Shepherdess: Are you caught in the mold?

Caught between the modern admonition to "be yourself" and the reality of traditional role expectations, a minister's wife can begin to wonder who she really is. Here are some positive ways to seek the answer.

Barbara Nelson, who writes from Bozeman, Montana, knows whereof she writes. She grew up in a minister's home and then married a pastor. (Her three children now have "ministerial homes" of their own also!)


My dear friend Barbara has handled a most important topic in a sensitive and sensible manner. She has maintained balance for ministers' wives who must walk a precarious tightrope between turning uniqueness into unbridled freedom and turning conformity into a straitjacket. I especially appreciate her emphasis on living up to God's expectations rather than others' expectations as the key to true success.

If you have been discouraged, confused, or hopeless in the confinement of an expected or stereotyped role as a minister's wife, your spirits will soar as you read her suggestions for finding the freedom meant for you in the Lord's service. —Marie Spangler.

Are you caught in the mold? You know, the typical minister's wife mold—the image bit? Or have you slipped out of the mold and decided to "be yourself" no matter what others expect?

While there does seem to be a growing liberalization from the traditional role expectations for ministers' wives, the woman who does her own thing still risks being labeled a renegade. In the past wives were just expected to be husband's assistant, perfect housekeeper and hostess, super home economist, model mother with model children, church musician, and the list could go on! Many congregations still hold, perhaps unconsciously, to these expectations when measuring the virtues of their pastor's wife.

How should we react to the usually silent but still tangible intimations that we are not quite measuring up to the standard? Should we develop tough hides, shrug our shoulders and say it's the members' problem? Or should we try to make ourselves over to please our congregations? Must we suffer in silent hopelessness? Too often I hear young pastor's wives complain, "I just don't seem to have the qualities for being a pastor's wife" or "I feel so confined to a role; I can't just be myself or "It's just impossible to be all everybody expects me to be!"

These days the traditional role of women is being closely scrutinized, and a great deal of attention is being directed toward liberating them from "confining" roles. In this climate, isn't it possible to consider that the greatest contribution we can make is to be ourselves, to develop the personalities and spiritual graces that the Lord has given each of us, and to cultivate those inherent interests we love and feel most comfortable with? What it really boils down to is this: Are you what your church expects you to be, or are you what God wants you to be? If the two coincide, praise the Lord!

The Scriptures are almost silent as to the role of a pastor's wife, but we do have the image of Jesus to pattern our lives after. How can we be ourselves, be accepted on our own merits, and still grow into the image of Jesus? God hasn't endowed any of us with all of life's spiritual gifts, but He has given each one enough to make us useful to our families, our congregations, and His cause. He has planted unique qualities within our personalities that with encouragement and proper motivation can bring fulfillment to our lives.

Growing into His image includes developing an honest sense of self-worth— after all, you were "bought with a price" (1 Cor. 6:20). In order to learn to really like yourself, you need to understand yourself and how you became the person you are. Do you think of yourself as just the pastor's wife? That is not who you are. When you discover the wonder of self-acceptance, you become capable of reaching out to give and receive love. With the beautiful motivating promise " 'My grace is sufficient for you'" (2 Cor. 12:9, R.S.V.), you can go on to understand yourself so that you can relate creatively to others. Jesus commanded us to love ourselves when He taught that the supreme law is to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love your fellow men as you love yourself.

At conversion God offers us the possibility to change. He does not destroy your identity, but helps you become the person you were meant to be. Finding the true you involves discovering two things: how you are like people in general and how you are uniquely different.

One thing we have in common with everyone else is our basic needs: acceptance, approval, and affection. Acceptance—how we long for it from our churches. The opposite of this is rejection, one of the most painful of all experiences. Approval—how we work to win it at least from the "significant" people, sometimes seeking it by performance rather than by being our real self. Affection—how we long to feel its warmth from knowing that others care about us as people, not just as per formers. These needs are common to all mankind. But how can you discover your unique qualities?

In his book The One and Only You, Bruce Larson gives an exercise that helps in discovering those things that have made you what you are. He suggests asking yourself some questions to trigger your thinking about some of the forces that have come into your life to shape the one and only you today. First, he suggests that you try to recall some of the sights, smells, and sounds of pleasant childhood experiences. (I can still smell the aroma of roasting chestnuts and the steam whistle of the drum oven as the vendor with his cart passed by our compound in Korea. Just the thought of it brings on a happy, tingling sensation!) What was the best advice you ever received? What book other than the Bible has made the greatest impression on you? If you could relive one day of your life, which would it be? What is the most childlike quality that you have retained? What is the most sentimental possession you have? What quality or characteristic do you like best about yourself? Reliving some of the pleasant childhood memories and focusing on some of these questions will help to reacquaint you with your past experiences and present feelings. You are the product of countless interactions and feelings that combine to make you a lot like others, but also very unique. The good news is that you are free to come to God as you are, and that God loves the unique you and can use you in His unique way.

