We wait for grief to loosen its stranglehold on our hearts. We wait for signs of hope in the Horn of Africa. News that the economy is recovering. The kids to go back to school. The workday to come to a close. To get to the front of the line at the grocery store.
In Oh the Places You'll Go!, Dr. Seuss called life's waiting places "most useless." Eileen Button, author most recently of The Waiting Place, says it's in the "wobbly," in-between times where she finds the love of God. She issues a vital reminder to those who wait that "now - even the most difficult now - isn't forever." And, as a woman whose husband is the senior pastor of a growing congregation, many of Button's "difficult nows" are related to the church.
Button, a newspaper columnist, college professor, and mother of three, is the kind of writer who conspiratorially grabs readers by the arm and leads them into the realities of life behind closed doors and polite smiles. In this book, we stumble into the house with her family after a burglary. Later she paints a vivid picture of both women as she measures the awkward space that exists between her mother and herself. Her "pastor's wife" confessions are most striking as they reveal the challenges of fulfilling that role.
"She is loving and life changing; she is malicious and overbearing. She is beautiful; she is ugly. She is as light as day, capable of astonishing kindness and generosity; she is as dark as night, capable of unspeakable evil. I love her; I hate her. She is the Church," Button writes.
As must be true for many women who find themselves answerable to "the pastor's wife," Button never expected to be one. When she married him, Brad Button was a banker with no plans to enter ministry. For the past 17 years, however, he's served as a pastor in the Methodist Free Church. Like many in her cohort, Button has found that being married to a minister takes a significant toll on their family life. Perhaps those sacrifices make it all the more difficult for Button to accept being referred to as, simply, "my pastor's wife."
"After all, no one introduces a new friend with the words 'This is my gynecologist's husband.' It's hard to believe that both the pastor's wife title and the corresponding expectations remain. I don't sing, and no one wants to hear me play my clarinet," Button said. "I'm a little terrified of youth groups, and when I volunteer in the nursery, parishioners giggle or poke their heads through the doorway to make sure the kids are still alive. You might say I have a bit of a reputation."
Throughout The Waiting Place, Button refers to the church as "the other woman." She says her husband "gets it" when she does so. "Brad is the most remarkable man. A man of integrity," she said. "Calling the church 'the other woman' was a splash of cold water on his tired face, creating a word picture that he fully grasped. It may be a tough way to view the Church, but personifying her like that helps us keep ministry in perspective."
Her husband hasn't always been able to do so. In one chapter titled "Stepping into Darkness," Button describes a time in their lives when her husband battled depression. "Ministry," she says, "had gotten the best of him."
"His mistress's voice was no longer a daytime whisper, but a 24/7 cry; he no longer knew how to escape her, and I no longer knew how to help. It felt like a dangerous time since there were many days when Brad not only wanted out of ministry, he wanted out of life," Button said.
Brad then spent three weeks at a retreat center where he found "sleep and a dose of peace again." In his book The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson writes that using the term "busy" to describe a pastor should not be considered a compliment, but is akin to using the word "adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront," Peterson writes.
Peterson confesses that "busy-ness" is an occupational hazard for a pastor - one with which every minister he knows wrangles. He attempts, instead, to be "drenched" in Scripture, to spend time in solitude, and to be a listener whose frame of mind is that of "unhurried leisure." And he knows these things are much more easily written about than practiced.
During Pastor Button's stay at the retreat center, his wife says she had to "tread water." When people asked how she was faring, she says she "basically answered them with, 'Listen, I can't really talk about this right now.' No one who's treading water wants to be hugged."
Perhaps readers will view "pastors' wives" through new lenses after reading Button's book. Instead of barricading them behind stereotypes, maybe we'll be able to see the wives of our clergy as the fallible, wonderfully imperfect, and unique people they are and will be more compassionate about the particular strain they are under.
"My identity is found in Christ," Button said. "Not in my husband's occupation. God has graciously gifted us both, and we both want to use those gifts in unique, creative ways."