What It’s Like When Your Wife Is ‘Christian Famous’
By now, the church has come to recognize the challenges faced by pastors’ wives, a role weighed with expectations, attention, and personal sacrifice. But as women rise in prominence across areas of ministry, another question comes up: What about their husbands?
There’s no template in our minds for what it looks like to be married to women in today’s generation of influential Christian teachers, writers, artists, and more.
It’s not unusual for ministry husbands to have jobs outside traditional church settings: Ann Voskamp has blogged for years about her husband, The Farmer, and Beth Moore’s mister is a plumber. “Never been a deacon or church leader,” she once tweeted, “but as I live & breathe, this Bible study ministry wouldn't exist w/out him.”
CT reached out to a handful of men whose wives are serving the church in increasingly visible ways to hear their perspectives from behind the scenes.
These husbands contribute to God’s kingdom work in their own unique ways—including by helping their spouses do theirs. In fact, Roy Prior, husband to teacher and writer Karen Swallow Prior, and Doug Johnson, husband to pro-life activist Abby Johnson, said they view their primary calling as in part to support their wives.
“The kids will always be my top priority, to make sure Abby can travel and do what she needs to do,” said Johnson. “She’s the go-getter. She has a deeper passion for something out there that’s really changing the world.”
Ministry husbands find themselves called to be sounding boards, sources of inspiration, prayer partners, and even just extra hands to keep the household running while deadlines and travel keep their wives away.
“I just want to create the space for her to have what she needs to do really rich spiritual work,” said John Freeman, husband to author, blogger, and podcaster Emily P. Freeman. “It’s like a dance. … Sometimes she has to spin off and move in other places, and I just have to hang at home, and vice versa.”
Here’s what we learned from four ministry spouses about how they make their “dance” work.
Married to: Emily P. Freeman: Christian blogger, speaker, host of the podcast The Next Right Thing, and author of several books, including The Next Right Thing (2019), A Million Little Ways (2013), and Grace for the Good Girl (2011).
Home base: Greensboro, North Carolina
Background actors: 15-year-old twin girls and a 13-year-old boy
His work: John took over a local discipleship/counseling nonprofit a few years ago. “It looks a lot like counseling, but really it’s spiritual direction for young families and young guys,” he said.
The dance (how they work together): John and Emily own a second home that they use as their “ministry house.” Emily uses the house Mondays and Tuesdays to research, pray, and record and edit her podcast. John meets clients there the rest of the week.
John sees his role in Emily’s ministry as part encourager, part housework assistant, and part sounding board. Sometimes that means taking care of responsibilities at home to free her up to work and encouraging her pursuits. “It’s in our daily conversations,” he said. “It comes up in our meals, in our time when she’s driving the kids somewhere and talking to me on the phone.”
“Even though we’re not always in each others’ presence, there is this kind of dance, and it’s very conversational. I think that’s the beauty and the gift of a close marriage, that it’s really built on a spiritual life in Christ.”
The tricky part: John likes to categorize his home library by author or theme; Emily does it by color. (The winner is as yet unclear.)
How does she take her coffee?: “She does not let me make her coffee for her,” John said. “Well, I always pre-make it the night before, so it comes up with a timer—but she has to be the one who fixes in the almond cream. So she uses almond creamer.”
Married to: Karen Swallow Prior: English professor at Liberty University, senior fellow with the Trinity Forum, writer and author of multiple books including On Reading Well (2018), Fierce Convictions (2014), and Booked (2012).
Home base: Lynchburg, Virginia
Background actors: Dogs Ruby and Eva, chickens, horses, as well as Karen’s parents who live nearby.
His work: Roy teaches building trades at a local high school: carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, the gamut.
The dance: “When she’s teaching, she’s totally immersed in it,” Roy said. “And writing is pretty much the same thing. … She’s just really dedicated to whatever she’s doing.”
Karen writes from home, a beautiful old farmhouse built in 1912. He mostly leaves her to her work. “I don’t pretend to be any help with that,” he said, though they do chat about her writing and share goofy student stories.
More than the house and the conversations, though, Roy sees his role in Karen’s ministry as a lifetime commitment. It was when the couple moved to Virginia from New York in the late ’90s when he felt a nudge from the Lord about Karen’s calling. “It just became clear as time went on that God was using Karen in a great way,” he said. “I was convicted that I needed to support that more than anything else that I was doing.” Roy views his teaching job as a ministry, he said, inasmuch as any Christian’s life should be viewed as ministry. But mostly he feels he’s here to support Karen.
“There’s no room for pride or ego in a sound marriage,” he said. He’s not at all put off by the reality that Karen’s work is more visible than his. “I am overjoyed with Karen’s successes. … Every person has strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “No one puts a pitcher behind home plate or has a drummer play guitar.” He’s just fine, then, if that means Karen’s on lead vocals most of the time.
