Rev Richard Bewes OBE, the former rector of All Souls church...
Married to the ministry
Being a minister’s spouse has unique challenges which are often overlooked. Here, two writers share their experiences of the strange world where your identity in church is determined by your other half...
It’s common to feel defined as the other half of the minister, rather than simply as yourself. I am sometimes baffled when someone engages me in conversation over something I know nothing about. I do not automatically know everything Andy knows! This isn’t a unique problem, and some have even greater difficulties. One woman I spoke to says she often struggles with being known merely as the pastor’s wife. Many can’t remember her name. She can’t put her finger on expectations placed on her which is, she says, ‘worse, I suppose, because I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to be living up to.’
Not all those married to ministry want to be heavily involved in their partners’ work. Nonetheless, many find themselves taking on responsibilities in church which they wouldn’t have if it weren’t for their position as minister’s wife or husband.
I’ve been very blessed in that our congregation has always tried not to place any expectations on me. I also studied theology, so when we first came to the church they made a point of it not being ‘two for the price of one’, saying that I should be allowed to find my own role without any pressure. In the early days people were probably too cautious about this! However, I appreciated the space. It’s often my own expectations I need to recognise and adjust. I have grown used to saying ‘no’ to things, even when I would dearly love to do them. Occasionally this means disappointing people, which I find hard, but I’ve come to realise it is essential.
There is sometimes a sense that both ministers and their families should automatically ‘have it all together’ when it comes to faith. Some feel pressured to look ‘happy’ in church, otherwise, in the words of one minister’s wife, ‘a huge wave of overconcern will follow.’ The first time I overheard someone say ‘but Lucy says…’ the implied authority startled me. Taking note of my ‘high visibility’ status, I took more care in what I said and to whom I said it, in case it could be misconstrued. This makes relaxed conversation harder. I’ve had to find those with whom I can be myself, which takes time.
Thankfully I don’t feel too much as if I am living under a microscope. It helps that we do not live right next to the church building. Any news you share does spread like wildfire as everyone knows who you are, and there are only so many ‘how are yous’ you can genuinely answer in a day. I’ve always had a degree of shyness, so courage is a standard requirement whenever I’m called on to ‘mingle’. My main coping mechanism is humour – I laugh at myself frequently, including in front of other people. It seems quite effective in proving I’m as flawed as the rest – and helps me keep things in perspective.
Finding space to be myself can be hard. I need friends who accept me as I am, who don’t think of me as a ‘minister’s wife’. This can take a long time. There are some things you cannot share with members of your congregation – it just wouldn’t be appropriate. It’s hard to separate church from home. Church ministry is never nine to five, and it’s difficult to switch off and relax. In effect, the minister is on call morning, afternoon and evening. And there are lots of evening meetings. Contact with close friends and family is very important, as well as making time for my own interests and hobbies. As a couple we often go out together on Andy’s day off, as a change of scene is so important for us.
Sometimes life can become so much about church and ministry that, ironically, God is sidelined. At various points I have to bring myself back to him and reorientate myself. I need to rediscover what he wants of me, not what anyone else wants. This sometimes means withdrawing from activities because it’s so important to maintain a strong relationship with God. Ministry is all about giving – if we cut ourselves off from the source of our strength, naturally we will flounder. It’s not an easy balance, but it is desperately important.
I was having my hair cut last week when the hairdresser casually asked me what brought me to the area. ‘My other half is the minister of the church down the road,’ I replied.
The look of confusion that flashed across the woman’s face said it all. She didn’t voice it but I could imagine she was thinking to herself, ‘Oh, is he gay then?’
The answer is ‘no’, I’m simply married to a female minister. The fact that someone might as easily jump to the other conclusion is interesting for all kinds of reasons, but it mostly indicates that society is still getting used to the concept of female clergy.
My wife Lucy was ordained five years ago. Our denomination has a long-standing tradition of female ministry, so few people within it find the concept of a woman minister particularly strange. Nonetheless, the fact that male spouses of clergy are a relatively new phenomenon means there were very few pre-determined expectations for me.
Life is always busy. We balance Lucy’s fulltime role as minister with two young children and my part time job as a radio presenter and freelance writer. I’m as keen as Lucy to see our church advance, so getting stuck into creative worship, drama, music and other aspects of the general running of the place has seemed a natural thing to do. It’s a personal choice and not one that every clergy spouse would necessarily choose.
Being so involved can make life feel too hectic sometimes. Of late we’ve realised that there may be a case for me ‘pulling back’ from some responsibilities in order to ensure that our family life doesn’t get too stretched or stressed as a result. At the same time the church family is ready to help out – there’s a variety of people we can hand our children over to if the situation requires, which is all part of the joy of being part of a ‘wider’ family.
My wife will blush when she reads this, but I think that she was born to be a church minister – she’s really good at it. When we met, her call by God into ministry also became a shared call to me – to support her in that ministry. That has meant limiting my work to a part time arrangement so that I can look after our children and Lucy can do her job. It also means I’m the first person she turns to when she needs to unburden herself. One of the hardest things about being married to a minister is the hurt I feel on her behalf when she is treated badly by people in the church. I am the only person who knows the truth about the hours she puts in, the way she agonises about how to care for everyone and the future of the church. As her husband, I inevitably struggle when others are thoughtless in their words or expect her to be super-human. There have been times when I have wanted to react on her behalf – ‘how dare you…’ but I don’t. Instead I pick up the pieces and help her, at the hardest of times, to keep on keeping on.
There are plenty of other challenges, shared in common with any clergy spouse too I imagine. Days when the phone seems to ring incessantly, the house being in regular use for church engagements, the evenings when Lucy is out at yet another meeting, and the fact that she is always ‘on call’ for the other 200 people that I share her with. Or it may be the feeling that our children should be models of exemplary behaviour in the church service – especially when our two-year-old has escaped from my clutches and wrapped herself around mum’s leg while she’s trying to conduct a prayer.
Sometimes I’m the one of whom the standards are expected. I remember being reprimanded by an older member of the congregation, early in Lucy’s ministry, for not wearing a tie to church! I have also been accused of looking ‘scruffy’. I don’t think people would bother to pass such a comment about anyone else, but being part of the minister’s family it seems even my appearance is viewed by some as public property. In reality those occasions are the exception – the church is full of caring and supportive people too.
On a personal level there’s also the challenge of the days when I’m a house husband – feeling in the minority at the mums and tots group or getting the children fed and bathed while trying to get that urgent email sent at the same time. In reality, such challenges are vastly outweighed by the privilege of being able to spend more time with my kids than most working dads do. We also try to be strict about having one day a week when we are both ‘off duty’ from the church to concentrate on each other and the children exclusively. As for the busyness of our church-centred life – well, that comes with the territory. It’s borne out of a shared belief in what we do, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.