Friday, February 10, 2017

The Cult of the Pastor's Wife

The rule of thumb I go by is, "If the pastor's wife does it, it must be okay."  It started as a joke, when a couple of young people pretended to be shocked at me for picking my dessert first at potluck.  Now, it's a sanity strategy.

Because the cult of the pastor's wife is real, no matter how much I try to deny it.  The expectations change in content and intensity from place to place, of course.  But it's always there.

In the South, when Jim was still a ministerial student, guest preaching, and we were still dating, it began. I remember the senior pastor gently pushed him to stand by the door after the sermon, then steered me until I was standing next to him.

In rural northwest Pennsylvania, a member at the business meeting suggested holding a vegetarian cooking school, and all eyes at the table turned on 23-year-old me.

I remember apologizing to a member in the Philadelphia region who was holding a fierce grudge against me.  It turned out that my crime had been that, when she brought her painfully shy toddler-aged granddaughter to Sabbath School, I (not the teacher, just in class with my own toddler) had not approached the child and tried to draw her out.

And no matter where we go, I am always caught by how surreal it is to be interviewing for a job for which  I'm not applying.

I have a collection of books of advice for pastor's wives.  I gather them partly for humor, and partly for curiosity.  I would love to find, someday, a book addressed to pastor's husbands, telling them how they should dress and behave, and meet their many social obligations, but I'm guessing it doesn't yet exist.  I'd like to see if it includes a chapter on how to accessorize a single suit to make it look like a whole wardrobe, or teaching the young deacons about building maintenance and lawn care. Or dealing with members who criticize them for how their children behave.

Recently, our church's associate pastor got married, and for the first time, I was no longer the only pastor's wife.  I marveled at the experience, but I also found myself caught up, like all those book writers before me, wondering what I should say to her, how I ought to advise her about the life she was walking into, eyes open.  I made speeches, never delivered, in my head. They went something like this:

You get to define what it means to be the pastor's wife.  That's because the pastor's wife is, in fact, you.  There is no ideal Pastor's Wife model out there, no matter how much she appears in people's heads (and sometimes our own). There is only us.

And the fishbowl life isn't all it's made up to be.  It is true that people will notice you--they'll notice, and an unnerving number of them will have an opinion about you, but it won't all be the same opinion.  And I have found, after all these years, that what they notice most is whether or not you notice them.

Like it or not, fair or not, there is a mystique granted to the pastor's family.  You are a very small celebrity, whether the job suits you or not.  So what you think of them (or what they guess you think) usually determines what they think of you. If you notice them, remember their names, greet them in the lobby, ask about the family members or troubles they talked to you about last time, they won't usually find much to criticize.  In fact, you will find you have the power to give people value just by your notice.  And if this sort of thing isn't your gift (it isn't mine), you just muddle through, like the rest of us.

The cult is real.  It's a burden, and a blessing. But it doesn't have to be a curse.  It's not a straight jacket, and you must not allow it to bind you, or to make you something you're not.  Instead, do what I do.  When you're faced with some ambiguous choice, don't know if something is okay or not, just ask yourself what the pastor's wife would do.  Because if the pastor's wife does it, it must be okay.


  1. In our conference, Northern New England Conference (NNEC), USA, we have lay pastors and most (if not all now) are married. May I share this with our pastor's wives? I think it would bless them. Thank you!

    We also have a couple of pastor's husbands...I wonder their take on things now...though one is also currently a pastor, the other is a 'retired' don't know that they would feel the pressure that a pastor's husband would that hadn't been in her shoes prior.

    Our conference president's wife, though is Shepherdess Leader, and it must be a challenge for her, as a fairly new leader, and having pastor's husbands in the mix...Praying for all our leaders and their families! We have a daily prayer line in the NNEC where we pray in a monthly rotation for all the pastors and their families, church school, home school and public school teachers in a weekly rotation we pray for conference officers and their families.

    God bless and keep you!!!

    1. My apologies at leaving this unanswered Christie, but I actually only just learned where to go to reply to comments. Hopefully you went ahead and used the blog, but if not, and if you're still interested, of course you have my blessing! I'd love it if you include my name and blog address.

  2. At our first church, 25 years ago, our wise senior pastor's wife shared the same...there's no pastor's wife mold- the gifts I bring to the role are enough, and just what is needed, so I should be myself. This has stuck with me and I continue to pass that along. I enjoyed your blog post. Thanks for taking the time to share your words of wisdom.

  3. Hi Laura - I'm the coordinator of Pastor's spouses in North New Zealand - would you mind if I use your awesome words and take on being a Pastor's wife, with my peeps? Or shall I just do it anyway, coz if the 'Pastor's wife' does it is must be ok?? lol

    1. I would be honored if you used my material. I would be especially chuffed if you included my name and the blog address, if using it in print or electronically.

    2. Absolutely, thanks. I will be sending it via email to our spouses today.

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