No one worked harder or more successfully at her profession than I did in those early days. I dispatched my duties as spiritual-life chairman of the women’s group with appropriate piety and delivered keynote addresses for special occasions with earnestness and enthusiasm. I cooked, of course—covered dishes for the sick and covered dishes for the bereaved, to say nothing of covered dishes for an endless succession of covered-dish suppers. And I cleaned, of course—the church at times as well as the parsonage, and on occasion even the cemetery. I got out the bulletin.

Since I had a degree in Christian education, I directed Bible schools, organized girls’ clubs, trained teachers, and conducted Sunday-school contests. When not seen in the choir, I was heard at the piano. And, mindful of community responsibility, I attended meetings of the local garden club properly hatted and gloved. A tremendous help to my husband and beloved by our parishioners, I was the perfect minister’s wife.

And I was perfectly miserable.

At the time I couldn’t understand it. Three dog-eared books stood on my shelves: How to Be a Minister’s Wife; How to Be a Minister’s Wife and Like It; and How to Be a Minister’s Wife and Love It.

Well, now I understand my discontent. For through the years I’ve learned lessons not found in books, lessons I record here for all who have tried their best but still need to know “How to Be a Minister’s Wife If You Loathe It.”

I Have To Be Me

“What’s happened?” Chuck asked, coming home one night to find his wife of two years beside herself with excitement.

“Dr. Murdock says she’ll take me to the state university every Monday night to hear lectures on bones,” I told him.

“But that’s seventy miles away,” Chuck protested. “And you’d be bored silly with bones.”

“I might not understand it all,” I admitted. “But just think—I’d be learning something.”

That’s when the first torrent of tears broke and I suddenly realized the first cause of my misery. By nature a person with a need to be learning something, I wasn’t learning anything at all. In seminary I’d majored in Christian education because women majored in Christian education, but I’d weasled out of every course in organization and administration I could and into New Testament Greek and historical theology and biblical theology and systematic theology. How intent I’d been on figuring out the meaning of things.

When I thought of it, the one big hatred of my life had always been women’s work, cooking and cleaning. I didn’t like women’s groups, either, especially if they were debating in strictest accord with Robert’s Rules of Order whether to serve the Men of the Church chicken or tunafish salad. In other words, I was devoting most of my time and energy to activities that went against the grain of the real me.

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Well, I read now. I take courses. I think. I spend time with other people who think. If I do any organizing, it’s the organizing of my thoughts as I spend hours alone in my study writing. And though I’m not at all the traditional minister’s wife, I am supremely happy, and I like to think I’m a better minister’s wife than I could otherwise be.

I was browsing through the old How to books the other day, and Chuck found me giggling over such expressions as “Shepherdess of the Flock” and “Uncrowned Queen” and “Superwoman of the Manse.” He took the books from me. “Maybe you shouldn’t read them,” he said. “They might pull you back into the old orbit.” Evidently he can do without an assistant minister but not without a fulfilled wife.

I find people expecting me now to speak out in Sunday school or a discussion group, and recently I overheard one church member saying to another, “Every time she opens her mouth she has something worthwhile to say.” Can you imagine how gratifying this is after all those barren years when I did all the right things with such a wrong sense of uselessness? Parishioners keep telling me I help change their lives. Perhaps that’s why they understand if I don’t show up for Cleaning Day. They know this writing I’m compelled to do is a giving as well as a getting thing, something I do for them as well as for myself.

If our parishioners didn’t understand, I’d be deeply grieved, but I couldn’t let their attitude change my way of life. For I’m responsible first and last to Almighty God, and what does he require of me if not first and last the full development of whatever talents he has given me? Blessed are the ministers who are married to women whose thing is being choir director or Sunday-school superintendent or church secretary. Blessed are such women. But the only way I can be a minister’s wife is by being me.

I Have To Be Me With You

The second of the cries referred to in the title of this article will have to be understood in a composite sense. For if tears erupted once from the inner emptiness caused by my betrayal of myself, they flowed repeatedly from the inner loneliness resulting from the betrayal of others.

