When you’re a minister’s wife, it can be hard to be vulnerable and authentic.
I have been friends with many pastor’s wives over the years, and the amount of scrutiny and judgment they go through is huge. If their kids act up in nursery, it causes a stink that it wouldn’t if it were other people’s kids. It’s tough.
When I started writing back in the early 2000s, I attended a Christian writer’s conference here in Ontario, where I met Karen Stiller, an editor at a big magazine, but also the wife of a minister belonging to a well-known Canadian Christian family. She was smart, gentle, and compassionate, and she thought deeply about spiritual issues. But she was also a lot of fun, and we became fast friends.
We don’t see each other often (we’ve never lived near each other), but we’ve kept up with each other. In many ways, Karen set me on the path I’m on now. In 2006, I believe, she asked me to write a cover story for Faith Today, Canada’s national Christian magazine where she was an editor, about sex. I hadn’t written on it much yet, but she needed SOMEBODY. From there, I was asked to write for some Christian men’s magazines, and whenever Crossroads TV in Canada wanted a guest to talk about sex, they had me.
All that is to say that I love Karen, and I’m so excited about her new book, The Minister’s Wife, which launches today. It’s her memoir of holding on to faith and family in a strange role that no one is really prepared for, and I know many of you reading will relate. I asked Karen to share about authenticity today, and here she is!
There was a woman in a church my husband once served as a young associate pastor, who was kind and generous to me and our small children.
She would arrive every Tuesday afternoon at the rectory in which we lived – which was located in a much nicer part of the city than we ever could have afforded ourselves – and babysat our three kids, so I could have a few precious hours to myself.
Usually, I went grocery shopping. Back then, when I could go alone, a trip to Stan’s No Frills groceries was as restful and exciting as a trip to the spa, or so I imagined (a trip to the spa being as unlikely as a trip to the moon back then).
We would also have a cup of tea and talk about this and that, and one week we touched on envy, for a reason I can’t remember now. I confessed to my older friend that sometimes I envied people who seemed to have so much more flexible income than we did, and were able to buy things like good, thick leggings and better coffee without a second thought.
“Oh Karen,” she said. “Don’t say things like that!”
I could see she was embarrassed for both of us that I had made such a bald statement. Shame, my old companion, appeared almost immediately and smothered me with his heavy, wet weight, like so much emotional concrete. I wished I hadn’t said a word.
In the days to come I experienced what shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown so helpfully and precisely calls a vulnerability hangover.
Yes. I was hungover with vulnerability.
While it is true that we should wisely choose our audience for our most naked soul moments, I have learned that vulnerability is worth the risk, even if we sometimes make mistakes. If I could go back in time, I would not share with my wealthier and very generous friend that I sometimes sank into envy. That conversation didn’t help either of us.
But my experiences with vulnerability and transparency have also taught me the opposite lesson time and time again, and I am so glad. The lightness from sharing has mostly outweighed the heaviness of shame.
It is good to share the truth about ourselves.
Being married to a minister – a vocation that can bring with it a heavy load of assumptions people make about you and sometimes your spiritual giantdom (for example, that you would never be a person wracked with legging envy) – means that I have been forced to face my true self over and over again.
Someone may assume I’m deeply self-sacrificial and always ready to lend a hand, and perpetually pleasant and never envious. I know I’m grouchy and selfish and as covetous as the next person in the pew, and often very tired, to top it all off. I choose to tell the truth about myself to help us both recover.
Even though I’d really like to be more like the ideal, we all fall short and fall on our face, and then, later and hopefully, on our knees to ask for a little more help, pretty please.
And so, even though sometimes we overdo it and might wind up with the throbbing headache and dry mouth of a vulnerability hangover, I have chosen the path of transparency more times than not. To say what I’m really thinking, and say out loud who I really am, has been a survival strategy for me but it’s also, I’ve come to believe, been a kind of gift and relief to my communities, when used well.
I remember one Bible study in particular, years ago, in the basement of our church. I love women’s Bible studies, for the motivation they give me to read Scripture regularly, for the break from my work, the gathering and the gabbing, and yes, for the lemon squares with their wonderful crust and tangy fillings.
One day we were studying a tough passage, one of those ones that you know you’re supposed to believe and embrace, but it’s so hard. I don’t get this.
I said this out loud.
Sometimes, because you’re married to the minister, people assume you will get it, and love it, and understand it, and be able to preach it as well, if your husband is down with the flu. But that day, that simple bit of honesty opened the room up. “Oh Karen,” said one of the women (in a good way). And someone else said, “I love you.” I knew what she loved was that I had dared to tell the truth, and so, because of all those wrong ideas people have about clergy always having it all together, it helped her in some small way to hear me say that I didn’t understand either.
Then, we could have an honest conversation about a tough passage, and move through that discussion to a richer understanding. Then, there was space for all of us there, in that room, and in that conversation.
Honesty begets honesty. Transparency creates transparency. This is true for all of us, almost all of the time.
Vulnerability does not have to lead to a hangover, after all.
Ultimately, what our honesty brings us is space in the room. Our true stories connect us to each other, and help us to live through the most difficult things, and to know we are not alone. Women can be so good at this, at opening our hearts and our most tender selves so that a friend can say things like: I hear you and I understand. I’ve been there too, and friend, you’re actually not that bad.
It will all be okay.
Read more of Karen’s insights and experiences in The Minister’s Wife!
Have you ever had to maintain a “role” in Christendom that was difficult? Are you a minister’s wife? Let’s talk in the comments!
Karen Stiller is a writer and editor, and author of the newly released spiritual memoir, The Minister’s Wife: a memoir of faith, doubt, friendship, loneliness, forgiveness and more (Tyndale House, 2020). For anyone who has ever struggled to maintain authenticity when a role is thrust upon her, this is a great read (along the lines of Jan Karon!). Find more here!