Five faces of the minister's wife

Most people find their lives divided into stages—and wives of pastors are no exception. While the times of transition between stages often bring extra stress, you can meet them successfully.

Karen Nuessle, herself a pastor's wife, writes from Port Orchard, Washington.
Our author, Karen Nuessle, has written a most perceptive article. As I read it I felt in some respects as if my own life was transpiring before me. Tracing the stages of experience of a minister's wife, Karen says it is possible she will wear five "faces" during her lifetime. While there will be times of boundless joy, she will also encounter times of difficulty and decision-making. As you read her article I am sure you too will be able to identify with most of these faces. It is comforting to know, as you meet new challenges, that God has a plan for your life and that there are other ministers' wives experiencing similar circumstances. Karen says that a prior awareness of difficult times, prayer, and love will see you through. Her conclusion is one you will agree with. God loves you! —Marie Spangler.

"Oh, I know you. You're the pastor's wife."

No matter what her talents or her personal or career achievements, when Mrs. Pastor is introduced to the congregation she will always be the pastor's wife. In no other profession in the world is a woman as closely bracketed to her husband and his work. (It may be a calling or it may be a profession, but it is always work.)

This constant alliance has advantages and disadvantages. Because she moves so frequently, the pastor's wife may find it reassuring to know that she has a ready-made niche just waiting for her to fill. Most people will be friendly to her just because she is the pastor's wife, and she will develop deeper friendships with some of these church members as time passes.

But what of the disadvantages, the special stresses and strains that uniquely affect the woman who also happens to be a pastor's wife? I sometimes think we need a ministerial Erma Bombeck to point out to us that though our problems are uniquely ours, almost all ministerial wives face them at some time or other. I believe there are five distinct "faces" we as ministers' wives assume because of the impact of our husband's work on our lives.

The new bride who happened to fall in love with a minister is catapulted into the role of minister's wife. Idealistic and eager, she plans to turn the world around for Christ, to drive away apathy and try out all sorts of rosy dreams and plans.

Whether working outside the home or in it, she willingly shoulders preparation of the bulletin, visitation, Bible studies, food baskets, Dorcas, and Sabbath school responsibilities in order to do "her" share to finish "the work." Excited and enthusiastic, she finds fulfillment in spending her time on her husband's goals, the church's aims, and her relationship with Christ.

At times she may wonder about her motivation. Is she doing all these things for love of God or love of her man? But all in all, in the first flush of ministerial initiation, the wife's total involvement is taken for granted. She is part of the team. They work together.

Then the first baby arrives, generally followed by at least one more child. The bride, though still a minister's wife, has now added a new "face" to her life—mother.

The new arrival causes her to take one step away from her role as the totally involved minister's wife. Her withdrawal adds to the strain on the husband-wife relationship already precipitated by the baby's arrival. It is as though the ministerial wife has made a career change.

The role change becomes more involved if the wife works outside the home and continues to do so after the baby's birth, or if she has worked outside the home until this time and decides to stay home. Both scenarios generate tension and require adjustment. If the ministerial couple realizes this tension is a natural outcome of their "blessed event" and that every couple needs time to adjust, they can reduce the stress and adapt more easily.

However, in some ways a baby's arrival affects the ministerial family more than other families. Parishioners are often delighted with the new baby but fail to understand that the pastor's wife consequently must curtail some of her obligations. And often the new mother faces pressure to be an exemplary parent raising a "perfect" baby.

Nothing harasses a ministerial mother more than wrestling alone with two small children in the back pew while being chastised by looks if not by words from the couples sitting around her, handling one child between them. If nothing else, this exercise in humility teaches her how to empathize with young mothers—especially the many single-parent families that need her understanding and support. She knows a little bit about single parenting—she's been doing it for years!

When Junior and Junior Miss have started school, Mom faces another career change. In many cases Mrs. Minister would love to shift gears down and move back into the tight intimacy of that first stage in her life—she and her husband, a team for Christ. In most cases, however, the "demon" of school tuition rears its head. Necessity overrules choice, and Mom steps back into her original career or has to train for one. Either way, in stepping back into the job market, she takes yet another step away from her original involvement in her husband's work.

