She was a saint, and you’re certainly not!”
These words from a “man of the cloth” stung like a swarm of bees. He demonstrated what he believed was his God-given right and diligent duty to inform Anne1 that she was an unsuitable partner, and even a most improper person, to be the wife of “the Lord’s anointed.” So why all the hostility?
Anne was on the verge of becoming the second wife to an established pastor after the death of his first wife. The tears did not flow. All Anne felt was an overwhelming numbness and a sense of being removed from a reality that she had anticipated since she agreed to a marriage proposal. Little did she realize that her life would go from private to so very public overnight. Never could she have known that her every action would be scrutinized over and over, and with meticulous coldness, disdain, and criticism.
Jane was out with her husband when he stopped to give a member a lift to another part of the city. The member stepped into the car and said, “Pastor, how are you?” But when Jane turned to greet her, the woman refused to even acknowledge her presence, and ignored her for the 20-minute ride.
Claire tells of a group of women who would treat her with complete and utter indifference when she visited their church. “We’ve known him much longer than you,” one was bold enough to inform her as she sat speechless at the rear of the church, all alone.
When I heard these ladies’ stories, I recalled my own journey as part of the Second Clergy Wives Club, and the numerous encounters with disapproval that I have experienced. After nearly 16 years of marriage, I can finally look back at our courtship, engagement, wedding, and the first 7 years (or so) of marriage without anger but, instead, with a sense of peace and an attitude of forgiveness.
The death of a pastor’s wife can be the source of long-term corporate grief for the local congregation and the wider church community where her husband has ministered. It may also be extremely sobering for her husband’s colleagues, especially those of a similar age. I recall that I attended the funeral of my husband’s first wife. There was not even standing room in the church, and the courtyard was overflowing with mourners. I witnessed a complete outpouring of sorrow and grief after months of praying, fasting, and hoping that the Father would work a miracle and that she would recover.
Corporate grief is similar to personal grief—except on a much grander and intense scale. The untimely death of Princess Diana on August 31, 1997, caused a tidal wave of grief throughout the world. Even for months after, people were walking around as if in a daze, not quite believing what had happened.
Counselors have acknowledged seven stages of grief, usually designed for individuals but also applicable to groups.2 The corporate grief for the loss of a pastor’s wife begins with shock and denial. Then there exists the pain and guilt. Even in church organizations and among believers, there is a sense of anger, questioning, and bargaining. This is quickly followed by depression and reflection, and even in congregations there can be an intense sense of loneliness as they consider their own future demise. And while, as Christians, we have the reassurance of the blessed hope, the earthly reality of death continues to be painful.
In the midst of their grief, the congregations then witness an “intruder” attempting to sabotage that process by steering their pastor to a new life—one that may appear to be alien to them and causes consternation, surprise, and a deep sense of unease. While they are trying to come to terms with their loss, they see the pastor as “moving on” too quickly, and their response often becomes erratic.
Another huge challenge is that there can be enormous expectations of the second pastor’s wife from the church, his pastoral colleagues, his employers, and other clergy spouses. If the former wife was hospitable, the second wife is expected to be the same. If she played a musical instrument or was excellent at telling the children’s story, the second wife would be expected to do the same, at least just as well, preferably better.
Jane remembers bursting into tears when she was told that her macaroni and cheese did not live up to that of her husband’s first wife. Jane, a corporate lawyer, describes herself as “adequate” in the kitchen. While she was able to win most of her corporate cases, she was considered an unbefitting model because her skill set differed from congregational expectations. Even though accomplished in her chosen field, Jane says that she has “felt inadequate” for a long time as she has constantly been compared to her husband’s first wife.
Feelings of alienation
With second clergy wives there may be a sense of alienation because of a lack of support from some members, clergy, and ministerial spouses. There seems to be a ministry for almost everyone and everything, but they are frequently on the fringes of the congregation, and often ostracized. Anne felt very lonely at church functions, especially when people seemed to always openly compare her to her husband’s late wife. These feelings of alienation often led to tears and anger, and consequently she distanced herself from church people in order to protect herself. “I was cold at worst, and civil at best,” Anne recalls, “and the more I distanced myself, the greater my alienation from my church, my husband, and my God. It took years of prayer and counseling for me to come to terms with my role and also feel an affinity to the members.”
While there are many trials that often make one want to throw in the towel, there are also enormous joys that come with ministering as the second wife of your spouse. About a year before we got married, my husband took on the role of youth director in our union. Although he had been in youth leadership for much of his ministry, he had spent the past two years working abroad, so this new appointment allowed us both a new start. While spending Sabbath after Sabbath on the road, attending numerous camping trips and youth activities, took its toll on us, we also had a chance to establish our own brand of ministry Being part of the Second Clergy Wives Club has also given me a new appreciation and respect for the work of the first wives—now deceased. I honor the memory of these women with renewed vigor, for they stood at the side of their husbands, even during situations that would take their lives. They were strong, yet silent in their pain. They were dignified under the threats of ailments that hospitalized them. They smiled courageously in the midst of adversity. They leave us, the second clergy wives, exemplary examples of Christian womanhood.
Jesus’ prayer, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34, KJV), became very real to me after a few years of being part of the Second Clergy Wives Club. If I had not learned to forgive, then I would be a very bitter ministerial spouse. I had to learn to let go of the enormous burden of pain that comes with bearing a grudge.
My greatest joy, however, is found in service with my husband. Visiting the sick and the dying with him, preparing and delivering seminars and sermons, researching and writing articles together, and ministering and leading in the local congregation together has been very meaningful. As I reflect on my journey, I can see that I was drawn to the calling of the prophet Jeremiah to whom the Lord said, “ ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, / before you were born I set you apart; / I appointed you’ ” (Jer. 1:5, NIV). It was then that I realized that being one of the second clergy wives was not a capricious act; it was designed by my Father. My call to serve with my husband was no accident but part of the plan of God who knows the end from the beginning.
1 The names used are pseudonyms.
2 “7 Stages of Grief: Through the Process and Back to Life,” Recover-from-grief.com, www.recover-from -grief.com/7-stages-of-grief.html.