(RNS) — A pastor’s spouse once told me a touching true story.
Inscribed on the gold band she gave her husband on their wedding day are the famous lines from the Book of Ruth: “Whither thou goest, I will go.”
The reference, common in weddings, has added meaning for a pastor’s wife. She was also vowing loyalty to his clergy vocation.
And because her husband is ordained in the United Methodist Church — a denomination in which pastors are moved to various parishes throughout their career at the discretion of bishop overseers — she was literally pledging to follow him wherever his ministry took him, a journey in which she would have virtually no say.
Clergy spouses face unique challenges that often escape our notice, and we do not know much about them.
Lifeway Research recently completed a comprehensive survey of clergy spouses. The evangelical research center interviewed more than 700 Protestant ministers’ spouses, yielding considerable insights about this unique group.
A majority of pastors’ spouses report some level of isolation. More than two-thirds agree with the statement, “I have very few people I can confide in about the really important matters in my life.”
They have surprisingly weak support systems, relying overwhelmingly on their spouses when stressed or sad. About two in five rely “a great deal” on relatives or friends for support.
Only nine percent say they can count on other ministers’ spouses for support.
This disconnection is especially prevalent among younger spouses, who report more conflicts within their churches, more issues with trust, and more challenges in building relationships than their older cohorts.
Half of clergy spouses agree their family lives in a “fishbowl,” a popular metaphor for pastors’ families’ visible and often scrutinized marital and parental relationships. But only 23 percent believe congregation members have a right to know what goes on in their families.
Financially, 85 percent of pastors’ spouses agree with the statement, “The church we serve takes good care of us.” Yet 61 percent say their family’s financial needs outstrip their church salaries.
Even so, more than a third report frequent worries about finances, and two thirds say they are concerned about their retirement benefits.
In spite of these and other challenges, clergy spouses report they lead mostly happy lives.
Eighty percent of pastors’ spouses say they are extremely or very satisfied with their marriages, even as half report difficulties in establishing time for the martial relationship due to congregational needs and frequent church events.
This new research raises important questions about the care of souls. While ministers tend to the spiritual needs of parishioners, who cares for their spouses?
In theological arguments, clergy spouses are often regarded as hypothetical, not real, people. Should Catholic priests be permitted to marry? (More than 60 percent of American Catholics say yes.) Should pastors be allowed to enter same-sex unions?
The fact is that some Catholic priests are married and a small but growing number of liberal Protestant ministers have same-sex partners.
It is wrong, however, for these few cases to dominate religious discourse about clergy spouses. Hundreds of thousands of American women (and men) — are married to members of the clergy.
They often live in metaphorical fish bowls, regrettably subjecting their perceived marital, parental, and relational styles to the unasked for scrutiny of others.
Denominational programs for the care of clergy spouses are often an afterthought, or one-size-fits-all.
My friend’s wedding-band inscription was a small and visible sign of a profound spiritual commitment.
Clergy spouses make a profound and unique commitment to their faith. Yet far too often, they struggle in isolation and silence.
As a society, we promote religion through the tax code and honoring members of the reverend clergy as moral leaders who guard what is sacred and point us toward what is right.
Their spouses and families face challenges and sacrifices that few of us can ever understand. We owe them a fuller measure of empathy, support, and friendship.
(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University)