it’s over a pre-arranged coffee. I prefer this because I can give my undivided attention, answer questions more thoughtfully, and tread gently without rushing. Sometimes the best way to show that you love a woman is to give your precious time.
Of course, this protection should never be imposed, but most single women I know really appreciate it. I think God has given men a protective role, but it needs to be done the right way by the right men who have the right relationship. It rarely looks particularly macho. For example, some time ago a single girl’s car was left in the car park, so I made a few calls and checked around until I found her and knew she was safe.
Some events in people’s lives are so traumatic and significant that to delay responding is to effectively show that you don’t care. Sometimes the best and only way to love is to drop everything and run. It may be in order to just sit in the rubble with them, or to be a listening ear if you are appropriate. In relationship breakdowns or tragedies, for example, we need to be gentle, listen lots, and give wise and considered counsel. Whether it is a crisis or not, sometimes we need to weep with those who weep (a natural extension of Romans 12:15).
“Within an hour of hearing of our third miscarriage, you and Jan were in our house, crying with us, offering flowers, a meal, company, prayers and washed up the dishes! Your willingness to drop everything to be with us was a great example of love.”
All men have feelings. To not have feelings is to not be human. But, for many reasons, some men find it hard to express their feelings. That’s a shame. The more we suppress our feelings the less able we are to relate to those who are more in tune with them, most often women. I am a bit of an unusual case in this area, wearing my heart on my sleeve, but it does indicate to the women in my life that I really do care for them. If brushing emotions aside is a habit for you, talk with your wife and work together on starting to be more expressive in the home and then with others.
“Seeing the way you adore Jan is a very beautiful thing.”
“You conveyed love by not holding back your emotions and shedding a few tears on occasion.”
The apostle Paul only spent three weeks in Thessalonica preaching the gospel. Yet even in that short time he cared so much for them that he was delighted to share with them not only the gospel of God but their lives as well (1 Thess 2:8-12). Genuine love involves welcoming people into our homes on a regular basis. We should invite people to be part of our lives, not just our ministries. Opening up our home and sharing the contents of our fridge and pantry demonstrates a deeper love than a work-based obligation (obviously this is only with your wife present).
This is the most difficult to get right. Depending on your temperament, experiences and context, it may be something that just isn’t ever going to be okay for you.
Gary Chapman says physical touch is one of the five basic love languages of people, and there are many in our congregation who rarely come into physical contact with others. But how does a man know if it is a woman’s love language? And is it safe? Can I trust myself to give hugs that are not sexual? And one last difficulty: is it appropriate given this relationship and this situation? I have made a few mistakes, like giving too much of a hug, an unnecessary hug, and even not giving a hug when it would have been helpful. But, despite the complexities, sometimes a good way to convey love is a fatherly or brotherly hug.
Here are a few things to keep in mind. It’s wise to ask permission first, because you do not want to make her feel uncomfortable; pay attention to any non-verbal cues of unease. A hug from the side or a squeeze around the shoulder is a lot more sensible than a front-on hug. Hug only in full-view of others who know you.
Sometimes we can be so nervous about doing something inappropriate that we just stand aloof and inadvertently fail to convey genuine love. If it is clear that a brotherly hug would be welcomed and helpful, then you can proceed. There may be very good reasons not to hug someone, but fear of awkwardness is only self-serving.
On the flip side, if I am hugged inappropriately by a woman (a rare event, thankfully) or in a way that attracts me to her, I tell my wife immediately. It’s another safety valve.
“You conveyed love when calling me with tragic news by saying you wished you could give me a hug. And when you preached at my church (after not seeing you for a while) I went to shake your hand but you said ‘we can do better than that’ and gave me a hug.”
All this may seem extensive and therefore impossible because of time. Obviously a minister cannot do this with every woman, but the more involved a woman is with my ministries, the more I aim to do this kind of loving. It is a bit easier for Jan and I now because we are empty-nesters with fewer family demands. However, young men in ministry still need to genuinely love the women under their care with the limited time they have. After all, how long does it take to say a heartfelt thank you and to express a bit more emotion?
None of this is new or ground-breaking, it is just a thoughtful outworking of Paul’s general Christian principle in Philippians 2:4: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others”. We are called to love women by taking a genuine interest in their lives. But here is a penetrating question for married men in ministry: what is more important to you, the women you minister to or the ministry itself? And here’s another one: how would your wife answer that question? If the ministry is more important, you have missed the point and should repent.
The most helpful person for me has been my own wife. Jan has forgiven my failings behind closed doors—which has enabled me to press on in ministry outside the front door. She has also encouraged my strengths, which has further inspired me to press on in this ministry of love. Furthermore, and most impactful, she too has loved the women in our sphere of ministry. This has resulted in many women generously accepting my often inadequate ministry because I am Jan’s husband.
I hope this article will give married men who are ministers more ideas and encourage them to press on in loving other women under their care. You don’t want to be the banging gong and clanging cymbal of 1 Corinthians 13:1 in the pulpit.
1. In this article I am addressing only the situation of the married male pastor. I do not have the qualifications or the experience to write similarly for the single male pastor; I hope to read someone else’s wisdom on this.↩
2. In preparation for writing this article, I emailed a number of women whom I have sought to love throughout my ministry, asking them these four questions: “1. What did I do that conveyed love to you? (Be specific and give an example.) 2. Why did you feel loved? 3. How have I failed to love you in any way? 4. Any other thoughts you’d like to add?” Some responses have been incorporated into the article, while others are quoted.↩