I was having my hair cut last week when my barber casually asked me what brought me to the area. ‘My other half is the minister of the church down the road,’ I replied. The look of confusion that flashed across the woman’s face said it all. She didn’t voice it but I could imagine she was thinking to herself, ‘Oh, is he gay then?’ The answer is ‘no’, I’m simply married to a female minister. The fact that someone might as easily jump to the other conclusion is interesting for all kinds of reasons, but it mostly indicates that society is still getting used to the concept of female clergy.
My wife Lucy was ordained five years ago. Our denomination has a long-standing tradition of female ministry, so few people within it find the concept of a woman minister particularly strange. Nonetheless, the fact that male spouses of clergy are a relatively new phenomenon means there were very few pre-determined expectations for me.
Life is always busy. We balance Lucy’s fulltime role as minister with two young children and my part time job as a radio presenter and freelance writer. I’m as keen as Lucy to see our church advance, so getting stuck into creative worship, drama, music and other aspects of the general running of the place has seemed a natural thing to do. It’s a personal choice and not one that every clergy spouse would necessarily choose.
Being so involved can make life feel too hectic sometimes. Of late we’ve realised that there may be a case for me ‘pulling back’ from some responsibilities in order to ensure that our family life doesn’t get too stretched or stressed as a result. At the same time the church family is ready to help out – there’s a variety of people we can hand our children over to if the situation requires, which is all part of the joy of being part of a ‘wider’ family.
My wife will blush when she reads this, but I think that she was born to be a church minister – she’s really good at it. When we met, her call by God into ministry also became a shared call to me – to support her in that ministry. That has meant limiting my work to a part time arrangement so that I can look after our children and Lucy can do her job. It also means I’m the first person she turns to when she needs to unburden herself.
One of the hardest things about being married to a minister is the hurt I feel on her behalf when she is treated badly by people in the church. I am the only person who knows the truth about the hours she puts in, the way she agonises about how to care for everyone and the future of the church. As her husband, I inevitably struggle when others are thoughtless in their words or expect her to be super-human. There have been times when I have wanted to react on her behalf – ‘how dare you…’ but I don’t. Instead I pick up the pieces and help her, at the hardest of times, to keep on keeping on.
There are plenty of other challenges, shared in common with any clergy spouse too I imagine. Days when the phone seems to ring incessantly, the house being in regular use for church engagements, the evenings when Lucy is out at yet another meeting, and the fact that she is always ‘on call’ for the other 200 people that I share her with. Or it may be the feeling that our children should be models of exemplary behaviour in the church service – especially when our two-year-old has escaped from my clutches and wrapped herself around mum’s leg while she’s trying to conduct a prayer.
Sometimes I’m the one of whom the standards are expected. I remember being reprimanded by an older member of the congregation, early in Lucy’s ministry, for not wearing a tie to church! I have also been accused of looking ‘scruffy’. I don’t think people would bother to pass such a comment about anyone else, but being part of the minister’s family it seems even my appearance is viewed by some as public property. In reality those occasions are the exception – the church is full of caring and supportive people too.
On a personal level there’s also the challenge of the days when I’m a house husband – feeling in the minority at the mums and tots group or getting the children fed and bathed while trying to get that urgent email sent at the same time. In reality, such challenges are vastly outweighed by the privilege of being able to spend more time with my kids than most working dads do. We also try to be strict about having one day a week when we are both ‘off duty’ from the church to concentrate on each other and the children exclusively. As for the busyness of our church-centred life – well, that comes with the territory. It’s borne out of a shared belief in what we do, and I wouldn’t have it any other way
Justin is Theology and Apologetics Editor at Premier and presents the Saturday radio show and podcast ‘Unbelievable?’