The tricky part: Karen’s visibility on social media and in the world of evangelical Christian theology has often made her a target. Sometimes people are cruel. Roy stays off of social media in part because he values his privacy, but also because it’s too difficult to see people attack Karen. “I naturally get defensive and protective,” he said. “She is totally capable of taking care of herself in those realms, but there’s still sort of an instinct to protect.” They talk about her interactions, and he sometimes encourages her to stay away from the conflicts. But “she has a great ability to engage with people who have opposing views,” he says. “She’s far better than I am at that.”
How does she take her coffee?: Karen likes to make her own coffee, but after her accident last year—she was hit by a bus while walking down the street—Roy had to step up. “I was the nurse attendant for a few months here,” he said. She takes her coffee black, but thanks to her continued recovery, she’s back to grinding the beans herself.
Married to: Abby Johnson, pro-life activist, founder and CEO of And Then There Were None, a nonprofit ministry helping abortion workers to leave the industry, author of UnPlanned (2011).
Home base: Austin, Texas
Background actors: It’s a whole theater company: three girls and five boys from 12 years to five weeks
His work: Before Abby left her work as an executive at Planned Parenthood and joined the pro-life movement, Doug was a special ed teacher at a local high school. Now he stays home with their eight children. “I love it,” he said. “If you were to ask me when I was 16 what I wanted to be when I grew up, I didn’t have a very good answer. But I always wanted to be a dad and a husband, so I guess I decided to make that my profession for now.”
The dance: Doug and Abby dove head-first into a new life together after Abby’s unexpected exit from Planned Parenthood. “We’ve always been a kind of go-with-it and make-it-work kind of family,” he said.
As Abby’s story gained attention, her work became more visible and more demanding. That was just fine with Doug. Abby takes summers off but spends a lot of time traveling throughout the year. “We just built a really good village around us,” he said. “It’s not just Abby and I. It’s our parents that help us, and we have so many great friends.”
Doug said when some onlookers suggest their arrangement seems to buck some sort of system, he shrugs it off. “I know what I’m doing is unusual, but is supporting my family really all that unique?” he said. Abby’s powerful drive and ambition are part of what attracted him to her in the first place, he said, and he wants to help that part of her flourish. “I don’t ever want to stand in front of my Maker having to explain why I stood in the way of what he called her to do,” he said.
Doug views his role as stay-at-home dad as just another iteration of being his family’s provider. And he shares the feats and foibles of (big) family life with an online community on Facebook, which he also views as ministry. “It’s about showing people that yes, this is challenging, but it’s so much fun. When I show people how much other people help us, and how much we can help others, that’s what Christ calls us to do anyway. And it’s just more fun this way.” They want to show people that big families aren’t always a hardship but a blessing.
The tricky part: Abby’s political work attracts a lot of criticism, which often devolves into bullying. “I think it’s really mostly my job to make sure she has a soft space to land at home,” Doug said. He tries to stay away from Abby’s social media because it’s difficult to see others post nasty comments about her. “She has her friends that help her,” he said. “We talk about it. … We just have to understand that people are angry and hurting.”
How does she take her coffee?: She’s not a big coffee drinker, but when she needs it: “lots of cream and lots of sugar.”
Married to: Jen Wilkin: Bible teacher and author of multiple Bible studies and books, including In His Image (2018) and None Like Him (2016). Jen is the full-time classes and curriculum director at The Village Church, which has multiple campuses in the Dallas area.
Home base: Flower Mound, Texas
Background actors: Four grown kids in their late teens and early 20s: Matt, Mary Kate, Claire, and Calvin
His work: Jeff is an IT consultant with a tech company.
The dance: Jeff said Jen is busy. She does her writing on nights and weekends while she works full-time at their church during the week. Her work has grown since she first fell in love with teaching Sunday school in Houston in the late ’90s, when her kids were younger. “It’s been fairly organic,” Jeff said of Jen’s career evolution.
Jen likes to bounce her teaching and writing ideas off of him, and they enjoy talking about what they’re each learning. “It’s nice if I’m doing something completely different,” he said. “Our conversations can kind of cross-pollinate. It doesn’t feel as much like I’m helping her as that we have a relationship where we’re just … learning about the Lord together.”
The tricky part: Jen’s travels were tough when the Wilkin kiddos were younger, and he’d be a solo parent for a few days. And he said her absences were hard for her, too. Like any woman suffering from #momguilt, Jeff said, she often felt the tug of what she was missing at home.
These days, Jeff sometimes gets to travel with her. But when that’s not an option, Jeff has a new problem: “I’m home alone now!” he said. “Before, Jen would be gone, and my son, or whoever was home, we’d go see superhero movies that she didn’t want to see or watch TV shows she wasn’t interested in.” Now that they have an empty-ish nest, Jeff said he’s working at cultivating other friendships and solo plans for his weekends alone.
How does she take her coffee? Black and first thing in the morning.