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Loneliness in the parsonage

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Archives / 1987 / May

 

 

Loneliness in the parsonage

Jean Thomas
Jean Thomas is administrative secretary for the Church Ministries Department of the North American Division, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

 

It was dark when Tom arrived home late that evening. "Strange," he said to himself. "Where can Carol be? She doesn't go out alone at night—unless she went to the grocery store or to help Mrs. Smith."

Once inside, he looked around, called, then looked and called again. Silence was the only answer. Going upstairs, he did the same; still silence. Everything was in place. Then he spied it on the dresser—a note.

Quickly he opened it. As he read, his heart began pounding. He flushed. His mind raced back and forth, here, there, and everywhere. Why? Where? What?

"Tom," the note said, "don't try to find me; I've left for good. I'm not coming back. I can't stand living like this any longer. I'm through! Carol."

How sudden. What drastic action. How final!

And yet this is not an isolated incident; it happens all too frequently, even to good Christian couples!

What happens to cause such an abrupt ending to a relationship, to make a person willing to abandon everything that stands for love and security? What force drives a person to such drastic action?

Different reasons may be given, but when they are analyzed, they all seem to point to one basic factor—personal isolation, loneliness.

When clergy wives were asked to define loneliness, they came up with these descriptions:

"Emptiness."

"When I am inside myself."

"When no one cares if I live or die."

"When I feel unacceptable in a group."

"When there is no one to relate to or socialize with."

"A feeling of being rejected, of being closed in, shut off from the rest of the world."

Deep inside each of us is a hunger for contact with others, for intimate exchange and acceptance. We all need to know that we belong, that we are needed, that we are good for something. When these needs are not met, we feel the pain of isolation, of loneliness.

Why is it so lonely in the parsonage? Do all ministers' wives feel cut off from the world? Partnership magazine has found that some wives experience loneliness even before active ministry begins and rank it as one of the three most pressing issues among seminary and new clergy wives.1

We may feel lonely for several reasons—because of external forces over which we have little control or because offerees within ourselves.

External pressures leading to loneliness

One external pressure that clergy couples must often face is a lack of a sense of belonging. Clergy families who move every few years struggle with this problem. It probably affects the spouse and children more than the pastor, whose work program continues regardless of where he is. After several moves it becomes difficult to develop any form of permanence. By keeping relationships shallow and friendships superficial, people attempt to avoid the pain of continually being separated from what has become meaningful. They develop the "stewardess syndrome"—smiling warmly at strangers as if they had shared the intimacy of a lifetime. Ralph Keys writes, "The worst part of mobiocentricity is being doomed to travel about seeking one's identity in the eyes of near strangers." 2

Some pastors' wives find the parson age a very lonely place because of the constant moves. If the marriage is stable, if the husband and wife are able to resolve some of the tensions through good communication, then the moves will not be that damaging. If, on the other hand, the husband is so preoccupied with his new responsibilities that his wife's struggles go undetected, his home may be headed for disaster.

At the time of a move, the pastor's wife and family need assurance that they are still important—particularly the wife. She needs her husband's assurance that she is still the most precious part of his life.

The better known the husband becomes, the more appreciated he is, the greater will be his commendation from others. His wife, on the other hand, will receive little recognition, except maybe the passing comment "Oh, you must be the wife of ————. Very fine, work he's doing." The faithful wife, standing so bravely, and often alone, receives no recognition for her faithful support of her husband. This can be devastating. Most times she will hide her feelings of resentment, lack of self-worth, and anger, not wanting her husband to know how bad she feels. However, this loneliness may drive her to desperation.

The complex mixture of competition and status-seeking thrust upon us through the media or even the organization to which we belong makes up another of the external forces pressuring us. Conformity is the word. Be like everyone else.

In his book Loneliness, Clark Moustakas makes this observation: "The lone dissenter must withdraw from the world; his deviation is threatening. . . . His thoughts require others to examine their own inner conscience. . . . Such a challenge . . . arouses fear and insecurity in others.

"The individual who stands alone is often reviled when he acts contrary to public opinion. . . . The poet, states man, the president, the person in public life ... all are individuals who have suffered from a sense of being alienated from society." 3

Clergy families belong in this group that suffers from alienation. Pastors, their wives, and children, who of necessity must uphold the standards of the church and set an example in the community, are often held at arm's length by those who wish compromise.

Withdrawing is the natural and most painless way to handle this alienation, but such a response not only brings on a feeling of being cut off but can lead one to believe, as did Elijah, "I'm the only one left who has not bowed down to Baal!"

In the ministry, loneliness and alienation are also related to the pressure from superiors to conform to certain standards. David and Vera Mace write: "The evidence we have found has convinced us that the ministry in the U.S.A. is a highly competitive system, squarely based on the American success syndrome. From the moment he places his foot on the lowest rung of the ladder, the young pastor is constantly encouraged to climb upward to higher and higher levels of the hierarchy.

"As long as a pastor projects the appearance of being a reasonably normal husband and father, all is well. Having a talented or beautiful wife, or highly successful children, will gain him some extra credit. But the crunch comes on the deficit side. A pastor who develops problems in his family life is significantly downgraded. . . . For a large number of clergy couples, therefore, . . . the name of the game is 'Let's Pretend.' Whatever the reality, a surface appearance of harmony must be maintained. Otherwise, ecclesiastical superiors are going to be on edge, and colleagues are going to present the cold shoulder." 4

Internal forces making us lonely

Comments made by minister's wives such as "When I walk into church I feel that everyone is looking at me with pity" or "My husband never shares anything with me—I know little about his work, his plans, or feelings" speak of the forces within us that bear on this problem of loneliness. In these cases, such internal factors as the way we accept life and how we relate to other people—even our spouse—may be at work.

