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Pastors’ Wives Come Together

8 minute read
Lisa Takeuchi Cullen

HELP WANTED: Pastor’s wife. Must sing, play music, lead youth groups, raise seraphic children, entertain church notables, minister to other wives, have ability to recite Bible backward and choreograph Christmas pageant. Must keep pastor sated, peaceful and out of trouble. Difficult colleagues, demanding customers, erratic hours. Pay: $0.

The basic job description for pastors’ wives hasn’t changed in a century. But pastors’ wives have. The rise of megachurches, dual-career couples and women’s independence have complicated the role and in some cases intensified the frustrations. A recent spate of scandals involving prominent pastors has underscored the challenges their wives face. Eight in 10 pastors’ wives say they feel unappreciated or unaccepted by their husbands’ congregations, according to surveys by the Global Pastors Wives Network (GPWN); the same number wish their husbands would choose another profession. “Wives’ issues” is the No. 1 reason pastors leave their ministries. The divorce rate among ministers and their wives is 50%, no better than that of the general public.

In recent years, pastors’ wives have found a place to vent. PWs (in electronic shorthand) from Fargo to Fiji reach out to and support one another in lively fellowship via Web-based networks, blogs and online discussion forums. On websites like PastorsWives.org SarahsTent.com and GPWN.tv, they share their thoughts on topics of unique interest, from the banal (recipe ideas for a mother-daughter prayer brunch) to the intimate (how to confront a pastor husband who is addicted to porn). When a Seattle pastor blogged that Ted Haggard’s wife was to blame for his infidelity, PW chat boards lit up in her defense.

Before the Web, PWs say they had little chance to connect and commune. “There weren’t networks,” says Becky Hunter, 55, wife of the well-known pastor Joel Hunter of Orlando-based Northland, a Church Distributed. “There were denominational groups and retreat-type things.” The Web, she says, offers more immediate and constant support. Hunter is president of the GPWN, spun off from the Global Pastors Network five years ago. “When we started researching other resources, we found there was just remarkably little available for the wife of the pastor. Our issues were so similar yet so private”–issues that as Christian women they might have discussed with their pastor, were they not married to him. The organizers of the network were surprised when 1,000 women showed up in 2005 at its first annual conference, called Free to Soar, but knew thousands more could benefit from the community. Last September, it launched a website, GPWN.tv, where PWs–in privacy and anonymity–can enter the “dining room” to watch a video titled What Every Beginning Pastor’s Wife Needs to Know, then move on to the “study room” for one called Defeating Depression: Turn Hard Times into High Times. Word spread quickly, and the website counts more than 22,000 registered members around the world.

Web communities like GPWN address PWs of disparate generations who may not find much in common. Gregarious by nature and immaculate in appearance, Becky Hunter is a PW of the classic mold: after a recent Sunday service led by her son, Hunter worked the congregation like a politician’s spouse, greeting familiar faces in the aisle in a big, bright voice that drew crowds of admirers. Her daughter-in-law Rhonda, 28, trailed quietly behind while tending to her two small children. Older PWs are more apt to consider themselves “first ladies,” turning to the Web for networking and recipes; PWs new to the job use it to question the expectations and express their frustrations. “Women today just have a lot more choices about what to do with their lives, and that can make things harder,” says Hunter.

One choice many make is to work. At least 70% of pastors’ wives work outside the home, many in professional jobs. Ann Toll had an established career by the time she married Robert, senior pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Fort Collins, Colo., in 2005. A previously married mother of three, Ann, 48, is a financial analyst for a NASA contractor in Boulder who works 10-hr. days, not including the 40-min. commute. She writes for the church newsletter on her lunch break and runs a Sunday youth group, but she draws the line at joining the choir.

