January 19, 2010

Responding to Hidden Anger

Minister's spouses are prime targets for hidden anger. More often than not, there is no preparation for becoming a minister's spouse, and being thrown into a loaded position does little to endear a new spouse to the possibilities of a happy marriage as planned during the days leading up to the blessed nuptials. Even when the new spouse is aware of the fact that the marriage partner is already clergy, there are no classes, no mentoring situations, and no books to soften the explosion of events about to occur once the new spouse steps into the clergy spouse role.

The impact can be deafening, even when Christian civility on the surface presents with smiles, handshakes, and hugs. After all, who knew a clergy spouse had a role to fulfill other than 'new spouse.' If I am not mistaken, the marriage vows said nothing out of the ordinary, and expectations would hold for current job, family relationships, and exploration into the new relationship as the marriage plays out. Of course changes are to be expected; change of location, homes, even some friend relationships, whether or not to have children, and maybe even issues regarding church membership. These would all work themselves out in time as the couple becomes more and more able to share themselves meaningfully.

It is a process, and most couples are prepared for the process through pre-marital counseling prior to the wedding. Nothing is perfect and most new couples are aware of the hot button issues yet to face; not eager for them, but willing to go there with some idea where they are heading. New marriages are never a walk in the park, but are growing processes, and can be incredibly fascinating.

Becoming a pastor's spouse is an intense growth process in a perpetual garden, but not one many know how to tend once the seed is sown. Walking into the midst of a new congregation; one formed eons ago, complete with history, tradition, already formed relationships, and a shared sense of the abbreviations for what goes on there, is a bit heart stopping for most visitors who are looking for new relationships, let alone a new spouse who may have been very happy with the church attended prior to marriage, and possibly not quite separated from that church.

Throw that in the mix as the pastor introduces the new spouse. A sea of faces swim before the spouse, blurred by visions of anonymity never to be seen or heard from again. Suddenly, the spouse is a public figure. His or her life is open for comment, conjecture, criticism, praise, request, questions, spiritual help, affirmation, and guidance. In an instant, born of introduction, the new spouse evolves from a babe in marriage, possibly a babe in Christ, into a public figure endowed with a label inherently tied to assumptions, expectations, and standards heretofore unknown, possibly unwanted, and most certainly frightening in the beginning. Where is the education, the support, and the wisdom to cope with this fundamental change in life and status? And where is the pastor? Who is ministering to the spouse?

To put it mildly, frustration begins its slow crawl into the light. However, to be fair, the minister's spouse may be no more in the limelight than an M.D.'s spouse, or the Governor's, or the Mayor's. But, while the status may be somewhat the same, minus the income, the expectations are far different. A Doctor's or Mayor's or Governor's spouse would be expected to be friendly, entertaining, and invested in community as well as church, however the depth of expectation within the church would not be the same. A pastor's spouse is often looked to for spiritual direction, teaching Sunday School, leading children and youth groups, playing the piano, singing in the choir, evangelizing, working in mens or women's groups, and visiting the sick and shut-in, listening to the hurting; pinch hitting for the pastor who is called and educationally trained while the spouse may have no pastoral calling or training and desires none since other callings and interests, gifts of grace rest upon them.

And again, I ask, "Who is ministering to the spouse?" Even when the pastor is loving, caring, and supportive of the spouse, the pastor's attention is often drawn toward the congregation and community needs, with the expectation that the spouse will understand, forgive, and endure without expecting a pound of flesh. The pastor is often so wrapped up in God's work; God's calling, that the mundane everyday things of life are sometimes overlooked, not in malice or disregard, but sometimes out of the same type of expectations found in congregation members.

An unwritten list of "should be able to do this or that," appears out of nowhere to shroud the reality of the unprepared spouse, the untrained spouse; the spouse called to be a partner and witness in relationship with the pastor. And while I speak from the experience of being the spouse of a United Methodist pastor, and a pastor and counselor myself, I believe these events may bear some universality among pastor's spouses.

Frustration in pastoral spouse situations and places can lead to anger; anger to brokenness, brokenness to destruction of relationships with one another and with God, if allowed to fester without understanding or hope or the simple affirmation that, yes, being a pastor's spouse can be difficult. We all need to be validated in how we feel and what we think is going on in our lives, but that is a starting point only. The bigger issue is at stake and that issue has to do with our own personal relationship with God. We are God's; created for a purpose, loved and directed by God. Reading in Genesis, we know that we humans were created for unity. We were created to live in the Garden of Eden. We didn't make it, and we're reaping the consequences daily, but God is still calling us to the Garden experience. Our goal is to learn how to work alongside God, for God's purposes, so that we can witness to others the love of Christ; so others will know God and Christ as their Savior, through the work of the Holy Spirit.

I have seen some pastor's spouses who are bitter and angry; some whose smiles are so beautiful I feel as though I am in the presence of angels, and others who are confused and seeking. We are all in different stages of faith and on different roads of our journey, and I cannot say the journey is easy, but when God gives us a gift, a calling, or a task, we know it. God speaks it to us, makes us able to do it, and is with us every step of the way. Anger does not feel good. It gets in the way of our relationship with God and others. When we feel anger, we know it is real, it has roots, and it is our job to get the hoe and weed it out! Sometimes we can't do that by ourselves, so as we pray to God for help, God will send someone to partner with us and help us learn new ways of dealing with things, accepting some things and discarding others. Sometimes that help comes from your pastor, your pastor spouse, a counselor, a friend, a teacher, a child, a parent; and always from God. It is my belief that pastors and spouses together could benefit from exploring the need for an educational process for pastor's spouses; one that could easily adapt to the fact that some spouses have jobs and children to care for, while providing needed support and mentoring groups within Districts and Conferences. Not only would it benefit the spouses, but enhance marriages, improve congregational relationships and enliven spiritual awareness and relationship with God. It would also be a wonderful witness to the world to see this change come about within the church. People come to Christ when our witness is consistent with who God is. When we, who are leaders in the church, are hurting and damaged, we sometimes give off negative messages about God with our anger and bitterness, without meaning to, and that is not what God wants for any of us. God wants to draw us, love us, and help us draw others to God. Blessings and peace!


Kathleen is a spouse/pastor/counselor

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