Ladies, don’t take your children to see the new Barbie movie. Take your mom. Take your girlfriends. Take a flask. Take the wife of your pastor. Because if there’s one woman who, more than any other, is still expected to do and be everything, it’s the pastor’s wife.
Admit it: Even the phrase “pastor’s wife” conjures up a mental picture of a demure woman in high heels and pearls with an affinity for hot rollers. This idealized image of Pastor’s Wife Barbie, a woman more plastic than person, remains a very real thing in the minds of churchgoers.
With the advent of female ministers and same-sex marriage for clergy, talking about the role of the “pastor’s wife” seems anachronistic; but even women in ministry can’t fully escape it.
“My churches acted a little bit like I had cheated them out of a ‘preacher’s wife’ and some ‘preacher’s kids’ because I was a single woman,” said one female pastor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Like they didn’t know who to give the official ‘preacher’s wife jobs’ to!”
“Woe to she who tries to live outside the Pastor’s Wife Barbie box.”
In this enlightened age, even at egalitarian churches, we’ve not abandoned expectations for the spouses of our pastors, and woe to she who tries to live outside the Pastor’s Wife Barbie box.
The Real World
In the movie Barbie, the title character is on the loose in the Real World, posing a threat to executives at Mattel, the toy company behind the iconic doll. They attempt to coax Barbie into surrendering her newfound freedom by entering a giant pink Barbie box. As the twist ties tighten, Barbie remembers how stifling life in the box was and escapes.
While the box for Pastor’s Wife Barbie in moderate and progressive churches is not as pink or conspicuous as it once was, it is still there, and it can spring like a trap.
I spent 20 years as the wife of a pastor serving in established, traditional local churches where I devoted much of my time negotiating life inside and outside the narrow confines of the Pastor’s Wife Barbie box. The more I sought life outside the box, the harder some church members worked to force me into it.
Reaching out to other wives of pastors in various denominations, I found they had similar experiences. “There’s the expectation to play piano and teach Sunday school, be at church every Sunday, fill in whenever it’s needed regardless of time, energy or talent,” lamented one pastor’s wife. “It’s like we’re all supposed to share the same personality, the meek, gentle Proverbs 31 woman, and still get shit done.”
Within a single church there are as many expectations for the wife of the pastor as there are members, and often these expectations conflict and reflect the tension already present in the congregation.
Gardening and greeting and good looks
When a group of women in the church complained that the immense garden at the parsonage was not being adequately maintained, the wife of one pastor sprang into action. “I studied, and I learned, and revived the garden,” she said. “I mostly paid out of pocket too, but when I turned in the receipts for things like mulch and soil and perennials, I was accused (by other members) of spending frivolously.”
The most diverse congregation my husband served as pastor was half white and half African American and mirrored the city’s transition from sleepy Southern town to a metropolitan suburb. A few Black women in the deaconate suggested that I, as the “First Lady,” ought to join my husband in the rear of the sanctuary after the service to greet congregants as they departed. Being an extrovert, I was happy to oblige. However, a notice soon appeared in the church bulletin instructing parents to pick up their children from the nursery immediately after the worship service. Since my husband and I were the only parents with children in the nursery, it was obvious who was meant.
The world of the casual, come-as-you-are worship service does not include Pastor’s Wife Barbie.
“I am judged by my outward appearance rather than my calling, the ministry I provide, and the way I conduct myself with the congregation.”
“I’m sure they would love me all dolled up on campus,” said a pastor’s wife from Florida who directs her church’s program for children and youth, “but I am not interested in pretending to be someone I’m not with fancy dresses, jewelry, heavy makeup, dyed hair, fake nails, Botox, the list could go on! I do my best ministry in tennis shoes. (Unfortunately), I am judged by my outward appearance rather than my calling, the ministry I provide, and the way I conduct myself with the congregation.”
Once, when my husband was invited to preach a trial sermon, I was advised by the search committee chair to “dress conservatively.” As someone who spent most of her Sundays doing crafts with young children, my wardrobe was focused on function. Not wanting to cause problems, I went to the thrift store and bought a purse and a red quilted blazer that, in hindsight, matched the “red flag” I should have paid more attention to at the time.
This was not a church that wanted me for who I was, someone who didn’t mind making a mess for God. They wanted the silent, smiling figure of Pastor’s Wife Barbie.
Always afraid of perceptions
“The hardest thing for me is feeling like I never can be 100% real or authentic because I’m always aware that my husband is the pastor, and in the back of my mind I wonder how something I say or do will be perceived and affect his job,” said the wife of a pastor just starting out in ministry.
