women who inspire: sharon johnson
Since embarking on my Women Who Inspire series in January 2018, I've had the opportunity to speak to three amazing ladies who are taking steps of faith in the areas of their influence - counselling, blogging and songwriting.
This month, I'm happy to have Sharon Johnson share her story on this humble domain. Some of you will know her as the wife of Darrell Johnson, a Vancouver-based itinerant preacher and teaching fellow at Regent College. But that's not all she is. For over a decade, she's been involved in running Wee Care Daycare, a licensed non-profit daycare program in Vancouver. She's also a mother and grandmother of nine - how awesome is that?
I must admit, however, that I was curious to find out what being a pastor's wife is like. I think many of us tend to have unconscious expectations of what a pastor's wife should be like, act like, dress like, and so on. And if you're from Southeast Asia, you'll probably be aware of the (negative) media attention that this has received in recent times.
So I worked up the nerve to speak to Sharon one day after a service I attended that Darrell preached at. We ended up having a really candid chat on all things associated with the life of a pastor's wife (that that happened is something I am still a tad surprised at, but extremely grateful for).
Wherever you are today in your faith journey, may Sharon's wise words encourage and bless you.
Hi, Sharon! Tell me more about yourself and how you became a believer.
"I was born in California in a family with Christian parents, so I had the privilege of knowing the name of Jesus since I was a child. When I became a teenager there were more questions, but I was still very involved in a church and never left the faith community. It was my first year of community college that I started searching for something more. I started feeling more empty. My mom used to put books in my room that were faith-related, kind of hoping she could encourage me in a gentle way. I remember opening one up one day, and it talked about committing your life to Jesus. It said: "If you're not ready to take that step, at least give God a window, a little crack in the door", and so I did that. I used it as an experiment – "God, if You're really there, I will let You decide where I should go in terms of attending a church". I had been involved in a church that had a lot of youth, I played the guitar and was involved in some leadership there, but I just knew I was lacking.
Through a number of circumstances, God led me back to the church where my parents were. There was a new pastoral team, and there was fresh life there. One of the pastors who was involved in college ministry kept inviting me to the meetings. I kind of dragged my feet because I didn’t know what I was getting into. After several weeks, I decided to attend one of the meetings, and he talked about Jesus in such a passionate and personal way and exhibited such joy. I thought: "That’s what I want, that’s what I'm missing”. I had a faith belief, but not the interpersonal relationship with Jesus. I went home that night and committed my life to Christ. I was very hungry after that for Scripture. God became a personal presence for me in a fresh new way and filled all those empty spots."
How did you and Darrell meet?
"I became very involved with helping the college-aged pastor with youth and high school ministry. He was one of the first guys I met that exhibited such Christ-likeness. It was such a wholesome friendship for me. But my feelings for him started changing after a few weeks and I prayed: "God, don’t let me feel romantic feelings for him. I just want to keep this friendship and not mess it up."
But the Lord didn’t take away my feelings. I soon found out that this pastor’s feelings for me started changing too. We didn’t say anything to anyone except my parents and our senior pastor for accountability, and we dated secretly for about three months. It then came to a point that we felt the Lord was calling us together. And that’s my husband Darrell I’m talking about.
I tell people my marriage was arranged by the heavenly Father. I really felt Him moving us together and choosing each other. This Christmas, we’ll be married 47 years. We met in the context of Christians and friendship, we enjoyed doing ministry together before the feelings started, and it’s given us that basis to make our marriage strong through the ups and downs of life. I like to say I married my college pastor!"
Was it clear from the beginning that Darrell wanted to become a pastor?
"When Darrell was very young, he spent a lot of time with his grandmother. She was very influential in his life. She used to listen to radio programmes that proclaimed the gospel of Jesus. So he was aware of Jesus as a little boy. He grew up being primarily nurtured by his grandmother, and had an encounter with God through a preached message at eight to nine years of age. But his parents didn’t understand what was going on at the time, and thought that maybe he had been emotionally manipulated by the preacher. So he became a "secret" Christian. He would read his Bible under his covers at night.
His father’s a nuclear physicist, and in a Swedish family, there’s an expectation and hope that your sons will follow you. And so Darrell went into physics in university. But on the night of Martin Luther King’s death and Martin Luther King’s sermons being preached over and over again, Darrell was deeply moved and decided that that was what he wanted to give his life to: preaching the gospel of Jesus. He had a turning point that night. He had a pastor that was discipling and encouraging him down in the San Diego area, so that’s when he decided to go into ministry.
While Darrell was at Fuller Theological Seminary, his mentor was the senior pastor at the church my parents were in, and asked him to come and do an internship there. We met and were married during those seminary years."
Did the words “pastor’s wife” ever scare you or fill you with dread?
"No, I don’t think so. I never thought of myself as "pastor’s wife" but as "Darrell’s wife", and that doesn’t fill me with dread. We were both involved in ministry and I enjoyed serving alongside him. Or maybe I was too naïve then to have any fear!"
What are some of the misconceptions you think should be addressed with regard to being a pastor’s wife?
