News

Religion Course Examines Undefined, Rarely Acknowledged Role of Clergy Wives

by Davidson College
Prof. Anne Blue Wills and students
(l-r) Students Blair Ford '14 and Kelsi Hobbs '13 with Prof. Anne Blue Wills.

In "Married to the Ministry," a seminar created by Associate Professor of Religion Anne Blue Wills, 12 students researched the demands and expectations on clergy wives. Wills launched the course based on her observation that traditional clergy wives have significant involvement in their husbands' work with little recognition in return.

"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."

Much of Wills's research in the past has focused on how religion plays out amongst minority groups and women. While studying the famous Christian evangelist Billy Graham, Wills recognized that Graham could not have been such an influential 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 and taught "Married to the Ministry" with the idea of involving undergraduates in her clergy spouse research. The discussion-based seminar met for three hours, once a week, with students submitting short weekly papers.

"We read a lot of anecdotal accounts, past and present," remarked junior psychology major and religion minor Blair Ford. "One of the things that stood out to me was how little the traditional clergy spouse role has changed in the modern day," she added. "The role seemed very rigid and stifling to me at first, but as we kept studying different women, I developed a more comprehensive view."

Senior economics major Kelsi Hobbs came to believe clergy wives didn't seem to mind lesser recognition. "In most accounts I didn't get the sense that clergy wives felt underappreciated or as though they were being taken advantage of," Hobbs said. "I got the sense that they mostly didn't mind being there for their husbands, and that they were supporters because it was what they loved to do."

At the end of the seminar, students interviewed an active or retired married or formerly married clergyperson, clergy spouse or clergy couple, and wrote a final paper reflecting on their 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 the same obligations as clergy wives. For example, they do not feel pressure to attend church functions or to get to know the congregation in the same way as do clergy wives.

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 remained static.

Other interviewees included a retired, male Presbyterian minister who reflected on the support he received from his late wife of over 50 years, and a lesbian Episcopal clergy couple.

Professor 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.

Its focus, however, will probably 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 for other supporting roles in society generally filled by women -- such as the role of the politician's spouse.

According to Wills, recognizing women is a matter of historical accuracy. If women are molders and shapers of the male leaders in the church, we should know the women's contributions to the leadership roles so we can support women in their role as supporters.