One of the first things I knew about my husband was that he had been accepted to two different seminaries. The following conversation was all about how he had spent the past year trying to discern what God was calling him to do. At the time, he thought God was calling him to become a counselor; I wouldn’t say his notion then was entirely wrong. As time wore on, my husband underwent a complete transformation as he battled through his first semesters of seminary. By the time we were engaged, I had grown very weary of the question “would you be willing to be a priest’s wife?” It seemed like every conversation we had regarding our future revolved around my answer to this one question. I don’t regret my answer but I realize how naive I was about the struggles we would face together because of my husband’s vocation.

We spent our first two years of marriage in Massachusetts at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. We welcomed our first child into the world and both completed our Master’s degrees while being heavily involved in ministry at our local parish. It was at Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church that I first experienced the diversity of Anglican worship as well as the diversity among priests’ spouses.

Same Vocation, Different Manifestation

If I asked you to draw a shape with between 4-6 angles and sides, I doubt two people would give me exactly the same shape. Sure, a few people may give me squares, but even so those squares would not likely be the same size or even the same color. It’s the same way with priest’s wives.

I would be lying if I didn’t concede that we share many things in common, but this stems from the fact that we share the same vocation. To say that we are all alike or do exactly the same things would be like saying all engineers are the same, or that all teachers are the same. Certainly, they share similarity by virtue of the category of job they fall into, but no two are identical. I’ve yet to meet two English teachers or two priests’ spouses who are exactly the same.

The struggle is that one does not “apply” to be a priest’s wife. It’s not a job, but a vocation.

What is Vocation?

This word gets thrown around a lot in the Christian world. It stems from the Latin root “vocare” which means “to call.” Oftentimes, we refer to the idea of “calling” when we talk about one’s call to ministry. Books could be and have been written on the variations of vocation. In short, it’s something more profound than a singular job or even a career: I like to think of it more as the driving purpose of one’s life.

In an important sense, Christians all have the same vocation, specifically set forth in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20; Acts 1:7-8). St. Paul reminds us that we are called to be a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1). Yet despite sharing in the same vocation, we do not go about living our lives in exactly the same way; we are all endowed with different Spiritual gifts that manifest in different ways (1 Corinthians 12:1-11), all for the purpose of serving the Body of Christ. The same is true of priests’ spouses.

The Vocation of a Priest’s Spouse

In a way, being a priest—and by extension, a priest’s spouse—specifies one’s vocation. It is important to understand that neither your priest nor your priest’s spouse is somehow an “ideal” Christian. They are not holier because their vocation is more specified. What it does mean, however, is that the fulfillment of their Christian vocation takes on a very specific set of objectives. For example, the priest’s job is not only to make disciples but specifically to care for and protect the flock of God (John 21:15-19). St. Paul is very clear in both his letters to Timothy and Titus that the family life of an elder is integral to judging the character of that person (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-7)

As I have thought about this over the years, I think the easiest way to understand my vocation as a priest’s spouse, is that I am called to be his partner; his helpmate (Genesis 2:18 – 25). This doesn’t mean I am second-rate or second-best. It doesn’t even mean that I don’t have a call of my own to a specific type of ministry. What it does mean is that part of my ministry will always include upholding my spouse in his ministry.

Of course, we expect this of all Christian spouses, regardless of who they are married to. What then makes being married to a priest different? There are two tangible ways in which being a priest’s spouse is more specified. The first is that, regardless of the church’s size, there is a level of visibility and attention directed to the priest’s spouse that doesn’t go without notice. Being a priest’s spouse means people notice you simply by virtue of who you are associated with. This visibility in and of itself is not bad but can be stressful; especially when it’s made known that there are certain (unnecessary) expectations for you as the priest’s spouse. 

The second way in which being a priest’s spouse differs is similar to the way in which a priest’s vocation differs from that of the lay person: we, by virtue of who we are married to, are called to serve and care for a particular congregation. There are priest’s spouses who attend different parishes than the one in which their priestly spouse serves. I’ve always found this to be a bit tragic. While I don’t presume to know why this happens, I’ve always believed that attending the same parish as your spouse is integral to your shared spiritual life. And for a priest’s spouse I think it’s even more important. 

