When one leader, who has never served as a pastor, recently suggested that there are no expectations for pastoral spouses, it is appropriate to ask whether we should we lower our expectations?
Have we really expected more in the past from pastoral wives than we ought reasonably to anticipate now? Is it time for a change in attitudes as well as policy?
Personally, I do not think we have expected too much. But I do believe we have expected too much for too little in the way of remuneration, nurture, and supportive affirmation. And now, unless the proposed retirement plan for North American Division is revised prior to implementation, no pastoral spouses will receive a retirement benefit based on their joint-ministry through many years of service.
While I recognize that some pastoral spouses are men, the vast majority are women, and role expectations seem to be more deeply established for pastoral wives than for those men whose wives serve in ministerial functions. As my own wife, Sharon, says: "I've served as a pastor and as a pastor's spouse. Believe me, the harder of the two jobs is pastor's spouse."
For example, no other group gives more volunteer hours to the work of the church than pastoral wives. Plus, most of this voluntary labor is provided after many of these spouses have worked full time jobs to help support their families. The volunteer services of these faithful pastoral spouses have led many congregations to conclude that the pastor's wife ought to be responsible for many things without remuneration or even recognition.
Too many congregations expect the pastor's wife to serve as an unpaid assistant pastor. This leads many individual members to conclude that she is able, ready, and willing to serve as piano player, children's leader, hostess, message taker, head deaconess, information dispenser, visitor of the ill, infirm, and discouraged, choir director, song leader, church secretary, fellowship meal coordinator, VBS director, youth sponsor, deputy communications expert for her husband, and to be present at every church function.
As one pastoral spouse stated, "Being the First Lady of my church means I'm the first lady anyone calls when they want to assign a task."
This list only begins to illustrate how much is expected of the pastoral wife. She is also looked to as a spiritual leader, supportive counselor, family therapist, nutritional specialist, general promoter of every church activity or fund-raising project that comes along, and a model of Christian motherhood.
Furthermore, conference leadership has expectations for pastoral wives that include participative involvement in various church functions, supportive involvement in their pastoral spouse's ministry, exemplary modeling of Christian life, and being prepared to relocate at a moment's notice if "the committee" votes a transfer for her spouse.
Throughout the history of our denomination, thousands of pastoral wives, like my Mom, have labored alongside their spouses in untiring service of evangelism, nurture and church operation. Many of these have hoped for the day in which team ministry might officially be recognized and encouraged as we are instructed by prophetic guidance.
Thus you can understand why any scheme that ceases to provide a spouse allowance at retirement for such devoted team-ministry wives will not harm those who have earned their own retirements, but rather punish the very group which have traditionally been defined as "our best spouses"—those who do not seek outside employment, who stay home to raise their children, and who support their husbands in team ministry.
Furthermore, even those who have worked "outside their home and church" have seldom had the necessary longevity of location to become fully vested in some other retirement plan because of too-frequent transfers. Are we now to lower our expectations that pastoral wives will follow their spouses and upset their own ability to "earn" a retirement in their own workplace.
We have made some progress in encouraging, affirming and nurturing pastoral spouses. This is not the time for retreat.
Shepherdess International is an entity of the General Conference Ministerial Association with the specific responsibility for providing nurture, support and continuing education to this group of para-professional women. Shepherdess International also serves as a discussion forum and representative advocacy to church leaders and members on behalf of pastoral spouses and children.
Implementation of the idea for Shepherdess International began with Marie Spangler whose husband, Pastor J. Robert Spangler, was the Secretary for the Ministerial Association. She had a burden that the General Conference would provide a supportive ministry to pastoral spouses that would recognize in a tangible way the contribution made by these women.
Research and surveys of pastoral wives had demonstrated the sad facts that there was a great void in the care and nurture provided them by the church. Along with Ellen Bresee, wife of Pastor Floyd Bresee, who followed Pastor Spangler as Ministerial Secretary, Marie began drafting a proposal which eventually became a reality as part of the General Conference Ministerial Association. Sharon Cress has served as coordinator for Shepherdess International since 1992.
Today there are Shepherdess International leaders in every Division, albeit under a variety of names which may be more palatable to some than the designation Shepherdess International. Coordinators have been appointed for most unions and conferences. These coordinators typically serve within the Ministerial Associations in the various church structures or local administrator's wives undertake the responsibility and privilege of nurturing the pastoral wives in their fields. Local conference chapters are the key to providing the best nurture to these special women.
Too often both church members and conference leadership expect a two-for-one special by assuming that when they hire a pastor they automatically get the wife as "free labor" although the reverse is never assumed for a man when a woman serves as pastor.
Because pastoral salaries are often insufficient to provide the educational and other needs of the pastoral family, many pastoral spouses must seek employment to supplement the family income. Add to this the consideration of her family's needs and it is easy to comprehend why there is ever-diminishing time left for volunteer church activities.
Unrealistic expectations of either the local church members or conference leadership can produce undue stress for the pastoral family. Such unrealistic expectations are a major concern of most pastoral spouses. Official removal of the spouse allowance for retired pastoral wives will add insult to injury for a group of workers who have already been too long ignored.
So should we expect less from pastoral wives today than when my Mom was a young pastor's wife fifty years ago? I repeat, the answer is no. We must continue to hold high expectations for our pastoral wives and we must not retreat in recognizing and supporting their faithful service to God's cause.