Dear Pastor's Wife

Dear Marilane (A Letter To Everyone)

Like scores of other people during the last two weeks, I’ve been glued to the story of Marilane Carter. And now, with everyone else, I am processing the devastating outcome to her disappearance. I can’t begin to fathom the depths of the family’s grief, and I find myself turning those thoughts into constant prayer on their behalf.

I’m a delayed processor who does a lot of internal work before I ever say anything out loud or public. And, to be honest, a lot of the time my musings never make it to my keyboard. But this story is one that needs to be shared and talked about, not for exploitation, but for the good of the human experience and for getting to the heart of life. (Please stick with me here.)

Why has Marilane’s story captured so many of us?

Pastors’ wives find themselves in her life.

Moms (especially postpartum and moms of littles) find themselves in her life.

Wives find themselves in her life.

Daughters and siblings find themselves in her life.

Friends and family of those who have taken their lives find themselves in her life.

Mental health sufferers and suicide survivors find themselves in her life.

Religious converts find themselves in her life.

It is precisely these human experiences that cause us to relate so keenly with the detail of the story.

But herein also lies a danger. We can so characterize ourselves to her story, that we think we have it figured out- at least- the aspect that most resounds with our own struggle or experience or role.

I’ve seen some posts floating around that take on only the pastor’s wife angle, as if that is what caused Marilane to leave her life. Something hasn’t set right with me when I read these posts. I’ve also seen posts that only take the angle of a mental health sufferer. Something hasn’t set well with me when I read those posts, either.

Did being a pastor’s wife play into her struggle and eventual decision? Very likely. But being a pastor’s wife (and all that comes with that role) is not the cause of Marilane’s suicide. The same could be said for the role of “mom” and “wife” and every other part of who Marilane was. Marilane was a whole, multi-faceted, complex person with many aspects to her life. We do her a huge disservice to assume that we know which straw broke the camel’s back.

I joined several groups online during the two week search for Marilane. I was a silent observer in all of them. And I was grieved at the lack of human decency that erupts when mystery enters the picture.

It’s like we have to know. We have to be omniscient.

It’s like we have to be the first to know, to peg the situation as we see it. We have to be omnipotent.

It’s like we have to read every post, weigh every comment, analyze every angle. We have to be omnipresent.

We have to be like God, or be God- I think it’s the latter, sadly. What on God’s green earth have we allowed social media to do to us? Turn us into arrogant conspiracy theorists, thinking we know it all?

God’s Word says that our hearts are so desperately wicked, that we can’t even know the depths (Jeremiah 17:9). There is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart- it’s the Word of God, through the leading of the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 4:12; Psalm 139:23-24). If we believe everything we think, we will go down a path that leads to destruction (Proverbs 16:25).

Instead, we must ask “What does God say? What matter of the heart is at stake here?” Because everything goes back to the heart. (Please don’t hear me as saying that all mental illness is sin. Our minds and bodies are inexplicably linked, so that every situation is much more complicated than that. Could there be a spiritual/emotional need that needs attention? Of course. Could there be a physical/hormonal problem that needs attention? Of course. Could it be both? Most likely.)

I will be the first to say- even with my theology degree and counseling training- that I don’t have all the answers. In fact, the more I study and prepare, and the closer I get to being a certified counselor, the more aware I am of how much I don’t know, how desperately I need God’s wisdom, and of how serious is the responsibility of guiding people’s hearts and lives.

We must allow the relatable human experience make us compassionate. We must open hard conversations. We must deconstruct stigmas that prevent these hard conversations within the family, the church, and the community. We must be committed to getting to the heart of issues of life. We must accept that we cannot, do not, and will not ever have all the answers. Jesus didn’t promise answers to everything. He promised His presence, His guiding Word, and His Holy Spirit. We must be continually look at life through the lens of the Word of God- not our own experience- when needing wisdom to understand situations.

There was a time, shortly after I started this ministry for pastors’ wives, when I rallied the troops, calling for systemic church change. I felt that if church members understood the plight of pastoral families, we might be able to see change that would impact the health and tenure of those pastoral families, creating a healthier church as a whole through a trickle down effect.

I still think that that type of change is needed and would be amazing to see happen. But I don’t believe it will happen on a large scale. Several reasons why- The church will never fully look like Jesus until His return. Jesus said plainly that He was leaving us an example of suffering. The servant is not greater than His master, so if our Good Shepherd suffered while shepherding us, who are we to expect that we will not suffer while shepherding others?

