I was just hit in the gut by this excerpt from the Christian Post. It jumped out at me because of some research I tried to begin 2-3 years ago, with an attempt to poll pastors’ wives to see if any others felt disenfranchised due to itineracy practices in the church (among other issues of potentially perceived neglect surrounding ministerial spouses).
The Hurting Pastor’s Wife
As my post on pastor’s wives became a lively conversation, I was struck by one comment in particular. Indeed I was almost brought to tears as I read it. Here are her words without any changes, additions, or deletions:
I wish my husband would have included me in his life to be his cheerleader. I wish he would have respected my calling and ministry. I wish someone would have told me that he was going to neglect me and forget about our dreams as a married couple. Now he lives for the church. Birthdays and anniversaries do not exist in this home. I’m tired of eating dinners alone and having anniversary trips cancelled because he has no interest. What does he always tell me? Oh yeah, “The Kingdom of God is always first.” Now even my faith in God is at question. How could God give me a husband who is a pastor and so easily live without me? I feel stuck in this marriage. I am unfulfilled as a woman, wife, minister, and mother. Everything he promised me he has broken. I wish someone would have told me it would be this way. Then maybe I would have paid more attention to my gut feeling!
Wow. The pain is so obvious. The hurt is so deep.
So how does my story relate? Here it is, in as much brevity as I can muster.
I was a widow with two teenagers and an adopted two-year-old (then turned 4) when I agreed to marry my second husband, an educator and youth leader (like myself) who had plans to attend seminary. Even though I had two times of great pause prior to marriage, I reasoned that because of our common interests, I should be excited at the prospect of serving GOD in ministry together. The first 3 years of our marriage were not together, as he attended seminary out of town, while I worked to support us and continued solely to raise my children. A few years of him being in full-time ministry thereafter, I began to realize that my idea of “togetherness” was probably a disillusioned one. Apparently, our life together, in general, was plagued with disappointments (including our family being less than the perfect illusion for which we both may have been hoping).
Our first major personal disagreement happened at 7 years of marriage, at which time he told me he was giving me two days to move out, because the parsonage was for the pastor, not the pastor’s family. I was dumbfounded, thinking of how I’d sold the home I’d provided for me and my children, to help support my husband’s seminary costs and ministry capabilities. My sister was kind enough to provide temporary shelter to me and my youngest son; whereafter, I purchased my own home once more. Upon attempting to reconcile with my pastoral husband, I negotiated to keep my home (which I was afraid to give up, in the event my youngest son and I were displaced again), while my husband maintained residency at the parsonage and came and went from my house as he pleased – as long as I made all the payments and didn’t disclose our living arrangements to anyone at the church. This particular compromise went on for four years, as I completed and he began a doctoral degree. I quietly came to grips with the fact that neither my marriage nor our “shared” ministry had been what I had expected. (I now classify that relational stage as the beginning of isolation.)
That’s when the big relational bomb dropped.
My ministerial husband requested to move churches. Due to growing dissatisfaction, he informed his District Superintendent that he’d be willing to move anywhere within our Church Conference to accommodate this request (despite my own appeals that, due to my highly specialized job and the timing of my youngest son’s schooling, he should explain that his ability to move among districts was limited). Two months later, my husband informed me that he would be assigned to a church 3 hours away.
I was shocked that neither of the District Superintendents nor anyone in the (administrative) Church seemed too disturbed with the fact that his family could not accompany him. I was further shocked when my husband informed me that, had he requested a limited range of movement, he could have been assigned a 5-point charge (a seemingly unworthy assignment that likely doesn’t even exist). My husband and others in the church system also expressed to our family that it was not befitting to attend our prior church, as it could appear we were usurping the ministry of the new pastor and his wife. Overnight, we had become foreigners in our own land. I was distraught that my husband’s ministerial work position was more important than a ministering position to his family. My son and my friends were also confused, but accepted my superficial assurances. I did the best I could to convince everyone, including myself, that this decision was of GOD, and we should be compelled to support it. In truth, I began to question if GOD was punishing me for not being a more faithful spouse in holding onto a house for emotional insurance reasons, among other thoughts I had been entertaining. I decided that my best plan of recourse was to use the research skills I had acquired in graduate school and try to be a positive voice for spouses who might also feel disenfranchised by the itineracy or other church practices.
