The Ministerial Mystique

by Robert M. Healey

Dr. Healey is professor of American church history at the University of Dubuque’s theological seminary.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 6, 1974, pp. 121-125. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


A discussion of the plight of pastors who have chosen to cooperate in the cultural victimization that confines them to a limited number of non-threatening activities. The pastorate can be a trap frustrating the ministers need of fulfillment as a person — a prison in which all of the minister’s work may be no more than institutionally self-serving trivia.

Graduates of theological seminaries usually become ordained and are called to pastorates. The terms of the call typically include words like the following:

And that you may be free from worldly care and avocations. we . . . promise and oblige ourselves to pay you the sum of . . . yearly . . . during the time of your being and continuing the regular pastor . . . of this church, together with free use of the manse and . . . vacation each year United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., Constitution, Part II].

Comforting words, these. But beware! They may be bait on a trap.

Already in the mid-1950s awareness was growing that many ministers were either leaving their profession or leading lives of unquiet desperation. Sociologist Sam Blizzard was making his studies and publishing his reports. Popular magazines published any number of articles on "Why I Left the Ministry." Joseph Sittler visited some of his former students in their pastorates and coined a phrase to express his horror at what he saw: "the maceration of the minister." Statistics bore out such personal impressions: many were leaving the ministry, and among those who remained discontent and frustration were rife.

Valiant efforts were made to meet this crisis. Denominations, individuals and independent groups initiated ambitious and expensive programs of counseling and therapy. Seminaries repeatedly revised their curricula in an endless quest for "relevant" content and "relevant" methodology. Continuing education became the new frontier. Further studies were made of the occupant of pulpit and manse. Such intense concern and unstinting commitment of resources should have brought about improvement. They did not. Many ministers are still throwing up their hands and running for haven in some other line of work. (See, e.g., Allix Bledsoe James: "Theological Education 1972," Theological Education, Autumn 1972.) Others stay put rather than risk starving their wives and families. Both kinds keep the growing numbers of denominational career-guidance agencies very busy indeed.

There is something very strange about this problem: we have been dealing with it for almost 20 years, without having formulated any theory about its cause that is acceptable to its victims and persuasive to all who seek a solution. In this respect it differs from a host of other social problems that surfaced in America during the same period. For instance, in our society blacks have a problem that will not be solved easily. Nevertheless, every black except the most naïve has now taken one essential preliminary step to finding a workable solution: he has refused once and for all to accept a white man’s explanation of why the problem exists. The black has decided to examine and explain his condition for himself, and on the basis of his own explanation has begun to take militant action. American Indians, Chicanos and other minority groups have learned to do the same. For each of these a contest has been joined whose outcome is in doubt. Differences of opinion regarding strategy, timing, and so on may exist among the members, but each minority is in basic agreement about the nature of the wrong it intends to correct. The same is true of our last great social minority: women. The leaders of today’s movement for woman’s liberation have clearly articulated the nature of the problem they face. By seriously studying what they say, the macerated minister may learn a great deal about his own problem.


An excellent place to start learning certain essential ABC’s is Betty Friedan’s best-selling The Feminine Mystique, first published about ten years ago. Let me sum up her message. She insists that what she calls "the problem that has no name" -- that is, the fact that American women are denied full development as persons -- is far more threatening to this country’s physical and mental health than any known disease. Its solution requires "a drastic reshaping of the cultural image of femininity that will permit women to reach maturity, identity, completeness of self, without conflict with sexual fulfillment" (op. cit., copyright 1963 by Betty Friedan; references are to Dell paperback edition, 1971).

But, according to Friedan, that reshaping will make demands on women themselves. As she sees it, the growing success of the feminist movement combined with emancipation from domestic labor via technology to create a crisis for American society just after World War II, when millions of returning servicemen were flooding the job market. In that Situation the presence of millions of women competing on a basis of genuine equality throughout American secular society was too much for most men -- and most women -- to face. The women copped out, and to justify their cop-out they availed themselves of the "feminine mystique," which is nothing more than a cultural rationalization for a social failure of nerve. That mystique has been unremittingly purveyed ever since by our communications media, commercial propaganda and educational institutions, by anthropologists, psycho-analysts and sociologists, and not least by the pulpiteers, educators and counselors in most American Christian churches.