I don’t intend here to address myself to the old controversy of whether or not a minister’s wife should have special friends within the congregation. Being a friend to all alike is, in my opinion, being a real friend to none. Doubtless some of the twelve apostles grumbled when Jesus invited only three to go with him into Jairus’s house, or when he chose to share those intimate moments on the Mountain of Transfiguration and in the Garden of Gethsemane with those three alone. Perhaps two of the three felt pangs of jealousy when they realized Jesus loved the third one the most. But that didn’t stop Jesus from doing what he had to do to meet his need for the closest kind of comradeship. The universality of his love did not make it uniform, and I see no reason for imposing on myself standards different from the standards of Christ.

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The point I wish to make here, however, is that the minister’s wife needs special friends not only within the church but outside the church as well. First, because she needs friends she can trust.

I mean this as not the tiniest slight on the many beautiful church people whose friendship has enriched the lives of many minister’s wives, myself included. But many church friends cannot be trusted, and I find it impossible to predict which ones can and which cannot.

In our second charge, one couple—I’ll call them Bill and Joan Simmons—linked arms with us more tightly than anyone else, sharing with us not only in Sunday dinners and Thanksgiving dinners but uniquely in the burden of the work as well. Then one day someone told Bill he was taking up the offering too often in the center aisle and suggested he move to a side aisle for a change. The next thing we knew Bill and Joan were attending another church.

We survived, of course. We had other friends in that congregation, people like the Walkers, who had us over when the Simmonses left to assure us of their continuing support. But not long after that Art Walker took exception to the way Chuck conducted a congregational meeting, and the Walkers took to going to church with the Simmonses.

This sort of thing happens outside the church as well as within, of course, but if I lose a friend outside I don’t at the same time lose a Sunday-school teacher, the president of the Women of the Church, and the biggest financial contributor to a church for whose welfare my husband is primarily responsible. Nor do I lose a family whose members my husband has baptized and married and buried, a family to whom my husband has given of himself, however ably, in prayer and service on the deepest level. It doesn’t hurt as much to lose a friend outside the church.

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Suppose I campaign to get paneling for the parsonage basement and a church friend of mine who can’t afford a family room in her basement doesn’t think that’s a good expenditure of God’s money? Suppose my friend becomes involved in the charismatic movement and no longer feels she can contact God in Chuck’s formal services? Or feels for any reason that her spiritual needs are not being met by Chuck’s ministry? She has to choose God rather than man, doesn’t she?

Suppose I let my mask slip for a minute. “Good,” says the congregation, “she has problems too. We can relate to her.” But suppose Chuck and I get carried away and take our masks off all together? “My goodness,” says the congregation, “why are we paying them to lead us?”

I can never quite forget my position with my church friends, nor can my church friends forget it. If I hear them talking about a coffee klatsch or a bowling party to which I’m not invited, I know in my mind that they’re excluding me because they respect me too much rather than too little, but the exclusions add up through the years and make their mark on the heart. With my writing cronies I’m one of the gang. If they call on the phone and I’m busy, I say so. We snap at each other with abandon. It’s wonderful.

Then, too, in some situations the minister’s wife can’t, if she wants to, find within her congregation women she would naturally choose for companions, women with similar educational and cultural backgrounds. A woman gifted in art, for example, might have to travel miles outside her small country parish to find a group of women to whom she can relate on the basis of mutual talent and interests.

At dinner with a group of ministers and ministers’ wives I happened to mention Marjorie, a member of one of the other churches in the area and one of my closest friends.

“I didn’t know Marjorie was a member of your church,” someone said.

“She’s not,” I replied, “That’s why we’re friends.”

The chorus of wry laughter was evidence of the difficulty other ministers and ministers’ wives have finding friends in their churches, people they can trust, people with whom they can be themselves, people with similar interests.

The disruption of church relationships still causes me pain, but I find that if my basic need for human closeness is met outside the church I can continue to love freely within. For nothing loosens the heart like the lessening of the fear of hurt.

