A Summary of Research Findings
on Church Planting Spouses

by Shari Thomas, cO-Founder and CEO of Parakaleo

In the early 2000's, training spouses for church planting was a foreign concept for too many leaders.

Why train the wife? She's not planting the church. Besides, what would she be trained in? Are you unwittingly imposing a new standard of expectations on women who are already carrying a heavy load? Why is planting a church so hard for the wife, anyway?

I often encountered these questions when I approached seminaries, church planting agencies and seasoned planters about needs wives were facing. I had spent the past 20 years working with my husband to start new churches. In seminary I had taken every course I found on planting. Yet in all my studies, I never discovered anything that addressed what I would face for the next 30 years of ministry.

Nothing prepared me for the level of stress I would soon learn to live with as if it was ordinary.

When my denomination approached me in 2003 to develop a system of care for our planters' wives, I declined. Care isn't the greatest need, I responded. It's education. But I've since learned that it's education for both men and women.

After years of hearing disparaging and even derogatory comments, I knew I needed to discover what our evangelical leaders would listen to. A few heart-wrenching stories wouldn't do it. Proven facts, statistics and data were needed.

When I embarked on the project, I discovered no published research had been done in this field. I would need to begin with qualitative research. Sending a questionnaire to a vast number of women could easily lead me down the wrong path; a questionnaire doesn't tell us if we've even hit on the right issues. I had to discover what the real problems were. That can only be done with a control group to discover their similarities. For the next two years, I worked with a group of wives to uncover those parallels. The control group consisted of women who were between years three and seven of planting.. They were different ages, served in both urban and suburban settings, had differing numbers and ages of children and varying workloads inside and outside of the plant. However, they each shared common struggles.

Once those similarities were discovered, I began quantitative research to find how many other wives struggled with these issues and to what degree. Based on a Likert scale from 1-5 with 5 being the highest, wives from the U.S. rated their concerns. Any item that rated below a 3.2 on importance was then removed from this list.

Since that initial research in 2005, we have again rated the issues in the U.S., Europe and Latin America. The biggest variance in Latin America was that expectations was a much higher cause of stress. In global cities, finances received a higher rating. In all cultures, the husband, a support system, and a reliance on Christ remained the highest ratings.


The Top Reasons for stress or satisfaction

The most critical causes of stress or conversely, satisfaction, are listed in order of importance as rated by church planting spouses.

1. The Planter:

The lack of involvement of the planter increases loneliness and isolation for the spouse while placing added pressure on the marriage. If a clergy couple is relying primarily on each other for support, the marriage may function well most of the time, yet a narrow support system will become a problem when either one is not able to fulfill that role. (McMinn 2004). In church planting, this narrow support system frequently fails, as either partner is often unable to fulfill the level of sustenance that is needed.

If the husband is not cognizant of the type of stress planting causes for his wife and why, he will often expect a level of involvement in ministry unsuited to her ability and stamina. He may not be aware of the emotional strain he adds by sharing details over issues which she has no control or power to change.

Between 2005 and 2012, the planter has been rated as the most critical component of stress/satisfaction for the wife. When wives have another strong support system, the understanding and involvement of the husband in her life was not rated as high.

Levi Saunders

Levi Saunders

David Ragusa

David Ragusa


2. Support System:
The presence or lack thereof of a healthy support system.

When we conducted quantitative research, spouses did not report the presence of a support system apart from their husbands.

The major factor preventing spouses from experiencing the support they need is that their primary support system comes from their husbands—men who tend to be absent from the home evenings and weekends. The study also indicates that wives do not talk about their husband to others since this could jeopardize his career (McMinn, 2004).

The type of support needed is not just time spent with others. Often women's groups can be even more isolating for the planter's wife as they reinforce how different her life is from others. The support needed comes from other women in the same field or from the rare person who knows how to listen and ask appropriate questions without judgment or quick fixes.

3. Reliance on Christ: spouse's understanding and ability to rely on Christ's finished work on the cross in her everyday life.