The mystique operates simultaneously in two directions to blur our perception of an important aspect of reality: it diminishes the general opinion of woman as a person while glorifying those few activities to which society seems determined to commit her. According to the mystique, her sex makes woman biologically different" from man (and "different" here means "inferior"). Women naturally do not have the vision, the intellect, the courage, the determination, the practicality and all the other great qualities that supposedly equip men (thanks simply to their maleness) to govern families from which they can sally forth to explore, build, conquer and otherwise to battle in the outside world. Woman’s natural endowments (meaning her biological deficiencies) destine her rather to find fulfillment in marriage as her husband’s full-time helpmate, mother of his (preferably numerous) children, keeper of his household, and vicarious participant in his victories. This secondary, auxiliary existence to which a woman’s presumed limitations condemn her is touted as far more important and challenging than anything her hubby might be up to "out there." She is seriously told that the so-called "profession of homemaker" requires more creativity, ability, intellect, acumen and competence than do the professions of engineer, physician, teacher, banker, business executive, etc., etc., rolled into one.

From World War II on, millions of women allowed themselves to be hoodwinked by this claptrap, only to find themselves forced to learn the hard way that the truth is quite otherwise. It turns out that on the terms offered by the mystique the home is really a prison for women, trapping them in housework and child care, frustrating and distorting their need for fulfillment as persons. Friedan cites voluminous evidence supporting her contention that this state of affairs was a consequence not of some personal or natural deficiency in the women but of the role assigned them by the mystique.


Friedan’s conclusion is dramatically confirmed in a recent article titled "Confessions of a Househusband" (Ms., November 1972). Its author, Joel Roache, teaches English at the University of Maryland and has published a book and a number of scholarly articles. He has been married for over eight years and is the father of three children aged one, four and six. As he tells it, Professor Roache agreed "in a moment of weakness" to share the housekeeping with his wife, Jan, so that she could do some of the other work she needed to do in order to achieve some measure of personal identity. He discovered by experience that housekeeping was a literally unending chore that sapped his physical and intellectual energy and killed his creativity. Worse, frustrated by the constant demands and interruptions of his three children, he came to hate them, to hate himself for hating them, and to hate his wife for getting him into such a mess. He soon concluded that if he hoped to maintain his sanity he would have to give up everything else and devote himself solely to care of the house and the children. Though he kept up with academic routine, in any real sense his career as teacher and scholar came to a standstill.

Meanwhile, as his wife’s work became more important his own share of the housework grew larger, until he was keeping house as she had used to, from eight to 16 hours a day. Then, when Jan and the group she had organized "out there" scored a major success, he woke up to the fact that he had no achievement of his own. He was getting his sense of fulfillment, of self-esteem, through her, while she was getting it through her work. (Except for the reversal of sexual roles, this was -- according to the feminine mystique -- a classic example of the ideal relationship.) And when, late one afternoon, Jan came home and tried to tell him about her day’s activity, he snapped at her viciously, just like a nagging housewife. "It had happened. I was a full- fledged househusband."

At this point a great deal became painfully clear to Roache. When he found himself "muttering and bitching, refusing to listen" to Jan, he realized that her nagging and complaining "had not been neurotic symptoms but expressions of resistance to his own privilege and to the power over her life that it conferred," He writes:

Jan’s failure to force a real change in our life together for so long is a grim tribute to the power of socialization, and to my ability to exploit that power in order to protect myself from reality. When Jan realized how really minimal were the satisfactions of housework, there was also a voice within her (as well as mine without) suggesting that perhaps she was just lazy . . . . that she was basically a hateful person and thus a poor mother . . . And when she became sullen and resentful toward me the voices were always there to obscure her perception that I had it coming. They even encouraged her to feel guilty, finally, when she did not feel my success as her reward, the payoff for all her drudgery.

Having described the power and effectiveness of the mystique, Roache speaks of its cost:

. . . when someone has concrete power over your life, you are going to keep a part of yourself hidden and therefore undeveloped . . .Your identity becomes bound up in other people’s expectation of you -- and that is the definition of alienation. It did not take long for me to make connections between the alienating ways in which Jan had to deal with me . . . and the way that I was dealing with my "senior colleagues," the men and women who had power to fire me and did.

Our experience also helped me to understand the distortions of perception and personality that result from being the ‘superior" in a hierarchical structure. . . . the alienation which results from privilege pervades all our experience in a society which values human beings on the basis of sex, race, and class and which structures those standards into all its institutions. Housework is only a tip of that iceberg.


But before we sentimentalize about women and their plight, let us take note of one point about which Friedan minces no words: the women had it coming; they were not innocent victims, they were suckers. As every confidence man knows, a sucker by definition is a person who wants something for nothing. The con man achieves his end by exploiting the streak of dishonest greed that is present in most human beings. "You can’t cheat an honest man!" The "mark" is never innocent, only stupid. At any point in the game, the mark can turn the tables if he is ready to pay the price.

