Thursday, February 9, 2012

So you think you want to be a priest’s wife…..

From the blog The Orthodox Clergy Wife by Presbytera Anonyma, a solid list for the priest-wife-to-be. I wish I had this before we started seminary (I say "we" as this whole enterprise is a joint venture). A brave woman, my wife, as this list illustrates.

Before you head off on your husband-search to seminary or to a choir concert featuring eager young men in black singing liturgical music, make your way through the following checklist:

v Do you love being at church? A lot? Not just on Sundays?

v Have you established a prayer rule and regular confession? Now is the time to do this, before husband and children come along to complicate your routine. Also, you will likely have to find a new confessor once you move to a new parish, and make it a priority to go regularly, possibly traveling some distance. Be ready for your prayer rule to change, too. Every seminary does things a little differently. Don't be surprised when your husband starts  changing things around so what is done at home matches what he does in chapel.

v Can you wait patiently for services to start, or for your husband to finish chatting with parishioners after the service? Are you ready to train your children with the same patience? PK’s (priests’ kids) say that the thing they rememember more than anything else about growing up is always –waiting- at church!

v Can you handle living in somebody else’s house indefinitely? While many churches now offer a housing allowance, a lot still own a parish house where the priest and his family will be expected to reside, often right next door to the church where parishioners can observe your gardening skills or lack thereof, or drop in when you least expect it. I've heard from some people this was a painless process and for others a very stressful one.

v Do you find yourself content to be second banana? Can you stand happily beside someone else who is in the spotlight, whether it is your husband or whether it is already-established lay leaders in the parish you move to?

v Are you ready to deal with expectations about the way you and your children dress, the amount of money you spend on your pets, or the kind of recreational activities your family chooses? I know parishes that have tried to dictate the number of children a priest could have.

v Are you prepared to work part- or even full-time, at least temporarily, to make ends meet in a parish that can’t or won’t provide their priest a living wage? Do you have a marketable skill that will help you find work that you will enjoy? I have some rather strong feelings about this that I will avoid commenting on right now (the word of the day today is screed). It is enough to say that one parish decided to pay their priest just enough so he didn't qualify for food stamps any longer. He couldn't feed his family any longer, but the parish wasn't "embarrassed" now that their priest wasn't on the government dole.

v Do you have interests to pursue outside the church? These can give you a much-needed break and change of perspective.

v Have you thought about the ways in which you will contribute to the life of the parish—and the ways you won’t? Can you be firm but polite about your decisions? Do you know what your gifts are and aren’t? If you aren’t sure, are you willing to give something a try when asked, but turn it over to someone else if you find you are not the right woman for the job?

v Will you remind your husband that you and the children are also parishioners, and ensure that he gets a weekly day off; that the phone will not be answered during family dinner; and that barring emergencies, milestones in your children’s lives will take precedence? My last pastor was a saint in this regard. Matins, Vespers, Vigils, or Liturgies every day but Monday. As a result I didn't call him on Monday unless my arm had just been chopped off or my children were in a Dickensian moribund way.

v Can you gather your strength to move your household away from your familiar surroundings at short notice if the bishop decides to reassign your husband to a new parish? We're a big family with lots of children in school. This is a concern the wife and I talk about often.

v Do you have a network of family and friends to whom you can turn, even if only long distance, to confide in? Can you keep a balance of friendliness to parishioners without favoritism or making any of them ‘special’ above others?

v Are you any good at all at holding your tongue? You will be offered opportunities to do so almost daily. It is not only what you say, but what parishioners THINK you said.

If these all sound a little daunting, they are. Clergy wives face challenges that their parishioners scarcely ever think about.

The good news is, a lot can be learned as you go along—in fact can hardly be learned any other way. What is mainly needed is open eyes and a good attitude. Seminaries are now making a point of helping seminarians’ wives to look ahead and prepare for life in the parish. Seminary is also where you will meet other women who will be undergoing similar experiences, and with them you can help build supportive relationships for the future.

Still think you might want to be a priest’s wife? One thing left to do: start praying. And never stop.


  1. Just watching what has happened in the last 12 years since I graduated seminary, I've come to a few conclusions:

    1) all priests should go to seminary, period. If they are married, they must bring their wives. I've seen cases where skipping this has led to big problems later. Some priests never have a problem, but others do, and most of those cases were/are preventable through an actual seminary experience.

    2) wives should go through their own seminary program, just to get the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional formation they will need. They are ignored, and then much is demanded of them.

    3) parishes should get a one year break between priests. That means fill-ins and reader services. Many parishes treat priests' wives (and priests) poorly because they expect someone to show up and immediate cater to their needs. Communities that don't treat their clergy families properly can learn to do without, or change their attitudes.

    4) no priest should go without a mentor, and the same is true of wives. Even after a priest is assigned, he should be on 'probation' along with his wife and be assigned/choose a mentor and a priest-wife-mentor to help them through their problems in the first year or two.

    5) bishops should clearly communicate the expectations they have of priests' wives both to the priest, the wife, and the diocese.

    Anyway, those are just the thoughts that come to mind.

    1. On 1. I agree completely. A lot of my fellow seminarians want to get done with seminary and then get married. I think this is a waste of an opportunity to get on the same page before you are dropped off at a new parish.

      On 2. Very much agreed.

      On 3. I can point to two parishes where the bishop has done just that. Priests aren't janitors or plumbers that you can replace at will.

      On 4. Does anyone do this?

      On 5. A few words at ordination aren't sufficient. They're often lovely and encouraging, but sustained support is called for.

  2. #4 - I've taken up mentoring a new priest, and he's finding it helpful to have an 'older brother.' I find it helpful to have a new resource (he's way smarter than me, so I ask him questions, too).

    Because our present society favors women, most American women find adjusting to a supporting role as too much of a conflict with the social messages they receive. What used to be taken for granted can't be anymore.

    Bishops also would do well to remember that our generation (post 1964) has very little stability: divorces, moves, and serial employment are life experiences which transfer to our worldview. They should not be surprised when a priest asks for a transfer even when there are no problems. Rapid moves used to be punishment, but this generation will be different.

  3. I appreciate the desire for "wife formation" and I do think there is benefit to being in seminary together (been there, done that). I also think, though, that "expectations" and "demands" are dirty words. Should we form women to be the presbytera that many parishes expect, or should we challenge parishes to have a broader understanding of the role of the priest and his wife?

    Beyond being a believer and supportive of her husband's role, what more should anyone expect? Every woman has different interests and talents, and should not be expected to fit into any existing "presbytera shoes" that a parish may own. An amusing example was on our first Sunday here at the parish: the church board president politely urged my wife to sit in the front pew, because "that is where the priest's wife always sits." My wife did not feel comfortable sitting there, and was content with her seat several rows back. She declined, with a smile.

  4. I think that women need to be equipped with the tools to develop effective boundaries, strong marriages and healthy children. I don't think a Priest's wife should be required or encouraged to do things in the church beyond any parishioner, because after all, she is not being ordained, her husband is. I think husbands on the other hand, need to be taught how to protect their wives and kids from the abuses that parish life might bring. "Please respect my day off, I am taking time to be with my wife and family" and other such phrases come to mind.