Fifty-five percent of pastors’ wives who responded to a 2017 survey agreed with her. Every pastor’s wife wants her husband to succeed.
“That’s your husband’s career, and if you rock the boat too much, it isn’t like any other church member expressing their opinion,” said a pastor’s wife from Canada. “There’s so much more at stake.”
The fact that’s it’s a calling on top of a career raises the stakes even higher.
“Safety, after all, is one of the promises the Mattel executives in the movie use to persuade Barbie back into her giant pink box.”
In those moments, many clergy spouses abandon their true selves and retreat into the apparent safety of the Pastor’s Wife Barbie box. Safety, after all, is one of the promises the Mattel executives in the movie use to persuade Barbie back into her giant pink box.
An outsider to be posed and made over
Early on in my husband’s ministry, I didn’t stray far from what I thought of as the traditional pastor’s wife role. I sang and led the contemporary worship service, organized mission projects, taught Bible studies and volunteered in VBS. I even made banana pudding for the church social using my grandmother’s secret recipe. But it wasn’t enough. It never was enough. I was still an outsider whom many church members felt entitled to pose and make over at will.
“It can feel like a lonely place to be in,” continued the young pastor’s wife. “I have just realized you can never be fully part of a faith community your husband is leading. Especially if you’ve moved to an area for that job, so the main social connections you begin to make are in that church, but you can’t fully be real.”
One study found 56% of pastors’ wives have no close friends, which leads to feelings of isolation and loneliness.
A pastor’s wife from Missouri said, “They tell you if you jump through all these hoops, (then) you will belong and you will get the community they promised. But they keep changing the hoops. You think you’re getting close to the end, but nope! It’s a never-ending game.”
“You can do everything ‘right’ according to the traditional Pastor’s Wife Barbie model and still be ‘wrong.’”
You can do everything “right” according to the traditional Pastor’s Wife Barbie model and still be “wrong.”
Two affluent families in one of our churches thought our ministry wasn’t positioning the church in a way commiserate with their standing in the community. They strongly advised my husband to spend less time preaching about the poor and more time gladhanding at the local Chamber of Commerce. They wanted a Pastor’s Wife Barbie who would spend her time hosting dinner parties for local politicians instead of inviting homeless church members over to celebrate Christmas.
At our next church, I was relieved when folks said, “Just be yourself.” So, I took them up on their offer. However, I was soon criticized and critiqued for being me. As it turned out, they didn’t really want me. By “me” they meant Pastor’s Wife Barbie.
Many of us were called too
I didn’t set out to become the wife of a pastor. As a teenager, I felt called to be the pastor. But my home church took a hard right turn in the early 1990s, and the new pastor told me women couldn’t be ministers. On Youth Sunday, even though I chose the Scripture and suggested the subject of the sermon, I wasn’t allowed to deliver it from the pulpit. That honor went to a charismatic but spiritually shallow boy in the youth group (ironically) named Ken.
I shifted gears and studied media production, thinking maybe I could help those in need by bringing their stories to light. Still determined to get as close to seminary as I could, I did a second major in classical Greek. My free time I spent leading the girls’ mission group at church. Later, after my husband felt called to seminary, I read his textbooks and led the children at the church where he was the youth pastor.
All the pastors’ wives I spoke with for this article followed a similar trajectory. Their God-given calling didn’t suddenly emerge in conjunction with their husband’s ordination. It existed long before that and independent of it.
“I would love to go back to school for a seminary degree and get ordained,” said the Florida pastor’s wife. “I cannot tell you the number of people who would be like, ‘Why is she doing that? She doesn’t need to do that to be a pastor’s wife.’”
“Having her husband enter full-time ministry often diminishes a woman’s opportunity to follow her own call as she is shunted into the role of Pastor’s Wife Barbie.”
Oddly enough, having her husband enter full-time ministry often diminishes a woman’s opportunity to follow her own call as she is shunted into the role of Pastor’s Wife Barbie. One spouse of a senior pastor spent several years before her marriage doing mission work in Asia. However, when it came to church ministry, her husband was treated as the sole spiritual authority in their marriage.
“I had some impressive credentials,” she said. “It was humiliating.”
The notion that the spouses of pastors might follow their own call within the church is completely at odds with the congregation’s concept of the pastor’s wife as little more than a smiling, supportive Barbie doll. Even in less-conservative churches where gender norms are not as rigid, the freedom to follow the prompting of the Holy Spirit is rarely given to the wife of the pastor.