Thus, as Friedan explains, the ceaseless indoctrination of the feminine mystique itself does not account entirely for its victims. In some fundamental way each victim has become one by choice. At some time she has chosen not to be a complete person, not to be adult, not to take responsibility for making her own decisions. In exchange for the promise of lifelong acceptance and security in the home, she has opted to arrest her development, to remain infantile. She has accepted the offer to be literally "free from worldly care and avocations" in return for "free use of the manse" Like Esau, on a full stomach she laments the loss of her birthright.

Friedan shows how that choice blights the life of the housewife, her husband, her children and all society. But she also shows that the problem is not insoluble. Victims can devictimize themselves. They can see the mystique for what it really is, and refuse any longer to accept its delusions. Without abandoning their family responsibilities, they can reorder their priorities to provide for their own development into full persons. They can refuse henceforth to be "passive," "dependent" and, in Friedan’s sense of the word, "feminine"!


I submit that the feminine mystique is paralleled by a ministerial mystique, a cultural image of the minister and the church which serves to blur our perception of reality and to rationalize individual and social failure of nerve. I believe that this mystique accounts in large part both for the misery and frustration that afflict countless clergymen and for the dreary dullness that, according to large numbers of church members, characterizes Sunday services. Like the feminine mystique, the ministerial mystique has been widely and unremittingly touted in all our communications media; and whether the source of the message is secular or ecclesiastical, the mystique is the same.

I venture to say that the social failure of nerve set in just after the Civil War. Before that, the revivalistic evangelism of Lyman Beecher and C. G. Finney aimed to Christianize the nation through militant social reform. However, the striking accomplishments of their movement -- particularly its ending of the institution of slavery -- brought on even thornier problems in human relationships, and that at a time when most Americans wanted to get back to their personal agenda. It was easy to tell oneself that a Christian culture had been pretty largely achieved. The later evangelical revivals in the style of Moody, Sunday and Graham have generally assumed that American society is basically Christian, and therefore have been pretty much a call to preserve that culture through respectable behavior and church membership. Meanwhile, most of our church leadership has failed to respond clearly to the challenges of new scientific theories, technological change, world leadership and increasing racial, ethnic and religious heterogeneity. Consequently people have come to think that intellectuals can have no use for piety while pious pastors are necessarily deficient in intellect.

Thus the stage was set for the development of another mystique to blur our perceptions of reality by diminishing the general opinion of the minister while glorifying a limited number of non-threatening activities to which society seems determined to commit him. (Incidentally, English pronouns may make me seem concerned only with the pastor as a man. Nevertheless I do want to point out on behalf of the ordained woman that she gets it with both barrels: the ministerial mystique from one side, the feminine mystique from the other.)

The ministerial mystique is squarely based on a theologically inadequate concept of humanity. Instead of seeing man as created in the image of God but fallen and sinful, it assumes that human beings are of two types: the good on the one hand, the worldly on the other. Presumably, a person can be one or the other, but never both simultaneously. Hence the pastor, by virtue of his calling, is different from all other men: he is good and he sees good in everyone. It follows that he does not have the realism, the wit, the drive, the courage, the aggressiveness and, especially, the practicality that are characteristic of normal males who get their hands dirty doing men’s work in a rough and tumble world. The pastor is above all that. Exempted from grubbing for cash to sustain himself and his family, he can devote himself wholly to serving the only institution that upholds heavenly ideals in a naughty world. He reforms the naughty wherever possible, and nurses the wounded through their traumas. This kind of work, he is told, calls for a professional, a general practitioner. In fact he is the last of the great G.P.s. As such he will derive greater rewards and satisfactions from his unique social contribution than his more specialized co-professionals in medicine, law, and so on can attain, despite the lucrative fees they command.


Numerous pastors have discovered the hard way that the truth can be dismayingly different. On the mystique’s terms the pastorate too can be a trap frustrating the minister’s need for fulfillment as a person, a prison in which all his work, even the care of those who present themselves as the wounded of the world, may be no more than institutionally self-serving trivia. Unlike Jan Roache, the pastor is not likely to find a layperson to share the pastorate with him. To be sure, laypeople may count the offering or do some calling from time to time (just as masculine husbands carry out the garbage and fix the leaky faucets); but how often will they share genuinely in the overall responsibility of the pastorate? And why should they? They have other matters to take care of. Anyway, that’s what the congregation hires the pastor to do. So he does it. He spends eight to 16 hours a day on a job that usually cannot accomplish its purposes. He finds himself on a treadmill of routine that saps his intellectual energy and kills his creativity, and he is frustrated by constant demands and interruptions of his parishioners. Eventually he begins to hate them, to hate himself for hating them, and finally to look for someone to hate in particular (whom? his wife? his former pastor? his seminary professor?) for getting him into such a mess.

