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Winkler slaying puts stresses of ministers’ wives in spotlight

When her husband, Jim, decided in his mid-30s to go to preaching school, Diane Rude was delighted. Both had established careers — Diane in nursing and Jim in construction. But when he felt the call to be a minister, she figured the major adjustment would be moving to a new city and church. Now, after 13 years as the wife of a minister, she suggests, “How naive and wrong I was!” It’s tough to be a minister. But it’s often harder to be married to one. According to a Gallup study, half of all couples who leave the ministry abruptly do so because of the wife’s unhappiness. Publicity surrounding the recent slaying of Matthew Winkler, minister of the Fourth Street church in Selmer, Tenn., has reminded the public of the stresses often faced by ministers’ wives and their families. Authorities say Winkler’s wife, Mary, confessed to shooting him to death, although no motive has been given.

While many churches and ministers’families enjoy a congenial working relationship, preachers’ wives often reelunder the weight of unrealistic expectations, constant demands and loneliness,experts say.

In their book, What’s Happening toClergy Marriages, David and Vera Mace, founders of the marriage enrichmentmovement, identify what’s expected: “A minister’s wife should be attractive, butnot too attractive; have nice clothes, but not too nice; be friendly, but nottoo friendly; be aggressive and greet everyone, especially visitors, but nottoo aggressive; educated but not too educated; capable, but not too capable;charming, but not too charming.”
Some churches, sensitive to the wife’sinterests, stage in life and responsibilities, allow her to find her own nichein the life of the church, said several ministers’ wives contacted by TheChristian Chronicle. Others expect the wife to be at the forefront of everyactivity.
Stress can increase for preachers’wives in smaller congregations when wives believe many of the church activitiesdepend on their involvement, leadership and follow-through.
At the 100-member Patchogue,N.Y., church, where Katherine Moore is theminister’s wife, she coordinates and teaches children’s classes, children’schurch and Vacation Bible School.
In addition, she leads women’s studiesand activities, opens her home to guests, makes hospital and funeral homevisits, changes church flower arrangements and bulletin boards, and coordinateschurch building clean-up.
“I feel tension around many of theseactivities and find I’m not able to enjoy them as much or be a participantbecause of my role as unofficial coordinator,” Moore said.
What happens when a congregation’sexpectations fail to fit the wife’s personality? The situation can become abreeding ground for members to give subtle, hidden messages to the woman thatshe is not measuring up, said David Johnson, clinical director of the Christian CounselingCenter in Paducah,Ky., and a deacon at the McKenzie, Tenn., church.
“If a woman isn’t secure, thosemessages will be personalized, and she will find herself constantly feelingguilty and dissatisfied with herself, which can ultimately lead to problemswith serious depression,” said Johnson, who has counseled ministers’ familiesfor two decades.
“Any time a person attempts to live herlife based on the expectations of others, she is setting herself up to live thelife of a chameleon, constantly trying to read a situation and become whatevershe is expected to be, but never finding satisfaction in that kind of existenceand never knowing who she really is,” Johnson said.
For a minister’s wife, one of thebiggest stressors can be knowing that what she or their children do couldjeopardize the husband’s job, said Paula Harrington, author of A Sunday
Afternoon with the Preachers’ Wives, anew book based on interviews with 53 Church of Christ ministers’wives.

“We need to stop expecting thepreacher’s family to be different from or better than the other families of thechurch,” said

Harrington, a member of the CalvertCity, Ky., church and the daughter and granddaughter of preachers. “Their kidsare going to throw fits, make bad grades, have wild hairdos and do the samethings as the other kids in the congregation do.”


The ministers themselves often are toblame for the stress, experts say.

When the minister feels like his jobdemands that he spend every waking hour counseling, comforting, visiting orspeaking with the flock, that can leave the wife and family feeling neglected.And it can spark disagreements between ministers and wives when children are disappointedby a lack of family time, said Sally Shank, a minister’s wife for 32 years.
“The fact is, there will always be moreministry to do, more souls to save, more families in crisis,” said NedraSparks, whose husband, Curt, is minister of the Sycamore View church inMemphis, Tenn.
“It is a never-ending cycle, but wehave learned that it is vital to the health of our family that we be honestwith each other about our needs, instead of always sacrificing them on thealtar of the church ministry,” Nedra Sparks said.
Preachers’ wives can feel lonely andisolated — even invisible — because of the difficulty of making close friendsand sharing their true feelings without fear of repercussions, said Rude, whosehusband is the minister of the Spokane Valley, Wash., church.
As a consequence, many have only“sweet, superficial relationships,” rather than intimate relationships withtheir fellow Christians, according to one preacher’s wife in the South.

Other ministers’ wives say they do haveclose friends in the church.
“I can talk to my ‘sister girls’ andknow they will not betray me,” said Bernice McClure, whose husband is theminister for the Prince George’s County church in Landover, Md. “It’s importantto have close friends to share with, cry with and hang out with.”
But Rude said she has given up onfinding a close friend in the church with whom to share day-to-day struggles.

“I haven’t yet met a person who has thestrength or maturity to handle my confidences,” she said.
She does hold out hope, though, thatthose to whom her husband ministers will return the kindness.
“Please minister to your preacher’swife,” Rude said. “Hey, introduce her by name sometime, and not as ‘thepreacher’s wife.’ She might appreciate it.”

June 1, 2006

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