Interview with a Pastor’s Wife from Shanghai – The Power of the Gospel Can Deliver Me from Darkness
Editor’s note: In honor of Women’s History Month, CP’s prayer initiative is focusing on our sisters in Christ. Featuring interviews with five different women, March’s content provides a special glimpse into the ways the gospel is impacting the hearts of China’s women.
This interview is with a young pastor’s wife from Shanghai. She discusses the pressures she faces in the church; the challenges and benefits of discipleship; the gospel’s impact on her relationship with her mom; spiritual friendships; and the cultural idols of Chinese women.
CP: Can you introduce yourself?
Pastor’s wife: I am from Shanghai. I was born again and baptized in 2005. My journey with Christ began when I met my husband after college. He shared the gospel with me and took me to church. The church’s loving atmosphere felt very different from society, and so, later, I followed my husband and put my trust in the Lord. My husband became a full-time pastor in 2012, so I have now assumed the role of a church’s shimu (the official Chinese title for a pastor’s wife).
CP: What challenges do you face as a pastor’s wife?
Pastor’s wife: In the beginning I was really not used to being addressed this way, especially when some of the older sisters in the church came up to me and called me shimu (“pastor’s wife”). When they asked me some theological questions and looked at me expectantly, I suddenly realized that strong theological training was required of the pastor’s wife. This was why I had some struggles about how to be a shimu at the start.
All of a sudden, I felt a lot of pressure, especially regarding how to shepherd these older sisters. They are more experienced and seasoned in life, and I am relatively young, so I did not know how to lead them as the pastor’s wife. Only after I went through a period of struggle being in this role did I begin to slowly enter into my identity in the gospel; that is, I began to focus more on what Christ has accomplished, rather than what I ought to do to fulfill my role.
Another thing is that I was working full-time then (and I still do). And at the same time, I had a nine-year-old child. Because of the many expectations that church members might have, I thought about whether I needed to [quit my job] then. The church might expect me to shoulder certain ministry responsibilities at church, or I might need to go on visitations or be there to care for our women at any time. I had a lot of difficulty then with how to manage my time, since I was only able to be at church on Sundays. I was very troubled at the time about whether I needed to resign from my job and commit all my physical and mental energies to supporting my husband in pastoring the church. My difficulty included the question of how much ministry work I should take on at church: whether I had to teach children’s Sunday school, or whether I should lead worship, etc. In other words, I did not know to what extent I needed to be involved in serving the church in order to live up to my title of pastor’s wife. So, these were the substantial pressures that I faced at the time; they were from the expectations of the church and my own understanding of my identity.
CP: Has your experience of gospel renewal changed the way you handle church members’ expectations? If so, how?
Pastor’s wife: In the beginning, I felt like a failure when I could not answer [those theological questions]. That did motivate me to go deeper in Bible study and receive more theological training. But more importantly, the gospel set me free and enabled me to say that Christ has already overcome no matter how great my failure is. I can hence feel freer to see my role as the pastor’s wife not in terms of performance; rather, my service to the church is the outworking of my relationship with Christ.
CP: What are the main ministries you are involved in right now?
Pastor’s wife: I am still working a full-time job. I mostly teach in the children’s Sunday school. In addition to this, I disciple sisters in the church. I’m mainly involved in these two ministries. One is serving women and the other is serving children.
CP: Are you training pastors’ wives?
Pastor’s wife: Because I am still receiving training myself, I have not gotten involved in this ministry yet. Also, since I’m still working full-time, I need to see to what extent I can participate in this kind of ministry.
CP: Can you talk about discipleship at your church?
Pastor’s wife: Six of us (two brothers and four sisters) received discipleship training last December to become the launch team. Then this July we will introduce a discipleship ministry within the church. We now have two small groups of sisters and two small groups of brothers setting about taking a discipleship course.
CP: How do women in the Chinese church view discipleship?
Pastor’s wife: I feel that the sisters in our church are all at different life stages: some are married, some are single, some are getting ready for children, and some are already mothers. In terms of how they view discipleship, they mostly hope to find companionship there. They find it to their great benefit to see how others live. At the same time the community they have there enables them to face the various challenges and difficulties that life presents.
