Dear Matriarchs,

My husband attends church only occasionally – about once a month or less. I learned today – Easter Sunday – that one of my more difficult male church members asked him to convey something to me “because she doesn’t listen to us” (the usher team). Now, while I might want to rant and rave about this church member and his history of throwing shade on me behind my back, I wonder: Does this happen more to male clergy spouses than female?

Also, could male camaraderie be part of the equation? My husband began this story by telling me that so-and-so is a likeable guy; that they had an enjoyable conversation this morning at church (which led to said church member’s request for my husband’s intercession).

What do you think: Would a male pastor care (as much as I apparently do) if a female church member fairly routinely criticized him for sins not committed? Is it different when a vocal, yet liked male church member criticizes a confident female pastor?

Grace and peace,
A Perplexed Pastor

The Matriarchs know what you’re talking about here, Perplexed Pastor, and while they vary on whether to emphasize the gender factor, they all support setting boundaries to avoid triangulation. Here’s what they have to say.

Dear Perplexed Pastor,
As a person who works with lots of congregations, I actually see this a lot with both husbands & wives of both male & female pastors. It seems more prevalent, frankly, between clergy wives & women in the congregation.

Clergy or not, it’s good to set clear boundaries in terms of communication. I don’t relay a parishioner’s information to my husband (their pastor) and he doesn’t relay Presbytery information to me for other pastors.

Eastertide greetings,

Jan Edmiston (A Church for Starving Artists)

I am so sorry you had to deal with secondhand criticism, especially on Easter! That never feels good, and it’s difficult to deal with hard words when they reach you indirectly, all the more so in your case, coming as they did through a spouse.

I think it is very easy for female clergy to suspect that any time we are undermined, criticized, or mistreated it is based on gender-bias. Sometimes it is! But not always, and regardless, I’m not sure it’s helpful to wonder, any time bad behavior happens, if our male colleagues have to deal with this as much as we do. What’s accomplished by ascribing sexist motive to bad behavior? If bad behavior happens, it needs to be dealt with regardless of whether it’s gender-based or not.

In the case you’ve presented, you seem not to be asking for advice in dealing with this particular situation, but I’d like to offer some anyway. Your husband unwittingly got triangulated, and I’m sure that didn’t feel good to you or your husband. It might be helpful, moving forward, for you to think through with your husband how he might handle such situations in the future (for example, saying to a person trying to triangulate him, “I’m sorry, but I don’t deliver messages to my wife; you will need to speak to her directly”). Be clear with your husband about what you need from him (for example, if he does overhear criticism of you or your ministry, how do you want him to handle that in the future?).

To answer the questions you’ve asked, in my experience pastors’ wives deal with this sort of thing just as pastors’ husbands do, and male clergy have to deal with criticism, bad behavior, backbiting, and triangulation just as female clergy do. Most of the male clergy I know care about their people liking them just as much as I do.

I would encourage you to take gender out of the equation, figure out how you want to deal with this particular situation (with respect both to your husband and the critic), and then use it as a learning opportunity for both you and your husband on how to deal with this sort of thing in the future.


This is a problem with male clergy too, but it isn’t quite as fierce for men as women because of the way that culture has developed us. That said, I do hope your husband said to the guy, “would you tell this to the pastor? If you don’t think she is listening to you, I would be glad to go with you while you tell her so it will be clear what you need.” This gets your husband out of the equation and the lines of authority are clear.

If you don’t think this happens to male clergy, ask their wives! I can assure you that that kind of triangulation has been going on for centuries! In fact in the early days of women’s ordination, many of the people who were most opposed to our ordination were clergy wives because we somehow usurped their power.

Also, this may be a generational thing. If the guy who talked to your husband is over the age of 55, most likely this a part of the way that men and women grew up. Many men my age have never worked with women in positions of authority and don’t know how to relate to us save for the way that they treat their wives.

See if you can get this guy to go out for a coffee or a beer with you. I always found that bridged all kinds of gaps for guys who don’t feel that they can come to you. You may find out that they will then become one of your staunchest supporters.

I would love to hear how this works out for you.

Lauren A. Gough  (Stone of Witness)

Dear Perplexed Pastor,
It’s perplexing, all right. There are some male-female issues at work here, to be sure. No doubt, we women pastors have had a different professional experience and spouse experience than our male colleagues. We could ponder this for eons. I would urge you to action, though. Please address this boundary issue soon and decisively. Well-meaning though they both might have been, both the church member and your husband crossed the boundary between work life and home life.

