Reframing Clergy, Clergy Spouses, and "Smokin’ Hot Wives"

Ordained ministry is not the only profession struggling with the role of women in leadership. Truthfully, I don’t know how we fare when set alongside other major professions. My hunch is, in some ways, the church is doing better than other professions. In other ways, probably far worse.

These issues are difficult, of course, precisely because they get at fundamental understandings (assumptions) about the intersection of family and professional life. And they are pronounced for clergy because, for better or worse, few other professions have quite the public-life that our clergy-family members face. (Perhaps only politician’s families come close, and there is a similar conversation at play there…)

The “Reframing We Need”
I am led to the following: Precisely because ministry is a profession that intersects with almost every “family” you can think of (clergy family, church-member family, congregation-as-family), The Church should be leading on these issues more than we are now.

Because what we do, what we “assume,” has an impact not only our our individual “clergy families,” but also on all these other kinds of families too.

To really see a significant change in the role of clergy women today, we need a “reframing.” We must “reframe” our understanding of “clergy families.” Neither clergy men or clergy women get left out of this reframing, nor do their spouses. All are called upon to “reframe” as society and the Church also change.

What’s inspired me to write on this is an incredible blog by my colleague, Rev. Christy Thomas. The title alone pulls you in and demands your attention: “Missing Babies, Feral Males, “Smokin’ Hot Wives,” and Female Appointments.”

Man o’ man. That just might be the single greatest blog title in recorded history.

It’s well worth your read, and you probably won’t fully “get” where I’m going, or why, unless you spend some time with it here.

The careful thread Christy weaves is about the relationship between men, women, and power. The first two points (“Selective Abortion,” and “Feral Males”) are powerfully connected thoughts, primarily in an international context.
I pray she’s wrong about the whole thing. I’m pretty sure she’s not.

Then, Christy shifts the conversation back to our American context with: “Smokin’ Hot Wives,” and “Female Appointments.”

I must confess something, and I hope in this I am not rendering myself totally naive and out-of-touch. But never before reading this blog had I heard of the “Smokin’ Hot Wives” phenomenon. If you’re clueless too, Christy’s got a link that will bring you up to speed.

I guess that’s a part of the male-clergy culture I have missed. (Do I need to get out more?)

About “Smokin’ Hot Wives,” Christy says this:
“For the last several years, young, virile, charismatic male superstar pastors have made a big deal of their “smokin’ hot wives.”  It appears to be a way to let everyone knows how sexually potent these pastors are…The  phrase objectifies women, placing all their worth only on their ability to be sexually attractive.”

Of course, I think she’s dead-on. The thread she weaves in her final section, “Female Pastoral Appointments” is connected to “Smokin’ Hot Wives,” in that the one virtually excludes the possibility of the other.
If a church is used to a “Smokin’ Hot Wife,” what happens when a woman pastor shows up?
One with a fairly average-looking husband? Or even a single one?
How are either one of them able to live up to the assumptions about “family” that have been put in place by the “Smokin’ Hot Wife” model?

It’s a mighty good question.

BTW, The Judge just came in and read the draft of this blog. Her take on “Smokin’ Hot Wives?” If you need to brag about your wife publicly, you’re probably not nearly as viral, studly, and charismatic a man as you think. Those that are, don’t brag.
(I love that woman…)

Near the end of the blog Christy offers up a word of hope:
“Why can’t we do this in real partnership?  Male AND female?  Young AND old?  Beautiful AND plain?   Charismatic AND quiet? And, yes I will dare to mention this:  Heterosexual AND homosexual?  But all with formed characters, impeccable moral lives and unwavering love of God and neighbor?”

To these questions, may I say: AMEN!

Christy seems somewhat sanguine about the possibility of real change toward “real partnership.” So, I suppose the whole point of my blog here is to suggest unless we move toward real partnership, we’re sunk.
Really, really sunk.

A Hopeful Way: Clergy Families As Mutual Partnerships
My entire ministry career, I have heard clergy (usually male) talk about how their ministry is a partnership between they and their wives. But when they describe what they mean by that, it’s clear that the “partnership” they are describing is their own ministry within a local church, and the things their wives do to support that.

OK, I get that definition. But it’s a funny way of describing what a “partnership” is. That’s actually a one-way commitment, really. It’s not a “partnership,” is it?

I’m suggesting the hopeful way forward, the “partnership” that needs “reframing,” is our idea of clergy families. All of them. Christy’s blog primarily addresses women, and clergy women. That’s important. But unless we “reframe” clergy families so that we see them as partnerships between two equal adult human beings, we’re not likely to see real change in the situation of clergy women.

