The role of a pastor’s wife can at times be difficult, but I never regret doing what God has called me to do.
By Janice Peterson
Eugene had to convince me over a period of years that my calling to be a pastor’s wife was just as important, if not more so, than his of being a pastor. It was the 1960s, and good ol’ Betty Friedan was on every talk show, telling us women that we must exert and express ourselves and not let men put us down. But even when women began leaving the home in droves to go into the work force, God used that tension to allow me to say to myself, “But this is what I really want to do. This is what God has called me to do—serve my husband and my church, my children and my community.” And I thank God to this day that I have stayed with what I perceived as my calling. I was called to a different kind of service than some of the women around me.
Though I have desired to serve, it has probably only been in the last twenty years or so that I have come to understand what my gifts are and what those gifts look like in serving others. But I take heart in meeting people like Father Kilian McDonnell, a Benedictine monk at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and reading his books of poems, which he started writing at the age of seventy-five. And I am reminded of Grandma Moses, who started painting her humble but lovely country scenes at the age of seventy-eight. Wendell Berry, in his poetry book Leavings, reminds me that I am not old but new, that each new phase of my life is just that—new. I’ve never been “here” before. Each phase of my bodily changes are “new,” not old. So I take heart and receive encouragement from fellow pilgrims such as these, friends who are as old or older than me and continue to venture forth in new beginnings. My life—indeed, what I think of as my identity—is serving others. So except for speaking at an occasional retreat I have led over the years or writing many letters and notes of encouragement to friends and acquaintances in need of gifts of love and relationship, my life, at least in the past fifty-nine years of marriage, has been about serving others: serving family, serving friends, serving our community and serving whatever congregation God has called us to.
In 1962, we moved with our two-year-old daughter to a new congregation Eugene was called to start for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in a rural area of Harford County, twenty miles northeast of Baltimore, Maryland. We had been blessed and sent off by the White Plains Presbyterian Church in New York, where we had been serving as associate pastor and wife for the previous three years. It was there that Eugene terminated his doctoral dissertation work while under the leadership of Dr. and Mrs. William J. Wiseman, as he realized for the first time in his life that this pastoral calling was authentic, in-the-trenches work. For Eugene, there was so much more richness of life and life’s issues in the church than in the classroom. He knew that this was his calling in life—to be a pastor. He knew that he had been a pastor all his life but had no models to recognize himself in until working with Bill Wiseman. Now, together as a young pastor and pastor’s wife, we began learning together just what this calling was and how to live it. (And how not to do it!)
Because Maryland was originally settled as a Catholic colony, we now had a distinct separation of church and state and therefore could not use a public school to rent for our services on Sunday mornings. Our presbytery’s New Church Development leaders recommended that we settle in the neighborhood where they had purchased over six acres of land four years earlier for a new church site—and that we purchase a house with the largest basement to hold our services. The Board of National Missions paid the down payment (we were missionaries!) and our full salary for one year. They would continue making house payments and paying our salary, dropping it by a third each year for the new church to pick up and pay. So, by the end of three years, the church would be self-supporting. I thought that that was a good way to do it, and thankfully, our little flock was able to cover the cost of our housing and salary. The rub for me, though, was that the salary offer was $2,000 less than we had been making in White Plains, and our little family of three was soon going to add a new family member. We had been making $7,500 a year as associate pastor, and now we were making less while organizing and hosting a new church in our home. It was a lot more work and personal involvement.
During those years, I learned that I loved serving people through our home. I didn’t mind having the church meet in our basement—at all. I was glad to be able to serve people and welcome people. Yes, it was a bit of work (especially since we couldn’t afford a dryer, and I had to hang the diapers up in the basement and then take them down before the deacons came over), but I liked it. I think I could have afforded a dryer if it hadn’t been for John Wilson, who went to our church. He worked at the furniture store, and when I went to look at a dryer, he stood in front of this beautiful red desk as we talked. I kept looking at that desk instead of him, so I got that desk instead of a dryer. I always blamed John Wilson for not having a dryer for several years.
