Study the weekly calendars of most American churches, and somewhere there will be a reference to a “prayer group,” or words to that effect.
These gatherings may take place at church, in homes or at a coffee shop. The format will usually be informal, but -- after snacks and a devotion of some kind -- people are offered time to share what is happening in their lives so others can pray for them.
But what is a pastor’s spouse supposed to do with his or her personal prayer requests?
Consider these numbers from a recent LifeWay Research survey of 720 spouses randomly selected from a multi-denominational list of Protestant pastors. Nearly 50 percent of clergy spouses said their candid prayer requests “would just become gossip,” with 11 percent “strongly” agreeing. Half said they no longer confide with church members because they have been “betrayed too many times.”
“For these spouses, the walls around them are pretty high,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “If you ask them to open up with people in a new church community, they’re already going to be pretty cautious about doing that.”
While this survey found high levels of satisfaction among clergy spouses, concerns about privacy and isolation are the “kind of thing that seminaries may need to warn people about when their spouses go into the ministry,” he said.
There’s more. Nearly 70 percent of these clergy spouses said they had few friends with whom they could be candid. Just over half said they had experienced “personal attacks” in their current church.
Are they are living in a “fishbowl”? Half agreed. Was there pressure to be a “model family” for others? Yes, said 79 percent of the spouses, with 86 percent saying they were expected to have a “model marriage.”
Many members of clergy families learn to hide. The wife of one of America’s most famous pastors was stunningly candid in a recent “Christianity Today” essay entitled, “We Were In Marital Hell.”
“I’ve always been a church girl. Most of my earliest memories are tied to the people and the small churches my dad pastored in San Diego, California,” began Kay Warren, the wife of the Rev. Rick Warren of the giant Saddleback Church in Orange County. “I remember feeling the pressure to be the perfect pastor’s kid who knew all the right answers to Bible trivia questions. I recall the heavy pressure to be a model for other people and especially the pressure not to embarrass or cause shame to my parents by exposing our family flaws. ...
“A few incidents weren’t related to my dad’s job, and they marked me in ways that have taken me years to overcome. I was molested by the son of the church janitor when I was 4 or 5. I remember not telling my parents because it was ‘bad’ and because as a young child I didn’t have the language to express what had happened.”
In previous generations, these “glass houses” were called parsonages, and many pastors’ families lived in homes on the other side of a church parking lot. Church members could simply walk over and knock on the pastor’s front door.
Today, parsonages are rare for Protestants. However, for many clergy families, the fishbowls have moved online, as in the omnipresent apps on the smartphones in every church member’s purse or pocket.
McConnell said this survey didn’t ask specific social-media questions, but everyone knows that topic will have to be raised in the future. Can the spouses and children of pastors afford to display their lives on Facebook, Instagram and in similar digital forums? How does a preacher’s kid prove that it was soda in that red plastic cup in a high-school party photo?
Social media is “where you’re on display these days,” said McConnell. In addition to matters of privacy, it’s also inevitable that debates about tense church-life issues -- from financial realities to clashes over worship trends -- will end up online.
“I guess it’s possible to stay off social media. ... Without social media, you can at least try to tune out some of the feedback. But if you’re on social media, you’re going to hear people talking about church. You’re going to hear people saying, ‘Why are we doing church this way instead of that way?’ ... Monday morning quarterbacking is the norm.”
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)