Clergy families must be seen as partnerships between men and women who are both equally called to professional and family life.(1) We desperately need to more fully celebrate clergy families in their mutual professional callings. Some of us are the clergy-members (male and female) of a family unit. Others of us are clergy-spouses (male and female) with their own careers and interests, sometimes not connected with the church.

The way to confront the “Smokin’ Hot Wife” phenomenon is not to put the focus on the specific women designated as such, or even women at all.

But to ask:
How are our clergy spouses called?
To what are they called?
How do we clergy, and our church-families, support them?

My strong hunch is out of this will grow a new, and more healthy, understanding of the role of clergy…both women and men.

Do we believe the Discipline, and its section “The Ministry of All Christians?”

If so, then we implicitly affirm it for our spouses too. Our spouses (male and female) often have callings outside of church ministry. At least they can. Spouses are not necessarily “called” to serve the Church as their primary calling in life. Nor are they primarily called to assist us in our calling either.

Now, obviously, it really helps us if they are supportive, and it can really hurt us if they’re not. It helps if they show up for church, and participate in its activities. But there are ways to frame this, where clergy families are no different than any couple in our local churches. As we all know, it really helps a family unity if everybody shows up for worship and Sunday School, and is involved, in the same congregation week after week.

Stories of The Judge and Me
I’d like to share some personal stories from our lives –about family, church, ministry, and calling– in the hopes that they will help illustrate much of this “reframing” I’m talking about here. I suppose these might sounds like my own “Smokin’ Hot Wife” stories. That’s not my intent. The intent is suggest another way entirely…

Fact is that, early in our marriage, Dennise and I realized that the family life we wanted to have would be a new model. We certainly would not be alone, or anything like trailblazers, in this model. Plenty other couples have travelled the road before. For decades, really. But, we also realized it wasn’t “traditional” either.

Early in our life together, we agreed that we’d both work, professionally. We’d both share housework. We’d both share child-rearing. That’s the gist of it.

Practically, in our house it means I make breakfast for everybody (including the famous “green drink“). I fix lunches for Dennise and Maria. Therefore, I’m the last one out the door in the morning. Dennise takes care of most dinners. She’s almost always home before me. (Evening meetings…imagine that!) We both pick up Maria from school and deliver her to/from an ever-growing list of youth activities.

We understood at the time that there would be few role models for us. Clergywomen say this all the time about themselves, but it’s really true of their families too; and of all dual-career families too.

“How Long Have You Been In the Ministry?”
A story about Dennise, related to my “calling.”

When Dennise and I were just engaged, a well-meaning church member approached her and asked “So, how long have you been in the ministry?”

Raised Roman Catholic (Without the benefit of any clergy spouse models, good or bad…), the question really threw her.
She looked over at me, and said, “Oh, I’m not the minister. He is.”

Later, she grew to understand what was behind the questioner’s query. Truth is, the question itself showed just how pervasive the “out-of-balance-partnership” model really was twenty years ago.

This person could not conceive that Dennise might have a “calling” outside of the local church; a calling of her own. Thankfully, things in many places are changing. Mainly, because most families today are “dual-income families.”

In many of our church families, a working clergy spouse (male or female, “stay at home,” or “career”) is the now, and will be, the norm. And it’s what church folks see in their own families too. My strong belief is that, as our church-families “reframe” their own lives in terms of “dual-income” households, so too they will expect it of us.

“Is This Mr. Garcia?”
But! To make this work, as a part of this, we clergy must also “reframe” our roles too! We must reframe our relationships to our spouses. We, male and female clergy alike, must make the time, find the space, to become supportive spouses. Busy as we are, with all the demands we have in our own ministry, clergy must make space, find time, for those of us who have spouses with full-time careers, to support our spouse’s careers too.

A long time ago, when I was an associate pastor, I was the guest preacher at Sachse UMC one Sunday morning. That afternoon, their crack team of volunteers vigilantly called the house, because Dennise had signed the visitor log that morning. Because of our different last names, they had no idea they were calling the house of that’s morning’s preacher.

I answered the phone, and an eager volunteer said, “Mr. Garcia?!”

After a few seconds hesitation –still not knowing who was calling–  I said, “Yes!”

Yes. Sometimes I am, proudly, “Mr. Dennise Garcia.”

