Jenny Dorsey points to a weathered trunk on top of her desk. She pulls out a chipped conch shell, a reminder that “it is more beautiful to be broken.”
Since she and her husband, Jason, moved from Seattle to Indianapolis in 2002 to help plant Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Dorsey has come a long way in learning to expect less of herself and more of Christ. “The first year we were here we had over 1,000 people in our house.” But the following year, the number dropped by half. “I felt really bad about myself,” Dorsey said.
But that was before she encountered Parakaleo.
There was Nothing for Wives
Ten years ago, Shari Thomas had just moved back to the U.S. from serving as a missionary in Spain and was working alongside her husband, John, to plant a church in Atlanta. She was stunned to find how alone she felt.
“I was shocked that there wasn’t really anything for women.”
There were no regularly scheduled events to help church-planter wives get to know each other, or any training for the wives. Many pastors didn’t even know the names of the other pastors’ wives in their presbytery, Thomas reports. At best, it seemed like pastors’ wives were isolated; at worst, some were on the verge of a breakdown.
A natural initiator with a background in education, Thomas went to Mission to North America (MNA) and told them she would research the problem. Based on her findings and other studies conducted by Barna Research and Focus on the Family, Thomas discovered the following:
- 56 percent of clergy wives said they had no close friends
- 80 percent said they felt pressured to be something at church that they weren’t
- 80 percent said they wished their spouse would choose another profession
- 80 percent had struggled with depression
She also discovered the factors that most directly contribute to the happiness of church planters’ wives. They include:
- The health of her marriage. Particularly, how well her husband understood what she was going through
- The presence of a support group. Especially, encouraging family members and friends who appreciate the burdens placed upon her as a church planter’s wife
- Her understanding of the Gospel. Principally, how well she grasped the finished work of Christ on her behalf
As Thomas conducted her interviews, her questions often evoked tears. These women, she said, felt voiceless and alone.
According to Thomas, church leaders had no idea what life was like for them. There are all these things going on around them, and they have no say, no influence. There’s this overwhelming sense of powerlessness, Thomas says.
At the same time, these women were organizing the children’s ministry, worship ministry, and hospitality ministry. “Plus,” Thomas says, “they’re carrying all the weight of their husband’s concerns.”
Ted Powers, church-planting & Midwest coordinator with MNA, asked Thomas to present her findings to the agency. MNA leaders were shocked. “There were guys literally weeping,” Thomas says.
From that point, MNA recruited Shari Thomas and Tami Resch (of Walnut Creek Presbyterian Church, Gahanna, Ohio) to find a solution. The result was Parakaleo, a ministry that provides training, coaching, and relational support to church-planting wives.
When Dorsey attended her first Parakaleo training, in Denver in 2008, she was astounded by the atmosphere. “It was the first time I was with a group of women and there was no competition, there was no performance. There was no ‘Who is more beautiful? Who is eating more? Who has their life together? Whose kids are all well-behaved?’ It was just this beautiful expression of godly women coming together out of our brokenness.”
In Parakaleo, which means “coming alongside” in Greek, Dorsey discovered a place where women could share their struggles — including their struggles with their husbands — without judgment from the other women. She also found a sisterhood called “Gospel Cowgirls” who were committed to helping each other apply the Gospel to each other’s hearts.
In Parakaleo, which means “coming alongside” in Greek, Dorsey discovered a place where women could share their struggles — including their struggles with their husbands — without judgment from the other women.
One of Parakaleo’s key goals is to minister to women directly without the expectation that they train others. This is significant, because a lot of church-planter wives tend to feel like their sole purpose is to serve the church, Thomas says. But Parakaleo is focused on pastors’ wives. If they decide to share the tools with others, great, but it’s not expected.
“It’s not training for ministry, but training on how to bring the Gospel to your heart,” Thomas explains. It’s so that women can be freed “to find out who God’s made them to be and really enjoy it.”
Still, Parakaleo almost always has a ripple effect: A church-planting wife is encouraged in the Gospel, and this brings health to her marriage, which is a key ingredient in a healthy church.
“The fastest way for a church to fail is for a marriage to tank,” says Anne Henegar, wife of Walter Henegar, senior pastor of Atlanta Westside Presbyterian. “When something really catastrophic would happen in our church, those issues would affect my husband greatly, and there was no one I could talk to about that. …”
The Henegars discovered that Parakaleo was a lifeline for both of them, and their church.
Walter says that Parakaleo has given Anne a place to talk about struggles that few people other than church planters’ wives are able to understand and which normally aren’t appropriate to share with other members. In addition, he adds, there are ways that other wives can encourage her that even he can’t.
Bigger than the PCA
Since 2008, the PCA Assessment Center has recommended that church planters’ wives receive training through Parakaleo. And at least three presbyteries currently have a budget for Parakaleo training. But to date, most of its funding has come from sources outside the PCA.
Ten years in, Parakaleo has a staff of seven women who coordinate support to women in 21 networks. Although they don’t track the numbers, Thomas knows that they have impacted women in at least 300 churches during the past four years through trainings and mentoring.
And the ministry is expanding outside the denomination. To date, Parakaleo has extended into denominations such as Acts 29, the Southern Baptist Convention, and ECO Presbyterian. They’ve also been invited to lead trainings outside the U.S., in countries such as Singapore, Chile, and Mexico.
Jenny Dorsey has given up the goal of hosting 1,000 people in her house every year. Instead, she works part time as Parakaleo’s coaching systems director, a role that taps her creativity as a former schoolteacher. These days, she feels free from the expectations of a “pastor’s wife” and is able to jump into those things that she is wired to do.
“I’m standing today because of Parakaleo,” she admits. “I’ve gone from not wanting to be in front of people to being in front of people.”
Her husband, Jason, and her extended church family have all been the beneficiaries. “I am the recipient of Parakaleo’s impact on my wife,” says Jason. “I use Parakaleo ‘Gospel tools’ in my ministry all the time now.”