The Place of the Minister's Wife in the Church and Community

The Place of the Minister's Wife in the Church and Community (Part 1)

Presented to an assembly of ministers' wives at the Columbia Union Session, Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Bertha W. Fearing, Minister's Wife, Washington, D.C.

Arriving in a New Church

It has been said that much of what has been spoken or writ­ten about the minister's wife is either idealistic or unrealistic. It usually portrays a woman who is the perfect combination of all that is gracious, lovely, spiritual, pleasant, friendly, tactful; a model housewife and mother, a perfect hostess, her husband's right arm, an understanding counselor, a skilled financier, a reasonably ac­tive church worker, et cetera. It would seem she is to be the embodiment of all virtues.

Doubtless your feelings are the same as mine, for I say, "Who is sufficient?" And the answer is, "Surely not I." As a bride, one of our now-well-known ministers' wives spent an evening reading all about what she was supposed to be and do, and her husband came home to find her in tears and sobbing, "I can never do it at all."

Because the standards others have for her are so high it follows that her standards for her­self must be exalted. She may not feel she can qualify, but she will grow into her posi­tion and work with God's guidance.

After all, there must be an ideal, but we must remember that it is an ideal, and not one of us can fit the picture on all points.

When the new pastor and his wife arrive, the people first notice their appearance—how they are dressed and their manner in meeting their new congregation. In their pastor they next listen to his ability in preaching; in his wife they notice whether she is pleasant and friendly to everyone. Friendliness and kindliness are priority qualifications. Of course, the new shepherdess arrives at this new church knowing that she will like it here, and that she will love these people, so friendliness and interest will glow from her face and show in her words and actions.

It is interesting to know that it has only been in the past fifteen or twenty years that large business organizations have paid much atten­tion to the wives of their executives. Prior to that time there seemed to be no recognition of their part in their husbands' success or failure. But in 1951 William Whyte, Jr., writing in FORTUNE magazine in the months of October and November, indicated that some corpora­tions now consider their executives' wives al­most as important as the executives themselves, and that wives were regularly interviewed by many companies along with their husbands.

Doubtless we remember the story of the com­mittee that was interviewing a pastoral prospect and inquired about his wife with some rather personal and pointed questions. The minister didn't like this very well and said, "You are not calling my wife, are you?" "No," was the reply, "we aren't calling your wife, but if we call you, she's going to come!"

The concern on the part of worldly organiza­tions is, of course, a financial one. They want their men happy and secure in their home life so that their "total energies" are available for their work. They know that a man with a happy home life is a more productive and congenial worker. Among other qualifications they list the "ideal corporation wife" as adaptable, gregarious, one who realizes that her husband be­longs to the corporation.

We recognize that these are qualities that could be considered of value in almost any field of work, especially that of the minister's wife.

A Comparison With Other Women

A comparative look at the wives of business and professional men with the minister's wife may show many similarities, but there are two major points in which we as ministers' wives differ—first, we believe our husbands have been divinely called to their work, and second, the minister's wife is a participant in her husband's work. She is vitally involved in the church and in the home, and the church and the commu­nity both expect her to be. Surely it is a rare minister's wife who does not feel she is sharing in some way in the work of God through her marriage and position in her home and church.

Wallace Denton in his book The Role of the Minister's Wife tells of interviewing a group of thirty wives. In answer to the question as to what they considered the "place" of the minister's wife to be, the following replies are typical.

"I think her place is to help her husband as much as possible, but to be strictly in the back­ground."

-I think the minister's wife is to walk beside her husband. . . . Well, maybe she is to walk just a little behind him, because he is to be the center."

"Like other women, I believe she should be a helpmate to her husband and provide him with a comfortable home."

I insert here a few personal suggestions that would apply to any wife who loves her husband and wants to care for him:

We want our husbands to be physically well but sometimes undermine their health ourselves by serving improperly planned meals or urging them to do something for us when they are already overtired (because we have just as much right to their time as Mr. or Mrs. Blank, you know). Re­member that the man has more physical strength but women are more resistant to disease and their life expectancy is longer. So . .. if we want to keep our husbands we should do our part in guarding their health and well-being.