Sometimes I am “The Judge’s spouse.” Sometimes, an evening-event is her event, not the church’s or mine. Sometimes, it’s my “calling” to support her, to be the spouse on her arm. Frankly, it’s a whompin’ load ‘o fun. It’s fun for both she and I to watch the roles shift and change. Sometime she leads. Sometimes I do. Sometimes we both try at the same time (watch out…that can get ugly…).

More Than the Couple Must Change
For this to work, takes more than the decision of a couple in their own marital vow. Because The Church is also a “family system” it also takes the whole UMC system also “reframing” these issues too.

Early in ministry –when talking about appointments with my then-District Superintendent, a man very near retirement at the time– I shared with him that when I looked ahead, I could envision a time when I followed Dennise somewhere. For example, were she to ever get a great job in Washington DC, or Austin, I could envision me being the one who would re-locate for her sake. (For our family’s, really)

This absolutely threw him. It was like he’d never heard anything so ridiculous. He really had no idea how to respond; and, for a few seconds, almost looked mortally offended.

But then, after some awkward silence, he said, “Well, I have a daughter who’s a lawyer. So, when I think of it that way, I guess I understand.”

Lots has changed since this encounter. Some has not.

I’m honored to serve Northaven Church where, long before we arrived, the congregation had developed just this ethos of mutual partnership between the two-halves of a clergy couple. For example, every year, the every UM church must file a “Church Profile” that with the Annual Conference, stating just what kind of pastor they’re looking for.

Years before we arrived, Northaven Church began including the following sentence in their profile: “We do not have a stated expectation for the ministry of the pastor’s spouse, except that he or she should follow his or her own call.”

Amen and Amen!

You can’t imagine how wonderful it has been for us to have a local church affirm that ideal of the “Ministry of All Christians” when applied to the clergy spouse too.
That’s precisely the kind of leadership we need from all of our local churches.
We need our Annual Conference officials to encourage this view too. (Increasingly, they do!)

In addition to pushing churches to say “we will take a man or a woman as pastor,” we must simultaneously say something like that sentence about clergy spouses….in every profile for every United Methodist Church.

Yes, clergy spouse can be stay-at-home wives/husbands.
Amen to that. That is a beautiful professional “calling.”
Yes, clergy spouses can be active in the ministry of their local churches, supporting their “spouse who is a clergyperson.”
Amen to that. As we’ve just noted above, that’s deeply helpful too.

In fact, I believe Dennise would say that precisely because our local church has so honored and respected her career, she has been much more willing to volunteer than perhaps she otherwise might have. She baked dozens of lasagnas for the youth talent show last Saturday night, for example. She’s taught Sunday School. She’s even been involved in Annual Conference committees.

But clergy spouses can also have full-time careers outside the home too.
And a final “Amen” to that.

Called, As All Christians Are Called
So, let me keep sharing about “The Judge” and me, as an example. Dennise sees her role as a Judge as a “calling.” It absolutely is. It would be absolutely impossible for me –based on my understanding of “The Ministry of All Christians”— to see it as anything less than but what God has called her to.

She deals with families and their futures each and every day in ways that intimately affect their lives. It’s often painful and messy; high-stakes and high-stress.

But, from the very first day she took the bench, she has seen it as a “calling.”

Other spouses I know are called to hundreds of other possible careers too. Called to raise children. Whatever the calling, it  must and should be honored and supported by local churches and “the system,” and individual clergy themselves as family members.

Only when we have made this shift –only when we fully see our men and women clergy spouses as fully “called” to their work, whatever it is– will we fully confront the “Smokin’ Hot Wife” phenomenon. But, not by confronting it, head-on, at all. Instead, by drawing a totally new frame around our definition of who clergy and their spouses are.

Why Do We Need To Do This?
Because it reflects real changes at work in our world. Because as I’ve already noted, these are increasingly the families in our pews. Check out this incredible report from the Pew Center, on “Modern Parenthood.” It’s worth noting how the family itself has been changing.

Yes, I suppose we can lament this. Or, we can celebrate and embrace it, and ask ourselves: what are the implication for our church-families, our clergy families, too?

While working women clearly still spend more time on housework and childcare than do working men, there is a whole lot more parity out there than the “traditional 1950s” model ever assumed. What I am saying in this blog is that reframing is not only limited to how we behave around other men, it’s also changing the understanding of how men and women both “lead.”

In families.
In churches.
In society as a whole.

This is where The Church is now. This is where The Church is going in the future.

And it will, of course, take change on the part of men, clergy and their families.