If you’re thinking that what I just said sounds a bit insensitive, let me assure you that I have lived through things in pastoral ministry that some would not believe if I shared the details. I’m no stranger to the brutality and trauma that is part of being a pastor’s wife. My stories could fill a book, and it is through those experiences that I heard God’s calling to start this ministry almost 10 years ago, so that other pastors’ wives could be encouraged on this road. I wanted to be the help and encouragement that wasn’t available when I needed it.

I have realized along the way that no matter who or where suffering in life comes from, it is my heart that responds, and in a way, determines my future. God is the One who ordains my path, and He is the healer of my heart. I respond to Him. It’s not that simple, but it is.

This is why my writing changed some years back, and I turned my focus to helping the hearts of pastors’ wives to respond and become more like Jesus, instead of trying to get churches to change. This is also why I say….it’s not the fact that Marilane was a pastor’s wife, or a mom, or a wife, or a daughter, or a mental health sufferer, or a ________________(fill in the blank with whatever role you resonate with) that drove her to suicide.

It’s much deeper and more complicated than that. And we should be fine with not knowing, and set to work tending our own hearts, and then the hearts of those around us.

Paul Tripp said in his always very timely devotional New Morning Mercies, “We need help to face the often overwhelming call to relationships, following God’s high standards and not giving way to the desire to run.”

And the apostle Paul said in Romans 13:8, “Owe no man anything, except to love one another.”

What do we owe to Marilane, to her family & friends, to the hearts of those around us? Nothing but love, for in this (as Paul goes on to say) the entire law is fulfilled. That law was fulfilled in Christ, who gives us that resurrection power that we desperately need in order to “not give way to the desire to run” (we’ve ALL been there- it’s part of the human experience) and to love one another as He has loved us (John 15:12).

It’s a high calling, higher than any role we can identify with in any part of the human experience. Will you take this role?

The fine print: This role comes with a high price.

Are you willing to pay it?

XOXO,

A Kindred Spirit

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5 thoughts on “Dear Marilane (A Letter To Everyone)

  1. This is the core, the truth. This gives perspective and peace. This alters our expectations of ministry by making them Biblical. Thanks, Leah, for saying it so well.

    Jesus said plainly that He was leaving us an example of suffering. The servant is not greater than His master, so if our Good Shepherd suffered while shepherding us, who are we to expect that we will not suffer while shepherding others?

  2. Thank you, Leah, for your compassionate and scriptural response to this tragedy. God help each of us to receive His comfort and to be channels for it into the broken hearted all around us!

  3. Excellent. I was a pastor’s wife for 17 years until he resigned because of family problems with our son. Many times other preachers said “If your husband isn’t successful it’s the wife’s fault.” Looking back I see the lie. My husband suffered with mental illness for 40 years. He never got help because we had been taught read your Bible and pray and any mental illness would be fine. 7 years ago he got help! He has a real chemical imbalance in his brain. He loves the Lord and serves as a layman. Pray for one another and encourage one another.

  4. Thank you for sharing this. I am also a retired pastor’s wife. I enjoyed your focus on so many aspects of a pastor’s wife. Focusing on the word of God is key. We need to bring people to love Jesus. I could write a book too. We ministered away from family too. Our youngest child was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and being deaf at seminary. There are times thru the years that I must have been numb, but God kept it all together for me. I have gone thru many stages of grief over the loss of Marilane because we served and loved with she and Adam in our church before he became a full time pastor and they moved to Kansas. They were a special couple that you don’t meet too many times in your life. Thank you for your ministry and this comforting article for me. May God bless you and the Carter family. 🤟❤️🙏

  5. Thank you for sharing this perspective. Yes, it is very disheartening what many people make up about what happened to Marilane. This story moved me from the beginning.

    I would love to see her family talk more openly about her struggles. Has she always struggled with depression or mental health? As a child, what was she like?

    It is heartbreaking that she was so far gone in her mind that she thought the stigma of getting help for mental illness would be worse than taking her own life (and here I am assuming what her thought process may have been.)

    I hope that some day soon her family will become vocal about recognizing the signs, for the purpose of helping other families. What were those warning signs?

    God created people to make medications to help with mental illness, because He knows that praying it away is not always the answer.

    Thank you for highlighting this story in a helpful way. Many blessings to you and your work here.

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