Now, even the few duties she retained during young motherhood must fall by the wayside. Further divorced from the work both of them love, she does not feel like a ministerial wife on any day but the Sabbath. In this role she can identify with many "seventh-day Adventists"—she is involved with the church only on the seventh day.

If she works outside the home, the ministerial wife needs more cooperation and help from her husband and children. Here the pastor walks a fine line. He can be home and to some extent subjugate his schedule to hers. But should he?

Most certainly the wife needs her husband's support during this time. She may be suffering withdrawal symptoms as a result of her noninvolvement with the church. She may be feeling frustration because her time is more hectic—all the things she used to do during the day she must now do at night. The children also may be feeling bewildered. Yes, they have been helping and doing chores before this. Now, however, their "help" is very much a necessity.

Perhaps the most puzzling stage the pastor's wife experiences is the fourth. Until now her goals and aims have been very straightforward, she really has had few options but the one she took. What she has done has been done of necessity. But now the children are no longer at home. The financial burden that demanded that she work outside the home has lightened to the point where she has a choice. And that creates what may be the greatest fear—the fear of making the wrong decision.

Until now, perhaps, the wife has taken more classwork to become eligible for better wages and positions. For personal fulfillment as well as financial security she has done her best to realize her potential in her career. Now, she must choose. Should she step back to renew the intimate working partnership she and her husband enjoyed at the onset of their pastoral ministry? Or should she continue to work outside the home and the pastoral realm and reap the just now-ripening harvest produced by the years of hard work she has put into her career? No one can make that choice for her.

No one can say what is best. The ministerial wife may choose stage one and find a thrill and fulfillment in her relationship to God and her husband that could rival heaven on earth. She could savor the sweetness of sharing victories and answers to prayer, the joy that results when two work together as support and helpmate to one another. Sometimes, however, when a career woman used to authority tries reentering stage one, she can be totalitarian and a thoroughly objectionable addition.

Or she may choose to fully enter stage four, finding time to slip comfortably into a career-wife role that may never have been hers. This stage makes possible a beautiful blossoming of the coupleness of the minister and his wife. Both have outside interests, but they are at home alone now. They can enjoy the sweetness of a twosome knowing one another more fully.

So stage four represents an important choice, one not easily made but one that once again changes the face of the minister's wife. This stage affords more of a freewill decision than any of the others.

Stage five, widowhood, gives the pastor's wife no choice at all. Certainly not all ministers' wives will experience this stage. But no matter what face the minister's wife may be wearing when stage five strikes, it is probably more traumatic for her than any other woman because of her close connection to her husband's calling.

To a large degree, when her husband dies the minister's wife loses her identity. Oh, she has always had one of her own, but it has been so closely related to her husband that this stage can cut a woman down to half her size.

She loses her role in her church as the pastor's wife—for a new pastor will come. She usually loses her home, and ends up moving shortly after her husband's death. She loses more than her man at his death. I don't think I am being too dramatic in saying she loses almost everything. At this time her faith in and dependence on the Lord are all she really has left.

Why define these five stages? Why point out something so obvious? All ministers' wives will face at least one of these role changes. It is comforting, reassuring to know that others have confronted these five faces and lived through them—not just subsisting, but living joyfully.

And, while we may not know one another personally, we can be sympathetic and supportive of each other, aware of the trials and victories our sisters are facing.

When we are aware of the difficulties we will face at the transition between these stages, we can regard the difficulties as challenges and successfully meet them. Satan, the "roaring lion" seeking to destroy us by destroying our homes, uses these special times of stress in his efforts. Through awareness, prayer, and love we may defeat him at our very doors. Then, when someone greets us with "Oh, I know you—you're the minister's wife," we can respond, "Yes, I am; and I'm very happy to be one."


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Karen Nuessle, herself a pastor's wife, writes from Port Orchard, Washington.

April 1984

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