Roles for “the Preacher’s Wife”
The advertisement for the upcoming Moody Pastor’s Conference excluding women pastors has me thinking about the role of the pastor’s wife. I’m not thinking about women’s ordination but about pastor’s wives. Even in denominations (like mine) who ordain women there are several thousand women married to male pastors. They have carved out for themselves a variety of roles. (And, others have carved out role for them too.) In my lifetime I’ve seen six roles—perhaps there are more, and most exist today, though some are rare.
1. Pedestal preacher’s wife.
The pedestal preacher’s wife is iconographic. She attends everything, sits up front, takes notes on her husband’s sermon, and believes she lives in a glass house and so she acts like it. She is circumspect in what she says, careful in how she walks to her pew at church, she is meticulous in how she dresses and believes people are watching her as a model. The congregation admires her from a distance though most have never been in her home. She cares for the kids and makes sure they behave well. She is “a private person” they say of her and she doesn’t expect to have friends in her church. She relates mostly to her own family and relatives who usually live far away. She instructs younger preacher’s wives, “You simply can’t make friends with “parishioners”—you are a model for them not their buddy.” She is usually not involved in leading anything at church because she believes her example and presence is her leadership. The congregation may even call her “the queen of the parsonage.”
2. Supportive preacher’s wife
The supportive preacher’s wife is her husband’s helper. She does not lead the women’s group or teach a Sunday school class or lead anything else at church. Rather, she sees her calling as helping her husband be a minister. She is often her husband’s at-home secretary, confident, and advisor but she does this without pay. In years past she may have been a stay-at-home wife and spent an hour or more every day in prayer for her husband’s ministry. Sometimes she is “her husband’s eyes and ears” in the church and feeds to her husband her take on how things are going. She may be especially adept at “entertaining” guest speakers in her home or holding receptions for new people but she doesn’t say much though she is friendly. She knows the people even though they don’t know her very well. She may pre-read magazines and books for her husband, file his sermons, and monitor the atmosphere at church to give him feedback. She might suggest improvements to his sermons and give him timing suggestions on launching new initiatives or hiring staff. She never interviews new staff but she eats dinner with them and tells her husband what she thinks. The supportive preacher’s wife relates mostly to her husband’s ministry instead of the church’s ministry.
3. Yokemate pastor’s wife.
The yokemate pastor’s wife believes she is called to be a pastor’s wife just like her husband was called to the ministry. Her calling is to the church—just like her husband’s—and she leads ministries in the church and often functions practically as the chief lay leader. This wife plunges into programming, organizations, and often launches new initiatives or new programs on her own. She counsels, teaches, organizes, administers, manages and leads as if she is a paid staff member even if she gets no paycheck from the church. She is a free employee for the church but she doesn’t complain—at least for the first decade. She may tell younger women “If I were as young as you are I’d have gone for ordination in today’s world—but in my time you became a pastor’s wife. A yokemate wife often leads to the next category by middle age.
4. Ordained staff member
The ordained staff member pastor’s wife happens two ways. Some get there by starting out as a yokemate wife who realizes they have been called to the ministry all along. She picks up the ordination courses and gets ordained just like their husband and then gets hired on his staff. A more recent way this happens is when a called college woman marries a called college man and when they get their first job the church hires the man as the senior pastor and his wife as one of his staff ministers. (Technically this could happen either way—the church could hire the woman as senior pastor and her husband as a staffer for her, but this is still rare.) The ordained staffer wife usually serves in the same church as her husband, though it would not have to be that way. When the senior pastor husband leaves the church the wife invariably moves too—hoping her husband’s next church needs a staff person like her too. In a few denominations where they permit co-pastor roles a wife and husband may serve in equal positions with neither being the “senior” pastor—like some denominations have multiple-but-equal General Superintendents.
5. Parallel pastors
A more recent (though rare) role for [an ordained] wife of a pastor is when she is also a pastor—but at a different church. On Sunday morning both are preaching at their own church and throughout the week both lead their own congregations. This is often the ultimate test of a church’s expectation of a “pastor’s wife.” In fact this is sometimes how a yokemate-cum-ordained-ministers lands a job in her husband’s church—she says she’s applying to pastor another church and the board scurries about to hire her for the same church as her husband’s so they don’t lose her!
6. Wife of a pastor.
Our description would be incomplete without mentioning the wife who wants no role at all. Some women who marry pastors have no calling whatsoever to be a “pastor’s wife.” She insists her role is to be the wife of a man who happens to be a pastor. She may say, “He is a pastor and I am a nurse—he doesn’t come to the hospital to work at my job and I don’t interfere with his job at the church.” This wife-of-a-pastor believes she is a lay person just like any other lay person in the church—just one that happens to be married to a pastor. She might or might not teach a Sunday school class or play in the worship band—but if she does so, she doesn’t do it as a pastor’s wife but serves just like any other lay person. The wife-of-a-pastor “attends church” like any other lay person and refuses any role at all assigned to her because of who she married.
So, has there has been a shift over the years? Is it good? Bad? Is one of these roles becoming more common today? Are any roles outdated and should be banished? Who decides this? The woman herself? Is it appropriate to talk about this in an interview? Is it even legal? What do you see in the future for those women who marry pastors?
So what do you think?
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Keith Drury February 17, 2009