BeliefWatch: Mrs. Pastor

In Selmer, Tenn. (population: 4,600), last week, the murder trial of Mary Winkler began with defense lawyers painting the soft-spoken pastor's wife as the victim of an abusive marriage who accidentally pulled the trigger on a 12-gauge shotgun that killed her Church of Christ pastor husband last March. Although prosecutors say the act was purposeful and premeditated, when police caught up to Winkler a day later along Alabama's Gulf Coast, she alluded to a steady flow of criticism and abuse as her motive. "I guess I just got to a point and snapped," she told police.

Though Winkler's case is, to say the very least, extreme, her apparent frustrations are not. Statistics indicate that beneath the smiling, steadfast veneer of a pastor's wife, there often lies a deeply isolated woman who, due to her husband's constant commitment to his congregants, frequently feels neglected and left without a support system of her own. According to research by the late Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, 80 percent of pastors' wives feel left out, unappreciated and underqualified. A survey by Focus on the Family found that 88 percent have experienced depression. The divorce rate among pastors, about 50 percent, is no better than the national average.

"It's an underworld of desperation that many of these women are confronted with," says Wendy Murray, whose 24-year marriage to a Baptist pastor ended in divorce in 2002. Driven by expectations for perfection, Murray says that for years she covered up what, at home, was a marriage fraught with problems made worse by the priority her husband gave to the emotional needs of women in his church. "He treated them with much more attention than he ever did me," says Murray, who claims that her efforts to finally reach out to church elders for marital help were ignored. "Too often, the wife gets sacrificed, so I understand the insanity that can reduce you to a maniac," says Murray.

Mary Winkler's plight has struck a chord of sympathy with many other pastors' wives. "We all relate to what she was feeling," says Vivian Berryhill, whose Memphis-based National Coalition of Pastors' Spouses has included a prayer for Winkler in weekly e-mails to its 2,500 members. Dana James, a pastor's wife from Bolivar, Tenn., felt compelled to visit Winkler in jail, and has since sent her letters of support. "I wanted her to know she wasn't alone," says James.