When we went to teach at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, I loved serving people in our home because it was something that I could do for the students. It meant that it wasn’t just Eugene that was called to Regent; I had a place there where I could invest in the students. All the faculty wives were attentive to the school and students. This was a surprise to me, that anybody would want to seek me out and spend time one-on-one with me, and a lot of students and spouses of students particularly did. Toward the end of one group’s time at Regent, they asked if we could keep in touch by writing round-robin letters, so we did that for at least two years. I gave them encouragement and helped them adjust to their new roles. They would talk about what they were going through, and I saw my particular service as supporting them in their new life stage. It was very, very sweet and very helpful. And then other people in the community seemed to take to me as well.
I’ve also found serving to be a consistent thread in my role as a wife and mother. I’ve always put my hands to the plow and did what was needed to take care of my family. As so many women before me (such as my mother and mother-in-law, to name two) have done, I learned how to cook seasonally and use powdered milk rather than whole milk in my cooking. I cut and used coupons for things we would buy anyway and bought cheaper cuts of meat that meant having to cook them longer (but that’s when my slow cooker came to the rescue). I cooked closer to the source, using none of those Hamburger Helper or other expensive boxes of helpful and time-saving aids. I’ve since learned that those inner aisles of the grocery store are not good for us with all the additives that lengthen shelf life and that the outside wall edges are where we can find the whole foods that are healthier for us. At that time, I was spending fifty cents a day per family member for food, if you can believe it. Of course, food prices are much higher today, so that same food would cost a lot more now. But I was learning about food and how to prepare it, reading every recipe I could get my hands on and experimenting with herbs and spices. I learned economical wisdom that I have never forgotten or given up. When food prices soared in the ’60s and ’70s, my challenge became even keener. I am glad I learned early, because two years after our son Eric was born, baby brother Leif joined us in the house church.
If you are a wife and mother, then you know this kind of service all too well. It may look different for you, but each of us learns to sacrifice to serve our family. We make meals at the end of the day, we clean, we do laundry, and sometimes it feels like it never ends. But this is an act of service, and there is spiritual value to this rhythm of loving our families well.
Some of us may feel that our service is limited by our role—that we need to serve in ways that people expect of us. I certainly wrestled with this as a pastor’s wife. In my era, people had strong opinions about what a pastor’s wife should or should not be doing—the pastor’s wife played the piano and was the one who poured tea at the women’s’ meetings. (I told Eugene when we were still in the dating days that I didn’t play the piano. It didn’t seem to be an issue with him, thankfully.) I would have hoped that by now, pastors’ wives would be accepted for who they are, but as I spend time with the younger ones today, I hear some of the same things still going on. My young friend Debbie told me that one of their parishioners said to her, “In our last church, the pastor’s wife did such and such,” suggesting that Debbie should be doing that, too. Debbie asked me, “How should I respond to that kind of thing?” I told Debbie to just thank her and say something like, “She must have been a wonderful woman.” And leave it at that. I encouraged her to live her life as a pastor’s wife, serving out of her faith journey and her own gifts, not out of others’ expectations. And she does. Debbie has her own gifts. She’s her own person. She serves not because anyone told her to, but because that’s where she’s called. As a young person, you have to discover your gifts. You don’t know what all your gifts are until you grow up. When expectations are imposed on you, you can’t discover those gifts.
When it comes to how and where I’ve been called to serve, I frankly couldn’t and can’t be something I’m not deep within myself. I am Jan. What you see is what you get. As we open up our hearts to the Lord, I believe he “grows” us in our gifts and how we should serve. He knows our hearts and our desires and is true to us. You have been created with unique gifts and a unique call to serve right where you are. What things has God placed on your heart? How have you been created? Lean in to those things and see what God wants to do as you serve others.
Of course, standing firm in who we are and serving from how we’ve been created doesn’t mean we should step on toes. I try to be the loving servant God has called me to be, even if I feel I am being criticized or not accepted in that way. There are some people we will never be able to please. And, really, we are here to please our heavenly Father. As long as we follow his lead in how we use our gifts to serve others, we are serving just as we ought.
Adapted from Becoming Gertrude by Janice Peterson. Copyright © 2018. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.