The Washington Post recently reported that one of the largest seminaries in North America plans to offer a women-only concentration in "home-making." Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas, hopes that the program will focus on assisting ministry wives on the ministry of "hospitality in the home--teaching women interior design as well as how to sew and cook." In addition, these women students will "also study children's spiritual, physical and emotional development."
From the face of it (not having memorized SWBTS's mission statement), it does look like this program is "off-mission" for a theological seminary. And yet, Southwestern's attempt to address the needs of future ministry wives raises an important issue to which seminaries, presbyteries, and local churches would do well to pay attention: namely, the need to care for ministry wives. And this is because our lack of attention to supporting the entire ministry family is destroying these families "in Jesus' name."
All too often, ministry wives bear the brunt of their husband's ministerial calling. While their husband dedicates himself to caring for the needs of the congregation--often working 50, 60, 70-hour weeks in doing so--the ministry spouse is expected to bear the absence of her husband with grace, dutifully raising their children as a single parent, sacrificing family meals for session meetings, and dealing with either the ambition or exhaustion of her ministry-focused husband.
Not only this, pastoral confidentiality often means that the ministry wife is the last to know what is going on (even when it seems the rest of the church somehow knows); or, on the other side, church members use the ministry wife as a conduit of gossip and (mis)information that they hope she will relay to her husband. She bears all things, internalizes all things, tries to smile at all things, and cries over all things.
And sometimes ministry wives fail--because the local church fails, their husbands fail, the support system fails, and they fail. But above all, I wonder if our (i.e. churches, presbyteries, and seminaries) failure to recognize, name, and attempt to talk about the challenges of ministry for a couple's marriage contributes to all of this.
It is one of the areas of discovery that my colleague, Bob Burns, has uncovered in his research through the programs of Covenant Seminary's Center for Ministry Leadership (CML)--ministry marriages are a signficant contributor to sustaining pastoral excellence (or pastoral failure); and we continue to wrestle over what his findings mean for Seminary education at our shop. And that's why, while Southwestern's answer may be wrong-headed, at least they are trying to think through how to support future ministry wives.
Maybe our presbyteries, seminaries, and local churches need to engage in a sustained and meaningful conversation about tangible and meaningful ways we can support and care for ministry wives. We need to do this for the sake of our sisters, for the sake of the church, and for the sake of Jesus' name.