"Ping-Pong balls in the medicine cabinet." My friend Judy's voice is firm as she offers this unusual advice, although as soon as she dispenses it, the image it conjures up sends us both into fits of giggles.

"Pull yourself together now," Judy finally orders me, trying to regain her composure and attempting, halfheartedly, a serious tone. "Ping-Pong balls in the medicine cabinet may be your only recourse."

The problem Judy and I are mulling, between sips of red wine and bites of leftover pizza, is one well-known to clergy spouses the world over: how to deal with curious congregants, in this case those fond of sneaking a peek in the medicine cabinet during the annual open house my husband and I hold for the church congregation. A cascade of Ping-Pong balls, Judy speculates, might provide an excellent discouragement.

Judy and I, both young pastors' wives in those days, quickly learned that a sense of humor was essential to surviving the peculiar stresses and strains of life in the parish. Arguably, no other profession inflicts quite the same mix of scrutiny, expectation, and duty on those married to its practitioners. Yet every clergy spouse I've spoken to also points to moments of great joy, amazing support, or spiritual growth that have come from being married to a man or woman of the cloth.

It seemed easier somehow to keep in touch with other pastors' wives back in those days. There were many of us in the small Midwestern town where my husband had his first parish, and for those of us who were young mothers, sitting around someone's kitchen drinking coffee while the kids investigated the pots and pans became a pleasant pastime.

But by the time Lee and I moved back to the city, our boys were in school and I was working again, and my busy schedule no longer accommodated coffee klatches. As time passed, I realized just how much I missed those opportunities to share the trials and tribulations of this unique lifestyle with the only other people who really understood--my fellow clergy spouses.

I decided to investigate, looking beyond just the wives of Protestant clergymen, my main contact with other clergy spouses in the past. What I found was that clergy spouses from a wide range of religions, cultures, and backgrounds weren't shy at all about telling me what bugs them most about their role--and what makes it worthwhile. And they usually have a few surprises about what it's really like to live with the man or woman who seems so holy in the pulpit each week.

"One of my greatest joys is that I've really been able to learn about Buddhism and make it a part of my life," says Kiyo Masuda, a Fresno, California, high school administrator whose husband, William, is a Buddhist minister. Without the opportunities she's had to meet Buddhist teachers from all over the world and to participate in temple life with her husband, "I might be just a nominal Buddhist," Masuda says.

When Masuda's life took a tragic turn, her faith and community of support became her lifeline. "Our daughter was starting her first day as a sophomore at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She was riding on the back of her boyfriend's motor scooter when she fell off and broke her neck and died." As the family faced the unbearable grief of losing a child, Masuda's deep faith and the support of the temple community helped pull her through. "My faith helped me understand and make sense of it," Masuda recalls. "I didn't have to be angry. It was no one's fault, it was karmic--it was an accident."

Like Masuda, I've known moments of feeling lifted above my cares and worries by the prayers and support of my husband's congregation. As a foster parent, I simply can't imagine doing what I do without that support. And yet there is a darker side, well known to clergy spouses from every religion and denomination, of being the center of so much attention.

"Expectations--oh yes," says Young Kim, director of a furniture bank for homeless families in the Seattle area and the husband of a Unitarian Universalist minister. "There's often the unspoken expectation that I'm going to be heavily involved in the church." Kim and his wife, Suzelle Lynch, took the unusual step of having it written into Lynch's letter of agreement with the church that Kim will not be expected to participate in church affairs. The idea wasn't so much that Kim planned to avoid all church activities--rather, he wanted to be allowed to decide for himself how he would get involved "at my own pace," he explains. In real life, though, it's not always that clean.

"It's lots of small things," Kim sighs. "I go by to drop something off at the church, and I notice that the door is unlocked, the PA system is on, the piano is uncovered. So I take care of it."

Although expectations remain a big issue, spouses have made significant strides in the 40 years since she became a rabbi's wife, said Meryl Tattelbaum, whose husband, Harvey, is a Reform rabbi in New York City. Although she had a background in religious education, "I did not work outside the home," Tattelbaum recalls. "Basically, I was the rabbi's wife."

In the early days of her marriage, it was simply understood that the rabbi's wife would attend certain events, such as meetings of the sisterhood. But then came the women's movement, "and things changed, the world changed, and I changed my modus operandi," Tattelbaum recalls. "I found that I could choose the things I could do and wanted to do, and still be a part of things."

Tattelbaum helped found the Spouse Support Group of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. She cites congregational expectations as one of the top two issues for rabbis' spouses in the group. The other is loneliness, which is a major issue for clergy spouses in general, according to Priscilla Blanton, a University of Tennessee professor of child and family studies who has researched clergy family stress for the past 15 years.

"It's not that they don't have social activities, it's that they don't have intense friendships," Blanton says of clergy spouses. "They are part of their communities, engaged in activities, but there are perceived boundaries. It's emotional loneliness."

Other stresses mentioned by Blanton and the clergy spouses I spoke with include low pay, frequent moves, and the lack of equity and privacy associated with living in a parsonage. Blanton notes that paying clergy more, offering counseling to families in trouble, and making sure clergy and their spouses get positive feedback and not just complaints would help ease the stress.

One thing that surprised me as I talked to a wide variety of clergy spouses is how many concerns we have in common--despite profound differences in religion, culture, and geography. Blanton says her research bore out the same conclusion. "I found far more similarities than differences," she notes.

Kiyo Masuda, for instance, the Buddhist minister's wife, shares one of my pet peeves. "Sometimes the minister is seen as this perfect person," she says with a smile. "He's so wise, kind, this and that. But he can still come home grumpy, and he can still upset me with what he did or didn't do. My husband is a human being like anyone else, with good points and bad."

My husband, Lee, a Presbyterian minister, has often been described, and rightly so, as a person with an unusually calm, serene presence. What his admiring parishioners don't know, however, is that at home this quality sometimes evinces itself to a point where it borders on the catatonic. This is particularly true when his wife and three children all clamor for his attention the minute he gets home from a day of prison visits, hospital calls, and the Presbyterian favorite--long meetings.

But like the Masudas, my husband and I have been blessed with a happy marriage and an ability to laugh, most of the time, at the foibles of life in the holy fishbowl.

After 40 years of marriage, Meryl Tattelbaum and her husband, Harvey, can still see the lighter side of their roles as well. "My greatest joy in being a rabbi's wife...hmmm," she muses as we start our telephone conversation. Suddenly, she laughs. "My husband just said my greatest joy is listening to his sermons!"

"Humor, I think, is the best gift God ever gave anyone," says Mary Alma Parker, who runs a mail-order library in Charleston, South Carolina. Parker's led an unusual life even by clergy spouse standards. In 1976, her husband James, then an Episcopal priest, decided to convert to Roman Catholicism. In 1982, special permission from Rome allowed him to become the first married Roman Catholic priest in the U.S. Parker has faced enough scrutiny and curiosity in the years since then to know first-hand just how important a sense of humor can be. "You have to be able to laugh at odd situations. Maybe not laugh at the time--that might get you in trouble! But laugh when you can."

My interviews end, and I find somewhat to my surprise that I am feeling a little less lonely, a little stronger about facing the church's expectations, a little more confident with my coping toolbox. I determine not to let so much time pass again before I spend time with my brother and sister clergy spouses. Their grace and humor in facing this challenging life is something I realize I need a dose of more often.

Judy and I may have been on the right track after all.

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