Meanwhile, as he discovers what it is like to have to take pride in his contribution, his sacrifice, while worldly men take pride in their earnings, resentment builds up in him. The mystique helps blur his perception that his bitterness may be a normal expression of resistance to the layperson’s privilege and to the power over the pastor’s life such privilege confers. The pastor’s inability to force any real change in the situation is a grim tribute to the power of socialization and to the laity’s ability to exploit that power. When the minister realizes how minimal the satisfactions of a pastorate may be voices within and without will suggest that perhaps he is lazy and selfish and lacking in dedication. If his mind becomes sluggish, if he abandons serious reading, if his sermons become catchall collections of retreaded or half-baked ideas, he may rightly blame it all on his being awash in a sea of trivia, but those voices will whisper that he is inadequate intellectually, psychologically or spiritually. When he becomes sullen or resentful toward members of his congregation, the voices will be there to obscure his perception that they have it coming because they never quit twisting his arm. The voices will encourage him to feel guilty about resenting their material gains rather than taking satisfaction in the contribution his service has made to their success, guilty for envying their substantial incomes and burnished life styles, for resenting their wives’ new furs while his wife gets first crack at church rummage, for eating his heart out over their kids’ going to prestigious Ivy League universities while his go to local fresh-water colleges.

Those voices, within and without, keep reminding him that his real destiny is to provide a place where every member of the congregation can feel accepted without any sense of threat from spouse or children or pastor. Those voices will keep telling him that joy in the success of others is the payoff for all his drudgery. They will keep him from realizing not only that the payoff is at best the pittance for exploitation but that behind the payoff is a terrible double cost. One aspect of the cost is the minister’s loss of anything that could be called a genuine independent selfhood. Neither his home nor his wife nor his children nor his politics nor a host of other matters that all other mature adults handle for themselves without interference are to be his own. Piously heady with the power of the mystique, the congregation will not permit him to be a person like other persons. This in turn exacts a corrupting cost from the pastorate itself. Ever on the defensive, the minister cannot avoid substituting subservience and manipulation for service and love. Remember Professor Roache’s observation that "when someone has concrete power over your life . . . your identity becomes bound up in other people’s expectation of you -- and that is the definition of alienation."


Roache points also to "the distortions of perception and personality that result from being the ‘superior’ in a hierarchical structure." And all too often the pastorate is just such a hierarchical structure, a pecking order; and therefore it is unable to show the love and joy it proclaims. Try as a superior to serve another person and you will do no more than meddle in his or her life. Come as a subordinate to the same attempt and you will be subservient and manipulative. If you would love and serve human beings you must meet them as equals -- that is, in a relationship the purveyors of the ministerial mystique are determined to prevent.

Again, let us not sentimentalize about the victims of that mystique. In some fundamental way each victim has become an Esau by choice. Deliberately or inadvertently the victim has traded in his person-hood, his true freedom, in order to be "free from worldly care and avocations." Dependency is relying on somebody else to take care of your needs, usually at the price of not having anything to say in the matter. But if dependency is really intolerable it can be cured. Victims who are willing to pay the price can achieve emancipation. The minister or anyone who wants to be a whole person must undertake a journey into the unknown. But the minister who goes on that journey must be not only as gentle as a dove but as wily and tenacious as that snake Jacob. He need not abandon the pastorate, but he will have to tell his congregation in plain terms: "There is a portion of my life that is my own. It does not belong to you. My spouse does not belong to you. Our children do not belong to you. You have no more claim over me and mine than I have over you and yours. I will serve you faithfully as your pastor, but I insist on being myself even to the extent of picking up a suitable worldly care or avocation."

Perhaps few people will mind the words, but many will emit cries of dismay as the minister turns those words into action by picking up a lucrative part-time job, for instance, or disappearing two days a week to continue a honeymoon with his spouse, or getting into politics because he finds it refreshing, or buying a lot in the woods and building his own house. Some of his harried fellow ministers will accuse him of betraying his profession, and some of his parishioners will accuse him of neglecting his pastorate (particularly if he is involved in social action or civic reform). But he will know by his inner sense of wholeness that such charges are simply untrue. If any insist on their unsupported nonsense, he can tell them this little anecdote:

A teacher came to a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. She had a sister named Mary who seated herself at His feet and drank in what He had to say. Martha meanwhile was busy and distracted in attending to her guest, and finally she went to Him and said: "Professor J., don’t you care that my sister is leaving me to do all the serving by myself? You tell her to help me!" But the teacher said, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about all those details. Only one is really necessary. Mary has picked the good portion for herself, and that is not going to be taken away from her!"