At the time of my research planning, when attempting to lay the groundwork, only one person responded to express her frustration in a social network forum meant only for the eyes of pastoral spouses. This pastor’s wife’s responsive post was immediately admonished (literally within seconds) by other wives in the group, who tried to minimize her anguish. Perhaps it was to mask their fears that I’d brought up the potential dissatisfaction that might be costly to their own spouses’ next appointments, had they taken what they perceived to be “the bait.” Or perhaps the immediate negative response by those “in charge” of the group was meant to instill a fear in others of being likewise bullied should anyone else consider responding. Or perhaps, as I reasoned then, the issue was a personal one not shared by many, if any, others. Meanwhile, I physically, emotionally and even spiritually spent myself that next year, traveling up and down the freeway to attend my husband’s church 3 hours away, never feeling fully incorporated into that body of believers. My youngest son and I were brought to the front of the church one Sunday to be added as members (informed by my husband that we were needed on the rolls to numerically increase membership for the year). By the following year, I was so discouraged and burnt out, I struggled to find places to worship locally with friends. (My isolation had transitioned to a longer-term relational stage of isolated complacency.) Never in my life have I felt like such an outsider.
By the time I laid my research project aside, convinced I’d never hear the truth from others suffering (if others existed), I realized that my own spouse had become completely non-communicative with me, comfortably living at a distance in another part of the state for our final 3 years of marriage, without making any provision for his family. Our personal visits and prayer life had become non-existent; our phone calls had grown sparse and meaningless; and any requests for support (more often emotional than physical) were met with great reluctance or outright resistance. Furthermore, the people from our church grew content to be just as non-forthcoming about “the elephant in the room” – or the one that wasn’t present if you visited either of our very separate residences. If the church’s needs were being met through the pastoral appointment of my husband, the pastor’s family dynamics seemed to be of no great consequence. The church obviously needed an appointed pastor more than his family did. (And, in truth, they got something I never did, since my husband once bluntly stated to me that he could never be my pastor. He had effectively relationally distanced himself, far beyond miles on a freeway.)
After giving so much of myself to the church, including supporting a husband through two graduate degrees (completely financially through the first), I have become a bit disillusioned. Not in GOD. Never in the beauty of how Jesus Christ came to restore humanity to Himself. Just in the reality of how we can so miss the mark of worship in our service to others – particularly to those with whom we make covenant. That greatly saddens me in myself, always left to wonder what blame I should take in being a covenant-breaker. And in all this, I’m left to wonder for what the modern-day church intends to stand. We do a wonderful job of preaching social justice and servitude – while we offer no mercy or grace to those that should reside in our own homes.
I understand that when 1 finger is pointed outward, 3 are pointed back at the accuser. In the perilous exposure of divorce, I’ve had enough accusations thrown my way that I just want to tuck my hands in my pockets and remain quiet. But that may have been where I detrimentally contributed the most. Apparently I, too, missed the mark greatly when I held in my suffering to the breaking point, to the point when upon finally addressing my husband with tears and remorse, I was merely offered an affirmation from him that we really had nothing more to discuss on the matter. An impasse with someone who no longer shared life with me seemed only to equate to divorce. Perhaps I was wrong about that, but given many other collateral circumstances – especially the one where I heard nothing more from him for months, until 2 days before the final hearing (and then only vitriolic criticisms), I don’t think so. I’ve tried to come to peace about that. I know, however, that peace can only come from the Prince of Peace, Himself. I rely on that daily.
As for me, I will confess:
I still feel displaced in church worship –
-as displaced as when my husband told his District Superintendent over 3 years ago that he could itinerate anywhere in the Conference without worry, and persuaded me to corroborate the story, when asked;
-as displaced as when I gave my husband a ride home from Annual Conference this past year, without him speaking a word or sharing a thought with me, knowing it was the last year I would ever spend time there with my youngest son and grandchildren, as this had been our family’s only vacation time;
-as displaced as my (now prior married) name that was so easily removed from all ties with the church, again without a word from anyone there;
-as displaced as the emptiness I feel when I receive the email list of church members who have passed, people with whom I felt relationship, and have no one with whom to mourn;
-as displaced as the lack of mounds of Christmas cards to write to my church family or the exhausting bustle of church demands that this special advent season traditionally brings;
-as displaced as my distrust that now questions the idea of ever sharing anyone else’s name or dreams;
-as displaced and disenfranchised as my research plan.
As for that research, I realize I’ve been gathering my own empirical data for many years now. And, yes, the pain is so obvious. The hurt is so deep.
I pray that the Church will awaken to the detrimental practices of an outdated system that does not work for all pastoral families. And, though it might not have saved my own marriage, I pray that – one day soon – there will be pastors and pastoral spouses who will not be afraid to take a stand of social justice for those who have been disenfranchised by such antiquated ideals.
Until then…I’ll just continue to pray.