While giving intellectual assent to the doctrine that the success or failure of the church depends on God's sovereignty and grace, church planters and their spouses often live out of a performance-based mentality. This is exemplified by consistently pushing oneself beyond physical and emotional limitations, the lack of self-care for body and soul and the inability to say no.

Those who possess a deep understanding of their adoption in Christ, their acceptance before the Father, and that all Christ’s riches belong to them report experiencing greater joy and delight in church planting.

4. Sabbath Rest: her participation/non-participation in recreation and Sabbath rest

Luis Llerna

Luis Llerna

Church planters and their spouses, like other clergy, often find themselves on call 24/7. Weekends, which may provide Sabbath opportunities for other professions, are usually consumed with planning, setting up, and executing the worship service. Because of the expandable nature of ministry needs and expectations, many planters and spouses have trouble setting boundaries and taking a Sabbath day off during the week.

Some planters receive excellent coaching on managing their schedules and taking time off; however, the wife rarely has a coach helping her with rhythms of work and rest. When her husband takes a day off, she may be left with more work. For the already overworked planter, assuming childcare responsibilities on a weekly basis so his wife can rest seems like an unaffordable luxury. If the wife also holds a full time job rest will be the first thing to go.

5.Boundary Ambiguity vs. Boundary Clarity: navigating shifting roles and a lack of emotional and physical clarityOF ROLE, OF USE OF PRIVATE SPACE, AND EXTENT OF EMOTIONAL INVOLVEMENT.

Church planting is filled with uncertainty. For the wife, this uncertainty is magnified as it impacts all areas of her life for which she has little or no preparation.

Studies conducted on clergy families discovered that the ambiguity for the wife is comparable to the ambiguity a military wife experiences when her husband is MIA, missing in action. (Lee, 1988.) The unknown can be paralyzing as a wife waits for circumstances to change.

Ambiguity is endemic to ministry. To the clergy family, the system is not clear. All members of the family participate either directly or indirectly in the church. There is some role expectation of the congregation, which must be fulfilled by the minister, his spouse, and even his children. This level of ambiguity causes high levels of stress for clergy spouses.
— Lee, 1988

For church planting families, the areas which cause the most ambiguity are as follows.

Role Ambiguity

Women report an inordinate challenge with the ambiguous role as the planter's spouse. Even though I had a passion for church planting and ministry training, my shifting, ambiguous role and constant lack of a defined position was difficult. I often functionally operated as an assistant minister yet without title, pay, or decision making power.

Emotional Ambiguity

The planting couples, more often than not, work together before other leaders are brought aboard. As they transition through the phases of a plant it is challenging to know what to share with one another. If she is in charge of a ministry she needs access to information. As the church grows, she often has less access to information or hears the problems but is not involved in the resolution. Women ask, how much should my husband tell me? I realize I am his primary support, but it's hard to love people well when I know how they have hurt him.

Physical Ambiguity

Especially for those in global cities, the lack of physical space combined with constant change in facilities is burdensome. The constant unknowns of facility and where we will be located coupled with the constant unknowns of who will stay and who will leave the church plant has been my biggest challenge.

Milada Vergova

Milada Vergova


Sixty percent of cp spouses reported leading more than one major ministry in the plant while simultaneously involved in two to three other ministries. They reported exhaustion, ministry burn out, anxiety disorders, and a variety of other physical ailments they had not previously experienced before church planting. Eighty percent report suffering from depression.

It is common knowledge that the planter lives under sustained levels of elevated pressure. However, it has not been understood until recently that the wife often lives with even higher levels of stress than the planter. The added strain of being the primary and often only caregiver of the children during the early planting years, the lack of a recognized position of power equal to her ministry responsibility combined with higher levels of ambiguity regarding her role compound the already stressful life of planting.

Major life stress such as change of residence and culture, finances, increased marital arguments, and loss of close friends will highly tax the most capable person even without adding the additional tensions that come with planting a church.

*In the original research this was defined as a lack of physical health. For clarity purposes the title of this stress was changed, as the decline in physical health was a direct result from living with sustained tension.