CP: This question is a bit abstract. For example, when I was in China, our church did not have discipleship training, and we did not know much about what it was. But after that I went to study abroad in the States, and the church I attended there had a particularly well-developed and well-established discipleship program. The pastor explained to us in what form the discipleship would take place: brothers and sisters are in separate groups. For the sisters’ group there was one leader leading four disciples. These women become very intimate with each other; they are very open and share many things in the group. I was very amazed because I had never had such relationships when I was in China, this kind of intimate sisterly relationship, in which one is completely transparent and open. I am normally quite reserved with others, so I do not know whether this is the influence of our culture or whether it is difficult to develop such intimate relationships without discipleship training. This is why I am curious to know what women in the Chinese church think about this matter. Do they feel challenged by the kind of transparency and openness demanded by discipleship, or do they feel at ease with it?
Pastor’s wife: Before discipleship begins, we will chat with the sister and say that she can feel free to choose how open she wishes to be. We also sign an agreement to say that we will keep the stories and experiences she shares during discipleship training confidential, so that she knows that it is a safe space. This is to say that our sisters are protected and given space here.
I think that from unbelief to belief, as a person grows in faith, the gospel continues to build [in the believer] a sense of security in the process, freeing the person to share his or her stories with others. Since I am still in the workplace, I have observed that many non-Christian young women around me idolize certain things nowadays. One of them, a young girl born in ‘94, told me that she was not afraid of death, but she was afraid of getting old. She does all kinds of things to make herself look pretty. I believe that working to improve one’s physical appearance – including getting cosmetic surgery and using all kinds of beauty products (including ingestible ones) – is a huge idol.
A question that we chat about in discipleship is: how does the gospel change you? There was one sister who shared that she used to be in the bondage of physical beauty. But she no longer feels as affected or trapped. Of course, she may still care about her looks, but she is no longer as fearful or as controlled by it, [no longer] saying: if I do not look good, I cannot go out the door. Therefore, I feel that the gospel effects this kind of transformation in the church, giving freedom to our sisters and enabling them to become more open: they shall no longer feel that if they do not cover themselves up, they cannot show up in front of others, or have a conversation. There is now the courage to be transparent.
CP: Can you share your story of the gospel’s impact on your relationship with your mom?
Pastor’s wife: I grew up in a family environment that was full of all kinds of conflict; my parents fought constantly. This is why when I was living with my mother, I was filled with all sorts of fear. I discovered that my father’s fault-finding and dismissive attitude toward my mom, his criticizing her, and his manner of speaking to her – all these had left an indelible mark on me, and they were affecting my attitude toward my mother. And during a later period of time when I was alone with my mom, I found that this had become a long-term, habitual sin, one that I could not overcome. In the beginning I thought that this was the impact my family of origin had on me. Later, I realized that this was actually my own sinfulness in me.
I went through a long period of prayer and many painful tears. I really wanted to be able to honor my parents, to be a person of gentle speech, and a filial daughter to mom. But I could not do it. So then, I started condemning and blaming myself a lot. I asked myself why I could not live these things out. I was treating myself in a way that tended toward legalism. I would press myself and frustratingly ask, “Why am I not able to live this way?”
But God was slowly changing me. I also went through some training. When I recognized my identity in Christ and learned how to truly repent of my sins in him and the joy it brings (that is, I cannot overcome my own sin by relying on myself; rather, every time I sin, it is a moment of grace in which I can return to my place in Christ, and then sob and cry to him, and tell him that I have sinned yet again), I knew that my sins had been nailed to the cross. And so, I rested on the righteousness that Jesus had already accomplished. No longer was I gaining any credit for myself through my own righteous behavior. When I meditated continually on the righteousness that had already been attained by Jesus, I was more and more able to rest. I do not make myself a filial daughter through my own effort. This truth has given me tremendous liberation. It has enabled me to relate to my mother with greater and greater freedom. Even so, there is inevitably some residual sin.
However, I remember once after I finished a training, I went home and gave my mom a hug. I said “sorry” to her. I told her that all these years I have been defiant and rude when I talk back to her. Then my mother also cried. She is also a believer, so she thinks that the Lord is a true and living God. Thus, God is molding me little by little. Perhaps he has not turned me instantly into someone who pleases him perfectly, but he is still steadily helping me to get to know and experience him, and slowly but surely become who he wants me to be.
In the recent months, I experienced a physical ailment and was exceedingly weak. In my weakness, I suddenly recognized that my critical attitude toward my mother had come from my pride and self-righteousness. All of a sudden, I began to think that this physical illness could help me learn humility, thus I could become more able to empathize with my mother’s difficulties.
