Shepherdess: The pastor's wife then and now

Many pastoral wives find themselves today in a crisis of conflicting expectations from within as well as without. How did the present situation come about, and what can you do to cope with it?

Miriam Wood is a  teacher, editor, and minister's wife,

Many roles are changing in today's world, and the role of the pastor's wife is no exception. These changes often cause feelings of confusion and frustration. During the 1983 Annual Council, Miriam Wood, teacher, editor, and minister's wife, moderated a panel discussing The Adventist Pastoral Wife in Crisis. Panel members (all pastoral wives and, interestingly enough, all nurses) were: Marguerite McGraw, Wheaton, Maryland; Lillian Grosboll, Hyattsvitte, Maryland; Lira Weiss, Silver Spring, Maryland; and Barbara Nelson, Bozeman, Montana

Miriam has done a wonderful job of taking the results of the panel discussion and preparing this month's Shepherdess feature. Her article describes some of the pressures faced by the pastoral wife and the reasons for them. Many of you have dealt successfully with these things in your own lives. Won't you write me and tell me about the answers you have found? Whether you are a pastor's wife-or the husband of a pastor's wife, we want to listen, and you'll want to read what these women have to say. It's important to you and to your church.Marie Spangler.

The Adventist pastoral wife faces problems today that could never have been foreseen in the church's (and the world's) earlier, simpler years. And the decisions she makes in the next several years will have a profound effect upon the Adventist Church and the concept of a shared pastoral responsibility. But before describing how things are, we need to discuss how things used to be and why.

Churches exist in the context and framework of their times. In the nineteenth century the Adventist Church was male-dominated, as were other churches and secular institutions. Church and society deeply believed that a woman was an extension of her husband and that her role should be that of homemaker. The few who disputed this assumption were considered strange indeed.

When many evangelical religions came into being in mid-century, conventional wisdom was that the gospel commission made it imperative for the pastoral wife to continue to run her home smoothly and rear her children perfectly (usually with next to no money) and also function as her husband's full-time pastoral partner.

Surprisingly enough, pastoral wives apparently voiced almost no resentment or disagreement. In general, they seemed to accept their multiple roles submissively and, in most cases, enthusiastically. The mental picture is of a tired pastoral wife, dressed in her rusty "good" black dress, serving a meal to a large number of Sabbath guests, having grown the food, harvested it, and prepared it. Her husband and quiet children stand by immaculately dressed in the clothes she has made, washed, starched, and ironed. In addition, she has a bed always available for the homeless (made up with snowy sheets and homemade quilts), listens to the problems of the troubled at any time they choose, and always presents a serene countenance to the world.

But it worked! At least the failures were not often recorded. Pastoral wives usually had little formal education, but in this they differed little from their secular counterparts. Women did not need formal education, society felt. The role of pastoral wife probably gratified the human need to stand just a little above the crowd. Remember too that the role of preacher in those days carried with it great status. It is safe to say that during most of the nineteenth century the minister commanded the same kind of respect that physicians now enjoy.

With the dawn of the twentieth century, the pastoral wifely role did not change. If anything, it became even more demanding as the role of the pastor-evangelist developed. Now the wife needed to be a musician so she could take her place at the piano or organ night after night! As Adventist colleges came into full being, along with theological departments, it dawned on faculty members that the future of the church rested, to a large extent, on the graduating ministerial students, and, by extension, on the girls they selected as wives. Throughout the 1940s college Bible teachers and other faculty members showed an inordinate interest in this matter and monitored romances care fully. Over and over the ministerial student heard, "The girl you marry will make or break your ministry." And usually the students submitted meekly to the guidance of their mentors.

Interestingly enough, the girls no more questioned this concept than did their husbands-to-be. (The girls who did not agree and voiced their feelings usually lost out as wives of future ministers.) When a conference president interviewed a senior theology student for his first pastoral-evangelistic role, he usually interviewed the fiancee as well and told her that if her husband-to-be was employed, her services were also being secured. Her time belonged to the conference just as much as did her husband's. She must accompany her groom on his pastoral visits, and exhibit tact and interest in others. She must dress quietly and modestly. She must learn, above all, to curb her tongue, and finally, she must never interfere with his work in any way. "She will be a hindrance to him in his work" was the worst thing that could ever be said about a pastoral bride. Listening to the firm, authoritative enunciation of these high standards, the frightened, timid bride acquiesced. It was that kind of era.

Most pastoral wives through the thirties and early forties did not have college degrees. In the post-depression era few Adventist families had the finances to provide advanced education for their daughters, and most did not think it necessary, "since she will just get married and raise a family." Many a ministerial student became engaged in college to a girl who then dropped out to earn a bit of money for her wedding, leaving him with a college degree and her with no marketable skills or profession.

