The Fable of the Fishbowl

Is being a minister's wife like living in a goldfish bowl?

IRMA ROLLER HADLEY is a minister's wife.

I could never be a minister's wife—why, it would be just like living in a goldfish bowl. You poor dear, how do you do it?" a well-mean­ing but much-illusioned sister in the church once said to me.

This innocently sympathetic remark is just one of the many ways I have heard the lot of the minister's family referred to as a "fishbowl existence." Indeed, it seems to be the mental picture that a good many people possess, but it is a view which, though I have given it much thought, I cannot appreciate. Certainly, the sooner we can shatter this fishbowl theory and sweep it out of our thinking, the better it will be for us as shepherdesses and for the dear people we seek to serve.

The first district my husband was asked to pastor was a rural community of some two hun­dred Adventists. A rambling, old had-been-girls'­dormitory building, which was planted squarely in the middle of the settlement, was the par­sonage. The church members lived across the road from us, their houses were behind ours, and on all sides of ours. When I stepped out of the door in any direction it seemed that I could feel the sharp gaze of many eyes glued to every move I made. This feeling was beginning to make my life miserable until finally I sat down and reck­oned with myself. Suddenly, all the cracks in the fishbowl became obvious.

In the first place, our homes and manner of living are no more laid open before our church members than are theirs to us. Do not we visit their homes, and is it not natural that we come away with a definite impression of how they live? In fact, if a minister's wife is a good visitor she will probably visit the homes of her people much more frequently than they visit hers. Do not we become quite keen observers of our peo­ple's dress and what they eat and where they go? Too often, I fear, we let these outward appear­ances serve as an appraisal of their faithfulness to the church, without regard for what is deep within their hearts.

Yes, our people have a reciprocal right to ob­serve how we live, and this fact we should not resent. Inevitably, they will see the mistakes that we make and they will learn that we are not perfect; but, I am thankful that the Lord's peo­ple, on the whole, are understanding and long-suffering. True, if the minister's wife looks for those who have quick tongues to criticize, she will surely find them; but it would be better to look for the majority who watch her because they love her.

One of the surest ways to burst the fishbowl idea is for Mrs. Minister to make certain she does not hold herself aloof from the people. If she is genuinely friendly, if she demonstrates that she loves her people, they will readily ac­cept her as their own. They will come to her aid in illness, they will support her in her work, they will become her dearest friends. Not by any stretch of the imagination can such a lot demand pity!

The wife of the minister must safeguard her family from being overcome by a "layer of glass" complex. Her children need not feel either superior or inferior. The fact that daddy is a minister should not be emphasized until it is a yoke. Nor should the necessary irregular family routine, much travel, or unusual priv­ileges be magnified until our children develop a sense of personal significance. Let's see how nearly we can identify ourselves with the fami­lies of our members. This does not mean that we will compromise standards, but only that we will consider ourselves simply another family unit, which the Lord desires to use in spreading the truth to others.

The greatest evidence of the power of Christianity that can be presented to the world is a well-ordered, well-disciplined family. This will recommend the truth as nothing else can; for it is a living witness of its practical power upon the heart.—Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 304.

Our fabled fishbowl seems not only to have the faculty of a public show place but also car­ries the properties of incarceration. I once heard a minister's wife say, "Well, I admire Mrs. _______  for doing such and such [i.e., disregarding one of the recognized standards of the church]. At least she is not a hypocrite. What she is doing is something I wish I could do too, and if I were not a minister's wife, I would!"

These words kept repeating themselves to me. "If I were not a minister's wife, I would!" Do we wives in the ministry actually live walled-in, contrary to our will, by a code of super conduct? How many of us are living in a priestly shell of hypocrisy? Must we meet some higher standard of measurement than is re­quired of all God's people? I do not think so. Furthermore, the minister's wife who feels thus imprisoned is heaping upon herself undeserved sympathy, which can only bring her unhappiness and discontent.

If I weren't a minister's wife, then I would—what? Would I be a "fringe Adventist," one in name only? Would I feel liberated so that I could engage in some of the worldly practices my heart now secretly craves to do? Am I, as a minister's wife, merely a religious captive, com­pelled to live a museum life of faked goodness?

If I were not a minister's wife, I would still be seeking to enter the kingdom of heaven. I would want to be, through the grace of Christ, a faithful, loyal Seventh-day Adventist. Sanctifi­cation, no less, would still be my goal. I would need to be just as careful of my words and ac­tions as I try to be now, for others would still be watching me. I do not believe the Lord has one set of requirements for the ministry and an­other for the laity. We shall not be judged by a caste system of perfection.

And so, the fact that the Lord graciously per­mitted me to become the wife of a minister does not mean that I must live differently than if I had married a plumber or a merchant or an engineer. The difference lies in that the sphere of my influence is perhaps broader and greater than it might otherwise have been. This sacred responsibility can only be counted as a privilege, Heaven-sent! It is a blessing of Providence for which I shall ever be grateful. And I'm grateful, too, that shepherdesses do not reside in fish­bowls, but rather within the fold of the Good Shepherd.

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IRMA ROLLER HADLEY is a minister's wife.

November 1962

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