This post was originally posted on January 11, 2011 on a blog I participated with other pastors’ wives about being a pastor’s wife. At the time, I was working on collecting narratives from pastors’ wives and that collection of stories turned into The First Lady: African American Pastors’ Wives in Their Own Voices which will be published December 2017. Friendships and the pastor’s wife is one of many themes addressed in The First Lady.
I recently finished a project in which I interviewed pastors’ wives about their experiences in the role. When I got to the question of if pastors’ wives could be friends with congregants, interestingly, the overwhelming majority of the women answered, “No.” I, too, would tend to agree with that sentiment. However, I also believe it presents an interesting dilemma for a pastor’s wife.
The reason for most of my interview participants’ response was grounded in the idea that they wanted to help establish boundaries for their husbands as well as themselves. The reality is, no different than the fact that we might or might not want to socialize with our co-workers outside of work; pastors want to be liberated in their own personal space not to have to perform the role of pastoring. Boundaries are essential in life, and yet, I still believe pastors’ wives find themselves in a peculiar situation.
For a pastor’s wife in a new city, this could prove to be lonely, especially when the church becomes such a major part of your life where one spends a lot of her time. For an active lay person, not only can the church be a space where one can share intimate details of her life (issues of illness, job situations, grief), it also can, and to an extent should, become a part of one’s social network. For a pastor’s wife, that is not always the case.
One of the pastors’ wives I interviewed said, “You have to be friendly to everyone and buddy to no one.” I call this the tightrope walk of the performance of the role of pastor’s wife. Will we hang out and go to lunch? Talk on the phone? Fellowship in each other’s homes? Go shopping together? Probably not. Yet, pastors’ wives are expected to be warm, engaging, encouraging and affirming of members. For some women, it’s quite natural to be that. For others it’s not.
So, what is the solution? I believe each woman and ministry is different. In some contexts, boundaries can be a bit more flexible. For me, in both cities I’ve lived where my husband pastored, I was intentional on finding and nurturing relationships outside of the church. I have my own career, volunteer at my daughters’ school and other organizations, and have joined book clubs. Having healthy relationships with church members is important to me. Equally important, is having relationships with people who simply know me as Shauntae, and not just “the pastor’s wife.”