This picture seems negative, but the truth is that it worked gloriously! Remember that until World War II almost no married woman worked out side the home. Incomes were low, and the pastoral couple was not much poorer than most of the members. The pastoral wife had respect and admiration, and she basked in her leadership role. What did it matter that she and her husband worked around the clock, had no money, sometimes wore hand-me-downs from more affluent family members, did not own property and had no hopes of ever doing so? The two of them were engaged in a mighty work for God, and the wife believed this as much as her husband. Every day was a new challenge with new battles to be won for God, more souls to warn of the soon return of Christ. This was an extremely productive period for the Adventist Church, almost a golden age.

Then World War II changed everything—above all, the role of women in America and other lands. Housewives who had never expected to hold a job outside the home now found themselves urged into defense and munition plants to take the places of men in the armed forces. Families were disrupted. A totally new atmosphere dawned. Prices began to rise (as they always do in war), and paychecks loomed incredibly large, especially to women unaccustomed to earning anything. As pastoral wives saw these changes and realized how working outside the home could ease financial stress, a few ventured, with fear and trembling, into the war plants. They assured themselves it was only temporary. Even the secular world thought that women would go back home when the war ended. But it didn't work out that way. Returning war veterans found a wife accustomed to her own income and unwilling to see her husband as the sole provider.

Another outgrowth of the war was a new philosophy regarding the education of women. Many young women had been widowed, and having no preparation to earn a living for themselves and their children, they were terrified when the war plants closed. "If only I had had an education!" was the bitter cry. Crash courses in secretarial science, nursing, and other adult education programs blossomed. More and more, girls began to have college expectations (the result of higher secular incomes and the aftermath of the war); some began to feel that although a woman might never have a job other than that of nurturer and homemaker, she should have a comprehensive education in order to keep up with her husband in his profession. Women were no longer content to be an appendage of their husbands. The "little woman" was on the march.

As prices rose and as other women found permanent positions in the marketplace, pastoral wives slowly began to leave the home for jobs. There were children to educate in the church school system, a monumentally high expense then and now, and people concluded that even though one's eventual home was to be heaven, one must have some sort of habitation on this earth, and it made good financial sense to own the latter, if possible. Lump sums were needed for down payments. At first pastoral wives generally chose jobs in the fields of teaching, nursing, and secretarial work (probably still the preponderant choices). These professions have one thing in common one can enter and leave them rather easily, allowing the pastoral wife to continue working steadily even though she must "uproot" frequently because of her husband's moves from one church to another.

But as emphasis on the equality of women in the professional world and on their right to self-realization becomes ever more insistent, the pastoral wife finds herself in a crisis situation. Increasing numbers of younger women are entering the fields of medicine, dentistry, law, economics, city management, and counseling. Success in these professions generally requires becoming established in a community. If a pastoral wife—a dentist, let us say—has just succeeded in building a good practice, and her husband is called to another church hundreds of miles away, must she give up her budding career?

Throughout the past century and nearly the first fifty years of this century, the church assumed that "good" wives would uproot themselves without any complaints (publicly, at least) and follow whither the husband's professional calling led. She would somehow, over and over again, make a new home and sustain her children through the traumatic experience of acquiring new friends. Is this the proper attitude for a pastoral wife to take? Are certain careers closed to her because of her husband's calling to the ministry? Should she not be able to follow a career of her choice? Should the "two for the price of one" concept in hiring ministers continue to prevail? What is right and what is wrong here? Indeed, is there a "right" or a "wrong"?

Obviously some very serious factors are involved. Inevitably, the attitude of pastors themselves comes under scrutiny. In earlier years, almost without exception, Adventist ministers identified so with their ministry that it was almost impossible to discuss one without the other. The dedication was nearly total. At the present time, however, some women have a growing feeling that not all men enter the ministry with this total sense of mission. The ministry does offer advantages—an honored place of leadership in the community, the opportunity for creativity and self-expression, freedom to come and go without the tyranny of the "nine to five" schedule so many must live with, travel, and salaries that may not approach those of large corporations, but include many "fringe benefits" and great job security. The materialistic goals of some ministers are quite evident in their attachment to the accoutrements of this acquisitive era. (And not all preachers would qualify as top-salaried corporate executives, so their lives may not be as voluntarily sacrificial as some might think.)

If the minister's dedication, then, is not as strong as one could desire, it is hardly fair to ask his wife to subordinate entirely her professional life goals to his. Women throughout history have always been willing to follow men of dedication, commitment, and vision, no matter what the consequences.

However, we must also admit that churches have an enormous need for a nurturer in addition to the pastor. The church needs a shepherdess. It is a unique role. No deaconess or other officer of the church can fill it; they can help, they can substitute, but only the pastor's wife can bring the role to full flower.

Some wives actually thrive on this life with all its hazards; ministry gives them a sense of strong fulfillment and a deep, vibrant joy. They cannot picture any other life as being half as rewarding. But for those who feel differently, the conflicts, both inward and outward, are serious. The evidence lies in the shattering of all too many pastoral homes, with the loss of confidence in the ministry that inevitably follows. The once-unthinkable—that pastors and their wives would divorce—has become not only thinkable but to some couples the only solution possible.