7. Church Growth/Changed lives: Evidence of changed lives impacting a community for Christ is highly rewarding.

When there is a noticeable lack of transformed lives, increased attendance or impact on a community, the question arises whether the level of sacrifice required of the entire family is worth the cost. Slow growth will invariably impact the financial sustainability of the plant (see#11) and raise doubts for the planting couple as to their calling.

8. The spouse's commitment and sense of call to church planting

Jeff Sheldon

Jeff Sheldon

Both partners are equally committed to a church planting lifestyle and believe this is God's call on their lives. While their roles and public participation in the plant will vary in each season of life, both are equally committed to planting. This will be reflected in shared respect for each role: the wife is aware and supportive of her husband's unusual schedule, and the husband is aware and sensitive to his family's need for his input and presence in their lives. A mutual calling implies both partners defer to the other when plans need to be altered or rhythms need to be established and followed. While each spouse will express her calling uniquely and may be involved with other career paths as well, she will be doing so with the same intent to impact a community for Christ.

The spouse who is not in agreement with planting or who, if truth were told, didn't have a choice in the decision will experience increased stress and often resentment. Spouses who do not believe their calling is equally important as their husbands' may tend to believe they are less valuable to God.

A wise sending agency will include the wife in the assessment process. A prudent couple will question joining a sending agency that does not include the wife in assessment nor support her in church planting training.

9.Family Life/Raising children:

All women who participated in the research became the primary caregivers during the plant. Many wives reported being the sole decision makers regarding their children. Those who experienced the highest levels of stress in family life indicted not only that their spouses were uninvolved with the children but that they also required the children and wife to increase their church participation when volunteer commitments waned.

Contrary to popular belief, children are not resilient. A young child needs access to a safe adult who will soothe and protect, thus enabling the child to establish healthy relationships in the future. Couples who recognized this and planned accordingly experienced less stress than those who did not.

Families that fared well had husbands and fathers who recognized the time limit of three years or less where their energy and time was focused solely on the church. Even during the early years, however, these fathers found consistent (albeit small) amounts of time to give to their families. Small, consistent time where children had their dad's undivided attention was more important than a larger quantity of time but at unpredictable times.

Couples who incrementally added more family time after the start of the church were able to fare well for the duration of a ministry career.

10. Expectations: the spouse's ability/inability to manage expectations of/from self and others

Nothing prepared me for the level of stress I would soon learn to live with as if it was ordinary.
— Shari Thomas

When planting in unchurched regions, expectations for the wife to assume a defined, stated role are minimal. The couple has an opportunity to develop the DNA of the church and instill fewer demands on the pastoral family than may be the norm in other settings. However, since planters often start a church with limited assistance from others, both husband and wife are highly involved from the beginning. When this is the case and attendance is small, the wife will know everyone by name, be involved in his or her life and participate in most if not all events of the church. Without realizing it, she sets a high standard for herself--one which will be impossible to live up to as the church grows. Because of her commitment to see this church thrive, she will unwittingly take on more responsibilities than she can realistically manage. More often than not, her husband expects her to also work as hard as he does on the plant. Unaware of the long-term consequences, the couple is setting in motion a path toward burnout, emotional withdrawal and potentially a mental breakdown.

Unlike pastoring, in church planting, often the wife has higher expectations of the launch team or initial members than they have of her. She may expect a higher commitment level from them than they are willing to give. She will wrestle, and rightly so, with the expectation that this early group will stay with the church and be loyal members.

11. Finances: the spouse's ability/inability to navigate financial limitations

The initial research on this project was conducted prior to the global economic crisis. At that time the concern for finances produced less stress than it is producing in today's planting couples. The increased need for the wife to work in order to sustain the family is quite common.

However, if she is the primary caregiver while also working full time to sustain the plant, she will more than likely struggle with the effects of long-term stress and possibly resentment. Couples who manage well come to a mutual agreement regarding her work, childcare, how money is spent, and the number of years they will dedicate to planting the church under these conditions.

As a result of this research, Parakaleo (Greek for coming alongside), was founded in 2005. Since then, Parakaleo has developed training,  coaching, materials, and network cohorts to address these needs.

