The awkward lives of clergy husbands

May 28th, 2015

This past March, Crossway introduced Pastor’s Wife Appreciation Month, a campaign designed to “encourage and honor pastors’ wives.” There is no doubt that pastors’ wives have a demanding role. Traditionally, many churches expected their pastors’ wives to fulfill any number of roles, from organist and choirmaster to church secretary to Sunday School director, all without pay and while raising their own family in the public eye. The often unspoken expectation was that a church paid the pastor and got his wife for free. But what happens when your pastor’s wife is a husband?

The role of clergy husband is much less traditionally defined but still shares some of the trials of a clergy wife — the scrutiny, expectations of attendance and involvement and the shared stress when tensions in a congregation run high. Clergy spouses deal with their wives’ and husbands’ late night emergency phone calls, evening meetings and sacrificing at least one half of a weekend with their partner. As many clergy spouses also work outside the home, the expectation of paying the pastor and getting his or her spouse for free is hopefully on the decline.

Fortunately, my formation as a Christian and a priest occurred in churches where clergy spouses modeled healthy boundaries. Clergy wives were involved and present but not necessarily in the more traditional fields of music or children’s education. Clergy husbands were happy to participate in service projects but let other people take leadership. Boundaries are even more important when spouses are either not religious or are clergy themselves. As to my own husband, he is happy to fill in as the organist when needed, but we also insist that he be paid like any other substitute.

While simultaneously going through the discernment process for the priesthood and pre-marital counseling, my priest reminded us that our first calling was to each other, as spouses and partners in Christian marriage. When his vocation as a physician allows, my husband is more than happy to play the role of clergy spouse, just as when my priestly vocation allows, I play the role of doctor’s wife. Certainly neither of those roles looks like they did in my grandparents’ day and age!

However, the church has a long way to go in supporting clergy husbands. Recently I heard a story of an invitation to a clergy spouses’ (formerly clergy wives’) luncheon that came on glittery, pink paper. Frequently clergy spouse events are held during work hours, also excluding wives that work outside of the home, or the events include activities that would appeal more to women, such as a fashion show or high tea. Despite my urging, my husband has yet to attend any clergy spouse events because he doesn’t feel like he has much in common with a group of predominantly older women.

Though clergy spouses of both genders need support and encouragement, the cultural emphasis on pastors’ wives leads to the continued diminishment and invisibility of clergy husbands and the myriad roles they play in congregations. As marriage evolves and develops, many congregations are also coming to terms with clergy in same-sex marriages and how that affects the role of the clergy spouse. Congregations need to allow clergy spouses of whatever gender to set their own boundaries and dictate their own involvement (or non-involvement). Clergy families will be healthier for that freedom.

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