Last night I attended Evening Prayer at my church. We normally don't have a service on Friday night, but this weekend my congregation is hosting a gathering of pastors who have been participating in Doxology, a three-part spiritual renewal program led by Rev. Harold Senkbeil and Dr. Beverly Yahnke. This weekend was the third part of the series, entitled "The Reunion," when the pastors who have been attending return with their wives (parts one and two of the program are, respectively, "The Gathering" and "The Encore"). There were several workshops designed specifically for the wives, with consideration given to what it is like to live within the "stained glass fishbowl" of parish life when one is the spouse of a church worker. Although I am not a pastor's wife, I found that I was able to relate to much of what was said. I guess cantors' wives often swim in that same fishbowl.
During the Service of Light at the beginning of last night's liturgy, when the Paschal candle was processed, my five-year-old turned to me and, concerned, asked, "Mommy, who are those pastors? Where is Pastor S_______?" He had noticed that only one of our parish's two pastors was involved in the procession; the other two coming down the aisle at that moment were unfamiliar to him.
I explained that the other two pastors were our guests and that they were participating in a special gathering of a whole bunch of pastors at our church this weekend. "In fact," I told him, "if you look around the sanctuary, almost everyone you see here tonight is a pastor!"
I thought he would find this to be a fascinating piece of information. Pastors loom large in our family's daily life as the bearers of Word and Sacrament and Christ's vicars on Earth, those to whom we turn for guidance on questions big and small, spiritual and temporal. But instead of being impressed by the august company in which he found himself, he became even more perplexed: "But Mommy, there are girls in this room!"
And so there were. I quickly corrected myself: "Oh, I mean almost all the men in the room are pastors. The ladies are the pastors' wives."
Reflecting on this I find it sadly ironic that I of all people--myself the wife of a full-time church worker--could look at a room full of pastors and their wives and somehow forget that the wives were there. Of course, I didn't really forget. But I think my overlooking of them as I described the occupants of the room exemplifies what often happens in the church on a large scale. Our pastors are so important to us in the work they do--in their preaching and teaching and administering of the sacraments--and they so command our attention, that it is easy to forget their families--the women and children who by virtue of their family ties also live in that fishbowl.
Interestingly enough, the overlooking of the pastor's family with regards to care may often go hand in hand with looking too closely when it comes to his family life. What are some of the elements that can make life in the fishbowl rather stressful? Here are just a few, taken from one of Dr. Yahnke's sessions (but put into my own words):
The pastor's family life is looked upon as a model for the families of the congregation (and thus often held up to unreasonably high standards).
The parish may see itself (and behave) as though it is one big extended family of the pastor, weighing in with its opinion on family matters which are none of its concern.
The pastor's wife is often used as a means for communicating with her husband, sometimes innocuously, sometimes insidiously.
The pastor's wife may be expected to function as unpaid staff, sacrificing herself and her family in order to serve the needs of the church.
I have a lot of friends who are pastors' wives, and over the years I have heard from many of them about some of these very things. I am happy to say that, although I have often felt much in common with my friends who are pastors' wives, my husband and I are blessed currently to be in a congregation that does not have the fishbowl mentality. Our parish seems to understand the difference between the church worker and the church worker's family and does a good job of respecting the family accordingly. (If you're a parishioner reading this, BLESS YOU!)
At the same time, I can very much relate to the following list of the top five things that pastors' wives worry about:
1) financial issues, 2) time demands, 3) their husband's high level of stress, 4) parishioners' opinions of their husband and family, and 5) criticism of their husband by parishioners.
All of these are strongly in my mind almost all the time. We live on a church worker's income in an affluent Chicago suburb. My husband easily works sixty hours per work, often more, and I work part-time while homeschooling our children. The demands of the schedule are a constant source of stress. And while we are blessed to be in a congregation that is enjoying a welcome stretch of peace, we have sadly experienced more years than I care to say in congregations that were in conflict, so I know well what it means to face daily criticism and always be worrying about what those in the parish think of you. Even now when things are better, I am hypersensitive to the opinions of others and I think my husband is, too, as we both worry often about whether we might have said or done something that could be misconstrued or that might have offended someone.
When I started writing this post my intent was to tell a cute story about my five-year-old. But I guess that story struck a nerve. I think a lot of my readers already know about life in the fishbowl, either as fish themselves or as those who love and care for the fish. So for those I guess this post is not sharing anything new. But maybe there is someone reading who is getting a perspective he hasn't before. If so, I hope it leads you to see the fish in your life in a new way and, if you haven't in the past, to start today to pray for them regularly.