My suggestion: Affirm your husband for his desire to help. Then ask him to agree to stop the conversation when someone wants him to relay messages to you. You can role-play with him some possible kind-but-firm responses, like: “I’ll leave it to you to tell her what you want her to know.” Be clear about your expectation that hubby will be strongly supportive of your professional role as pastor by staying out of your professional role. You deserve the same hands-off respect that a spouse would give a brain surgeon or police officer or any other professional working in their professional setting. He can’t be active in that arena with, or between, you and your congregation, even when — especially when — he wants to help. What he can be is a terrific husband, and he’s the only one who can!

Sharon Temple at Tidings of Comfort and Joy

Dear PP ~

Triangulation defies gender-stereotyping. My male colleagues have suffered from and over the sabotaging criticism of church members of both genders, as have my female colleagues. 

I once received a piece of criticism delivered via my teenage daughter, who was deeply offended on my behalf, but didn’t know what to do other than report it to me. I told her that day what I believe would also be good advice for most clergy family members: “If someone wants to talk about my work, smile and say nicely, ‘I am sure she would want to hear about that from you.'” This applies to staff members as well. If we don’t want the people close to us to be triangulated, we need to give them tools for coping with the first move others make.

Martha at Reflectionary


Readers, what do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments. And if you have a question for our panel, please email it to askthematriarch at gmail dot com.

5 thoughts on “Ask the Matriarch: When a Spouse is Triangulated

  1. I agree with what everyone said: The spouse, of any gender, needs to say, “Please tell this to the pastor directly.” I’ve always thought someone could get rich making cards for pastors’ spouses to hand out.

    I wonder if what the parishioner meant was not “she doesn’t listen to us” but “she doesn’t give in automatically.” I have had conversations in which I had to say explicitly, “I *did* hear what you said. After listening to you, *this* is the decision I’ve made.” Say that often enough and the “not listening” complaint gives way to a different one that at least acknowledges your authority to make such decisions, even if they aren’t universally popular. Whether or not this happens more often to female clergy, I’m not inclined to put up with the idea that my decisions can be ignored.


  2. This is a really tough issue no matter what gender. One thing we really have to keep in mind is that we are in a power/authority role no matter how accessible we may see ourselves. It is hard for people to tell criticism directly to anyone, but harder if you see them as in authority.

    Others on this string have given excellent advice about how to help others not be caught in between, but we also have to work on our skills at hearing and being approachable. We can go a long way to helping others tell us hard things if we really listen without interrupting and get good at holding our own hurt feelings in check. We can validate and reflect back what we hear them saying before teasing out the over side to the issue.

    This is not easy and if we are burnt out or really stressed it can be nigh on impossible.

    I agree with the recommendation to ask this person to have coffee on neutral territory somewhere, and also take care of yourself so you are getting what you need (sleep, down time, etc. )

    This is so hard!

    Blessings to you and all in this situation!



  3. I sat in my first Pastoral Formation Class@ Drew in ’86, and was told that women are women’s worst critics, and in my pastoral and interim work, systems theory has proven this time and time again.Again, I am promoting a wise and out-of-print book: “Incest in the Organizational Family: the Ecology of Burnout in Closed Systems”, a business book that is pre-systens theory but embraces it whole heartedly.

    Sunce my spouse is Quaker, and not UCC, it hasn’t been an issue in my ministry. However, I have seen how it can frustrate a clergy family. Of course, I am old enough to remember the reaction my home church had when the Pastor’s wife was NOT an organist…or a Church Secretary…or even a ” lady who lunched”. She was a nurse, she worjed outside the home. Horrors! Just how was the congregation going to mold her in their image of a pastor’s wife!?

    This will happen, triangulation as long as the congregation sees the idea of just who is in charge. Ms. Pastor “doesn’t listen? Go to her husband! She’ll listen to him of course.

    Best response is: go to the Board, the PPR, or, even better…the pastor! This is not his issue, and he needs to defer to the chief here. Not sending them to the focus of the message is codependant behavior


  4. I’d just like to underline the wisdom of saying, in response to critique — I hear what you’re saying (it helps if you can respond with a quick precis of what you’ve heard); I’ve taken note of it; THIS, however, is what I’m going to do. Just skip the “you and your critique are wrong/faulty/defective/misleading for the following reasons” — acknowledge, and move along ( in meetings sometimes I used to say just “duly noted and minuted”).


  5. Any ideas for when the pastor is the culprit 🙂 My dh is a member of our church council. I’m not, but head up the children’s programme. Our previous pastor was very scrupulous about mailing/calling me after meetings about things that concern me. Our new guy, not so much. With dh we now kind of have a thing where he says “we discussed , you should probably check back with “. Who acts surprised ever time… (This is more around him telling me decisions and other things I need to know, than criticism, but its still annoying !)


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