It is interesting to note that even after his conversion the apostle Paul retained some of the unique characteristics that he had as a Pharisee before his encounter with Jesus. Until the very end he was opinionated, sometimes overpowering and critical, but still he was a changed person with new visions, goals, and purpose in life. He allowed Christ to sanctify and use his uniqueness for the gospel's sake. You too can say with conviction, "This is me. This is what I am most comfortable with. This is what I have to give to God."

Which isn't to say that we don't need to be concerned about our faults and weaknesses. Or that we can dismiss them as just a part of our uniqueness! Not at all. But to truly discover yourself you must not dwell on your weaknesses. Self-criticism is as destructive as criticism of others. Confess your weaknesses to Jesus, leave them with Him, and reach "forth unto those things which are before" and "press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:13, 14).

Jesus gave a basic principle that will do more to make you like yourself than anything else: " 'Give, and it will be given to you'" (Luke 6:38, R.S.V.). Give whatever you have, whether it is love, sympathy, help, understanding, forgiveness, food, or money where needed. You have a special quality that someone needs. It may be a simple note of appreciation, giving undivided attention to someone who needs a listening ear, or pausing to have a conversation with a child or with a withdrawn visitor at church. This may be the special ministry the Lord has given you.

I was blessed with two godly grand mothers who were ministers' wives. Neither of them was highly gifted in the traditional talents expected of the minister's wife. Neither was an aggressive leader or fluent speaker. Neither had outstanding musical abilities, but both were at peace with God and with themselves. Each realized her sphere of usefulness and capitalized on it. One grandmother was an excellent seamstress who not only saw to her family's needs but was often found sewing for some child whose mother was ill or some person who was experiencing financial difficulties. My other grandmother, who was known for her wholesome, tasty cooking, shared her love and concern for people who needed not only the Bread of Life but physical food for an empty stomach. Both women were loved and respected, and I have no doubt that they made a very positive contribution to their husbands' lives and ministry.

One pastor's wife who sometimes bemoans the fact that she was "missing when the talents were handed out" has the unique gift of making people laugh and relax. People just feel better after talking to her. She is like a breath of fresh air when things get heavy. Another minister's wife has the gift of true concern and care for the elderly whom she faithfully visits, sometimes with goodies she's prepared, other times just to read to them. Then there's the shy and retiring shepherdess who loves to read devotional books and share them with people whose needs a book may meet. The list could go on. The point is that just being yourself can be your special gift to others. The ways in which you are unlike others can be your gift to your husband's ministry, and to your own individual ministry.

It is also important not to make your identity and happiness hinge upon your husband's growth and success. Be a person in your own right. He will probably succeed far better when you are happy and fulfilled and not pushing him.

Whether you usually are in the role of a talker or a listener, whether you are a giver or a receiver, whether you are methodically neat or prefer unstructured creativity, whether in new situations you rely on logic or intuition, whether you are punctual or casual in your appointments, and whether you resolve a difficult relationship by phone or face-to-face, if you can find freedom in your uniqueness, you will probably in turn allow freedom for those around you to be themselves. You will be able to see the self-worth in each individual you meet. You will be able to love unconditionally as your heavenly Father loves you. You will find a real freedom in relating to your role as others see it. You will be able to, with God's help, maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. You can enjoy your strengths and make the most of them to the glory of God.

So be happy! You don't have to be caught in the mold. You can discover the unique you, that God-given specialness that allows you to experience the real joy and freedom meant for you, the minister's wife.


Prayers from the Parsonage

Well, Lord, we should all know how to manage on our own now that so much self-help material is available.

I wonder how marriages survived before manuals on communication, sex, and division of labor became available. How did parents bring up children before someone told them how to play with their baby, love their child, and talk with their teenager? People must just have muddled through life's crises before there were books about living as a single parent or managing as a widow. We even have guides for enjoying a holiday or creating family traditions!

Everyone's looking for answers, and it's much easier to turn to another person's experience, advice, or research and follow the formula: steps a, b, and c. Yet isn't the best learning forged in the crucible of life?

"But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure and full of quiet gentleness. Then it is peace-loving and courteous. It allows discussion and is willing to yield to others; it is full of mercy and good deeds. It is wholehearted and straightforward and sincere" (James 3:17, T.L.B.).'

I've got so much to learn, dear Teacher. Reveal my areas of need (but not all at once, please!). Then lead me to the Bible for basic principles. As I apply these, give me discernment.

Make me observant of others whose example could save me frustration and mistakes. If my circumstances are too narrow, bring wise counselors into my life. But let them know me well enough to match their suggestions to my personality and lifestyle.

If I still need help, lead me to the best of the how-to books. As I read, may I realize that what works for someone else may be ineffective for me and that there is more than one side to a subject. Let me know when to stop reading and start doing, for I do not want to become an armchair expert.

Finally, keep me patient with people who believe there is only one way to do something—theirs. Make me tolerant of people who parrot the latest best-seller or pass on empty cliches.

Dear Teacher, I believe that You give each of us the time we need to gain essential knowledge. With Your guidance I shall know when to look to others for help and when the answers can be discovered by myself.

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Barbara Nelson, who writes from Bozeman, Montana, knows whereof she writes. She grew up in a minister's home and then married a pastor. (Her three children now have "ministerial homes" of their own also!)

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