To Orthodox laywomen, regarding the wives of your priests:
These are the women who are married to priests:
They are just like you.
They love and support their husbands and want them to succeed.
They are trying to raise their children in the Faith they love.
They are managing their families’ health and household needs on a daily basis.
Sometimes they are engaged in ministries or careers with a strong sense of calling, where they work with a great feeling of personal fulfilment and regular awareness of accomplishing something worthwhile. Sometimes they are working ill-paying, soul-deadening jobs, full time or part time, just to make ends meet in their household.
They are just like you, but often their lives are not just like the lives of most of you.
They live in a fishbowl, like the wives of a politicians. But without all the glamour.
They are sent to live, more often than not, far away from family and friends, like military wives. But not always with guaranteed housing or income.
They have husbands who are on 24 hour call, like the wives of emergency responders.
And besides all this…. indeed, before all this…. they live their life, and direct the life of their family, around the matrix of the services and life of the church. Almost like monastics, but they have to balance as much fullness of liturgical life as possible with the same balancing act other women do with work and family.
They are in the social life of the parish, but not of it in the same way as the other women in the parish. They are often expected to be at every event in the parish, from midweek services (whether or not they have to go to a regular job) to food festivals to Sisterhood meetings ( whether or not they can afford a babysitter); but then at those events, the fact that they are outsiders to the established cliques can become palpable.
They don’t want you to be their BFF and close confidant, but they don’t want you to ignore them either.
They really, really don’t want you to talk about them behind their backs (does anyone want that?) They really, really want you to treat their children as kindly as you (hopefully) treat other children in the church. As kindly as you would want your own children to be treated by other adults in the church.
They really, really, don’t want you to complain about their husbands, to their faces or to anyone else.
They do not want special entitlements. They don’t care if you address them by titles such as presbytera or matushka or pani—unless you are making a point of not doing so.
They just want their husbands not to be treated like hired help. They just want their families not to live in abject poverty, scrambling to work several jobs and get to services too, while many parishioners live a more than comfortable lifestyle without making decent regular contributions to the church finances or bothering to attend services if something more interesting comes their way.
Make no mistake: the wives of priests have chosen this life, for themselves and their children. It can and ought to be a good life, but they know it can be terribly challenging and stressful. They want to be at services. They want to contribute to the ministry of the parish in teaching church school, singing in the choir, helping at fundraisers or in some other way. But they want to be able to choose which of those they do and how much they do, the same as you do, so that they can keep their life and family in balance.
They probably pray for their parish and its members every day. Maybe more often, if you are one of those who criticize their husbands or are unkind to their children.
There is good soil everywhere, and some people who are open to sympathize with the priest’s wife just don’t know how best to help her. If you are one of those, here are some of the ways:
- Make her and her family welcome when they first arrive. Tell them about your life, about the neighbourhood and community. Let them know that you are without agenda and that your care for them is unconditional.
- Pray for her and her family. I know this is an obvious piety and invisible, but it is powerful. You do not even need to tell her, unless you think she would appreciate hearing that you keep her in your prayers regularly – not just when some kind of crisis or unpleasantness has happened in the parish.
- Be open to finding a way to deliver some of those prayers. She may need babysitting, or prepared meals offered during a time of particular stress. Helping wrangle children in church, in a tactful and friendly way, can be a big one for a priest’s wife with several children and often responsibility in the choir as well. Have a care for her normal human pride as you do—you don’t want to make her an object of ‘charity’ in the condescending sense, but to treat her as a member of the family who just needs a little help from you.
- Show appreciation. Gifts at Christmas or Pascha demonstrate that you don’t take them for granted, but a personal note detailing your appreciation of specific things the priest and his wife have done in the parish can be even more meaningful. The cake will be eaten gratefully this week, but a warm and sincere note may be tucked away to look at again in future days.
- Stand up publicly for the priest and his family. This is a big one—in fact, in the end, the one that will matter more than anything else. It will possibly result in more trouble than you really want. But, dear layperson, it is the right thing to do. As the saying goes, for evil to succeed, it is only necessary for those of good will to do nothing. Through prayer and persistence, it is possible that you may help to initiate a change in the culture of a priest-eating parish. There are such places, but I believe in most cases it need not be entirely hopeless—if only some of the laity will have the courage to speak up when the priest is criticized, the wife is gossipped about, the children are mistreated. It is easier to nip such things in the bud when they are small and at the first offence, rather than wait till there is a crisis. Be the first to raise your hand to vote in a raise for the priest, the first to dare rebuke the gossip. The priest and his family cannot be the ones to make the difference in such cases—it is the laity who affect the atmosphere parish, especially when the priest is new to them. If you speak up…. others may follow, and the priest’s family will be buoyed up by the swell of support they feel from that.
There are already in many parishes people who do all these things and more for the priest’s wife and her family, God bless them—we have several in ours. If you are a priest’s wife and have such people in your parish, let them know you appreciate their appreciation!
I realize this blog is one that mostly preaches to the ‘choir’, as it were, of other clergy wives. These thoughts come from the things I have heard from many of them over the years.
And here’s the trick with this post which I have addressed not largely to priests’ wives, but to laywomen in the parish: your priest’s wife can’t really be the one to forward or post an article like this one to the people who really need it, or it becomes a kind of passive-aggressive dig at their husbands’ antagonists. So do share it with other clergy wives, Orthodox or not—there is a great sisterhood of common experience out there. And perhaps if you have friends in other parishes who are not clergy wives, who are understanding and sympathetic laywomen, and indeed to men in the church as well, maybe they too can share it around without being accused of having a vested interest.