I am a preacher’s daughter. Does this make you wonder what wild rebellions I went through as a teen? What scandals I brought on my family?
My mom was a pastor’s wife. Does this cause you to imagine her glamorous, privileged life as “first lady” of a congregation? Do you envision the delicious cat fights she must have had with other “first ladies”?
If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, you may be watching too much reality TV.
In its insatiable appetite for new content, reality TV, that devourer of worlds, has stumbled upon the pastoral family. Who knew that the world I grew up in, and the world I live in now, as a pastor, is so exotic?
The Sisterhood profiles five “devout yet fierce” pastor’s wives – or “first ladies”, as they prefer to be called – living in Atlanta. The group includes an ex-prostitute, a former member of the girl group Xscape, a “sassy Latina” – well, you get the idea. Just your typical group of clergy wives.
As depicted on “The Sisterhood”, the life of a pastor’s wife revolves around fabulous outfits and cat fights. If that sounds like The Real Housewives of Atlanta with less alcohol and profanity, you’re not wrong. Instead of cursing at each other, the members of the Sisterhood assail each other with Christian jargon. “Lofty, lofty, lofty!” Ivy shouts at Tara in one episode. In another episode Tara (who is in continual conflict with one cast member or another) hurls, “The Lord rebuke you! I’m speaking truth!” at Dominique. It goes over as well as you’d expect it to.
None of this reminds me of my mom or any of the other pastors’ wives I’ve known over the course of my life. In the churches of my childhood, the role of a pastor’s wife was less about privilege than responsibility. When a church hired a pastor they gained two servants for the price of one, and woe to the pastor’s wife who couldn’t play the piano, or work with children, or at least make a good potluck casserole. My mother didn’t have the time for the petty dramas that fill “The Sisterhood”, and I suspect the increasing number of employed pastors’ wives don’t have that kind of time, either.
The behavior of the “first ladies” is sometimes mild compared to the Preachers’ Daughters. These P.K.s (Preachers’ Kids, for the uninitiated) are enough to make any parent go to prayer, particularly Olivia, who partied hard and wound up a teenaged mother; and Taylor, who fantasizes about being a porn star. That information alone should make you wonder about the judgment of the parents on “Preachers’ Daughters”. Who decided exposing their families to this kind of public scrutiny was a good idea?
The apologetic for both shows is that they offer a chance to show that clergy families are not perfect, that they have problems just like every other family. But didn’t we already know that? Any pastor’s kid can tell you that there is a stereotype attached to that particular role, and it’s not a good one. Preachers’ kids are supposed be rebels, straining at religious strictures and the glass house of the clergy family. If you want a fictional example, refer to Ariel Moore, the drinking, dancing wild child in Footloose.
I don’t deny that there are unique pressures that come with being in a clergy family. I’ve been on both sides now, being not only a pastor’s daughter, but a pastor myself. I know the challenges my children face by virtue of my vocation. They will see ugliness and hypocrisy in the church at close range. They will wish that I had less meetings and more free weekends, just as I used to wish for my father. They will grow weary of church talk and above all, they will see the pastor who lives with them, warts and all. On top of all that, they must put up with ridiculous stereotypes that are being reinforced by “Preachers’ Daughters”.
I know clergy wives who chafe at the downside of that role, too – the expectations that the pastor’s wife will show up for every service, every church activity, and always with a smile. And then there are the crazy schedules that have left some women feeling like church widows. Ministry is certainly not easy on home life: 50% of pastors’ marriages end in divorce. My spouse, being part of the growing number of clergy husbands, will meet with less preconceptions. Perhaps, at least, he can write his own script for what it means to be married to a minister.
For all that, and despite what TV would tell you, clergy families are more normal than not. My parents laughed and argued and paid bills just like yours. My dad coached Pee Wee football, played cards with his friends and wished that his kids would give him a little more peace and quiet. My mother nursed sick children, supervised homework and read every mystery novel the library had to offer. This preacher’s daughter fought with her siblings, made a mess of her room, rebelled a bit, but loved going to church where everyone seemed like extended family. I still feel that way, blessed to know that the church is my home away from home. I hope my children will feel the same.
A family like ours wouldn’t make for good television; we’re too boring. As with all reality TV, “The Sisterhood” and “Preachers’ Daughters” are dependent on big personalities, extreme behavior and imposed narratives. I just hope audiences realize that there’s a broad gap between “reality” TV and real life in the clergy family.