The call--her side of the story

When she's got a good job and then her husband receives a call that would require moving, what's a minister's wife to do?

Noelene Johnsson, editor of Mission for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Church Ministries Department, writes from Washington, D.C.

The scope of this article has been limited to the questions raised when a male minister whose wife also has a career receives a call to relocate. Except in the case of the author's husband, we have substituted pseudonyms for the actual names of the people quoted.—Editors.


The call to pastor a church in another city comes while he is at a pastors' council. It would have upset him a year ago. Then he was in the midst of a successful evangelistic campaign. Several people were deeply impressed by the lectures. Had he left then he would have jeopardized their interest.

But now the timing is right. The church will accept the transition calmly. He knows that his answer will be yes. He hurries home to break the news to his wife.

His enthusiasm bewilders her. Has he forgotten that she hasn't completed one year at her job? How will such a short stay look on her resume? Besides, what work possibilities could a tiny town in the sticks offer a lawyer? She digs in her heels. Forcing the issue is out of the question, so he resigns himself to staying—much to the concern of the conference president, who privately laments the way some women handicap their husbands' ministries.

What is the pastoral call? How can one know whether it is from God? How binding is it on the pastor's family? What factors influence a family's decision regarding a call? And how can conflicts over a call be minimized? Understanding some of the implications of these questions can help today's minister and his family adjust to life in the "Advent movement."

The nature of a call

"When I was in college I felt deeply impressed to become a Seventh-day Adventist minister," says Dennis, a pastor of 12 years' experience. "This was my call to the ministry." For most pastors a similar experience marked their initial call. That call is reinforced from time to time by subsequent calls to relocate. "My call to teaching is not quite the same as my husband's call to the ministry," Dennis's wife, Julie, says, meaning that while God has given her a gift for teaching, the exercise of that gift is not determinative for everything that she does.

But for my husband, Bill, the call to the ministry is. Just out of college, we were called to Vincent Hill School in India, where he became Bible teacher and boys' dean. During a get-acquainted visit with the principal I proudly pointed out that Bill's first college degree had been in chemistry. "I'm sure that he could teach a science class if you need it," I volunteered. But my husband quickly interjected that although he loved chemistry, God had called him to leave that for the ministry. Deaning and teaching Bible were an exercise of his calling, but teaching science was not. And he wanted nothing to distract him from wholeheartedly following his calling.

Is every call from God? Perhaps because of the high value they place on the initial call, most ministers agree that it determines how they live and what type of work they do. But they may differ in the degree to which they see God's hand in the call to relocate.

Derek, an over-60 church employee, holds what he suspects may be an old-fashioned attitude to calls. "Young ministers would do well to accept the call of the conference committee as the will of God," he says. "The ministry is a calling, not a career." Derek's wife, a tower of spiritual strength in her own quiet way, readily agrees.

Roberto, an over-50 pastor serving at the church's world headquarters, believes that a call means that God wants him to serve in a particular place. "He's speaking to me through the church," he says. Roberto's wife, like Derek's, accepts the call as God's will for them both.

These two couples began working for the church at a time when pastoral calls were channeled through the union conference committee—a procedure still followed in most of the church's overseas divisions. When a call came to a pastor, he knew that church leaders thought that for the good of the church's mission he should move. That's what Derek meant about being old-fashioned. He believes that this is the way to safeguard long-term planning for the church.

But, as Dennis and Julie discovered, it isn't done quite like that in North America these days. According to one conference president, if the Kansas- Nebraska Conference needs a good pastor in Omaha, the president may ask Pastor Smith, newly transferred from Philadelphia, "Whom do you know in Pennsylvania who's a progressive pas tor?" Smith suggests Pastor Jones. The president may suggest that Smith call Jones and ask him how he would feel about a call. If subsequent study reveals that Jones would indeed be an asset in Omaha, the president will telephone the Pennsylvania president and ask permission to contact Jones. Then the Pennsylvania president telephones Jones, telling him to expect a call and leaning on him to remember how much he is needed where he is. But the president knows that the ball is already in Jones's court.

Multiple calls

In fact, several balls may be in Jones's court. "That's when you take a long look at the call and its meaning for you," says Julie. "We were pretty naive when we came out of college. We took the first call that came. But when Dennis received several calls simultaneously, each claiming to be from God, we knew that we needed to rethink the meaning of the call."

"I now regard the call as an invitation to fill a particular post that is open," Dennis states. He believes that he has a choice as to where to exercise the fulfillment of his calling.

