Great Expectations: Clergy Wives

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Davidson College associate professor of religion Anne Blue Wills developed course "Married to Ministry"By Cathryn Westin

Traditional clergy wives have significant involvement in their husbands’ work with little recognition in return, an observation that prompted Associate Professor of Religion Anne Blue Wills to develop “Married to the Ministry,” a seminar focused on the demands and expectations faced by clergy wives.

“It’s a common issue,” Wills said. “The wife of a clergyman has an important unofficial, uncompensated role. There’s no contract drawn up for her, but she faces extremely well-defined expectations, ranging from how she spends her money to how she keeps her house, how she behaves and what she wears.”

While studying the Christian evangelist Billy Graham, Wills recognized that Graham could not have been as influential a leader without support from his wife, Ruth Bell Graham. That inspired Wills to begin writing about Ruth Graham’s role in the Billy Graham movement, with plans to either publish a biography or a compilation of essays.

“There’s already a biography on Ruth,” said Wills, “but there’s so much of Billy in that book that he takes over. Somebody’s got to write her story. It might as well be me.”

Wills developed “Married to the Ministry” to involve undergraduates in her clergy spouse research.

“I wanted to explore whether, in modern day, the same expectations and pressures hold for the clergy husband, and it turns out they don’t”

“One of the things that stood out to me was how little the traditional clergy spouse role has changed in the modern day,” said student Blair Ford ’14. “The role seemed very rigid and stifling to me at first, but as we kept studying different women, I developed a more comprehensive view.”

At the end of the seminar, students interviewed an active or retired married or formerly married clergy person, clergy spouse or clergy couple, and wrote a final paper reflecting on the interviewee’s personal experience.

Ford chose to interview a female Episcopal minister. She said, “I wanted to explore whether, in modern day, the same expectations and pressures hold for the clergy husband, and it turns out they don’t,” she said.

Ford concluded that, unlike clergy wives, clergy husbands do not feel pressure to attend church functions or to get to know the congregation in the same way their wives do.

Ford hoped the course itself would explore the role of the clergy husband more deeply, but acknowledged that there is not yet much literature on the topic because women have only recently been allowed to join the ministry. She also believes that other female societal roles have progressed more than the clergy wife role, and wants to learn more about why that role has not evolved.

Wills looks forward to teaching “Married to the Ministry” again, continuing her research on the role’s historical significance while also looking more closely at newer concepts like the clergy husband and clergy-spouse expectations in same-sex partnerships.

The course’s focus, however, will likely remain on the role of the clergy wife. “Women’s religious invisibility is a concern of mine,” said Wills. “Women have always been numerically dominant in U.S. religions, but the story that’s traditionally been told is one of male-led institutions. Men are often still put in the pulpit before women, and I think it’s important to explore that.”

More broadly, Wills hopes that recognizing clergy spouses may help boost appreciation, and support, for other behind-the-scenes roles in society generally filled by women.

Read the story on Davidson’s website.

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