In this interesting article by one of the writers at Orthodox Family Life magazine, the author writes, “The late Jacqueline Onassis was asked early in her husband John F. Kennedy’s presidency what she though [sic] her most important role would be as First Lady. She answered that it would be to take care of the President so that he could do his job effectively. And despite the differences in “style” of various priest’s [sic] wives, they, too, have this as their first task.”
The whole point of this article is that clergy spouses have as their primary duty the care of the clergyperson. Hmmmm… Ministry is certainly one of those jobs that absorb all available time and space in the life of the practitioner. This writer seems to argue, however, that it should do so for the minister’s partner and family as well.
I could easily write this off as just another reactionary crank were it not for the fact that I have lived this. And not through some intentional choice on my part! The 24/7 needs of a congregation can so easily take over the days and nights of the minister, leaving the rest of the family members to pick up the slack and function as some sort of planetary system orbiting the great central minister-sun. That is, we clergy partners can so easily end up living in the world described in this article whether or not we agree with its premise.
I don’t know what it is like to be married to or partnered with someone in another demanding profession, but I can say that there is something about the ministry that causes many of us to feel ungrateful or unfairly demanding when we ask that our “holy” partner step away from the total congregation commitment and step up to the plate at home. And meet OUR needs as much as we meet his or hers. Going out on a limb here, I am going to speculate that some of this reluctance to make equal demands or to refuse to devote ourselves primarily to the minister’s welfare, comes from the inherently unstable nature of the minister’s job.
Every minister in our tradition is reminded each year that his or her ongoing employment is contingent on the outcome of the annual pledge drive. What affects pledge numbers? Membership numbers and member satisfaction. People vote with their money, and when the congregation is not happy, contributions fall. How easy it is for ministers to feel a compulsion to “keep everyone happy” and work like a dog, visibly present to the members most of the time. And how easy it is for a dependent spouse or partner to enable this behavior out of a contingent fear.
It has taken many years for my minister and me to work out this issue. Here are the things that I think have contributed to our relative peace about the “work like crazy to be visible to the members” and “omigod, if they’re not happy, we don’t have an income” and “we need to put the minister’s needs first so the children can eat” stuff.
1. Experience. Most congregations, most of the time, will prefer to work with their current minister on troubling issues long before things come to a head during the stewardship campaign. We have seen so many great lay leaders work for the health of their congregations and the minister/congregation relationship, that both my husband and I know that it is highly unlikely that some catastrophic end to his job will come.
2. Stuff happens. Including all of the things I just talked about in #1. So it is important that our internal constellation of the family is strong on all its legs, including mine, in case something catastrophic occurs. In other words, we already have talked about what we would do if his ministry ends suddenly, which helps us be calm about the possibility. That conversation also helps remind us that I am an important part of the success of the family and my needs are also important.
3. Perspective. At the end of the day, a parish call is just a job. It is not your life, your health, your happiness or your family’s reason for being. Your family can thrive without the ministry in the middle of it, so don’t make it more important than it is. This perspective also takes a lot of performance pressure off the minister.
4. Been there, done that. And I remember the feelings of resentment and unfair burden all too clearly. This is not a good place to stand if you want a good marriage. Note that my husband never actually ASKED me to give things up for him — I volunteered. Nor did he ever assert his right to play the JFK role to my Jackie. It just happened, mostly through my own insecurity about him keeping his job, needing to be perfect to keep the members happy etc. And okay, he didn’t exactly complain, until it became apparent that I was harboring resentment about this.
And what have I learned? That we clergy spouses invent this attitude on our own, and then get plenty of confirmation and support in it from people like Matushka Valerie G. Zahirsky (read to the bottom to see what her title means).
Well, here’s where I tell Valerie where she can get off. Even were this a possible life for a clergy spouse, it’s not a healthy one. Yes, the minister needs support. But so does everyone. And if the minister is too tied up with pastoral duties to maintain his or her own life and relationships, it’s the duties that need to change.
Just to point out a situation that really highlights the absurdity of this idea — who does the dishes when both partners are called Reverend?!