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I Have To Be With God

If I wept once for unmet mental needs, and many times for unmet social needs, the crying need of my soul for the worship of the Lord was never silenced. It might seem that a woman who spends half her life in church couldn’t avoid the worship of God if she wanted to. But it’s easy, let me tell you, if your husband stands in the pulpit and the members of his flock sit in the pews.

I find that for me an adequate worship experience requires intense effort. If I’m to praise God adequately, I must concentrate my attention totally upon him. I must listen carefully to hear what he’s saying to me. I must reach out with undiverted spirit to receive the life of Christ. But how can I focus my attention on God, excluding everything else, if Chuck is leading the service?

A few Sundays ago Chuck reversed a couple of lines in the Apostles’ Creed. It seemed to set up a block in his mind and the next Sunday he did the same thing. Now, how can I be affirming my belief in “God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth” if I’m standing there fists clenched to see if Chuck’s going to do it again?

How can I listen to the sermon with the subjectiveness of response that brings me into fellowship with Christ if I know Chuck is depending on me for an objective analysis not only of the sermon’s content but of the congregational reaction as well? That’s my husband up there, the most important human being in my life. It’s asking too much to expect me not to focus my mind on him.

Then, too, suppose Chuck had been impatient with me that morning because the children weren’t dressed for Sunday school by 9:45 sharp? Any honest minister’s wife will admit to times when she doesn’t want to see God through her husband.

At least once a week, no matter how crowded my schedule, I slip into some neighborhood church that conducts worship at a different time than we do. I began this practice two years ago, and nothing has done more to revolutionize my spiritual life. The most valued hour of my week is that hour when somebody else’s husband ushers me into the presence of God.

Chuck happens to be an outstanding preacher. I rarely hear a sermon that comes close to his, and I make sure he knows this. I make sure he understands that it’s because I do love him that I find it hard to love God in his church. And if I were called upon to explain the situation to our parishioners, I’d make sure they understood that I find them a distraction not because I don’t care about them but because I do.

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I was having a time of communion with God in one of the neighborhood churches a few weeks ago when I noticed a couple from our congregation walk in, two of my favorite people. I knew they were having a problem in their marriage, and I immediately stopped thinking about what the minister was saying to me and concentrated on how what he was saying would affect them. Fortunately for me, they slipped out early. Only then could I concentrate once more on my own need.

Now, I know I’m not the only one in church on Sunday morning who is concerned about other people present, but I do think my sense of responsibility is more pressing. One minister’s wife told me recently that she spends the entire sermon time every Sunday in the choir like a mother robin on her perch, eyes darting here and there, noting who is in the nest and who is not, fixing in her mind spiritual worms to be delivered to hungry fledglings after the service.

And, of course, I have to admit my ego is involved in this sense of responsibility I feel. How things go is important to me not only because I love our parishioners but also because I love my family and myself. Our basic security, our whole serenity present and future, is dependent on how things go. So how can I apply myself to interpreting God’s reaction to me when at the same time I’m trying to interpret the scowl on the face of the chairman of the Board of Deacons? Or trying to see if Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Smith are still sitting on opposite sides of the sanctuary?

While I worship God best in community, worship in its highest form demands an inner solitude that my peculiar involvement in the life of my congregation violates. Some minister’s wives maintain the vitality of their relationship with God through their private devotions, without benefit of public sermon or sacrament. I cannot.

Some minister’s wives seem to find that no worship experience is as meaningful to them as one conducted by their husbands. Good for them. But for myself, I’m only sorry I assumed for so long that that hectic hour on Sunday morning was for me a hallowed hour. Only sorry I didn’t recognize sooner what that urgent sobbing of my soul was all about. I only wish I had acted earlier to establish the necessary channels for worship, channels for that two-way communication without which no human being fully lives—the praise of a creature for his Creator and the pulsing of the Creator’s life into His creature.

For how can I minister unless I am ministered to?

Nothing excludes the minister’s wife from the obligation to love God with all her heart, and her neighbor as herself.

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