Whatever Happened to Ministers’ Wives
by L. Michael Jendrzejczyk
Mr. Jendrzejczyk is director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s program to abolish capital punishment. This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 7-14, 1979, p. 151. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
It wasn’t very many years ago that I wrote a book titled, without so much as a blush, The Care and Feeding of Ministers! How quaint. The tables are turning to such an extent that one might be tempted to write The Care and Feeding of Ministers’ Spouses -- but not quite. Almost everything we once held sacrosanct as “queens” (oh, dear God!) of the parsonage has been demythologized -- and not a minute too soon. It seems only fitting to ask a few questions and make a few observations about the new women married to ministers. We have to ask these particular questions since women who happen to be married to ministers are still around in rather large numbers, while men who happen to be married to ministers are still relatively few. The church’s experience with women clergy and with the “minister’s husband” has seemingly not yet provided us with enough data to permit us to generalize about the problems unique to those marriages -- or to produce stereotypes that need to be unlearned!
The spouses of male clergy are still confused about role expectations which they deny exist, are still anxious to please people they claim not to give a damn about, and are still worried about their image -- which, of course, is irrelevant. In other words, there are still nagging vestiges of the old problems. Yet one has to admit that the minister’s wife who once read books like mine and who attended anxiously and diligently to the “duties” imposed on her from without belongs to a vanishing species. Where has she gone? Will we miss her? Should she be rescued and returned to the place she once occupied?
First, a description of this endangered species: she seldom worked outside the home unless she was a teacher or nurse. She worried about making financial ends meet, but she was very careful not to mention this preoccupation outside the parsonage bedroom. She was the last to surrender the hat and the white gloves she had always worn to church. She felt guilty if she did not sing in the choir, attend all women’s meetings and teach Sunday school. She felt guilty that she was not a good enough Christian to be an exemplary person for one and all. She feared being criticized almost more than she feared death. She tried to be the perfect mother. She was highly embarrassed if any of her brood behaved badly. She tried to be the perfect wife and to do all the things perfect wives did superbly -- ironing, cooking, entertaining ad nauseam. She was uptight and believed that that was the only way to be.
Now the few wives who find themselves described as “endangered” may be embarrassed. It is like hearing one’s children ask: ‘Mom, how was it in the olden days when you were young?” It wasn’t all that long ago, and we weren’t all that peculiar. We tried to live as best we could where we were. A lot has happened to us and around us -- so much, in fact, that we do not even talk about it among ourselves very often. But let’s try.
No doubt the women’s movement and the resultant rise in consciousness of women as people has had a great impact on the wives of ministers. In fact many of them were in the forefront of the movement. Nowadays one feels positively guilty if one does not have a career or a job outside the home. One feels downright put upon if one has to prepare all the meals, if one takes care of the children full-time, if one has to entertain often. Somehow one feels that one is deserting one’s sisters -- and, even worse, setting a rotten example for one’s sons and daughters. A new life style is upon us, with new demands, new guilts and, one hopes, new satisfactions. The new woman in the parsonage is having an effect on the way her minister husband feels about life and on the way in which he ministers. One way of looking at this impact is in terms of what this new wife is concerned about and how she is dealing with problems.
She is concerned about holding her marriage together. Divorce is being tolerated in ever-increasing numbers among clergy; the wife of a minister no longer has the assurance that she will not someday be divorced. Wives mention this concern as their first. Why? Some wives mention types of “encounter” groups as the villain; others cite attitudes of “letting it all hang out” or “doing ones own thing.” In general there seems to be increased opportunity for extramarital sexual encounters accompanied by a less compelling sense of restraint.
Many young working wives feel that the long hours they are away from home cause loneliness and frustration in their spouses -- much the same kind of experience they themselves had as housewives. Other women express concern about their own ability to behave with integrity. They are constantly exposed to tempting encounters with men they meet in business and professional circles. Some find that men are attracted to them simply because their aura of specialness as ministers’ wives is a challenge, in much the way some men are tempted by virgins.
Possible effect on the ministry: The positive effect is a concern about one’s marriage and the work necessary to keep it alive and well. This concern can create stronger marriages. Taking one’s spouse for granted is never healthy. The fear of divorce can, however, be self-defeating if it expresses itself in undue jealousy, lack of trust, tension.
2. She is concerned about her relationship to her children. Ten years ago I was shocked when a woman confessed that she feared she would use physical violence against her own children. In a parsonage? This terrible extreme was not an isolated instance, for I subsequently heard similar statements many times. The most unspeakable kind of behavior toward children is at least feared as a possibility in the minister’s own home.
But by and large the concern of the working wife is that she may be neglecting her children, depriving them of some necessary ingredient in their lives. The result of such fears may be undue tension, and/or undue indulgence. Where once her concern was to have perfect children in the eyes of the congregation and community, she is now preoccupied primarily with her own adequacies as a parent.
Possible effect: One has to ask whether the children are better off because of this change of focus. They may well be. At least the children of the parsonage feel that they are like everyone else; they are not pressured constantly to be good examples. They may, however, feel less of a sense of personal security than they once did with mom on the home front -- but this situation is prevalent within society In general and certainly helps ministers and their families to understand the problems others face.
