August 4, 2017

Christian Women in Church Who Work

I am a pastor.

A male pastor.

A male pastor of a small “r” reformed, evangelical church plant that many would consider conservative.

I also have a wife who has a higher level of education than I, and who runs her own clinical psychology practice.  There has never been a point in our lives where we have remotely thought of Jill not working.  Even when our kids were very young the assumption was that Jill would work again in some capacity.  She loves her job, she’s good at it, and she feels vocationally called to it.

When we planted our church her income allowed us do exactly that: plant a church in a setting where there was no seed money to get it off the ground.  Sure, I could have done some other work as well as plant, but to be honest my ability to generate income is well below hers. Her work was a God-send in every way.

There was never a consideration that she would not work during this period. Nor was there a consideration that her job was merely a staging post to me getting to full time, whereupon she could do the “pastor’s wife thing”.  The aim of her job was not to ensure we had enough money so that I could do the real work in church, or that she could then join me in focussing primarily on that.  The creation story surely tells us that work is good in and of itself, and her work is no exception.

She’s not some generic pastor’s wife, because no woman is some generic pastor’s wife. I suspect we rarely ask the working wives of male pastors a whole lot about their jobs.  But the fact that Jill works is something that I enjoy too, though it can often be tiring for her.

I enjoy watching her use her gifts to help people in difficult situations, and watch how she grows a business that allows other people to flourish working in the business too. Our theological neglect of vocation, plus a general misunderstanding among some Christian groups about the role and value of psychology, often means that Jill has to double down on explaining why she does what she does.

We had a day off today, so we went out for a burger and a beer and found ourselves chatting about the pressures a Christian working woman finds herself under.

Here are four particular pressures that Jill noted:

i. In a church environment that struggles to engage meaningfully with the secular vocations their congregants are involved in, the working woman is even more invisible than the working man. In other words, the vocational calling of a Christian sister registers even lower in the collective mind of the church than that of their brothers.   It’s rare for work to be prayed for in church. Rarer still for a woman’s work.  And the assumption can often be that if she didn’t have to work she wouldn’t.  Not true.

ii. The cultural default among many Christians is that women find their way to be a stay at home mum eventually, or that that is their primary desire. Not a bad thing at all.  But also not true of all.  Now the following is not a hard and fast rule in churches, but if a man is not working then it is assumed that he will, one day, work, unless of course he is incapacitated or the like.  But not so for women.  Indeed the rhythm of church life for women gears around the assumption that “escaping the house and kids” for a weekend conference or an evening event, or a Bible Study is something all women want as often as they can.  Not working women.

For Jill, being home on a weekend and hanging out with our children is pure bliss.  For me, having her at home is pure bliss.  She does attend the occasional Saturday conference, but at an emotional and relational cost.  Sunday will be church, and it will be back into things by Monday for her.  Often there is an unspoken understanding that when Jill is not working she is then free – and willing – to hang out with other people.  She is, but sometimes those other people have to be the three others of us in our house, especially on a Saturday if we can.

iii. Which brings me to our third observation, and this may be peculiar to our own situation. For male church pastors who have wives that work vocationally outside of church, particularly in professional capacities, their core business is coming in to land just as ours is taking off.  Saturday and Sunday both feel like pressure days for ministry, and they are often full of people.  Saturdays and Sundays raise some conflicting emotions for Jill. Tomorrow morning  (Saturday) we have a Newcomers’ Brunch at our home.  On the back of a working week, that’s a cost I feel on her behalf.  She’s very happy to do tomorrow, but it will, to some extent, wear her out that little bit more.  I have come to have more sympathy for working women who sometimes just aren’t there at church on a Sunday because their relational jar for the week is overflowing.

It’s often the case that we have to manage our weekends carefully, and then guard any day off together that we have even more so.  Jill often gets asked by church people if they “can catch up on your day off.”   Two things mitigate against her saying “yes” to that too often (although she does). Firstly it could be our day off.  The modern culture picks and chooses weekends away and Christians pick and choose which Sunday to attend church. At best, families flick me an email saying they will be away. But often there’s just a no-show.  Long weekends, especially Easter we have noted, can be our lowest Sunday attendances. But not for us.  We just don’t do long weekends.  Not moaning about that, but it means for us that we cherish the days off that we get together.

Secondly, in a business, there is really no such thing as a “day off”.  Jill sees up to 21 clients for one hour sessions each across three days (working in the business) and then spends at least one other day writing reports, doing payroll, sorting tax and administration (working on the business).  Besides all this, we split the housework and chores pretty much fifty fifty.

iv. Women in church who work have much in common, but the very fact they work means it’s a struggle to catch up with each other.  That’s the irony of it all for Jill.  There are several women working in demanding professions in our church and they all identify with each other, feel each other’s pressures, but can rarely catch up with each other to talk about it, pray and encourage each other.  Jill is even now figuring out a social media way to make links with Christian women in the workplace and finding out how they can pray for each other and support one another, not simply to do workplace evangelism (though that is possible), but for the very vocational tasks they undertake.

Finally, as I sit and listen to Jill as she explains some of the truly complicated ways that humans are struggling, especially those who attend her practice who are not Christian, it makes me realise how my own job can be so divorced from the reality and brokenness of the world around me.

There’s been a huge furore in Australia over the issue of domestic violence in churches the past few weeks.  Here’s what I have learned from my wife’s work.  DV is bigger, uglier, nastier and more emotionally, physically and spiritually taxing than we can begin to imagine, whether that’s in society in general or in church. And people such as my wife bear the brunt of dealing with the trail of destruction it brings – every day.   She has spoken so much wisdom and truth to me about this situation over the years, that nothing at all in the past few weeks has remotely surprised me.  She’s helped me in my role as a pastor far beyond what any workshop or training could have done in this area.  And if that alerts me to just one case of DV in my own church that we can head off at the pass because I know the signals, then that alone would make her job worthwhile.


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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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