Sunday, May 3, 2015

Bearing One Another's Burdens: Clergy Spouses and the Connection

One of the most important features of Methodism, historically, has been its focus on connection, covenant, caring for one another.  An area where this has sometimes been weak has been in the care of the clergy family.  In most regions of the country, "Minister's Wives Fellowship" groups sprouted in the 1930's to provide social and spiritual support to the women married to the ministers. In a gendered society that still had only one working model of the role of women in society. These groups helped acclimatize new wives to the proper methods, attitudes and behaviors of the parsonage woman.
In the 1930's -1950's books on being a minister's wife (written by people from numerous denominations) included many gems of dismal expectations.  I remember reading one that said a wife such disappear into the world of her husband, abdicate her desires to fulfil his mission, and negate her abilities so they did not overshadow her spouse.  Other classics painted a confusing picture of making everyone happy, raising perfect children, and being totally clueless about anything in the church while fully supporting and attending the services.  Such conflicting advice was often spiced up with the need to be lovely at all times and devout. Sometimes the information on marriage was included in books by ministers for other ministers.  I remember one that had as its sub-titles "procedures and problems."  I always wondered which one that pastor considered his wife, a procedure or a problem?
Flash forward several decades to the 1960's and 1970's and a couple of stories help to illustrate the attitudes of churchmen to churchwomen.  Stories shared by elderly wives of pastors recounted how that they would, each year, pack up their entire house and give it a good cleaning while their husband went to annual conference where assignments were announced.  She would wait, breathlessly, for the call that said either "unpack" or "we are moving."   Other women shared the presiding bishop's requirement that women wear white gloves, hats, and hose at all times while at church or conference events. These were the decades where under the surface of society there was a revolt brewing against just such highhanded control and stringent dictates of decorum. 
Speeding through the 1980's and into the early 21st century there has been a roller coaster of change. More spouses working outside the home and diminishing the church as single social interaction and source of concern.  Worlds expanded and worlds collided.  I recall serving on a district fellowship group where many of the older women were still firmly rooted in that 1960's and 1970's world. Others, like myself, were progressive, for lack of a better term.  We were educated, we had experiences and views that said we as women should be engaged in important work in the church. No teas for us!  No traditions!  We were modern, we worked, and we had brains.  A lot of women felt that way (few male spouses at that time) and there was a general falling away from the concept of a fellowship group based on what we saw as an outdated paradigm.  We were not defined by what our husband's did!
We would be - we all agreed - just a person sitting on the pew and being actively engaged in mission like any other church member.  No special privileges expected or desired. No "queen of the manse", "first lady" or similar nonsense.
What we failed to understand that we were different: neither fish not fowl. As long as we were specifically mandated to not serve on certain committees in the church (see the Book of Discipline) , we were different.
What we failed to remember as well was that connectional aspect. That caring for one another and being supportive of the burdens other people might be struggling with as they lived the life.  We failed to remember people need friends who understand and the local Bible study group is not the place to rail against the son of Satan who keeps hurting your husband or to complain about the gossiping and bad behaviors of the church in general.  Talking about it with a spouse often merely added to the stress that person was feeling in their position as leader and spiritual worker.
The problem, looking back, was that the idea was basically sound: a group to offer social and spiritual support to a cadre of people sharing a similar journey.  The fault was in confusing a maintaining of the status quo as the goal.  The fault was in 'gatekeeping' those spouses instead of strengthening them through friendship and prayer. The fault was in failing to realize that as much as you might want to be just another lay person on the seat the church and community will always see you as "the preacher's wife" (or husband).  To hold back that tide of inevitability is too exhausting and can be detrimental to a marriage.
The best advice I can give is to go into a church slowly. Do not assume positions or roles too quickly unless there is a passion in you to do them.  Too often I have seen churches fail to develop the gifts within them because a willing spouse, or some paid staff,  make the process unnecessary.  The role of the person married to a member of the clergy is a hybrid one and perhaps that is the greatest potential there is in the discussion. They understand both sides of the equation (ministry purpose and function and church dreams and desires) and can help in the translation process. 
As the 21st century dawns it is time to explore what the spouses need and how to best support them in their travels, transitions, and tribulations. What would it be like to have a supportive group who can say "how goes it with your soul?", "have you laughed today?" or "come, let us pray".    It would be a very Methodist thing to do.
Some excellent examples of conferences working to support the families of clergy as they transition through moves they have no voice in and over which they have no control. Like other fields, the military and some companies, the worker is moved and the family is just part of the furnishings.  In a church setting,  however, there should be so much more to the process. There should be a concern and care given to how the family copes, feels supported, and encouraged in the process of re-location. These are emotional health issues that are sometimes hard for people to express or acknowledge. We have so often made people feel that in the spiritual world we cannot have weaknesses, uncertainties, and even dislike for the lot we are given.
Professional counselor and wife of a Methodist minister, Marilyn Brown Oden, gives insightful commentary in "Stress and Purpose: Clergy Spouses Today" (1988). 
The Mississippi Conference has this delightful page with a very formal take on organization. The clergy spouses have a verse on their page that seems to say it all: "Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing." I Thes. 5:11 
The Eastern Ohio Conference has a truly broad and helpful document on the moving process. The content ranges from practical aspects and timelines to the emotional health of people who are going through a grieving, loss, and separation experience. A Guide to a Good Move for Pastors and Families
The Texas Conference has a webpage devoted to the Clergy Spouses.
The diverse makeup of Clergy Spouses in the UMC was the focus of a 2009 study that included for the first time a significant look at the male spouse of a female clergy. 

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