Parakaleo works both nationally and internationally with sending agencies and local church planting networks in order to develop ongoing local groups for wives. We published Beyond Duct Tape: Holding the heart Together in a Life of Ministry, and developed curricula for spouses entering church planting, for group leaders and for one- on-one coaching. In addition, we have an active web presence that includes a blog and FaceBook page.

One third of Parakaleo's operational costs are covered through training events and coaching. Seventy percent of operational costs are covered thru fundraising.

12. Use of gifts and abilities - the Planter and spouse are in agreement/non agreement on the use of her gifts and abilities in relation to ministry.

Church planting can be a great opportunity for women to be highly involved in ministry. Yet, often for the woman married to the planter it may come as a surprise if she is unable to use her gifts as she anticipated she would.  This may be especially true for women gifted in teaching and leadership. Especially when a church is young it is important that too much power does not reside in the pastoral home. Future leaders need to be identified, trained and released to minister. Spouses often struggle with releasing ministry to less gifted leaders who are then paid to do what she has done for free. If the planter’s spouse has a key role in the church it lessens confusion for everyone if she is given a title and power commiserate with the level of responsibility her role requires. If her role is one of volunteer then it should be similar to that expected from other volunteers. Often a planter, in hopes of protecting his spouse from expectations, will say  

she isn’t taking a role in the church plant. This tactic actually backfires. All core group members will be asked to be involved in the church plant. This expectation should be true for the planter’s spouse as well. 

Parakaleo can be contacted at www.parakaleo.us

Shari Thomas
Updated 9/28/12



Study Background:

Shari conducted two research studies. The first was qualitative research to determine the stress and satisfaction levels of church planting spouses in the Presbyterian Church in America. The second was quantitative research which became the foundation of the Church Leader Spouse Inventory (CLSI), an interactive 360 degree assessment instrument. that accompanies the Church Leader Inventory (CLI) used during leadership assessment in the PCA, in City to City, in ECHO, in the EPC and in a growing number of other church planting organizations. While the CLSI was developed for use in the United States, further surveys have been conducted in diverse cultural contexts. To date, these surveys reveal that the wife of the lead pastor in church planting ministry in other countries needs the same competencies as her counterpart in the U.S.. The differences lie in the extent that these competencies will hinder or sustain her marriage and the couples’ ministry.

The CLSI is a hands-on resource that helps individuals and organizations evaluate the readiness of spouses for church planting and assists in development of skills for those in a supportive role.  It also encourages spouses of existing leaders to evaluate their strengths and identify areas in which they might improve. The spouse, an integral part of the team regardless of role or title, will impact the church and vise versa. Church planters, leaders, and their families are entering a context that is ambiguous by nature and requires the couple and at times the whole family to discuss needs, expectations, and action steps which need to be implemented for the sake of the family and the church. While one may simultaneously be a church leader and a church leader’s spouse, this inventory is designed for those focusing on their supportive role. For spouses also holding a leadership role in the church, consider taking the Church Leader Inventory (CLI).

The inventory consists of 52 action and behavior-based statements that are designed to measure 13 competencies among 6 areas: spiritual dynamics, family life, Integrity, learning agility, missional engagement, and emotional stability. The inventory also includes 35 actions and attitudinal statements designed to evaluate behaviors that may hinder or destroy effectiveness.

CLSI allows for self appraisal and feedback from leaders, peers, and disciples. Particular ratings of references are treated confidentially and not disclosed to the candidate.

CLSI should only be debriefed with certified assessors trained to interpret this instrument and thus provide professional judgment.

Shari Thomas J. Allen Thompson, Ph.D. John F. Thomas, Ph.D.

Copyright  © 2007 by International Church Planting Center

For Further Information on taking the CLSI or the CLI: 

Contact Jenny Dorsey at  JENNY@PARAKALEO.US


changed lives: what respondents are saying

We wouldn’t still be here planting a church if it wasn’t for Parakaleo.
— Church Planter
Finally, there has been validation for my questions/feelings—-not just hugs and ‘I will pray for you,’ but actually giving me tools to keep my head above water and not make my husband crazy.
— Church Planting Spouse