I think the Orthodox tradition has a beautiful way of discussing the distinction in a priest’s spouse’s vocation. When a man is ordained a priest, if he is married, his wife also gains a title: while the priest becomes “Father”, his wife becomes “Mother.” She is seen as a mother of the church: someone to care and foster the people of God alongside her husband. They are not viewed separately but as a unit, both performing different jobs but acting out the same vocation of caring for the parish as parental figures.

It must seem foreign to the secular western world that my husband’s vocation—his “work”—so deeply affects my own life. Not just in whether I worry about him or not, or what types of stresses he brings home, or even what I could bring to the company Christmas potluck once a year. As a priest’s spouse, even if I don’t appear active on a Sunday morning or if I miss out on that one midweek event, I am involved, if only prayerfully from afar.

What does it look like?

No two priest’s spouses are the same and for good reason. The body of Christ is diverse yet whole. Therefore priests’ spouses, who are a part of that body, are just as diverse. All the same, much of our ministry tends to manifest itself in similar manners for many different reasons.

Seasons of Life

Just as everyone else in the Church, priests’ families go through different seasons. Those with young children often find themselves wrapped up in a little bit of children’s ministry, just as those with older children often find themselves volunteering to bring something to the next youth lock-in. During more stressful times, we find ourselves taking a step back to recover and restore our focus on God. During joyful times, we are just as enthusiastic to help as the next person.

I’ve known spouses who were heavily involved in just about everything the parish had to offer. They ran catechesis for children, helped out at Sunday lunch, and volunteered as co-op teachers, all while homeschooling children. I’ve also known spouses whose primary call to do God’s work was in their own field of work. They still upheld their priestly spouse and cared for the parish they were a part of in unique ways, but they had work elsewhere that was just as important. I’ve also known spouses who were stepping down; after many years as mentors and leaders, they were taking the chance for rest and passing on ministry to the next generation.

Church Dynamics

Something I have noticed is that a spouse’s role tends to change as the needs of the parish change. For example, my husband and I are part of a church plant in Spokane, Washington. Though we’ve only been here a few weeks, I am already on a rotation to serve at the altar, help with children’s ministry, and help edit sermons. And so is everyone else in the parish because we are serving in an “all hands on deck” situation as we try to get a church plant off the ground during a pandemic. My husband and I have always viewed ourselves as a team: we have different gifts and roles, but we are, ultimately, working together to do the work God has given us to do. In my experience, this is a common mindset among church planting families.

In larger churches, with more resources and more volunteers, priests’ spouses are more likely to find a specific area where they can use their gifts to help the church the most. This is not to say that the mentality of “being a team” doesn’t still prosper in these settings. I know firsthand that it does. But it looks different than in smaller churches or church plants where every willing hand is needed regardless of who that hand belongs to.

 The Struggles

As you may have guessed, being a priest’s spouse is not easy and just as we all have different gifts, we all have different struggles. I have struggled largely with how I am perceived. I worry that people will think that the only reason I am present at a function is because I am somehow required to be as a priest’s wife; or that the only reason I am interested in such-and-such aspect of ministry is because I am a priest’s wife. I sometimes find myself getting angry and wanting to staple my own seminary degree to my chest or to curl up in a ball and never leave the house. It sounds silly all written out. But it’s easy to forget you’re a child of God when you’re also a priest’s wife.

I’ve known other spouses who have felt like they were a single parent because of the demanding schedule their priestly spouse kept. I’ve known others still who have struggled to attend their parish because of painful things said to or about their spouse during times of discord. Still there are stories of others who simply could not find their voice and ended up divorced. There are stories of priests’ spouses that are worth weeping over.

Final Words

Given the struggles, I’d like to pass along two pieces of advice to current and potential priests’ spouses. The best piece of advice I’ve ever received was surrounding the birth of our son. Our friends and mentor family told us “You will get a lot of advice concerning your child; if it {the advice} doesn’t work for you, get rid of it.” The second-best piece of advice came from the same family and can be summed up in the phrase “don’t stop talking to each other”.

My husband has not stopped asking me how I feel about being a priest’s wife, even now that we’re in our fourth year of marriage. We talk often about the struggles we face as a couple and the struggles we face individually because of our unique vocations. It is not always a fun conversation to have; sometimes there are tears and sharing of sorrows and frustrations. But they are always worth having and they help us to better uphold and love one another.