The changing role of the pastor's wife

While society's norms are changing for women in Britain, congregations still expect the pastor's wife to remain traditional.

Tabitha Abel-Cooper is a pastor's wife and mother of two children in Newtownards, Northern Ireland. She is also a nurse in the cardiac care unit of Belfast Royal Victoria Hospital

What does your husband do?" is a question frequently asked me where I work. When I inform questioners that my husband is a clergyman, their eyes open wide, a smile crosses their faces, and their eyebrows raise.

It is hard for me to understand why, when we are almost into the twenty-first century, my work colleagues have an unchanging mental picture of a clergyman's wife. Etched in their minds is the traditional British vicar's wife depicted in films a friendly, gentle lady who wears traditional clothes and attends coffee mornings and bazaars for the church. She is a member of the Womens' Institute, chats to everyone, and pours tea at church social gatherings. She attends cricket matches with her husband on warm summer days and stands behind him smiling and nodding her head appropriately as he chats with the parish folk. She entertains small groups of women in the manse with homemade scones and cakes, and raises money for the church organ fund or a mission project. She epitomizes a self-effacing, kindly lady concerned with the welfare of her husband's parish.

Today's schools teach children to be independent and self-sufficient in preparing for adult life. Girls no longer have to wear only pastel colors, play with dolls, and plan to become secretaries or nurses. It is acceptable for girls to wear pants, play with Legos and cars, become karate black belts, and plan careers in science. Women no longer need to find husbands as providers, but can themselves go into business, science, medicine, or even construction. They can have careers and family life, too.

In a rapidly changing society, the ministerial family is no exception. But this change is not understood by most people, and especially not church congregations. A clergyman's wife is expected to follow tradition, forget her career, and put her degree on a shelf after leaving the marriage altar.

In the past in Britain, it was the squire, the physician, and the man of the cloth who were important personages in the village. Each one was given great respect by the community. However, communities have now developed alternative hierarchies, with affluent people from diverse occupations (including local politics) commanding respect. Money flows freely, with a resulting increase in the standard of living. The man of the cloth no longer receives equal wages with other professionals. Leisure activities such as music lessons and sports are not so available to him and his family. Even many parks and trails charge entrance fees.

In a society in which many consider fun to include drinking, eating out, or dancing, it requires time, planning, and cash to organize alternate family activities. Frequently the teen from an Adventist family finds it impossible to earn extra money since most part-time jobs require Saturday work.

The ministerial family's calling

Most ministers feel that they have had a personal calling to their life work, even if it is a family tradition. Few decide their careers by default, despite it being a sure job with many rewards. Whatever the reason for entering the profession, church members assume that the pastor has responded to a call to be God's messenger. His original call may be directly from God, but his second call will come indirectly through a committee. Their goal is to direct the minister in a way that will best advance the purpose of the church. But how do the committee machinations affect the minister's wife? Most ministers' wives receive only the indirect committee call.

The selection process for ministers differs from union to union and no method is without flaws. I have heard of congregations that spied on unsuspecting ministers and their families before they approached them about a new position. Generally the pastor and his family meet with the church board and both the church and ministerial family become thoroughly acquainted before a decision is made. But I have also heard of commit tees that called a pastor, sight unseen. Thus the church ends up with a minister about whom they know nothing.

When I was a young person considering marriage, someone told me that I would marry not only my partner but his family. However, no one added that in marrying a clergyman I would also join myself to a variety of congregations who may or may not accept me as fulfilling their differing expectations.

Many congregations in Britain continue to expect their minister's wife to fill a role that is fast becoming obsolete. As the lifestyle of the minister's wife is changing, a harmonious knitting together of at least three roles is essential. A failure to do this can result in problems for the minister, his wife, and the church.

The minister's wife as homemaker and mother

The pastor's wife is expected to sup port her husband's ministry and be a homemaker. The home is a respite for him after long toilsome hours of appointments, church work, and visiting. At home he is accepted and loved, able to relax and recharge his batteries.

As a mother, the pastor's wife is frequently the only available parent to comfort, encourage, and make decisions concerning the children. This too is part of her commission.

The minister's wife and the church

A minister's wife can only extend her self within her capabilities. Even though her talents may be few, she can take an interest in each member of the church. She supports her husband both passively and actively by being a sounding board for his ideas, providing hospitality to the homeless and poor (or a visiting minister) , and caring for the many who need help. She visits the sick and provides counsel for those who have difficulty voicing their concerns to the minister. She develops secretarial skills she never knew she had and answers the phone any time of the day or night. She arranges flowers in the church. If she is musical, she plays the organ or sings. She prays in public and teaches children's classes. She dresses conservatively and hopes her children are well behaved.