“All my life I have been told I have the gift of prophecy, the gift of speaking truth,” said one woman. “For good or bad, God made me to be bold and loud, and with an unyielding love of truth. The desire for justice, the desire to bring truth to light, is woven into the fabric of who I am. But as the pastor’s wife, these gifts are stripped from me. Instead, I have to put on this mask of their interpretation of what a Proverbs 31 woman looks like.”
The reasons behind a church’s reluctance to support the wife of the pastor in her own ministry typically are not theological so much as political. When the wife of the pastor attempts to follow her own calling, congregational leaders view her as adding to her husband’s power base within the church, rather than exercising her own power as a disciple of Jesus.
“My biggest issue at my church is the fact that we are both on staff. (Some members) refuse to accept that God has called me to the ministry and that what I do is not because I am the pastor’s wife,” said the spouse from Florida. “If I were to leave our current church, I would be doing the same ministry I am doing now, because it’s a calling — not a side role.”
Since I have an interest in the arts as a conduit for faith and some artistic talent, in our diverse, metropolitan church we tried using art to help bridge the divide between the “old” (mostly white) half of the church and the “new” (largely African American) half. I organized congregational art projects to craft Christmas ornaments, Easter votives and a 7-foot-tall Nativity scene made of recycled materials. I wrote a Christmas play that included the acting and singing talents of our new members along with the traditional adult choir. My husband’s preaching was electric. A church we were told at the outset had only two years left came alive with focus and energy. I was outside the box and humming along with the Holy Spirit.
It was wonderful. But it didn’t last. The old guard wasn’t in control of what was happening and felt threatened.
Things came to a head during Lent. I was painting stained-glass style “windows” to accompany my husband’s sermon series. Folks were excited every Sunday to see what would be next. Members began inviting friends and family to church to view my painted windows. I was excited too. I spent hours working on and praying over these paintings, and I looked forward to the ways God was inspiring me. Then one Sunday they were gone.
A member of the old guard had taken them all down and hidden them away, damaging several in the process. Since he and his wife and another couple with whom they were good friends held a total of 12 positions across the church’s various offices and committees, and gave substantially to the church’s tenuous budget, there was no practical way to hold him to account.
I was told to continue as if nothing had happened. Each Sunday I put on a plastic smile and did my best to lead the children’s sermon. I felt like I was back in the Pastor’s Wife Barbie box.
“There is a huge aspect of it that I don’t think people understand. There are times when something is going on that is so morally distressing for you, and you can’t call anyone out or do anything about it because you are living on that income,” one wife of a pastor admitted.
Sometimes it’s a maze
I was upfront with the next search committee. I told them exactly who I was, what I’d done at past churches and that I would wait and see what God had for me to do before making any specific commitments.
“When I stepped forward to share my talents and gifts, I was seen as a threat to some and an aggravation to others. When I stepped back to avoid giving offense, I was chastised for not being more visible.”
Their version of the Pastor’s Wife Barbie box ended up being more of a maze. A few steps forward, and down would come a wall. Try another approach, encounter another wall. When I stepped forward to share my talents and gifts, I was seen as a threat to some and an aggravation to others. When I stepped back to avoid giving offense, I was chastised for not being more visible.
It got to the point where it seemed I could not please anyone, yet the expectation was that I was supposed to please everyone. Approaching a breaking point, I threatened to take the children, the pets and the minivan and leave — not my husband, but that church.
“They used to say that being a pastor’s family was like being in a fishbowl,” said the pastor’s wife from Missouri. “But what they didn’t say was that the bowl was on a burner and the water was boiling.”
“As a pastor’s wife, there is an unwritten, unspoken expectation that you will put the church ahead of everything else. Your own family, your marriage, your own self-care, and you are never to complain about it,” said the wife from Canada.
The role of pastor’s wife takes the expectations placed on all women to subordinate their own interests to those of their spouse or child, and amplifies them to include strangers, parishioners and church staff.
More support needed
While a few studies are tracking the rise of depression among pastors and urging self-care and congregational care, the spouses of pastors are typically not included in this research. Denominations may organize pastoral care groups for their clergy members, but pastors’ wives are often left to their own devices.
“We wives of pastors don’t get together and support each other enough,” said the pastor’s wife from Florida.
Perhaps acknowledging the problem of Pastor’s Wife Barbie would mean acknowledging the lingering presence of the patriarchy in churches who want to believe they’ve moved beyond it.
However, ignoring the struggles of clergy spouses doesn’t erase them, it only exacerbates them.
“The men were taken in one room to study theology, and the women were taken in another and given adult coloring books!”
“We were at a church planting convention,” said one spouse. “The men were taken in one room to study theology, and the women were taken in another and given adult coloring books! I guess the thought was self-care, but it sure felt insulting. There was no support.”