The ministerial family does not enjoy the respect that it once did, or the high position in community life. In analyzing this situation, one arrives at the problem of commitment. Undoubtedly the total commitment of previous generations earned for them a deep respect among their members. Respect must be earned. They—our forebears—earned it. Today a pastoral wife must engender this respect by showing that she is a commit ted, loving, caring person. Even though she works outside the home—and there is no reason to think that this condition will change—a pastoral wife will have to find her own ways of showing concern, concern with the needs of members. The nurturing role has a vacancy shaped just to her specifications.

Another problem area in the parson age is the quality of the marriage. Nonministerial couples can openly seek professional counseling when they find themselves experiencing heavy marital problems. But pastoral couples feel a certain reluctance to take this route. They need to have "neutral" counseling available in such a way that their problems do not become a part of the administrative scene in the conference office.

And to whom does the pastoral wife go when she needs spiritual help in her own life? In other words, who is her pastor? Because he is a human being in a marriage relationship, her husband can not really fill this role. Many wives are currently voicing their deeply felt need for a pastor, someone who understands their spiritual problems. Conference administrations need to plan to meet this need.

The economy in the Western world seems to demand that pastoral wives work outside the home, as do other women whose husbands earn only mod est salaries. But today's wives will have to look carefully at every aspect of their employment. No one else can as successfully fill the nurturing role in the home as the wife. And no one else can so successfully fill the nurturing role in the church as the pastoral wife. The continued functioning of the church depends on an acceptance of this responsible role. Again the word that comes to mind is "commitment." Both partners will need to be committed to their marriage and to the church if the pastoral role is to continue to serve the church in all its vitality. This means that a pastoral wife will have to study the nature of her outside employment and its place in her life. She must weigh the obligations of her job against the paramount obligations of her role as a pastor's wife. She holds the key. Undoubtedly this will require her to make professional sacrifices from time to time.

As we have noted, in previous generations prospective ministerial wives were scrutinized very carefully—in some cases, so carefully that their mentors could be charged with interference. Now the pendulum seems to have swung completely to the other side, and one wonders if a little old-fashioned counsel and scrutiny might not pay large dividends for the future of the ministry. New ways of alerting prospective pastoral wives to the fact that they will be marrying "the ministry" as well as the man need to be instituted. Conceivably, every SDA college and university should offer a course in, shall we say, "The Dynamics of Being a Minister's Wife: Its Positives and Negatives." Conferences ought to require this of every ministerial fiancee. If the marriage occurs after college days, then the conference could make a correspondence course available and insist on its completion. Conferences would recoup the minimal expense of financial "wifehood" courses many times over by saving couples from divorce when the stark reality of pastoral life dawns on both partners.

Beyond this, all too often the minister has put such emphasis on his professional role that he has virtually ignored his family, other than admonishing his wife and children to be "good examples." Dressed in his Brooks Brothers suit and well-shined Florsheim shoes, with his sparkling white shirt and quietly striped tie, he leaves the domestic battleground of childish whines, dirty dishes, clothes that need washing, and errands to be done. He tells himself that he is "doing God's work," and who can argue with that? Well, his wife can if she is carrying two jobs—one paid and one unpaid. I do not wish to denigrate the importance of the ministry or to suggest that the pastor become a domestic servant. But he does need to sit down and think through his marriage situation fairly, squarely, and perhaps with a season of private prayer. Perhaps we need to develop a companion course to the wifehood seminar, a course in "How to Be a Preacher and a Husband."

Many feel that conferences ought to pay the pastor's wife for assisting her husband (as an "Assistant to the Pastor," not an "Assistant Pastor"). Many wives are paid for doing for others the same kind of work which the church so badly needs her to do. If a wife could be paid for assisting her husband, the late twentieth century would finally see the development of a team concept that would fit the needs of the church. The rate of pay would vary, of course, with the skills, training, and inclinations of the wife involved. Not all wives would be interested in this role, but probably a surprisingly large number would welcome it.

We cannot expect simple answers to complex problems—and no problems are more complex than those facing today's pastoral wives. They are beset on every side by conflicting philosophies, conflicting demands, conflicting loyal ties. Much prayer and intelligent thought will be needed in addressing the present crisis. As never before, the Adventist Church needs strong pastoral wives, deeply committed to the Lord, to ministerial wifehood, to enduring marriages—women with hearts large enough to encompass the vast needs of the members. Our churches need the example of committed pastoral couples (not perfect couples, because no humans are perfect). Our members need to have their own faith strengthened by seeing victories in the lives of their pastor and his wife.

The pastoral wife is in crisis. How her crisis is met will affect the future of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

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Miriam Wood is a  teacher, editor, and minister's wife,

June 1984

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