Great Expectations

Hello! I haven’t posted for ages as life has been pretty busy but I promise I have not abandoned the blog. The recent lot of ordinations got me thinking about all the new people joining the clergy spouse (CS) club – I hope it was a joyful time for you seeing your other half ordained but if you had more mixed feelings about it all please know you are not alone. I have now been to two ordinations and a licensing for my husband and to be honest I felt quite weird at all three even though I am very supportive of his work. I felt detached, looking on and feeling happy for my husband but aware that this all has a huge impact on me without really knowing where I fit into it all. Seven years on from that first ordination I am still figuring that out.

The ordinations and some conversations I have had recently got me thinking in particular of the expectations we face as CSs and how to navigate them healthily. Some advice I have come across declares that you should simply live without regard to others’ expectations. I find this strange because we all have expectations of the other people in our lives and many of these expectations will be reasonable. CSs are hardly the only people who encounter the expectations of others. However they are unusual in that it is their other half’s job which sets the context for many of the expectations they face. You are not the person in the job but are very closely associated with it. You have not been interviewed and selected, you do not get a job description and you have no official role. Yet you live in the vicarage and the community which your other half serves, you may well attend the church they work in and be involved in church work. You are a public figure without having a defined role. How you live with these expectations can have a significant impact on your well being. So far I have learnt the following:

  1. Don’t get caught in the trap of your expectations of other people’s expectations

Are you actually sure of what other people expect of you? Or are you trying to live up to a standard which you have assumed they have without any evidence that they actually think this? I find it easy to fall into the habit of guessing what people’s expectations are and trying to live up to them. This is ludicrous because everyone I meet will have different expectations and I have no idea what they actually think. Despite this I find it quite hard to resist second-guessing what people are thinking and to not read too much subtext into what people say and do. It feels pretty silly when you realise you are resentful of expectations which no one has actually voiced.

2. Unreasonable expectations are probably inevitable

You are likely to be subject to some unreasonable expectations. All sorts of influences mean many people have very fixed ideas about what CSs are supposed to be like. These expectations will have been created before they ever met you and people may struggle to adapt them based on who you actually are. Accept that you have no control over other people’s preconceived views. The one thing you can control is your own response to these expectations. It is not your job to live up to them. If people have expectations of you based on nothing but their own stereotypes that is their problem not yours. You are an individual not some sort of CS clone who can only be married to the vicar if you fit a certain image.

3. Be aware of how your sense of self-worth impacts your response to others’ expectations

Francis Dewar says that, ‘If your identity and your sense of self-worth are not secure you run the risk of being lived by other people’s projections.’ If you find yourself trying to live up to people’s expectations take a step back to assess why you feel compelled to do this. I have become painfully aware that I am a people pleaser, cannot bear any sort of criticism and will do almost anything to avoid conflict; all of this comes down to finding my self-worth in others’ approval. This makes it very hard for me to resist living up to what people expect – I hate the idea of being criticised for failing to do so even if I know their expectations are wrong. Knowing this I have to remind myself often that I have worth as a child of God and that his love is what makes me acceptable not other people’s approval.

4. Beware of expectations which you actually quite like

Some of the expectations people say they have of me are lovely. They boost my ego and make me feel good about myself. I am keen to live up to them. However I am aware that just because they fit with my image of myself does not mean they are right. Some people can have very idealised views of CSs and think they are saintlike figures. It is nice to think of myself in this way but, as I said above, if this becomes the source of my self-worth it becomes a trap. If I do certain things purely to fulfill these expectations rather than out of genuine love for other people then what I am doing becomes empty as it is all about me. So be honest with yourself and remember that just because the expectations people have of you are positive it does not mean that they are a helpful thing to base your life on.