Oops. Women Must Change Too.
Implied in much I have said here is the old idea that men’s roles in the family must change.
But! Lest you miss the overall point, it will also take change on the part of women. Clergy women, too.
A small illustration….

Dennise is currently an officer in the NTC “clergy spouses” group. It’s a challenging role, as you might imagine, for somebody will a full-time career. Over a year ago, she was trying to recruit more “male spouses” to attend clergy spouse events. In her mind (and I agree with her) one of the shifts that needs to happen is for “professional spouses” (men and women) to find some *new* role (still emerging) as “clergy spouses” too.
Not the “traditional role,” but new ones. For better or worse (both, I am sure) male and female clergy spouses share a lot in common.

So, Dennise mentioned this to a female clergy colleague of mine.
She said something along the lines of, “Hey, you should get your husband to come to the clergy spouses group.”

To which this person replied (to Dennise, mind you)

“Oh, he couldn’t do that…He has a full-time job.”


See? This is part of the issue too. So deeply embedded, we don’t see it. We can’t see that there’s still a role for a professional spouse (man or woman) to support their clergy spouse, and vice-versa.

Along with spouses supporting their male/female clergy partners? Clergy must find ways to support their spouse’s careers too. The future will be a two-way street of mutuality.

My Own Experience, as a Man
Privately, do I tell my wife that she’s “smokin’ hot?”
You know what? That’s none of your business. I will leave you to guess.
But publicly, as many of you know, I call her “The Judge.”

And while that’s always been a kind of joke, it’s not just a term of endearment (Or, even bragging). It’s a reminder to me, to her, and everybody else watching, that this is how I see her:
As “The Judge.”
As more than appendage to my career, but instead as full partner in our marriage and life together.
As someone with her own unique calling and career that I respect, admire, and support.

Twenty Years On
Is any of this easy?
No. It is not. It’s hard work. Frankly, Dennise and I are often quite tired. Many people look in on our lives ask “How do you do it?”

Interestingly, that’s not really a question we ask ourselves a lot anymore. It’s not to say we’re not tired, or that we sometimes don’t doubt we’ll “get everything done.” But the “tired” is an exhilarating kind of tired.

Fact is, each and every day, we wake up and pinch ourselves. We pinch ourselves about how lucky we are to have each other, how lucky we are to have such an incredible daughter, and how lucky we are, professionally, to get to live-out the callings we live out each day. We’re always giving thanks to God.

We’re coming up on our 20-year anniversary in just a few weeks. That alone is hard to imagine. The decision we made, years ago –to forge a different, “reframed,” kind of “mutual marriage”– has been deeply fulfilling each and every day, even when we didn’t have many mentors to lead us along the path in the beginning, and even during the many days when it’s absolutely exhausting.

But the truth is, lots of folks are walking this path now. We’re not really that unusual anymore.

So, I’ve shared these stories of our lives as “model/mentor stories” that we didn’t have when we said those wedding vows; twenty-years ago. “Reframing” can be done. It can be done well, and it can be a blessing to you, your spouse, your children, and your church

Life is always full of change. Nothing, not even the rock and the trees –much less our human institutions– ever stays the same. Heraclitus was right about that river:
“No one ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and they’re not the same person.”

Keirkegaard noted that Heraclitus had a Disciple who took it a step further:
“No one steps in the same river once.”

And whether or not your path is like ours, the point is all our clergy families are changing, being “reframed;” because family itself, The Church itself, are also constantly being reframed as humanity moves into its future.
That’s a good thing. Really, it is.
It’s hopeful. Really, it is.

The way to confront the “Smokin’ Hot Wives” phenomenon, the way to advance the issue of pastoral appointments for women, the way forward for all of us, will involve reframing…in each clergy family…in each local churches…among our Cabinets and Bishops.

It will be hard and tiring work. But it will be exhilarating too. And if we do it, in an era where both men and women increasingly lead in the private sector, the United Methodist Church could be uniquely suited to lead the future Church of Jesus Christ.

(1)Because it is my own family situation, I am mostly going to address the situation of a “dual-income household” here. I am not attempting to minimize the role of a “stay at home parent,” whether male of female. In fact, I attempt to stay — and trust I am heard to say– that this is a truly important “calling” that a clergy spouse might undertake. I’m hopeful that others who are following that path, might be able to address more fully the “partnership issues” and “reframing” issues related to families with one stay-at-home parent. Because, even though this is a more “traditional” model, modern family life is leading this model to subtle, and not-so-subtle, changes too.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

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