"Generations ago, some would have the expectation that a pastor’s wife was also there to serve, to be in leadership in a particular way, and to be just as involved as her husband perhaps. I think that may still exist in some circles, but we were involved in a Presbyterian church – that’s been our primary background before we came to Canada – and there was a lot more openness to women and their roles at an earlier time than the majority of other churches. Many of the pastors' wives had careers - and this would’ve been back in the ‘70s to the ‘90s. But I've always felt like I didn’t have to play a role. I love the church, I love being involved and I like being a support to Darrell. To me that was enough.
But when we went to Manila, Philippines, we were part of a Union church of many different denominations – conservative, liberal, a mix. And probably for the first time in my years, I came across expectations. I'm not particularly wired for the traditional women’s groups... I think they served a purpose at a time when women were not allowed to have leadership within the church. There was an expectation that I would lead the women’s board of the church where we were serving, but I didn’t feel called there and I didn’t feel comfortable in that role. That was one of the first times I felt like I was disappointing some of the congregational members. Fortunately, Darrell has been a strong advocate for me to carry out my gifts in my way and not carry out a role."
What do you think people need to understand about being a pastor’s wife?
"This may be speaking more to older generations, but when you're hiring a pastor, you're not getting two for one.
A pastor’s wife is primarily the wife of a pastor, not a role. She has unique gifts that God has given her and they may not fit expectations. Give her freedom and support to give of her gifts and talents.
Because pastoral ministry can be so demanding, if the couple plans to have family or already has one, somebody has to be there for the children all the time. People have to realise that if they want their pastor to be everything they want or need him to be, his family and their well-being is important. If that’s not in place, he’s not going to be at his best.
I had the privilege of being at home with the children for many years and I loved doing that. There was a point I had to go back to work, and so I made something that worked for us, I was still there when our kids were home from school, and that was important."
What are some of the biggest struggles you’ve faced as a pastor’s wife?
"It would’ve been in my earlier years... if I wrote a book, one of the chapters would be "Church as Mistress". Because as a young pastor - and I understand this - you have great dreams and visions. You've gone to seminary and want to see these things carried out. It’s so easy to want to give your all to ministry - and boy, the congregation will take every bit of you and more.
But don't neglect your family and your wife.
I'm not a demanding person at all. I tell Darrell many times that he’s fortunate he’s married someone as independent as I am. I'm not a needy wife. But there are some that are. That’s God’s call for them. At the same time, I didn’t want to be left in the dust. There were times I felt like I wasn’t getting the attention I desired and I had to sacrifice our time together. And most of the time, I'm happy to do it. I'm a giving person. But there was a time I felt empty."
What helped you walk out of this?
"There was a movement in the ‘70s and ‘80s called "Marriage Encounter". Some people in our church were involved in that and we got involved too. It was a means of journalling our feelings and sharing our notebooks with each other. We would pick a topic and start journalling about it and share that. Knowing that our marriage was important enough for Darrell to do this with me, and me being vulnerable enough, was really helpful to get us through that time.
Date nights are helpful too. Once we started our family, we wanted to continue carving time out for us. We try to do it weekly. We had one church that set up childcare providers for us free of charge before we even arrived (to minister there). They really understood; it was a wonderful gift."
What would you say to encourage a fellow pastor’s wife who may be feeling tired and jaded?
"Go ahead and let your husband know you have needs and you’re missing him. Don’t present it as blame and make him feel cornered by having to choose between you and church, but just say: “I want to be a part of this with you. I want to share in this.”
I love youth ministry because we both were involved in it, but once he became a pastor, I felt a bit left out. We didn’t have that shared ministry anymore. So find an area of common ground or interest. It might be being in a small group or something you do outside of the church together. Sometimes, they'll get busy or they’re not as gifted in cluing in to how you feel. Darrell’s a very sensitive and intuitive person, which is unusual for a man, and he would often pick things up in me before I even did."
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned as a pastor’s wife?
"It's important to realise that our marriage isn’t just the two of us. God is very involved in it. It takes His presence to make it through all those hard times. And through Him, we can be empowered to maintain our vows to one another. There’s just so much temptation nowadays, more than we faced, like the internet, pornography, or the casualness of sexual relationships. It just puts young pastors of this generation in a very vulnerable position. But you’ve got to be accountable to one another, and have the accountability of good friends in the Christian community who can share things with and pray for you. I think that’s crucial.
We were friends before we fell in love, and its important to nurture that friendship. We try to continue doing things together. We’re very different, but God uses us to balance each other. I’ve grown in certain areas because of my relationship with him and vice versa."
What are some of the most amazing ways God has worked in your life and your ministry?
"We went through infertility for many years. All of our kids are adopted, and they are amazing gifts of God’s grace to us. I can't imagine our lives without them. To me they are miracles. I don’t think of them as adopted – they’re our kids.
We lost one of our sons through suicide eight years ago. That was a really tough time, but we saw God do amazing things in our families and kids’ lives and in how they responded. They were tough years with this particular son. We adopted him at the age of 12 from Russia, and it was probably some of the most challenging times in our marriage. The changes that he brought, and the demands it took on our family... but we just saw God bring us closer and stronger as a family through it all, when it could’ve been quite destructive and splintering."
Thank you for reading! If possible, please take a few minutes to pray for Darrell and Sharon - for God to continue blessing their family and ministry, and that He will continue to work mightily in their lives.