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Fallen from Grace - When Things Go Wrong for a Clergy Wife

By Anonymous.

I had made some good friends among the women in the church, but because they had to relate to John as their minister, I felt I couldn't tell them how unhappy we were getting. So I pushed the feelings down and got on with life.

Bible College may well have taught John many things, but it did not teach him how to say `No'. As a consequence, he was determined to please all the people at least some of the time and I did not have the courage to say, "Hang on a minute - what about me?". I had no idea who to talk to about our failing relationship, and besides, if we left the church we would be homeless, and I couldn't bear the thought of that. After five years there came a day when I reached the end of the line - I couldn't beat him, but nor could I join him - so I took the children and left.

We were luckier than some - we had help in the form of an excellent counsellor and yes, we had to leave the church as they did not understand their minister's failures and would not give us space to rebuild. In a new town with new jobs and new struggles, we clawed our way back to a loving relationship I did not imagine would ever come our way, and last year celebrated - and I mean celebrated - our Silver Wedding Anniversary.

We are not in pastoral ministry at the moment, but were we to return to full time ministry in a church, we would go about it in a quite different way, having hopefully learned from our mistakes.

First, we wouldn't expect so much of ourselves or the church - we and they would only be disappointed. We wouldn't try to live up to the church's expectations of us, something much easier said than done. especially having learned the `servant' pattern of Christianity from my parents' model of doing church. I, more than John, find it much easier to be what other people want and expect me to be, so the whole area of expectations in church life is one I am constantly battling with and learning about.

Second, we would `get a life', to use the current idiom, outside the church. As many people will realise, it is virtually impossible to have a cut-off point in ministry - the edges are blurred and the demands never-ending, so there is a constant pressure to be seen to be `doing the Lord's work.' An increasing number of ministers have answerphones, which are a boon at mealtimes - the time when many folk ring simply because they know that is the very time you will be in having a meal.

I well remember one example of a member of our congregation who had a lot of problems and formed quite a dependency on John. He was a person in great need, and was very time-consuming. We had literally been back in the house approximately five minutes, after a holiday, when the phone rang and it was him - it was almost as if he had extra sensory perception and knew the minute we stepped in through the door!

We have learned how important it is to cultivate friends and have activities totally unconnected with church life - in fact, it's quite a relief really! One problem in this regard for us when in the ministry, was that we didn't work hard enough to arrange to do things together. I was probably too fussy when it came to arranging baby-sitters for the children and consequently ended up just not going out at all.

Third, we would even consider attending separate churches - a radical step, maybe, and one which requires a great deal of thought and discussion. Before dismissing it out of hand, consider the following. Arguably one of the biggest stumbling blocks to my growth as a person, my relationship with my husband, and my following Christ was not knowing how to handle the heartache of criticism which comes to all in positions of leadership. If you are criticised in a secular place of work, it hurts but you leave those people behind when you go home at the end of the working day. Not so in church life, especially when your friends are the wives of the very deacons/leaders who are not seeing eye to eye with your husband for whatever reason.

My skin was not thick enough to handle this stress. I buried my feelings deep down and the gulf between John and me widened even more. At least if you are attending a different church you are relating to a different set of people and when the criticisms come,, they can be aired hopefully more objectively.

Fourth, if Bible Colleges are to continue to accept married people with families, there needs to be a better support network for wives. During the four years of John's time at Bible College, we lived only five miles away but it might as well have been five hundred because with a young child and a baby I felt very isolated from the life of the college. What would have helped would have been regular visits to me by a support team from the college. At the time we were there it was expected that you had to go to the college to participate in whatever was going on, and often it's just not practical to do that. In view of the fact that the majority of students were married men with wives and families, there were probably many other wives in similar positions to me.

Fifth, we would consider very, carefully whether we lived in `tied accommodation' - remember, if your World collapses, you are out of a home. When, after about three years in our ministry, John felt he had probably done all that he could do given the particular circumstances at the time, I was not prepared to entertain the idea of a move because I had made the manse into a very comfortable home. As our problems grew, I increasingly had the feeling of being `trapped', as to admit to the problems brought the very real risk of homelessness and, as has already been stated, that is exactly where we ended up.

I believe nowadays an increasing number of churches are taking this on board and are making it possible for their clergy to buy their own homes.

Sixth, we would do whatever we had to do to communicate with each other. This sounds such an obvious thing to say, but it was because of a lack of communication that we got into such difficulties. I would just say here that if communication with your other half leaves a lot to be desired before you enter the ministry, as sadly it was in our case, then the demands and pressures will only exacerbate that poor communication.

Finally, I know that this has only been a snapshot of our story and I also realise that there are many people who positively thrive on clergy roles and don't recognise anything I have written as remotely applying to them. But for those for whom this article has rung some bells, an honest appraisal of your situation is that things might get worse before they get better - but our experience is that they can get better.

The author, who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, is the wife of a minister at present not in pastoral charge. This article was written with the full knowledge and encouragement of her husband.

Ministry Today

You are reading Fallen from Grace - When Things Go Wrong for a Clergy Wife by Anonymous, part of Issue 13 of Ministry Today, published in May 1998.

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