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Two retirements

The Minister's Wife

Yes, this book exists

So there are two retirements in our household today. Sandy is giving her last sermon as a regular, full-time UCC pastor. She isn’t going to stop pastoring, but she’s stepping down and looking forward to consultancies, supply preaching, and interim positions.

I was a child bride… ok, perhaps that’s a mild exaggeration… but I’m a long time from retirement myself. I’m a Boomer with not the greatest retirement portfolio, plenty of years in front of me, and lots of vim and vigor, and LibraryLand will have me around in the full-time regular workforce for a very long time. (And my Uncle Bob, may he rest in peace, worked into his mid-80s, had a stroke on a Friday night, and left this world on Sunday. I may want to kick back in a couple of decades and do other things, like travel and write–but go you, Uncle Bob.)

However, I do get to retire from my role as the pastor’s wife. I do use the word “wife” deliberately, because I think if your spouse is a minister, even if you are the husband, you are the Wife, as in Judy Brady’s wife–the docile, compliant shadow behind the Main Event.

This is not a role I have embraced perhaps as fully as I could have, but in my two decades in this role, it has been a learning experience. I have some very good memories, such as the holiday reception in Albany, New York where I had purchased this well-known locally-smoked ham, and it was so good people stopped being polite and just stood in a circle around this huge joint of meat, hacking away at it and gobbling with abandon. I remember the Christmas open house in Palo Alto; our rental home, a fake Eichler, was so packed I had to slither sideways into the kitchen to refresh the mulled cider. I also have any number of heartwarming moments with children, elderly people, and the sort of folks who end up in churches these days, which is to say people who feel a need for something much larger and older and more organized than themselves.

LibraryLand is all a-buzz these days with the notion of threshold concepts. As I dutifully make an effort to understand this concept, I see it describing a point at which you do not know something, and then you do. And like a bride, you are carried over the threshold, to be forever transformed.

I don’t have any serious objections to freshening up our concepts of how we teach information literacy with this model — it’s certainly better than arguing against library instruction per se, as Michael Gorman did in 1991. (Oh yes, he did! The things you learn skimming bibliographies.) But–and I’m guessing this isn’t antithetical to the whole threshold idea–I do think some thresholds are more like train tracks you walk along for a good long while until the town you were looking for  begins to slowly swim into focus on the horizon.

I don’t recall when the threshold for my awareness of being the minister’s Wife emerged. It’s an interesting place to be. It’s not simply a matter of being that person who sits in the back pew and will do what is asked of her — serving cookies, showing up to help make the holiday jam, folding bulletins, or showing up in a dressy dress and looking interested about the wedding of two people I don’t know and will never hear from again. I am the person people remember to chat with, though never in great depth. I am the one who will not talk back if spoken to sharply;  I have bit my tongue so often I’m surprised I still have one. I am the person most parishioners will forget as soon as we move on.

Threshold theory includes the idea of troublesome knowledge: “the process of crossing the threshold commonly causes some mental and emotional discomfort (troublesome).”  I am the person who a parishioner once asked, “So, you’re the one making the real salary, eh?”and that startling moment caught me because it was an assumption that made so many things clearer to me, and was also — frighteningly for a librarian — true. While these days the trend is not to pay the pastor in “free” housing and a few chickens now and then, but in wages with pension plans, it’s still a profession that usually requires a two-salary household.

Despite the need to make a “real salary,” some unchurched people assume I have the time –and even the obligation — to be the Wife. As noted above, I do within limits, but I also need to focus on doing those things that ensure we have enough money to live on, which mean I am not available to help organize meals for the homeless at 3 pm on a weekday afternoons or joining the knitting group on Thursday mornings.  When I do volunteer for something like coffee hour, it is usually squeezed into a day that began at 6 AM with doctoral homework that will be resumed once I have wiped down the church kitchen counters and folded the tablecloths.

A threshold I crossed many years ago that can also be lost on unchurched people was the need to have my own spiritual life.  In Olden Days, the (male) minister married some darling parishioner, who then moved into the helpmate role — quite a bargain for the church to get a twofer, but in addition to the labor issues, it left these women in a strange place. I have often wondered about the private worlds of these Wives. Did they really see their husbands as their spiritual muses? The patriarchal implications of this arrangement make my toes curl in discomfort (talk about troublesome knowledge!). Who did these women turn to when they needed pastoral care?

Additionally, unchurched people — and some churched people — don’t get the nuance that when I attend Sandy’s church, I am essentially visiting her workplace. Work — even other people’s work — is not a stress-free experience. It’s a worldly place full of personalities and interactions, the stories for which spill over into my life enough to  make what you call a sanctuary often feel to me like an office, with all that entails. I always try to have  a spiritual home elsewhere, someplace I am not the Wife but just me, another parishioner. It feels so different, so unburdened.

The part I have liked about being the Wife has been its narrative stance. I watch church life unfold on its little tableaux, one of the last big volunteer activities in American life. Just like in a good novel, its inhabitants are both predictable and surprising. The Christmas play features an adorable child who will make everyone laugh. A parishioner will die, and the corner of the pew she sat in will remain empty until a clueless new person sits there, breaking the spell.   Parishioners will stand up during Joys and Concerns to share stories of illness, death, life, and global sadness. The same group of elderly women found in every church, temple, and mosque will meet to knit blankets for homeless people and gossip. A baptism, the child held aloft like a prize, will make everyone breathe with hope.

The decades I have spent as the Wife have given me a privileged observer status, one that will continue as Sandy’s ministry continues in new, different ways. I won’t miss the decades where Saturday night was a “school night” for Sandy; only on vacations do we experience secular Sunday life, and I can see its attraction. And for the most part, I won’t miss being the Wife. But I will miss observing people trying to connect with something larger than themselves, with all the awkwardness and challenge and beauty that entails.

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