Thursday, November 12, 2009

Infuriating Things, Part 3: Unrealistic Expectations of the Pastor's Spouse/Family

Based on my (albeit limited) experience, many churches (especially smaller, older, traditional ones) have unrealistic expectations of the role their pastor's spouse (and children, if there are any at home) will play in the life of the church. This ranges from their attendance at worship, to what they wear to worship, to their interactions with the congregation.

One of the major sources of conflict between SJ and me was their perception of Harry and expectations of him that he could not/would not meet. As time went on, this wound up affecting our marriage because I confess that I didn't stand up for him as much as I should have.

Harry is, by nature, a fairly shy person. He takes a while to warm up to people and feel comfortable in new situations. He does not like being in large groups, particularly large groups of people he doesn't know. He did not grow up in the church, and didn't become a Christian until the summer before his senior year of college. Therefore, he has a unique perspective on ministry and faith that stems from having spent time in "both camps", so to speak. While I was at SJ, Harry was teaching at a university that was 70 miles away, and was commuting back and forth each day. As the rookie professor in the department, he seemed to get both 8am and evening classes. meaning that there were a few days when he left the parsonage at 6:30 am and arrived back home at 9:30 pm. That information is just to give you all some sort of perspective.

As I was preparing to begin my ministry at SJ, Harry and I did have several conversations about his role at SJ. It was assumed by both of us that he would regularly attend worship and would use his gifts when he had the time and opportunity. He's very skilled with computers (undergrad in computer science, PhD in Applied Math, 10+ years of experience in software development) so we thought there might be an opportunity for him to develop a web site for the church. He's also very gifted in developing and leading Bible studies...probably stemming from his gift for teaching. Actually, he can run circles around me when it comes to leading a Bible study. Seriously. We also both expected that he would attend church events when was able to do so. Neither of us expected to face the issues we did.

The first issue that was brought up was Harry's "worship wardrobe", as I'll call it. He feels most comfortable in casual clothing and really doesn't like dressing up unless ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. Seriously, in eight years of marriage I think that I can think of maybe 15 times I've seen Harry in a suit...weddings, funerals, job interviews, a few special dates. It speaks of how much he likes his current job and company that he wears a tie to work each day. So, Harry typically wears casual clothes to church. He continued this habit at SJ, although he did appease me for the first few weeks by wearing a button-down shirt and khakis (I think he might have even worn a tie one week). After week three or four, he began showing up in Bermuda shorts, a T-shirt, and Birkenstocks (it was July). In the fall, he switches to jeans, a T-shirt or button-down shirt, and either sneakers or loafers. After some reflection, I simply accepted it, because he practices good hygeine, irons his clothes, wears a belt, and generally looks well-kept. And I would have no problem if anyone else walked through the door wearing that outfit, so I saw no reason to hold him to a higher standard.

Well...apparently most people didn't share my opinion. They expected Harry to wear something more dressy...I even had two conversations with my PPR chair about this issue. The second time, Harry was in the room and while he was polite during the conversation, as soon as she left (we were in the parsonage) Harry made it clear that he did not appreciate being advised what to wear to church.

The second issue was Harry's "unfriendliness", meaning his lack of initiative in making friends with the congregation. I think part of this was a comparison to the former pastor's spouse (also male) who was one of those "never met a stranger" sort of people. Harry was (as far as I could tell) cordial when people initiated conversations but did not approach many people independently. Conversely, most people did not (in my opinion) make much of an effort in engaging Harry and getting to know him. They might have been intimidated by his intelligence and education, but he's really not very arrogant and flaunting of that. He did become friendly with my treasurer (at least until his wife-my PPR chair-stabbed us in the back) and they would have decent conversations about computers and other things.

I could tell that Harry was trying his best, as much as his personality would allow. We had a couple of "open houses" at the parsonage and invited everyone over for a barbeque for the Fourth of July. The first few times the "unfriendly" issue was raised, I tried to explain what I've said here...that Harry is shy, that he's uncomfortable in new settings, and I even suggested topics of conversation that might engage him. Eventually, I just began getting frustrated/angry, because I felt like the church was setting unrealistic expectations of him and not doing their part to engage and welcome him. Of course, most attempts on cordiality and friendliness on Harry's part ended when things got really toxic my last few months.

Harry was trying...he was attending worship every week...he attended events when he could...he designed a website for the church with consultation from the just wasn't enough for them.

It seems unfair to me that in this day and age, the pastor's spouse should be held to such a high standard and that whether or not the spouse is "acceptable" to the church should impact the pastor's effectiveness.

I can't speak about the role of children, since we left SJ when Nora was only seven months old.

What are your thoughts/practices on this issue?


Mompriest said...

Sounds like a very sad place, that they put more stock into how a person looks than who the person is and what they bring...and all the worse because it played out through clergy (your) family. sad. But true.

Anonymous said...

Our husbands sound a lot alike. I was shocked by your story though. I know there are congregations out there like this but wow, this is pretty unbelievable. The church where I served as AP for a number of years knew me first before my husband and I even started dating. They grew to love him and welcomed him in even though his time was limited because of his profession. I often wonder and fear that another congregation might not be as understanding, especially given your history.
Whew. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to hear you also went through a terrible experience. I was the pastor and my wife and I had a very similar experience at our former church. As much as we tried we could never fulfill the congregations expectations. It was difficult and we were deeply hurt by their actions. We are out of their now and are serving in a new church, with a lot lower expectations of us. We have been here 9 months and it has taken us some time to heal. We are still healing. God has been faithful to bind up our wounds and heal our wounded spirits. I still get angry, I still get upset at times, but then I forgive. That is the only way I have been able to move forward. The key to our healing has been forgiveness. I pray that you can get to that place. We are not there yet, but we are heading in that direction. I will be praying for you.