In the Korean immigrant church, the pastors’ wives are called “samonim.” It’s a term of respect reserved for women married to a pastor as well as those whose husbands hold an esteemed position such as teacher, doctor, consultant, business man, and the like. Pastors' wives play a variety of roles. The pastor’s wife from my childhood warmly greeted you as if you were entering her home. She knew when to be jovial and when to be somber. She offered her presence by listening and counseling when needed. She was really good at reading the room and people, a highly desirable social skill known as “noonchi.” She regularly accompanied her husband on home visitations, rolled up her sleeves to assist with meal prep and clean up. She taught Sunday school, sang in the choir, played the piano, and even drove the fifteen passenger church van. When her husband’s salary wasn’t enough to cover family expenses, she supplemented with outside employment. She was incredibly devoted to her family and church but was often torn between the two. In the Asian American churches that my husband and I have served in, I was told, “There are no expectations for our pastors’ wives.” The burdens and expectations for pastors’ wives have sought to be thoughtfully and explicitly addressed. They were clear; they were not looking for a two-for-one, buy-one-get-one-free deal. On one hand, out of care, protection, and generosity, they were committed to alleviating undue pressures on pastors’ wives. How relieving! On the other hand, I felt displaced because this was not the model I grew up seeing. I was not prepared for this. How disorienting! Moreover, I’ve heard that there is nothing unique about the role of a pastor’s wife. She may be married to a pastor but she is like any other congregant. The ground she stands upon is leveled, shoulder to shoulder with every other women. She is made exquisite in the image of her maker. She is beloved, bought, redeemed by the precious blood of Christ. And yet, the category of pastor’s wife helps process and articulate experiences unique to a spouse of someone in a public role. It gives permission to name a feeling when others take liberty to comment about your lifestyle and family life. It gives voice to how you feel when personal boundaries are crossed and overlooked. It acknowledges the secret confession that you are without a pastor to call your own. When I said “I do”, my husband had just wrapped up his first year in seminary. Over the next two years, we lived in one-bedroom campus housing and immediately started serving in the local church. Depending on the congregation’s size, culture, and unique history I knew there would be spoken expectations for my husband and unspoken expectations of me. However, I didn’t anticipate the inner turmoil I would soon face. For example, as I watched my husband do what he does best - lead with presence, purpose, attunement, and experience - something stirred deep within me. I felt jealousy. It felt ugly. I too dreamt of living purposefully and intentionally making a difference. Moreover, I desired being pursued, cared for, and shepherded. But when my jealousy lacked a safe, life-giving outlet to unpack its beginnings and particularities, it commiserated with blame and resentment. Instead of blessing my husband’s calling and embracing my platform for influence as a pastor’s wife, I wallowed in whining and comparing.
So the next time you sit with a pastor’s wife, what would it be like to ask thoughtful, curious questions that engage her story? Or, if you are a pastor’s wife, what would it be like to tell your story perhaps using some of the following questions as a guide?
How would you describe your story thus far as a pastor’s wife? What desires and longings has God weaved into your life? What are some challenges you’ve faced as a pastor’s wife? When was the last time you felt safe to share these experiences? What are some spoken or unspoken expectations that you trying to live up to that are not well for your heart and soul? What would care look like for you? How do you best receive care? After you’ve asked a question, listen. After you’ve listened, ask another question. And listen.
See also A Confession Of A Pastor's Wife