The newest generation of pastors’ wives are also expected to maintain a social media presence in addition to their in-person one. This added pressure is driving some into rehab for eating disorders, substance abuse disorder, mental health crises, and driving others to suicide.
This is a common story
As I began to process my own experiences in ministry, I reached out online. To my amazement, pastors’ wives responded with harrowing stories of their own. Some were the wives of associate pastors who had been sexually assaulted or threatened by the senior pastor. Others were being ostracized by the members they once served. An astounding number of pastors’ wives were, like me, forced out of churches while pregnant or with young children. And these were just the women who would or could speak out. Many more were forced to sign non-disclosure agreements that limited what they could share.
Perhaps this is truly what it means to be Pastor’s Wife Barbie.
It isn’t the pearls and the banana pudding, or playing the piano, or teaching Sunday school. All those expectations we, as the spouses of pastors, can either embrace or reject. Being the pastor’s wife means being thought of and treated as an object, like a Barbie doll, rather than a real person. Which is evident in the church’s willingness to manipulate and “play” with our lives.
Churches that aren’t strict about their theology often will channel that craving for control in other directions such as the worship service, church governance and traditions based more on sentimentality than spirituality. Just what role the wife of the pastor should perform in the church is one of these control mechanisms. The more tension in the church, the tighter the ties that bind the hands of the pastor’s wife. Additionally, like a child playing with a Barbie doll, the expectations for the wife of the pastor may change suddenly and radically depending on the whims of members of the congregation.
“The more tension in the church, the tighter the ties that bind the hands of the pastor’s wife.”
I tried the more “traditional” approach to the role of pastor’s wife, and I tried being myself and following my calling. In each instance, what the church wanted was someone to endorse and support the status quo, so those who always had been in power remained in power.
The minute my expression of myself or my following the Spirit’s lead helped to give marginalized or new members a seat at the table, a voice in the worship service, or in some way rankled a church insider, down came the box. And not just a Barbie box for me as the pastor’s wife, but also a box for the mission of the church. Because nothing is more threatening to the powers-that-be outside and inside the church walls than a congregation set free and on the loose in the world.
The institutional church (largely) chooses to exist within its own version of Barbie Land. Church Land is pretty and shiny and full of promises; but in the end so much of it is just a hollow plastic shell unable or unwilling to embody the liberative power of the gospel.
Of course, there are pockets of real ministry going on in churches, and there are kind, loving, genuine people in churches; but their impact is minimalized by the intransigence of the institution that refuses to embrace the radical nature of God’s kingdom where the last shall be first and the first shall be last.
Is Church Land any different?
In the Barbie movie, the Barbies are surprised their existence in Barbie Land has not actually changed the Real World for the better. When Barbie ventures to the Real World, she finds it full of sexism and inequality and dominated by patriarchy. When Ken returns to Barbie Land, he brings it all back with him. So, rather than Barbie Land influencing the Real World, the opposite happens. The worst aspects of the Real World become part of Barbie Land. Barbie also learns that, while there’s some nostalgia for her among the adults, the younger generation in the Real World views her as a toy that makes “women feel bad about themselves.”
Seeing these parallels makes me wonder: Is Church Land any different?
Some of the women I spoke with are staying in the church in the hope of making a difference.
“I realize that by not giving in to the expectations of the role of pastor’s wife, that there are people who will not take me or the ministry I provide seriously,” one said. “My hope is that over time by just being myself and who God created me to be, that I may be able to help others see there isn’t a stereotypical box to put pastor’s wives in. We have our own spiritual journey, ministries, interests and friendships aside from our husband the pastor.”
Others are in the process of transitioning out of church ministry to pursue their calling in another sphere.
“What I know now, what I have come to find peace with, is that God did not make me to be that Proverbs 31 woman,” one said. “And if I have to bust through the mask, the disguise, to be the person I was created to be, then I’m willing to do [it] so my daughter will never have to twist herself into knots to fit into any box.”
And me? I already have left the church. Like Barbie at the end of the movie, I’m out of the box and out in the Real World. It’s an overwhelming place to be, without a church’s expectations to hold me back.
I’m still struggling to discover who I am without a church to serve, and I don’t know what God has in store for us. But I have my faith, and although it’s not as bright and shiny as it was when I began my time in church ministry, it’s proved to be more than plastic.
Kristen Thomason is a freelance writer with a background in media studies and production. She has worked with national and international religious organizations and for public television. Currently based in Scotland, she has organized worship arts at churches in Metro D.C. and Toronto. In addition to writing for Baptist News Global, Kristen blogs on matters of faith and social justice at viaexmachina.com.
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