Pastors may feel prepared for the lifestyle, but, says one study, 84% of wives don’t. “I had no clue how to be a pastor’s wife,” says Amy Andrews, 32, a mother of two in Rochester, N.Y. After nine years, “I still don’t.” Born in Ethiopia to missionary parents, Andrews had begun college in Fullerton, Calif., when she met Brian, a Stanford grad and aerospace engineer from Los Angeles. Six months after they began dating, he awoke one day with a calling. Hired by Vineyard Church, he moved with his new wife to their current post in 2003. Bored and lonely, Andrews Googled “pastor’s wife” and came upon dozens of websites–most created by older women partial to lace motifs and wheezy background hymns. “I was just not feeling the teddy bears and hearts,” says Andrews. She launched her own site, WithPurpose com in 2004 because “I thought there must be others like me.” Her dark-lipsticked smile might draw readers in, but her blunt postings about life in a small congregation keeps them coming back. She guesses that the 200 or so PWs who regularly visit her forums feel that sites like hers “really eliminate the isolationism that we feel. I’m struggling through it just like you. If you want to come in and peek into my little life–if that makes you feel less alone–that is so O.K. by me.”

Loneliness is a running theme among pastors’ wives, the piper’s tune that drives them online. “What do you think is the No. 1 problem that preachers’ wives have?” says Lynne Dugan, author of Heart to Heart with Pastors’ Wives. “Friendship. Loneliness. You’re surrounded by all these other people in the congregation, and you feel isolated.” The Christian support group Focus on the Family concurs: loneliness is the top topic on its hotline for pastors’ wives. After all, a PW can hardly discuss marital woes or child-raising tribulations with her husband’s flock, and colleagues or other friends outside the church don’t get life inside it. “The church becomes their husband’s mistress, and they in many ways lose their identity,” says H.B. London, head of pastoral ministries for Focus on the Family and author of Married to a Pastor. “The expectations a lot of times are overwhelming. Although they enjoy what they do, they deal with anger.”

Though often educated and deeply thoughtful, many PWs say they can’t partake in theological debates at church lest their opinions be interpreted as their husbands’. There, too, the Internet provides an outlet. Lora Horn, 35, a mother of two from Las Vegas, moved to rural Garrett, Ind., in 2004. “I never fit into the mold,” says the former social worker. “I was a tomboy. I’m not domestic. I’m intellectual. I’m an introvert. I’m a person who likes to buck the norm.” She began blogging a year ago as RebelliousPastorsWife to “have the conversations I wasn’t having in real life”–about “theology, politics, family life, knitting, baseball.” Recently she struck up a heated conversation online about the role of the sacraments, a subject she would never bring up at Bible study. She has learned that any pronouncement by a pastor’s family is fraught. During a tense discussion about renting the church to another congregation, their son asked where Sunday school would be held, leading churchgoers to think the pastor was against the plan (he wasn’t). It’s hard to separate her husband’s identity from hers, says Horn. “Our teachings are clear, that it’s the pastor who’s called, not the wife. But in reality …” she sighs, then chuckles. “I like to blame Katherine Luther, who ran a hospital and brewed beer and cared for people with the plague. She did everything. And a lot of congregations expect that.”

PWs say they feel most alone in their marital struggles, so perhaps it’s not surprising to find separate Web networks of FPWs: former pastors’ wives. Stephanie Elzy, 36, was driven to launch her FPW website after a brush with divorce, a crisis that led to her husband Rod’s leaving the ministry (making her an FPW of another sort). She and Rod, both Seventh-Day Adventists, married when she was 22 and he 29. Though she felt called to her new role, his job soon strained their marriage. Rod earned $38,400 as pastor of a church in Athens, Ga., not nearly enough for the lifestyle Stephanie says the congregation expected them to lead–“to live in a certain kind of house, drive a certain kind of car, you know, to represent them.” Her $12,600 income as a dental hygienist helped, but she hated to skimp on her other roles as mother and PW. The couple separated in 2002.

About to sign the papers at the divorce lawyer’s office, watching as their children played on the rug, the two decided to give it another shot. Rod left the ministry and began advising small businesses. They moved to Holly Springs, a suburb of Atlanta. And now it is Stephanie Elzy who has found a ministry, on the Web: LLLMinistries.org the triple Ls for love, life and living. She even muses about becoming a pastor. Who knows? Rod may one day join a community of PHs looking for fellowship online.

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