The first comment in the preceeding paragraph reveals low self-esteem—a painful enough experience at best, but intensified when coupled with the stress of being in the public eye. Maurice E. Wagner, in his book The Sensation of Being Somebody, says: "The need to determine a sense of being somebody is universal. No one can function efficiently when he feels like a nobody. . . .

"We are all creatures of relationship. We desire first of all in our relationships to feel accepted. Second, we are concerned about feeling a sense of goodness, of having quality. Third, we are intent on feeling adequate when we face life situations and fulfill our particular sex role. It is exceedingly difficult to bear the feelings of being unwanted, no good, or inferior." 5

And Norman Wright says: "Some people have chosen to be lonely because they have a fear of other people. The risk of reaching out to others is overwhelming. We have learned to draw tightly into our shells even though we are packed together at work, in the store, or in the apartment complex." 6

Ministers or members of their families suffer great loneliness and even panic when they feel unworthy and inadequate for their responsibilities. Although these feelings may have surfaced during their ministry, those who experience them usually had them long before entering the parsonage. Upon being asked when it was that they first felt lonely, a number of ministers' wives pointed to loneliness in girlhood.

Life commandments—patterns of thought and ways of doing things taught us by our parents and teachers—can also contribute to loneliness. Pronouncements such as "You'll never amount to anything," or "You never do anything right anyway" or "You sure don't take after the rest of the family!" are powerful forces that govern our every thought and action.

Unfortunately, many of these "commandments" are negative, and we allow them to inhibit us so that we don't achieve all that we have the potential to. These life commandments have to be broken, changed, replaced with better, more positive ones if we are to cope with the present.

The comment "My husband never shares anything with me" highlights another problem in the parsonage—that of poor communication between spouses. Vera and David Mace say of this problem: "If the couples in our study are representative . . . half of all ministers and [ministerial spouses] are dissatisfied with their attempts to communicate effectively, to manage their negative feelings, and to resolve their conflicts successfully." 7

An understanding of ourselves is basic to resolving problems of poor communication and negative feelings, including feelings of low esteem. It is much easier to know what to do about our behavior problems when we understand why we react as we do. Courses are available, and many books have been written to help people resolve their feelings of inferiority. If these do not help, professional counseling is usually available through the employing organization.

On a survey, a minister's wife expressed another form of loneliness: "I'm supposed to listen, smile, listen, bring lots of food to potlucks, listen, go to all showers, listen, help in VBS, listen, entertain, listen, go visiting with my husband, and listen. But no one wants to listen to the pastor's wife!"

At a recent meeting of pastors' wives, several told how they had resolved this problem. Some said they had formed a close relationship with someone in the church in a way that did not engender jealousy; they were able to share concerns with her. Others shared with friends not connected with their church—mothers, sisters, school friends. A few, however, were unable to talk with anyone about their innermost concerns.

When feelings are too difficult to share with a friend, it is important that one find professional help. No one can live productively while being boxed in by fear and negative thinking. This loneliness is overwhelming.

Another factor governing the behavior of many clergy couples is the idea that they must present to the parishioners a picture of perfection in the parsonage. This sets up a barrier between the "holy" and the "not so holy" that leads those who do not consider themselves to be holy to avoid or insulate themselves from the ministerial family.

Trying to maintain this unrealistic image can lead to another problem. When clergy families hold this high expectation for themselves, or when it has been placed on them, they may feel inadequate; they may withdraw from their members for fear of being found wanting. "Clergy couples find that these idealistic expectations generate in them feelings of guilt and rebellion, which are depressing and at times paralyzing. This is without question a major issue ." 8

Fortunately, there is an answer to the "picture of perfection." The dynamic engendered when a clergy couple allows their members to see their vulnerability—that they too make mistakes— brings about a new and deeper relationship. "Some clergy couples have already had the courage to break through in this way," the Maces write, "and we have never known such a couple to lose the respect of their church members. On the contrary, the response has been 'Thank God our pastor and his wife are being honest with us. Now we can be equally honest with them and with one another . . .'

Being honest about our humanness is not an acknowledgement of failure . . .; it is, in fact, the very opposite."9

A feeling of alienation from one's Maker, God, forms a final factor adding to feelings of personal isolation and loneliness within the parsonage. "The human creature," says Dwight Small, "wherever he is found, suffers deeply and profoundly as a result of this loss of personal intimacy with God. In his longing for a relatedness that satisfies his need, he continuously seeks intimacy with other humankind, only to be frustrated on every hand. No other person can fully enter into the inner secret of one's personal life." 10

Finding the answers

From a limited survey we did (80 or so questionnaires were returned), it was apparent that for many ministers' wives the solution to the problems of feelings of not belonging, low self-worth, and loneliness lay in commitment to their husband's work and involvement in the church program. Comments along these lines were revealing: "I am too busy with my family and helping my husband in his work to ever think of being lonely." "I have felt less lonely since my husband and I started working together. I see a change in my attitude. I'm less concerned about myself and more concerned about my church members because I am aware of their needs, which, in many cases, exceed my own. Then I feel blessed that I have it so good and am able to minister to others in need. Ministering to others is a great blessing."

One of our survey questions asked whether the wife would prefer to be married to someone other than a minister. Some wives said in effect, "Who would ever want to be married to anyone other than a minister? This is the most rewarding and fulfilling work one can do."

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