  1. Watch his weight. This means we provide meals tailored to his needs and desires.
  2. Encourage regular, not sporadic, exercise. His life is often too sedentary.
  3. Insist on adequate rest. Brain workers need more rest than active laborers.
  4. See that he drinks enough water. Perhaps give him a thermos to carry as he goes out for the day.
  5. Create a relaxing atmosphere. Home should be a haven after the problems of the day.
  6. Regular medical care and examinations are vital, especially after 35 or 40.
  7. Help him make the most of his vacation; it should be recreative.

A minister has many demands and a busy schedule if he is the kind of minister he should be. But the wife does not say, "Oh, the con­ference works you too hard, my poor darling!" She helps him to arrange a balanced program, to guard his health and happiness.

A Wife's Place as Counselor in Her Husband's Life

Does the minister's wife have a definite place in the church program? Of course, but your place may be a different one than the role of your predecessor. Because you do not have her talents, it does not mean you do not have your own contribution to make. The first place of consideration for any minister's wife, of course, is to be of help to her husband personally—and if that role is well filled, doubtless she is at the same time making her largest contribu­tion to the work of the church.

Now for a few general and personal areas of helpfulness. First, there are two very obvious things about a person in public life: what he says and how he looks. Study your husband as objectively as you can; learn to listen intelli­gently to his sermons, and then learn how to offer tactful criticisms and suggestions. Think of these points: Is his presentation logical, clear, interesting? Is it over the peoples' heads, too down to earth? Does it offer thought for the various levels of the congregation? Does it meet the needs of the hearers? Is it helping to prepare them for heaven? Is his voice pleasant or mo­notonous? Is he developing objectionable man­nerisms or gestures, mispronouncing words, or using incorrect grammar? No one else is going to tell him, and if someone did, it might be embarrassing. It is up to you. Perhaps you need to help him in his dress. He is before the public gaze, and nothing about his appearance should detract or call attention to too much or too little.

While you may act as his chief critic, it is done kindly and tactfully—but of course you wouldn't do it any other way with someone you love. And yours must not always be criticism —he will receive encouragement and approba­tion, even praise, from others, and must from you also.

Be understanding about his books and study materials; they are important to him. Don't begrudge him his library, or his study and meditation hours. Help him to have quietness for thought, study, and prayer.

And in your own study and reading be aware of materials he might find useful; mark them for him and lay them on his desk. You may be re­warded some Sabbath morning by hearing your idea framed in a new sermon.

Be understanding when he has a special task on his hands—building a new church or school, a major evangelistic campaign, a large visitation program, or the Ingathering cam­paign, and help all you can.

Knowing the Church Members

One of the first responsibilities at the new church is to learn to recognize the people and be able to call them by name. Obtain the list of members before you arrive, if possible, so that at least the names are familiar from your study; then when you meet the people it is easier to remember. Determine to learn a few more each week at every service or gathering you attend. By the time you have made some head­way on this you begin to feel at home. You are among friends. They welcomed you to the church as a newcomer; now you are beginning to take your place as hostess and welcome them.

And one of the very enjoyable roles of the pastor's wife is that of church hostess, not only when her husband may be holding evangelistic meetings, but especially on Sabbath mornings. She does not necessarily stand at the entrance and shake hands with everybody (I rather like to see a man do that), but the minister's wife and the Bible instructor usually like to take this opportunity to greet special ones, watch­ing for visitors, newer members, those who have been absent for a while. This means they would be at the church perhaps by nine o'clock on Sabbath morning. Then at the close of the service it is well for the minister's wife to have a place in the lobby or foyer, which may become a regular spot where she may greet those she missed before church, and it will also mean that members know where to find her to ask a question or convey a message, or introduce a friend.

Perhaps one of the first ways you have con­tact with many of the members is by telephone, and even though you may be fortunate enough to have a secretary installed in the church office, you will still receive many calls. And many times the minister's wife serves unofficially as secretary right from the home. Graciousness and willing­ness to be of service must show in our voice as we answer the telephone. I mention this be­cause I would like to suggest that you have a notebook by the telephone (I like a spiral notebook such as a stenographer uses) and always write any messages in it. Thus you have a permanent record—little pieces of paper may get lost, or your husband takes them with him. But that notebook should never leave the telephone—the messages are copied out of it for him to carry with him. Then they are crossed off when they are cared for. If you have a permanent record in that notebook, it may save you many a problem, for you can always look back if necessary. It can be a serious matter to lose some messages. Then, too, the pastor may get busy and you may have to remind him to do something that wasn't crossed off.


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Bertha W. Fearing, Minister's Wife, Washington, D.C.

July 1963

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