Peacebang, bless her soul, wrote recently about her understanding of the need for the clergy partner to meet a certain dress standard. In her observations she included a number of suggestions for how she thinks congregations ought to deal with errant partners who are just not making the grade on the appearance front.

Peacebang notes that people have opinions about the relative merits of the ministerial partner’s appearance. Absolutely – we all are subjected to others’ opinions on that topic. But the notion that the church or its members have any call to say ANYTHING to the partner about his or her appearance is so breathtakingly outrageous that I just had to address it.

The day the church pays my salary is the day they can suggest a dress code. Short of that, what I wear is my business. Think my skirts are too short? Okay, but look the other way if it offends you. You wish I looked more professional when out about town because everyone knows what church my husband works for?! You’re kidding, right? My sweat pants on Sunday morning are a problem for you?  Fine, let me tell you my opinion of your sloppy shorts and T-shirt, neither of which I think are appropriate attire for anyone over the age of 12. Are we all happy now?!

Seriously, folks, if anyone from the church has the temerity to comment on your appearance as it reflects on the church, I hope you feel perfectly comfortable telling that person in no uncertain terms that they have majorly violated your personal boundaries. This would be something to take up with your minister ASAP, who needs to consult with the church’s powers that be and educate them about exactly where their authority ends.

Okay, end of rant.

So does Peacebang have a point? Could your appearance impact your partner’s ministry? Sure it could, for many of the reasons Peacebang outlines. So is it worth your while to pay attention to this issue? I would agree with her that it is. At a minimum, neat, clean and modestly covered ought to be your goal. Leave the tight jeans and low-cut tops for dates with the minister (and how kinky is THAT?! You get to play “private counseling session” with the person-of-the-cloth with no repercussions!) But you don’t need to make your lady bits or manly attributes a general topic of conversation in the congregation.

Likewise, make an effort to be presentable and respectful of the organization when you are clearly in attendance as the minister’s significant other. Your appearance reflects on him/her, so make sure it’s a nice “shine”.

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“I find somewhat to my surprise that I am feeling a little less lonely, a little stronger about facing the church’s expectations, a little more confident with my coping toolbox.”  —Lisa Konick

And what is it that has helped Lisa? Talking to other clergy spouses. In my own small way, I hope that I am contributing to lessening some of the isolation and lack of support that clergy partners often experience. If nothing else, I hope hearing that I, too, have grappled with issues helps you know that at least you are “normal”!

And I love to hear from you, so leave me a comment if you come by!

Brian Irvine, married to a Church of England vicar, maintains a wiki community for clergy husbands at cucumbersandwiches.org. In one of his posts, he makes a series of recommendations for how to deal with some of the practical issues involved in living in a parsonage.

 The one that really resonated with me was the one about the phone. Bottom line: the minister has his or her own phone number. If you want to reduce the money you spend on this, try Lingo or one of the other VOIP companies. But his point about the minister being able to answer the phone on days off is well taken. My husband calls this his “sanctuary” time. He absolutely needs to know that he can disassociate himself completely from the congregation one day a week. His personal number has voice mail if people need to leave a message.

Which leads me to my point — people treating the minister’s partner as his or her personal secretary. Whether it is in person, on the phone or other contact, people are prone to asking me to “just let ***** know that…” As a novice ministerial spouse I went along with this. Why not? It’s just being helpful, right? Wrong.

If I accept the responsibility for taking a message, it comes right back at me if it gets lost or mistranslated. People can often use a third person to deliver a difficult message — I don’t want to be that person. Above all, whatever he is doing is none of my business. The content of the message may be confidential, and I don’t want to know about it.

So what do I do now? I have a single, all-purpose answer for anyone who wants me to give my husband a message — feel free to adapt and use as needed:

“You know, wife-mail is just not as reliable as voice mail! Could you call him and leave him a message on his phone instead? He does check that regularly.”

Done.

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?!

Went trolling through the search terms people used to find my blog today. As I have mentioned before, this is an addictive habit of most bloggers, I think. Anyway, look what the Google gods came up with today! Still trying to decide if it’s descriptive of my current persona or setting me a challenge. I can’t begin to fathom the underlying interest of the person who typed in this particular search string…

The annual winter rite known as the Stewardship Campaign is about to begin in my husband’s church. Seems like a good time to share our thinking on this topic! The issues are really twofold — does the minister’s family join the church as members? And how do they support the work of the church?

In our family, my husband and I answer those questions differently. He has chosen both to join his congregations as a member and to make a pledge, which comes out of “his” portion of the family resources. We have never really talked in-depth about his reasoning, but this is something he does every year.

I, on the other hand, absolutely do not join, and I don’t pledge either. If I were a member, I would have the right to vote on issues which affect my husband and his ministry. I would also have a duty to actively engage in the life of the congregation. Since I draw a clear boundary around my husband’s work and ministry (see my earlier posts on this topic!), I feel that it would be inappropriate for me to take on the rights and duties of membership of the church. I am not, and never will be, an equal participant with the other members of the congregation.

As for pledging, that is part of the membership duties. However, I do support the church financially on an ad hoc basis. I put money in the collection plate when I attend services. I give generously to special collections. I donate money to specific projects. I donate items to rummage sales, the food bank etc. In this way, I can support the work and life of the church in my special role as an “affiliated” person without establishing a reciprocal relationship with the congregation wherein I have rights and expectations, as would they.

We are finally somewhat settled in to the new community, the new church, the new life, I think! Watching my husband start up this new ministry, I am reminded of some of the things I have learned over the years in this job as the minister’s spouse. Unlike his first ministry (or second or third…), I find myself in a place of supreme calm around his work and his future here. This was a great match for him and the congregation, and for our family in this place, which bodes well for the future. And after all these years of watching him work, I know that he is good at his job and rises beautifully to the challenges of his calling. This is a wonderful feeling to have, as it makes it easy for me to simply move on in my own life without worrying about his ability to make things work with the congregation.

This is a far cry from where I was 20 years ago. Then, I felt compelled to obsess over his every move, practically. Somehow I had taken it upon myself to interpret “helpmeet” as spiritual advisor, relationship counselor, work coach, life coach, social secretary… well, you get the idea. I realize now that I was working out of the notion that if he just got everything “right”, then his congregation would love him and all would be wonderful. (And he would keep his job.)

The net result of course, was that I was interfering in his own growth as I tried to help him avoid making the very mistakes he would learn from the most. I was also taking partial responsibility for his job success. Huh?! What is it about the ministry that sucks in spouses and partners as if we somehow own this job as well? All while protesting that the church didn’t hire us and so should have no expectations? It’s weird.

So what do I know now that I wish I had known then? Stay out of it. It’s his/her job, not yours. Your minister will figure things out and make the ministry work. Or not. But interfering just gives the message that you don’t trust your partner to handle his or her life’s work without your “valuable” input.

And it is a lot easier to maintain a state of Zen-like calm in the face of storms if you are not personally wrapped up in the relationship.