The Hard Life of a Minister’s Wife

By Sarah Downey

Being a minister’s wife is not the easiest of jobs. What other vocation makes a woman responsible for not only her own family but a whole flock of needy parishioners? A minister’s wife must be ready to assume the duties of a doctor, psychiatrist, teacher, or cheerleader. Finding time for herself can be next to impossible, and members of the congregation can be critical of her manners, her hair, and the clothes their contributions helped put on her back.

During the 15 years that her husband has been minister at High Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey, Bernice Grant has brought God’s word everywhere from jails to hospitals. “It’s not always easy,” she says. “Young people want to do things their way when we want to do things the Bible way.” Her husband, Lewis, was a construction worker when she married him 25 years ago. “When he told me he wanted to become a minister, I said to him, ‘Are you sure?’ Maybe if I’d known, I wouldn’t have married him. Talk to any minister’s wife, she’ll tell you the same thing.”

Last week Grant and hundreds of women like her attended the 59th annual convention of the International Association of Ministers’ Wives and Ministers’ Widows at the Hyatt Regency in Rosemont. “Our husbands, sometimes they think we put this before them,” says Grant. But of course, that’s the point–to let one’s hair down and take a much-needed break from the daily regimen of being a minister’s wife. “Some problems we can talk to our husbands about and some we can’t. So the wives come here to talk to each other.” When the teenage girls in her Bible study class ignore her advice, Grant may not feel comfortable venting her frustrations to a member of the congregation, but she can always talk to Mattie Woods, the minister’s wife from Bright Hope Missionary Baptist Church in nearby Montclair, New Jersey. “Mattie and I can talk about anything.”

The job is more complicated than it was 25 years ago. During the convention, ministers’ wives study topics ranging from computers to conversational Spanish to holistic healing to sex education–specifically, how to recognize the symptoms of syphilis, herpes, and AIDS. “This is the only organization that actually trains women to be wives of ministers,” says Celeste Ashe-Johnson, president of the group. “It becomes necessary, in the context of family, to explore these particular areas so we can help our young people.”

Susan D. Smith presents the seminar on sex education. The minister’s wife at Apostolic Church of God in Woodlawn, she’s also an AIDS clinical trial pharmacist at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Lincoln Park. She punctuates her speech with amen, gingerly explaining the risks of teen pregnancy and STDs and the peace of mind brought by abstinence. Her audience, a crowd of a thousand, is riveted by the speech, but when she asks what sexuality means to them, a long silence follows before a single hand goes up.

Using an overhead projector and references to scripture, Smith makes an eloquent push for abstinence. “Sexuality without control can get you in a lot of trouble. All we have to do is look around and we see that there are too many babies in our churches that were born outside of marriage. It’s mind-boggling. Amen.”

After the speech several audience members say they want to buy a videotape of Smith’s lecture. “We will take this back to New Jersey and hope it works,” says Grant. “A lot of times, they’ll just laugh. You know how kids are. So we just go right back to the Bible, where it says that sex is very important and exciting but it’s for marriage. I don’t want the kids to think that sex is bad, but it’s for marriage.”

Plenty of study aids are for sale at the convention, particularly paperback books (The Healthy Church, Humor for Ministers and Lay People in the Church–Everyday Jokes!). Still, says Woods, those only go so far: “That’s why we need the fellowship and support of our sisters.” Grant seconds that: “This is special because it gets us away from the telephone, the work, the church. It’s nice to get away from the church sometimes.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Essential Photography–Chicago.