Tonight I am going to a rehearsal dinner in the role of pastor’s spouse. I’m not in that role very often, since my spousal unit and I are co-pastors. But once in a while someone outside the congregation asks just one of us to do something, and the other tags along in the spouse role. When I go to this sort of thing, I always imagine myself as Elizabeth Bennet, a tactful and witty observer of the human condition. I look forward to tonight, plus I get to get dressed up a little.
The first time I was in the role of pastor’s spouse was pretty horrifying for me. We’d not yet been married for a year, and for various reasons too complicated to explain here, I wasn’t working. My husband was serving as an interim synod co-executive (I kid you not.) We drove five hours for him to be the Honored Guest at the tenth anniversary of a new congregation formed when three congregations merged. (As a side note, it’s pretty good for a merger of three churches to have lasted ten years.) Anyway, when we arrived, we were greeted warmly and I was given a nametag that read “Beth Neel, Visiting Pastor’s Wife.”
I almost cried.
I had been a pastor – a real bona fide pastor of a congregation – for ten years. My husband had never served a congregation, and there I was, thrust into the role of Sunday-school-teaching, jello-recipe-exchanging, cookie-baking wife. We laughed about it – later. Much later.
Here’s the thing about pastors’ spouses that I know: they put up with a whole lot of stuff. They have more expectations put on them than pastors do. Like pastors, they are punished if they really speak their mind at church and so are relegated to commenting on whether the bark mulch needs some freshening up or if the punch was too fizzy last week. If they choose to have firm boundaries about what they will or won’t do at church, they’re criticized. On top of all that, they get to listen to their spouse complain, and rant, and cry, and wonder if it’s time to go sell insurance.
I think – or maybe it’s just a hope – that it’s gotten better for pastors’ spouses with an increase in the number of clergywomen. There are different role expectations for men than for women. And most pastor families I know need for both spouses to work, so there simply isn’t time to be Number One Volunteer at the church. As our society moves more toward gender equality, it’s understood that anyone can bake cookies, spread mulch, teach Sunday School, or direct the children’s choir. They don’t even have to be married to someone on the staff.
Still, it must be hard at times for those husbands and wives. So this week, if you’re at church, don’t just shake the pastor’s hand. If your pastor is married, find her or his spouse and tell that person how glad you are that she or he is here. You really don’t have to say anything else. And if the pastor’s spouse isn’t there, for heaven’s sake don’t ask why he or she is playing hooky.
So, to the pastor’s spouses I’ve known, especially those whose spouses I’ve worked with – Betty, Kay, Kerri, Tracey, John, Anna, Sue, Missy, Julie, Dave, Sarah, Fi, Carol, Barb, Nancy – my hat is off to you. Thanks for being you.