An Interview With a Pastor’s Wife: Ellen Tuttle

When did you grow up? How did where you grew up contribute to preparing you for life in small-town pastoral ministry?

I was born in Charlotte, North Carolina in the late 50s to a businessman and teacher. I grew up with three brothers in the suburbs where we attended a mid-sized conservative Presbyterian church. So I was a city girl until I became a pastor’s wife in a rural town of 850 in Illinois. I was not prepared for life in small-town pastoral ministry. The culture shock was very real. I was clueless to what a grain elevator was or a bean count, a farrowing house, or a combine just to name a few! I was horrified the first month by the strong smell of manure everywhere I went on my morning walks. I wasn’t prepared for the loneliness during planting season, the lack of privacy (exacerbated by the fact that we suffered from infertility 5 out of the 6 years we were in our first church), the stares I got in town at the coffee shop, and the long term feuding between families. I was 26 when I first became a pastor’s wife. I barely knew myself or what my skills and gifts were, much less how I would help lead in the church. Thankfully, our first church family was full of grace and were committed to making our very first ministry experience as successful as possible. We left part of our hearts there. 

Where have you served in ministry? Can you describe the particular culture in those areas and how that affected your ministry there?

After graduation from Seminary, we moved from Dallas to our first church in Cissna Park, Illinois, a rural small-town farming community of 850 people. Our church was started by a group of believers from the Apostolic Christian Church who had left the main denomination to establish a new church built less on works-based salvation and more on grace-based. With their new found freedom, they were eager to build a foundation on Biblical teaching with a strong mission emphasis. It was a challenge to create a new culture of grace and welcome believers from other backgrounds when the majority were grounded in legalism and exclusion. But it was wonderful to be a part of what God was doing with this group of faithful and very committed believers. They were willing enough to let us learn and grow with them, so the church grew during those years in spite of our inexperience and lack of knowledge about ministry and leadership. We figured it out together. We were young and enthusiastic and so was the church. There were many young families which provided energy and helped to build the ministry of the church, and older wise folks to support and encourage. Looking back now, though there were some difficult struggles during those first years in rural Illinois, we are most grateful to God for allowing us to begin our journey there with such a committed, passionate, supportive, loving, fun, and mission-minded group of believers. We were prepared well for what God had planned for our future. 

As time went by, our church was growing and seemingly flourishing, yet Phil was feeling burned out doing most of the work himself with no staff. Phil felt he had taken the church as far as he could. Phil believed he was called to be part of a team and that eventually his best niche was going to be a ministry to many pastors and churches rather than one local church. When an assistant pastor position opened at our home church in Normal, Illinois, we accepted the offer for what we thought would last a while, but God had other plans.

We served two years in our home church where Phil had done his seminary internship. He served as an assistant pastor during this time and we enjoyed co-ministering with John and Cheryl Treischmann. We worked with family ministry and helped grow Awana there as well. During this time, Phil was teaching seminars with Walk Thru the Bible (WTB) in the midwest region, so when he was invited to come full-time as their Dean of Faculty, it seemed to fulfill the dream in his heart.  Phil would be responsible for the recruiting, training, and coaching of the U.S. instructors. God used John and Cheryl and the church to recommission and launch us to the ministry we felt God had prepared us for and called us to even during seminary days. With the support of both our early church bodies, we were so affirmed and ready to begin our next journey which we now know is our life ministry. As a result, we have always identified with and resonated with small-town/rural ministry. It is in our DNA and the years we spent pastoring and serving in rural ministry taught us everything we needed for leading pastors globally since most churches worldwide are not megachurches but small, and the needs of the pastors and their families are the same. As our ministry expanded, we took the principles and disciplines and experiences that we learned in the small-town communities and applied them to our global ministry. 

How did God bring you to a place of serving in small-town/rural ministry? Did you have any sort of “calling” in this? If so, describe the circumstances.

I would say our calling was to the pastorate wherever God led us, not necessarily specifically to rural/small-town ministry since neither of us grew up in small towns. We responded to a lead on the Seminary’s placement board for a senior pastor position in Cissna Park, Illinois. It sounded like a suburb of Chicago so we thought we were going to a city church. Instead, it was a very rural small-town church in a town of 850 and no stoplights! Phil originally thought he should start with an assistant pastor position and build up to a senior position, but God plopped us right into the small-town-pastor world immediately after graduation. We were as green as the corn stalks growing outside our church!

About five years in, we were invited to attend a conference in Dallas called L.E.A.D. (Leadership Evaluation and Development) with four other couples. One of the couples was Ron and Roxy Klassen. At this conference, they were sensing God’s lead to start a ministry to rural pastors and churches. God led them to RHMA who happened to be looking for a new Director. And the rest is history.. We reconnected with them years later when Ron asked Phil to speak at their conference.

How did God bring you and your husband together to serve in this way?