On occasion the minister's wife hears her husband criticized. Sometimes it is fair criticism and other times it is not. It is difficult to always "turn the other cheek." And how does she convey to the critics that her husband is human and thus imperfect, able only to work within his limits? She too may be criticized despite her desire to follow her minister's wife role as best she can. A willingness to help can lead to expectations being placed on her until she becomes overextended, responsible for too many varied jobs. Any attempt to follow a career can cause feelings of rejection on the part of the congregation.

The minister's wife and her career

A new minister's wife will sometimes be surprised that some in the congregation do not support her choice of a career and family despite modern trends. Like all career women she must work hard to prove her abilities. In addition, if her husband is transferred, she must give it all up, move, and start over somewhere else. Should she request a hold on the move, then her husband is faced with being marked as having a difficult wife over whom he has no control.

Discouragement awaits the minister's wife in any career move. Her job stays are short. She will be passed over for promotions in favor of someone with more seniority even though she is more skilled.

In addition to full-time work, she must be all things to her husband, children, and congregation. Should she pay some one to clean the house, get a part-time nanny for her children, or give up leading a Sabbath school department, someone is bound to misunderstand her choice.

The minister's wife who chooses to have a career, either by choice or necessity, will not fit the role envisaged for the minister's wife. This is the negative side. But there are positive aspects of a career.

As a professional person, the minister's wife adds a new dimension to her family, to church programs, to church outreach, and even to her husband's sermons. She can make contacts among her colleagues that others could not, and she will have a more realistic understanding of the problems faced by those outside the church. As she develops skill and enthusiasm in witnessing to her coworkers, the minister's wife becomes a motivating influence in the church for others to do the same.

Making the choice for a career

It is essential that the minister's wife firmly believe in what she wants to do and understands the consequences of her choosing to follow a career. She must be supported in this action by her husband in order for them to work effectively as a ministerial team. If one of the team is sensitive to criticism, then the other member must strengthen the less-strong spouse.

It is important that all members of the ministerial family agree on new courses of action they plan to take. They need to be able to discuss their feelings openly with one another. Time must be set aside to ascertain the tightness of decisions through prayer, study, and discussion.

Finally, in order to gain satisfaction from all her roles, the minister's wife must manage her time well. Her time needs will change as new situations arise, ensuring the need for constant reappraisal. She needs to allow time for her husband's and children's needs, the realistic needs of the church, her job, and her own relaxation and spiritual refreshment.

Problem solving

When the expectations of a congregation concerning the role of the minister's wife differ widely from her own expectations, problems arise. Most people are defensive when faced with the unknown. So the minister's wife should take steps to avoid or ameliorate problems that might arise because of these differing expectations.

At the first opportunity a new minister and his wife should inform the congregation how their family works as a team and what they would like to do for the church. This allows the church family to understand better how each perceives the family's role in the church. Such discussion can take place at a planned social evening in the minister's home or in the church hall. Such an evening can be set up by inviting all the congregation to get acquainted with the new pastoral family. In this setting the pastor can chat with the group, tell them of his plans, and allow the church family to ask questions and voice their expectations. All persons concerned learn more about each other's thinking styles. Most criticism is based on lack of understanding and misinformation. When the pastor sets up a practice of open, frank discussion between him self, his wife, and the church at the be ginning of his ministry, future problems are easier to resolve.


In a world that is less than perfect, it is unrealistic for anyone to expect to reach total fulfillment in all areas of his or her life. With this in mind the minister's wife should work toward giving her best to her family, her church, and career within her limits. As society continues to change, I believe congregations will certainly change. In time a church's expectations of the pastor's wife will no longer rely on tradition but will accept society's changing parameters.

Cutting new pathways is not easy, and at times the minister's wife must reassess her values. The minister's wife must be sure that her choice of commitments is acceptable to all those who are important to her, and that her walk with God re mains a close one. If those values are assured, then despite trials, criticisms, and other problems, she can feel free to continue in her chosen course.

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Tabitha Abel-Cooper is a pastor's wife and mother of two children in Newtownards, Northern Ireland. She is also a nurse in the cardiac care unit of Belfast Royal Victoria Hospital

November 1990

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