So does that mean that some calls are not from God? Not necessarily. All five of Dennis's calls may have been right for him. After taking up his work at any one of those locations, he might have sensed the Lord's blessing and reconfirming his call.

Under the present method of processing calls in North America, detecting God's initials on the call would seem to be the pastor's responsibility. In searching for them he would do well to look into the wider needs of the church's mission as well as personal and family considerations. And hopefully the couple will spend hours in earnest prayer and in counsel with experienced leaders before making their decision.

And what if a call seems right for the pastor but not for his family? Whatever ministers believe about how a call relates to God's will, most would probably agree that under certain circumstances the pastor and his wife are justified in refusing a call.

"Usually the church sends a call to the pastor," Dennis says. "But Julie and I are a team. Even though she may teach in public school, she is an important part of my ministry." Sometimes he suspects that the calling entity figures on getting two workers for the price of one, even though the negotiations center almost exclusively on the pastor. This happens in spite of the fact that a move nearly always means finding a new job for her, since few ministers' families can live on one salary anymore. This factor alone builds incredible stress into calls, Steven, a conference administrator, suggests.

As with most of the 40-and-older generation, Julie doesn't ask equal consideration for her career. But increasingly, especially among those only five or six years out of seminary, ministerial couples see themselves as dual career families. When each of them wants to reach the top of his or her profession, the question looms large: Must we accept the call?

When he began working for the church in Australia, Derek promised his wife, Meg, that he would never ask her to go to New Guinea. His loyalty to his calling was tested early—by a call to New Guinea. Although fearful for the health and safety of her family, Meg uncomplainingly resigned herself to mission life when Derek characteristically obeyed the call.

When they had moved, the first time the little mission plane carried him up through a rift in the clouds, Meg burst into tears. She expected never to see him again. But the mission president's wife rallied her. "Haven't you got any faith?" she asked. "God can take care of him." He did, and Meg's faith in God's call was established. For her, not to consider it binding would contradict faith.

Sharlinda, on the other hand, after 20 years in the ministry, expects to put down her roots for a while. "I came out of college when women's lib hit the fan. I wanted to be a professional," she says. Sharlinda admits to enjoying much of their pastoral experience, but she feels frustrated over the too-frequent moves that have hindered her advanced studies. "I had accumulated 21 hours toward my M.B.A.," she explains. But the universities near their present pastorate will allow her to transfer only six. "A move would have to make sense before I would agree to it at this stage," she says.

Conference president Steven sums it up this way. "God guides us through a rational, logical process. We must weigh the demands of the job, the opportunity for growth, and the challenge against the gifts, skills, and needs we have. If they don't match, God is probably not calling."

Factors that influence the decision

One conference president estimates that on a scale of one to ten, the influence a pastor's wife carries in the decision to accept or reject a call is an eight. "The call won't work if she isn't willing to go," he says. "A pastor can't accept a call to a tiny country town if his wife is a lawyer, and needs to find work in a city."

Ideally the pastor's family as well as the pastor is highly committed to answering the call. But most agree that calls are too complex for quick decisions. After a pastor is assured that the call fits his particular ministry, he and his wife need to weigh many family-related matters. They must make sure that, even though the final decision will not be made on the basis of feelings, each family member's feelings have been considered. Factors to discuss include:

  1. Timing. On the assumption that the pastor believes that he has been in a pastorate for a reasonable length of time, family members should have the opportunity to express their feelings about the timing. What, if anything, will be lost by moving this year?
  2. Family needs. "Right now God wouldn't call us to a place with no church school," Julie says. And when his parents were just becoming acquainted with Adventism, Dennis refused a call overseas because they would have misunderstood it. "They would have blamed God," Julie says. But now that they have joined the church, this objection has been removed.
  3. Challenge of the work. When we were younger, my husband expected new assignments to utilize his gifts and provide opportunity to develop. Now we can appreciate the possibility of a pastor's being called back into a position where he has served before, because of his experience in that work. The challenge may then lie not in the type of work but in the special problems associated with that particular time and place.
  4. Sacrifice required. As the wife of an under-30 youth pastor, Becky has learned that some pastorates place more time constraints on her husband than do others. She isn't anxious to accept a call that keeps him away from home every weekend. Neither would one choose to go somewhere if it would be unnecessarily detrimental to a family member—like taking a child with a weak heart to high-altitude Lake Titicaca!
  5. The spouse's work. As mentioned already, this factor usually comes at the top of the list. Ideally the couple will value the pastor's calling above material and most personal concerns. But a pastor ought to understand his wife's feelings about her career and respect them. He must not pull rank, as if his standing with God demands her to put his career first or allows him to be callous to her feelings. After all, ministry begins at home. If her career is so important to her that she demands equal consideration, he must respect that.