We met at Wheaton College where we were both pursuing ministry related degrees with plans to go into full-time ministry. I studied CE (Christian Ed) and earned a Secondary Education Teaching degree. Phil studied Bible and CE and after graduation, went on to earn his Masters of Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary. We married after Phil’s first semester in Seminary. Soon Phil began leading a Bible Study with a group of couples from a local church who had requested a seminary student to teach them. Thus began our shared ministry adventure.

Did you have any particular areas of ministry in which you served in your church and community and what led you to those decisions?

My favorite ministry has been hospitality. I have enjoyed having many friends from our churches to our home. I have led Bible studies. Phil and I started Awana in our first church and served in Awana leadership in the second church and then again in our church in Atlanta. I have enjoyed singing in choirs and participating in music programs. Also, I derive great joy from being mentored and mentoring others. 

What has been one of your greatest challenges in this ministry context and how did you persevere in it? What did God teach you through it?

During these early ministry years, our greatest struggle was our infertility. We had been trying to start a family since our last year in seminary with no success, and then serving in a church with a baby boom made it difficult. I couldn’t escape the obvious. What was holding us up? What was wrong with me? Many well-meaning people gave us advice. I didn’t know I had a serious physical problem until a few years later. Being the pastor’s wife while struggling with spiritual questions due to my discouragement with infertility and expected to have answers for others and participate in every baby shower (they were often held at the church) and Mother’s Day service… was tough. I wanted to be a mother more than anything, but it was during those waiting years before children that God not only confronted me with my control issues and taught me to trust Him, but also allowed us to have some of the most fruitful ministry together.  We had the time to devote to people without distractions and be on call to meet needs. This would have been hard to do with a family. I would have missed out on being directly involved in ministry with Phil. 

Looking back I realize that we haven’t had that much freedom and undivided attention to ministry since that time. It was a sweet season even though I was yearning for a baby. Though I chose to write about our challenge with infertility and waiting for a family, the following lessons apply to any waiting period in our lives. God taught me to not waste the waiting times but see them as purposeful seasons where He is at work in me and using me for his purposes. My life was not on pause, just redirected for reasons unknown to me, and it taught me to be intentional and not waste opportunities for service. What we see many times as interruptions or distractions from our agenda are really just God refocusing our priorities so He can use us to serve him.

What has been one of your greatest blessings in this ministry context and how has that affected your perspective of small-town and rural ministry?

I’ll continue the same story to answer this question because it ties so beautifully with our journey in becoming a family, and how our church joined us. I would never have known the capacity our church had for caregiving, deep loving, commitment to prayer, patience, and persistent serving had Phil (with my permission) not confessed one Sunday morning our desperate situation and desire for a child and our need for them to help us. Everything changed from that morning on because God gave us the courage to be transparent and open up with our struggle. Everyone stopped commenting and giving advice; instead we felt strengthened and encouraged by their prayers. And one of the nurses in the church informed us of an infertility specialist two hours away who discovered my problem and did my surgeries. It all became very bearable  and hopeful for me. And when God answered their prayers, and Emily was born, there was much celebration! She became the church’s baby!

If you could give a piece of advice to other rural and small-town pastors’ wives, what would it be and why?

Carefully evaluate your definition of success. Don’t buy into the world’s thinking that bigger is always better. As Ron Klassen reminds us, in God’s mind, there are no little places. As Howard Hendricks used to say, “you focus on the depth of your ministry, and let God determine its breadth.”

Focus on the unique opportunities and advantages of living in a small-town community.

You can really know people and have deeper relationships. (You also know everyone’s business and everyone knows yours). It makes issues like forgiveness and reconciliation more real and desired.

People are more available and have greater capacity for meeting the needs of the church and community.

Rural ministry is more like Jesus’s model for discipleship because everyone does life together rather than just seeing each other on Sunday mornings. 

Don’t be afraid to use hospitality to grow your ministry. You can do this even if you’re introverted. Have smaller groups in and gradually include everyone. People love to be in your home. I learned to only clean the room and bathroom where we would be gathering. If anyone goes touring your house, it’s cringe worthy, but let it happen. It’s not a museum. Your kids will hate having company if it becomes too stressful. 

And speaking of your kids, be real and yourself because they see through it otherwise. Let them hear you and your husband apologize to each other and make up from your spats. Let them hear how God is working to change your heart and mind about some tough issues and why. Let them know you love the ministry and chose it (and even the bad days can be salvaged if we look for some redeeming aspect). We don’t want our kids to grow up hating our ministries and the church. 


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About Denna Busenitz

Denna and her husband, Kurt, have five children (3 teens and 2 tweens) and have been church planters with RHMA in the Sandhills Region of Nebraska nearly 20 years. Kurt pastors Sandhills Church of Hope- ‘one church with two locations’ in small-town and rural NE. Denna has a music degree from Moody Bible Institute and helps coordinate music at church. Her weeks are filled with Moms in Prayer groups, kids club/youth ministries and organizing the family calendar. She serves on her local grocery store board and substitutes at school.