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.