Minimizing conflict

The pastor, his wife, and the conference president may each help to reduce the tension and conflict brought by an unexpected or unwanted call. They must establish mutual friendship, respect, and trust and keep the lines of communication open between them.

What can the pastor-husband do? He should remember that he and his wife are a unit, whatever her employment or career. He needs to show the level of interest and caring in her work that he expects her to show toward his.

In the early years of our marriage my husband worked extremely hard at making it a success. He continually put himself out to make sure that we had time together—alone. Somewhere along the way we discovered how much easier conversation is during a walk. So no matter how late we came home, we usually walked some before sleeping. But the walking was not as important as the talking we did. He shared his triumphs and trials. And knowing that he respected my opinion, I found it easy to listen.

The sharing so involved me in his ministry that I didn't mind sacrificing—as in moving—to see him succeed. A close relationship, built around ministry, definitely helps minimize conflict over the call.

What can the spouse do? She can help by feeling good about herself. This may be easier said than done; time and positive reinforcement help. Concentrating on one's self—turning inward— seldom does. I have discovered that the old-fashioned advice about putting the needs of others first still holds.

By discovering her spiritual gifts a wife may find her own ministry. A good rule of thumb is that ministry is doing well the work at hand—raising contented, unselfish children, getting to know the neighbors, encouraging an awkward teenager, listening when someone needs to talk, and, yes, even pursuing a career. Whenever I see something that I think someone else should have done, I am looking at potential ministry—for me.

The pastor's wife can also help minimize the trauma that calls bring to the family. By developing family pride in father's ministry she helps children realize that their stay in the present location is not permanent. And reminding children of good experiences from previous pastorates helps them anticipate good times ahead.

While I don't believe that anyone can tell a pastor's wife how she must view her career, experience has led me to believe that the highest satisfaction in life comes from giving. Guarding my own rights, demanding respect, usually is counter productive. But exercising my freedom by choosing to put the Lord's work first, not worrying unduly about whose career benefits, brings deep satisfaction.

How may the conference president help minimize conflict? "Don't wait until conflict arises," Steven suggests. "Get to know how a pastor's wife feels about ministry. And help her feel a part of the team, "he advises.

"Presidents need not feel threatened by the dual-career family," he adds. After all, another highly trained professional could be an asset to the conference team. The president should let her know that he respects her career; he should ask for her advice and keep her needs in mind when he discusses advancement in ministry with her husband. "Don't uproot the family or disturb her career unnecessarily. Doing so could be counterproductive," Steven cautions.

The president should help her to understand that being part of a team doesn't mean she has to play the piano or greet people at the door, though she may if she wants to. Her most important contribution involves empathizing with, understanding, and encouraging her husband.

And presidents, please don't refer to her as a shepherdess, or assume that the other ministers' wives will orient her to the ministry. Your role as friend and counselor is crucial.

Pastor, spouse, conference president: all working together for the good of the cause of God may help reaffirm "the high calling." When it comes time to move' and the Lord calls, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" may the pastor and his wife confidently respond, "Here we are, Lord; send us."

From other perspectives

For further insight into this problem we asked several women whose husbands are ministers to read this article and respond to it. Their contributions follow.—Editors.

Recognize the nature of the divine call

The key to how a pastor's wife should react when her husband receives a "call" is found in the nature of his call to the ministry. However it comes, God's call often brings unshakable conviction. With such conviction one cannot be anything but a minister without risking both his integrity and his personal relationship with God. Furthermore, a sense of his special calling dominates a minister's entire life.

At some point a pastor's wife must come to grips with the divine summons that impels her husband. Ideally this should be before marriage so that she does not feel coerced by reason of her wedding vows to participate with her husband in a ministry to which she herself does not feel called.

Similarly, a pastor's response to his wife's career will be affected by the point in their relationship at which he chose the pastorate. A man who made this choice after marriage should give his wife's career goals the most careful consideration; in doing this, however, he may find himself in the middle of a giant tug-of-war between God's call and his wife's needs/wishes/demands. If a minister then chooses to satisfy his wife, she may have to face the negative fallout of her husband's sense of guilt and failure with respect to his calling and his relationship with his Lord.

For the ministerial couple, then, it is not just a matter of balancing the demands of his profession with those of her career. To accept God's call means to yield the personal ambitions of both to the will and guidance of their Lord.

