Living in a big city, we don’t experience the fishbowl existence like some clergy families in small, more insular and tight-knit communities. And context aside, I’ve never really felt like people in our church community are peering into our lives, watching our every move. It certainly happens for clergy families–it just doesn’t seem like an issue or concern in our community. But I do remember quite clearly the moment I realized my husband Aaron’s new role as co-pastor of a church also meant something for me. To clarify, I actually realized the impact Aaron’s path into ministry would have on my life fairly early on–before he even accepted the position–but this specific experience solidified what I had been sensing for some time: that my identity now included an element rooted in my spouse’s vocation.
I was shopping at Target–a rather ordinary occurrence in my day to day life–pushing my cart filled with the three or four items that were on my list and twenty-seven or so other items that, in the course of my journey through the store, I discovered I absolutely couldn’t live without. As I approached the checkout, I saw a young woman from our church walking toward me with an older man I assumed from the resemblance was her dad. I said hello, made some brief small talk, and moved on like one does. As I walked away, I heard her say to her father in one of those loud whispers, “That’s the pastor’s wife!” There I was, pushing my Target cart–an ordinary person on an ordinary day running an ordinary errand–but somehow now with a giant “pastor’s wife” stamp on my life, it was all a bit different.
This sense of wearing a stamp or label emerged among clergy spouses in my research. And even among those who enthusiastically embraced their role as a pastor’s wife or husband, describing it as another sort of calling, there was a very real and significant sense of identity in these stories. Hope, a clergy spouse who saw her role as a ministry partner with her husband, Marcus, described this realization:
Before becoming a pastor’s wife, I had a good sense of my calling and was very active and did lots of things you know, street ministry, youth ministry, kids’ ministry, and things like that. And then once I became a pastor’s wife, and I don’t know if it was for other people as much as myself, I felt labeled. Automatically, there was a label on me and I felt like I had to be a certain way. And so I didn’t feel like those same things that I used to do maybe went hand in hand with how I felt I should be. And so I had gone through this whole, “Okay what am I supposed to do?” kind of thing.
Some spouses experienced the label as an imposition on their identity, others expressed deep pride and responsibility, and most fell somewhere in between these polar ends of the spectrum. Whether the stereotype is positive or negative, no one enjoys when others make assumptions. We are complex people who therefore resist labels that oversimplify who we are and what we think, do, and believe. And yet, the label on our identity is still there, whether we like it or not.
Indeed, it is difficult to really know what to do with a label or image that is always and everywhere present but still something we can shape and define for ourselves. Nancy, for instance, recognizes how the clergy spouse label is just part of who she is, but maintains control over its impact by carefully choosing when and where she discloses this element of her life and identity:
I’ve been getting my hair cut from the same person here for 7 years. I haven’t told her I’m a pastor’s wife. I don’t know why. I guess maybe I don’t want to be stereotyped. I guess I want to be myself first.
Jessie, whose outgoing and vibrant personality is the type that lights up any room she enters, was far more willing to wear the clergy spouse label on her sleeve. She maintains control in a different way, by acknowledging she only has so much power over what other people think:
What’s very important to me is that this is my one chance to establish that I need to remain authentically myself. And I’m a girl who needs to have an authentic faith but an authentic personality, too. And I’ve never been someone who’s been a very…like typical pastor’s wife. It kind of terrified me at the very beginning. Like I’m not going to be able to do this because every once in a while I like to tell an off color joke or I like to…You know, if I drop something on my foot, I’m going to cuss. You know, it’s going to happen. And different people respond to that differently. Some people love it and some people don’t. It just is what it is.
These are two distinct approaches but neither is right or wrong, better or worse, because in the end they land at the same point of acknowledging how being authentic to yourself is an act of self-care.
I’ve often said there is not one right way to be a clergy spouse, but I’ve since changed my mind. There is a right way–it’s the way that best aligns with an individual’s complex and unique gifts, interests, flaws, and uncertainties. Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted as saying, “Remember always that you not only have the right to be an individual, you have an obligation to be one.” When we try to be someone we are not, we not only chip away at our internal sense of self-worth but we also chip away at our capacity to be someone in the world that no one else can be.
Lenore Knight Johnson