3. She insists on a sharing of labor in the home. This necessary aspect of home life for working couples has its impact on husbands and children. The trend of involving men in the ho-hum duties of the household is a sound one. Accomplished together, some of the duties that are otherwise tedious can become occasions for sharing and can be less onerous than when one person assumes the whole burden. The employed wife feels that she has expended at least as much energy outside the home during the day as has the husband, and that therefore equal amounts of energy should be expended in the home tasks.
Possible effect: House duties can become a threat to the male minister who comes to prefer them to some of his other tasks such as office work, calling, studying and the like. They can become a crutch on which he leans to dispel guilt for undone work he did not want to do anyway. One sure thing about house-work is that it expands to fill the amount of time available for doing it. When one is new at it, either disgusted or intrigued by it, there is no knowing when it is “done.”
4. She has a primary concern for her own life and career. We cannot know what the consequences of this new focus will be on the male minister’s marriage and his career. In many cases the minister’s wife is entering a career in which changes dictated by her husband’s career will be threatening. This woman begins to feel her own sense of worth in the greater world, and she gains personal satisfactions of accomplishment totally unrelated to what is happening in her husband’s ministry. He may well be having his worst times when she is on a high in her career.
Possible effect: When a minister’s wife has a career that refuses to move when her husband must move, there will be tremendous problems to be solved. The impact of the marriages of women ministers and nonclergy professionals whose moves must be coordinated may aid administrators and churches to be helpful in the future in ways they are refusing to be now. Yet the question will remain a nagging one; Who will give in the most? One young couple formulated a plan of taking turns yearly to determine where they would work. What happens when a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity comes to either party when it is the year of decision for the other? Solving that problem will never be easy. Can we see a future when ministers and their spouses actually live in separate locations with only occasional times together, as some academic couples are now doing? What will be the cost?
5. Her husband’s ministry is not the most important thing in her life. This may well be the crucial change after all else is said. Once upon a time a wife cared desperately and from moment to moment about every aspect of her husband’s work. She had time, or made time, to be into everything with which she thought she could be of help. She devoted much effort to improving relationships with parishioners; she often “filled in the gaps” in her husband’s abilities. She may still care desperately, but it inevitably is in a new and more detached manner.
A loving wife certainly cares if her husband is being hurt, but she is less inclined to jump into the fray than she once would have been. The “team” approach is restricted to the home; if it exists in the church work, it is certain to be confined by limited time and energy.
Possible effect: Many a minister who could make it when a wife filled in the weak places in his ministry will have a much more difficult time without that assistance. In fact, some men have already fallen by the wayside for this reason. On the other hand, some dependent clergymen may well take over their own lives in new and creative ways and become stronger for going it alone.
6. She is likely to be more interested in causes than in coffees. The wife employed outside the home is more likely to apply what free time she has to the cause about which she cares the most, be it hunger, abortion, child abuse or women’s rights. She, like her sisters around her, is less and less interested in the nitty-gritty activities of women’s groups in the church -- or elsewhere, for that matter. She wants to get something important done in the limited time she has. She tends to feel less need for the socializing enjoyed by women who have fewer outside-the-home contacts.
Possible effects: She may feel less compatible with the women in the church who are full-time homemakers. If she desires a closeness to many of the women, she will certainly have to work at it in ways other than the usual contacts through service groups.
7. She would rather go to a seminar on finances than to one on “expectations of ministers’ wives.” The new financial security that results when there are two wage-earners in the parsonage brings out practical financial questions and interests on the part of earning wives. They are interested in real estate, investments, medical security, insurance, pensions. In her previous incarnation the minister’s wife worried about these things only on occasion and was assured that the Lord would take care of her in an uncertain future.
Possible effects: We can say “thank goodness” for the number of ministers’ families who can surmount the genteel poverty of earlier days. But the increasing number of two-salary homes has tended to make clergy less concerned about salary standards, and this change has a negative effect on the family in which the wife wishes to remain in the home full-time, for one reason or another. It also leads to attitudes on the part of laity in the church that “his wife will support him, so we don’t have to worry.”
The working wife is only one of the factors, but an important one, in making the parsonage system obsolete. Of course, clergy families should be building up equity in a home of their own, or in other real estate. The wife’s income may just provide the push for many unmotivated couples to make this change. Some may be bothered by the materialism involved in two-salary families; yet how one relates to money and what it stands for is a concern for every one of us, whether we have a mite or millions. It is, after all, our attitude toward money which saves or condemns us.
The listing of her concerns says a great deal about this new kind of wife, yet does not say it all by any means. Obviously she has problems yet to be solved. One good thing about her new problems is that they are pretty much those of her neighbors, and not hers just because she is the wife of a minister.
She often betrays the same kinds of floating anxiety that her predecessors did; that is, in overeating, overdressing or underdressing, overdominating and oververbalizing -- she does a lot of things “too much.” But, I venture to guess, she is more interesting to live with because she finds life more exciting. Most of all, she is still an exceptionally caring person, sensitive to the needs around her, but in new ways. At least that is my hope and my dream.