You know my sympathies are with clergy wives. You know my default mode is to give the priest’s wife the benefit of the doubt. But if you saw my last post, you know I don’t believe anyone is exempt from messing up. And on this subject as so many others, clergy wives are just about invisible, the advice addressed to them non-existent. These points are only my opinion. It is the opinion of a priest’s wife with long experience. Well, long but not that broad. I think I have said before, we have been in our present parish a very long time, and it is a good parish. A very good parish. But I have been in parishes not so good. I have seen times even in this very good parish that were not so good. I know other clergy wives in parishes not so good. It can be rotten, and I sympathize, because in the past I have had some of those trying experiences.
If you are new at being presbytera or matuschka or khouriya or any other special title meaning priest’s wife, or if your husband is currently in seminary or thinking of going to seminary, it may help you to think about these points. If you currently find yourself in a not-so-good parish or in a crisis of some kind, they may help you to pause and think about the next steps to take. I can’t help you with specifics about steps to take in your own diocese or jurisdiction—every situation is different. But I will share with you some observations that you can think about as you seek to find your own path. No-one sets out to fail at being the priest’s wife, do they? But they do.
Very often that failure is tied to their husband failing as a priest. I know, nobody wants to talk about priests failing. But they do. Maybe sometimes it can’t be helped. You probably know all that stuff about dysfunctional family systems—if one member of the family is mentally and emotionally unhealthy, then it is pretty hard for the other members to stay on track. Sometimes it is the clergy wife who is her own worst enemy and the main cause of shipwreck in her husband’s ministry. Remember, my default is support for the clergy wives. But after several decades of failure, success, pain, sorrow, joy, anger, and all the rest, I can tell you what I’ve been and what I’ve seen. Clergy wives may have no control over the gossips in the parish or their finances or the power struggles in the parish or with the bishop, but they do have free will and the choice not to go blindly ahead with bad decisions. Like anyone else, clergy wives have control over no-one’s behavior but their own—and not always that much of that.
So here, in no particular order, is a list of things that I think will contribute to failing at being a presbytera.
1. Don’t want to be a presbytera in the first place. I don’t know how women in this situation get to the place where their husband is ordained, but they do. If you want to fail, convince yourself you want to be a clergy wife, even though every fibre of your being is crying out NO. Talk positive to other people. Don’t mention to your husband that you don’t want to do this thing. Don’t seek out help from clergy couples or the bishop or your confessor or the dean.
2. Want too bad to be a presbytera. Be the one in the driver’s seat while your husband hangs back. Get over-involved in his theology classes, and open your mouth with the answers when people ask him a question.
Let’s assume you get there— wanting too little, too much, or just enough, you get there anyway. How can you fail at being the priest’s wife once you are already there? After all, you get the honorary title automatically when he gets ordained, right? Well, here are some more ways to fail:
3. Don’t act respectful to him in public. If you aren’t acting respectful in private, that’s bad enough. But it only takes once for a parishioner to see you disrespecting your husband for them to decide they don’t need to respect him either.
4. Act entitled. Be seen being involved with demands for a raise, for instance. Don’t help out with the ordinary tasks like the kitchen cleanup—you’re too busy being spiritual, doing the choir stuff or sitting in church praying or something.
5. Or on the other hand, rush to fulfil every unreasonable expectation of the parishioners that you run the women’s group, be at every service, meeting and gathering for every sub-group in the church, direct the choir, teach the Sunday school etc. etc. If you are going to fail, the surest though not always the fastest way to do it is to forget the meaning or even existence of the word balance.
6. Open your mouth with your opinion on every topic possible. Especially political ones. And personal ones. Personal topics are political, and political ones are personal. Be sure to be daringly politically correct, especially if your parish has a lot of people who are more conservative than you. Because they are just mean old fogeys, and you are better educated and you –know- you are right, even if you are supporting ideas that your own Orthodox hierarchy have spoken against. This goes double for anything you do on the internet.
7. Or suppose you are on the more ‘traditional’ end of the spectrum, and some of your parish aren’t—you can still fail as presbytera, it’ll just be via a slow smolder instead of a sudden explosion—all you have to do is never miss an opportunity to correct every little thing about the way people don’t fast well enough, don’t make the sign of the cross right, don’t make their children keep quiet in church. Self-righteousness comes in both flavors, but it’s basically the same thing.
8. Make friends in the parish. I know, this one is controversial. Maybe it depends how you define ‘friend’. But I know many tales of clergy couples who found the way to failure through having confidants and close buddies in the parish. So if you want to fail, pay attention to this one. You can get other people in the parish all jealous and resentful and complaining that you play favorites; you can lean on somebody you thought you could trust only to have them turn on you in a public meeting.
9. I suppose we take it for granted that the priest’s wife will mostly be in church. But strangely enough, I do know of some (usually the ones that were never too keen about being presbytera to begin with) who really are hardly there at all, and clearly not very interested in church, pursuing their own careers and hobbies instead. Definitely a good way to fail.
10. The invisible failure is not praying. Even non-failing presbyteras fall for this one from time to time. I don’t think I’ve ever completely quit praying myself, but sometimes I just don’t keep with the routine. That’s a fail.
These are all I can think of at the moment, but they should be plenty to get you to failure. I invite other clergy wives with experience to chime in on this topic with anything that might be useful for your fellow presbyteras. As I said, these points are my own opinion from my own experience; yours may differ, and it is worth having some different voices here.