5. Do not trap yourself into being something you are not

I was asked this week whether I feel I have to be a certain way because I’m married to a vicar. The answer is ‘yes’ but I work very hard not to give in to this feeling. It is easy to feel that we have to act like the perfect Christian family but I know that to try and maintain that image when it is not true is damaging both for us and other people. For me being genuine is much more important than having the perfect image. Without being genuine you cannot form meaningful friendships or expect people to be genuine with you. It can promote the false idea that church is only for people who have everything sorted. When really church is for people who are not at all sorted (ie all of us) and need God’s grace. Being honest about our own failings and struggles is much more helpful for everyone than pretending that we do not have them. It is also the only way to avoid damaging your own well being – trying to be something you are not is never healthy. I love these words from Rowan Williams:

‘A human being is holy, not because he or she triumphs by willpower over chaos and guilt and leads a flawless life, but because that life shows the victory of God’s faithfulness in the midst of disorder and imperfection. The church is holy…not because it is a gathering of the good and the well-behaved, but because it speaks of the triumph of grace in the coming together of strangers and sinners…’

6. Avoid hearing negative things second or third hand

Hearing that you are not meeting expectations is especially horrible when you do not hear it from the original source. Last year I discovered third hand that I was not meeting the expectations of one or more people in the church community. This made me feel paranoid because I had no idea who or how many people were talking about me. Some very good advice given to me at the time by a fellow CS is that when these things are passed on to you or your other half (OH) the only appropriate response is “who said that?” As my advisor said, ‘That way the truth can come out – misapprehensions can be corrected and relationships maintained. Otherwise all you have to go on is a nameless person saying things about you which you cannot respond to…if the person reporting this sort of stuff won’t say who said it is you just say, “well then, thank you but I am not interested nor will I act on it in any way.”‘ Have a clear agreement with your OH on how you will both deal with people coming to each of you with complaints about the other person. If you make it clear that you will not engage with gossip and talking behind backs people will be less inclined to get their complaints to you in this way. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss; if people want to complain about you but are not willing to say it to your face it may well be better to not know about it.

7. Accept that there are many grey areas with expectations

I find that when I have been criticised based on unreasonable expectations it makes me very defensive. I am primed to respond angrily to any attempt to impose any form of expectation on me. However sometimes people’s expectations may actually be reasonable. Sometimes you may not be sure what is reasonable and what is not. Every clergy family is different and every church community is different so there will always be grey areas around what role the vicar, CS and family fulfil in the church and wider community. You can, of course, attempt to live without regard to anyone’s expectations of you but you cannot then claim the right to have expectations of anyone else. It is probably healthier to be open to listening to people (whether your OH or others) who come to you openly and in a helpful manner with their views and expectations. This does not mean you just do whatever people want but a willingness to listen will go a long way to creating an atmosphere where expectations can be discussed in a helpful way. It is worth remembering that clergy and CSs are perfectly capable of having unreasonable expectations and of being wrong about things. I am gradually developing greater humility because when I get cross about people’s expectations I realise that I am guilty of doing exactly the same to others.

8. Find the funny side

As ever a dose of humour can go a long way. Some of the expectations you discover will be pretty amusing. It is fascinating to discover that your having a glass of wine can amaze people simply because you’re married to someone who wears a dog collar. Although it made me uncomfortable at the time I can now laugh about the time someone in a pub swore and the bar keeper scolded him saying, ‘You can’t swear in front of the vicar’s wife!’ Making a joke of the less serious cliches (it is amazing how often flower arranging and baking are mentioned) can be a great way to gently suggest that you are not planning to live up to the stereotypical expectations.







6 thoughts on “Great Expectations

  1. As the husband of a United Church of Christ (Congregational) pastor here America I find your descriptions of the CS experience perceptive and honest – and immensely helpful. Despite differences in gender, denomination, and geography, our situation is universal and our joys and dilemmas similar.

    • Thanks Bob, that is a real encouragement to know what I write is helpful. It is amazing how the ups and downs seem to be so similar across many different countries and denominations – and helpful because it means we can benefit from advice from CSs in all different situations.

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