Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Honest to God: An Accidental Minister's Wife

Like me, my mother didn’t know she was marrying a future minister. When she married my dad, he had an accounting degree and worked in banking. There’s a photo of them at a charity event in the mid-’60s. My dad is in a tux and my mom is wearing an evening gown. Her hair is up in a fashionable '60s style and her smile reveals a row of perfect teeth. Both my parents look like movie stars. To me, this photo is a glimpse into a life that I never knew—before my dad went into the ministry and my parents’ social standing took a significant hit. I never knew if my mother resented trading in those society evenings for teaching the toddlers’ Bible class in the church nursery and hosting all those church bridal and baby showers. As I remember, she adapted to the role of minister’s wife well. Everywhere we lived, she made friends with church women, and she gladly hosted youth group gatherings at our house. If she ever felt that her individuality was being stifled or that she couldn’t be genuine with people because of my dad’s job, she never showed it.

During the early years of my childhood, Mom was a homemaker who sewed and organized playgroups with the other young mothers at church. But years later, I would learn about the enormous pressure she sometimes encountered. At my dad’s second church, he was the associate minister. This was an ambiguous title that, in this case, meant he did everything but preach. Visiting the sick, organizing the youth group program, coordinating Bible classes from infant through adult—all of this and more fell on his shoulders. My brother and I were eight and four, and my mother was at home with us every day and most evenings. When their marriage began to suffer under the strain, she realized she had no one to confide in. Her closest friends were church members, and what if they knew the associate minister and his wife were having marriage problems? After all, their children were in the Sunday school classes he was coordinating and teaching. So when my dad came home at night, my mom would put my brother and me to bed, get in the car, and drive the streets of our neighborhood, silent tears streaming down her face. Eventually she would come home, and get up the next morning to start another day. We stayed at that church only two years. When we moved away, I thought we were off on another adventure. But now I know my parents were trying to escape an incredibly stressful situation with their sanity and marriage intact.

By the time we moved to my dad’s fourth church, Mom seemed to get restless. She began working as a substitute in the public schools, and after we moved to the next town, she went back to school to finish her bachelor’s degree in education—just as I was beginning fourth grade. I noticed something that unnerved me at the time. For the first time, my mom was enthusiastic about something that didn’t have to do with home or church. She loved school. She came home from class and spoke endlessly about projects, professors, and her career options for the future. At her graduation, she was presented with the Dean’s Award for her academic achievement.

Mom taught first grade for several years before getting her master’s degree. As I was entering college, she became an elementary-school principal. At the time, I thought she had simply done what a lot of women had begun doing in the ’70s by pursuing her own academic and professional interests. But she was also following a trend that had been predicted by Shirley Foster Hartley in the Review of Religious Research in 1978. Hartley had conducted a study in which 448 clergy wives from six mainstream Protestant denominations were asked 138 questions regarding their satisfaction with being married to pastors (Hartley 178). The study found that the wives’ satisfaction levels increased with higher education levels and employment. As for the idea that clergy wives should strive to be nothing more than model homemakers, Hartley found clergy wives moving toward fulfillment outside the home.
Overall satisfaction tends to… decrease with the average hours of housework reported by these respondents. The myth of the joys of homemaking is exploded even for (or especially for) those who might be expected to be most fulfilled in those tasks (Hartley 186).
As the study found more satisfaction in pastors’ wives who embraced their own individuality rather than finding identity in their husbands’ ministerial roles, Hartley predicted that clergy wives would continue to gradually shift away from the roles traditionally expected of them.

Greater variety in acting out the role of ‘minister’s wife is to be expected in the future. Not one stereotypical pattern, but many possibilities within the general role are anticipated… As clergy wives have been in a most extreme, stereotypical, traditional, wifely role in American society, they can be expected to move only slowly into the more individualistic roles (Hartley 189).

Years before this article was published, my grandmother—the proud preacher’s wife—had done her part to break the mold of the stereotypical ministers’ spouse. Having never found much fulfillment in homemaking, Annie operated a private kindergarten in her home and worked as a newspaper columnist. She volunteered for the Red Cross at the local hospital’s emergency room, where she picked up a thorough knowledge of first aid. The house she shared with my grandfather sat at an intersection where car accidents were frequent, and the sound of screeching tires and crunching metal would send her into action. It was typical for my grandfather to step out of his home office into the living room to find the couches and chairs occupied by bleeding accident victims who, while waiting for the ambulance to arrive, had been bandaged up by my grandmother. Annie was busy with church life, too, but something led her to create a life and identity outside of church. By the late ’70s, the ship of clergy wives’ changing roles was beginning to set sail, and my mother had jumped on board by going back to college, finishing her degree, and starting a career. In creating a life for herself outside of church and my dad’s job, she carved out her own individuality. I didn’t think much about it back then. But my grandmother’s and my mother’s examples would one day help guide me away from an unseen monster of my own.


Post a Comment

<< Home