This does not necessarily mean that a minister should immediately yield to the wishes of the conference president or conference committee; neither does it automatically give him license to follow his personal inclinations or the preferences of his family. Given the procedure for extending calls, the pastor must prayerfully evaluate the evidence to determine whether or not a call represents the voice of God.

If the final choice rests with her husband, what is the role of the pastor's wife in the decision-making process? Inevitably there will be the initial reaction. Perhaps this call is just what she has been hoping for—or dreading. But then the time comes for serious discussion. At this point maybe the most important thing she can do is to listen attentively and ask questions—without focusing on her own feelings. Then she must choose. She knows her husband's strengths; she also knows just where he is vulnerable. She can use this knowledge to her own advantage to swing the decision her way, or she can choose to help her husband carefully weigh all the factors as together they try to discern the will of God.

This is the time when it becomes crucial for the pastor's wife to recognize the nature of the divine call to the ministry. It can make all the difference in her perspective. God may not be calling either the minister or his wife to make it to the top of their respective professions, but rather to be faithful to their higher calling—and to their sovereign Lord.—KarinL. McLarty, Newton, New Jersey.

Pay for being a minister's wife

Actually, her problem is not unique. Women who choose to marry career military men, men in diplomatic service, or men who serve in worldwide business corporations all face the same basic reality. It is virtually impossible for them to have a separate profession. We would seriously question the maturity of judgment of a woman who deliberately chooses to marry an officer or a diplomat and yet maintains that she has a right to a separate career that requires her to remain in one place.

The minister's wife faces one difference, however. The income of a diplomat, a military officer, or a businessman normally covers the family's needs.

At one time the minister's salary was considered adequate for his family's financial needs. The time when that was true—if it ever was—is now gone. Few people in North America would suggest that it is possible to maintain a representative standard of living as to the home, automobile, clothing, entertaining, exemplary giving, and especially education on a single denominational salary.

The solution was given to us years ago, but our faith has not accepted the counsel. Ellen White wrote that ministers' wives should be paid, not for functioning as Bible workers or as secretaries, but for being ministers' wives in a team ministry—in other words, working "in connection with their husbands"—and for performing those duties inherent in that calling. (See Gospel Workers, pp. 452, 453, and Evangelism, pp. 491-493.)

Until increasing faith brings this ideal solution about, we must make do as best we can. Ministers' wives have tried to cope by choosing careers that they could move into and out of as necessary, such as music, teaching, nursing, and secretarial work. Others with special talents have done art work, interior decorating, writing, and so forth. With these, moving is not always easy, but it is not impossible.

The minister's wife who pursues a separate career that can be successful only if she remains in one location gives her husband a bitter choice: Either he has to subject the marriage to the strain of insisting she move with him in harmony with denominational policy, or he must subordinate his work to hers, which means that the conference must deal with him as a special worker, different from all others. Neither choice is beneficial to a career or a marriage.— Jeanne Larson, Cherry Valley, California.

Leadership must act

I believe that the underlying cause for problems in the parsonage—including conflicts over calls—lies deeper than what is expressed in this article. The minister's wife has found from experience that her husband, the conference leadership, and the church expect her to fill the role they have in mind for her. Yet they don't invite her to workers' meetings to find out what this role is or to hear the program outlined that her husband is to accomplish with her help.

In day-to-day life she sees little of her husband. He is always busy with parish visits, work at the church office, or varied church activities. She is left at home with little ones. On account of busyness and lack of energy, communication breaks down. Husband, conference leadership, and church forget to say thank you for the help she gives. In fact, the members are quick to criticize her method of rearing the children or her apparent lack of interest in church activities.

At work she finds fulfillment and appreciation. The strokes she gets there enable her to cope with the slights and hurts of church, conference, and husband. So when a call comes, she naturally asks, "Why should I leave this good job?" Her question becomes particularly pointed when she doubts whether the call is really from God. She, knows the human factors (including the politics and expediency) that often lie behind the calls the conferences send, and she is aware that her husband may be evaluating the call more in terms of his career and satisfaction than his dedication to God's cause.

The solutions to this problem must come at several levels. A woman interested in marrying a minister should be taught what will be expected of her. She should be exposed to life in the parsonage before she marries and discovers that it's not for her. This education should begin in academy and be avail able throughout college.

In addition, solving this problem requires restoring confidence in leader ship. And on all levels of church administration, leadership needs to become aware of what is happening to women in the church in general and particularly to ministers' wives. They must do this if they are to save team ministry and preserve the pastor for the ministry and for his home.—Marie C. Spangler, Burtonsville, Maryland.

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Noelene Johnsson, editor of Mission for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Church Ministries Department, writes from Washington, D.C.

May 1987

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