And so, when I was talking with my husband one night and asking him how I had been different lately, and when my mother sat down and responded that she thought I had changed a lot in recent days, I thought: wow, this is another moment of grace. It is very true. I might not have noticed it, but my mother did. So, I think, just trust God. I have learned over and over that when I trust him, I can overcome many more of my deepest sins that are controlling me. Perhaps my family of origin did leave an indelible imprint on me. But the power of Christ, the power of the gospel, can deliver me from such a darkness so that I can have greater joy. Then more of Christ’s character will flow out of my life.
CP: Do you have a female friend, Christian or non-Christian, with whom you have a close relationship?
Pastor’s wife: I think so. She is a sister. I think she has had quite a lot of influence on me. We met before our church started. But after a while she got busy at work, and she also gave birth, so she left us. I kept praying for her, hoping that she would come back. A year after our church was established, she did come back. She said that she had not wandered away from God during her absence, and that she had been teaching the Bible to her child and had been praying. So, when she was among us again, God gave me a lot of encouragement and comfort through her. She is the kind who takes initiative and is very capable. She has impacted me a lot. I am more passive, so when I am with her, her enthusiasm and drive galvanize me and brighten me up, so that I feel more motivated to do certain things.
CP: Is there an older woman in your life whom you would consider your role model?
Pastor’s wife: Actually, I have been a believer for more than a decade now, but it seems like I have never received any discipleship training in all these years.
I have always been part of a small group or I was just nurtured in the church. There was never an elder Christian sister who did one-on-one discipleship with me, whether short-term or long-term. I believe God has his own plan and good will for me in my leading a discipleship small group right now.
I feel that God has not given me such a sister to walk with me or pastor me. But he has nurtured me through many other ways.
Recently I got to know a pastor’s wife through [a training ministry for pastor’s wives] and had the chance to spend some time with her. She touches my heart because of the way she serves the Lord even at her age and with her health condition. I find my heart aching for her. She has set a great example for me. She is very hardworking and faithful to the Lord. At the same time, she is very kind and humble. She is very patient toward us young pastors’ wives. She takes time to ask about our spiritual lives, and she encourages us and prays for us. I hope I can become that kind of pastor’s wife in the future. Her relationship with Christ is such that she is overflowing with love. She is humble and faithful.
CP: What are the cultural idols of Chinese women?
Pastor’s wife: There is a cultural idol—appearance. [Chinese women] will spend lots of money on plastic surgery and spend lots of time on cosmetics. At the same time, consumerism is also a big idol. It includes all kinds of shopping. Rich people will buy name brands and luxury products. If they do not have much money, they will search for good deals. In my work environment and daily life, I’ve discovered that many women will use up all of their income each month buying all kinds of things. This puts great pressure on their boyfriends and husbands. Also, because of this, after they get married young women realize they have serious financial issues. Therefore, their husbands have to go earn more money, which makes them busier. Meanwhile, they will find ways to borrow money, which leads to bankruptcy and broken marriages. So, this is a huge idol.
As for those families with children, another idol for these women is their children and their children’s education. Nowadays, kids start their education early at the age of two or three. They have to learn English and the arts so that they can get a head start and hopefully get into a good school. In the past, their only pressure was the college entrance examination. But now, this pressure begins with their kindergarten interviews. After this, they face the pressure of entering elementary school, where there is intense competition. Then there is great pressure as they face competition entering middle school. So, kids nowadays spend most of their time in after-school programs and extra-curricular classes. This also leads to sisters in the church not attending Sunday worship if their children have piano exams that day. All of their thoughts are consumed by their children’s education, so they don’t have any interest in serving at church. These idols not only influence all of secular culture, but also the internal structure of healthy churches.
CP: What overall impact does the gospel have on women, and what impact has it had on you? How have sisters at your church been changed by the gospel?
Pastor’s wife: There is a sister at the church. She used to care a lot about her appearance. Later, because of the gospel, she did not care as much anymore. She was slowly set free from this idol. In addition, the gospel will affect how other sisters interact with their colleagues in their workplaces. In the workplace, aggressive people are often more appreciated. If you are very weak or gentle, others will think that you are not capable. Thus, the gospel changes you by making you treat your colleagues with humility and speak to them with gentleness. This can lead to spiritual warfare. Of course, this spiritual warfare allows these sisters to experience the gospel more deeply. It makes you consider your role and your identity in Christ. Do you want recognition from others, or do you want to please God? So, we see Christian sisters bringing gospel change into their relationships with their colleagues, their relationships with their husbands, and their children’s education. All of these areas are transformed. So, for the church, the values of the world are completely opposite from the values of the gospel. Within this completely different value system, as Christian women are more deeply shaped by the gospel, they bring more gentleness and humility into their lives, which surprises others and gives them something to think about.