Riding Shotgun: On Being the Clergy-Adjacent

I was hauling a giant luggage container, the kind that attaches to a car roof, […]

Carrie Willard / 6.29.17

I was hauling a giant luggage container, the kind that attaches to a car roof, across my driveway with the woman who bought it from me on craigslist. It wasn’t heavy, but it was awkward and large, and we were having a bit of a hard time maneuvering it. It was dark outside, and we couldn’t really see what we were doing.

“Oh my god, this is like hauling a dead body by dark of night.”

I said it, and then I immediately wished I hadn’t said it. “I’m sorry—I shouldn’t have said that. It’s just that my husband is clergy, and so death is…just…”

“Don’t sweat it,” my new friend said. “My husband is a funeral director. It’s a big family business. I was thinking the same thing.”

We laughed—hard—at the coincidence, as we wedged the empty container into the back of her large SUV. I wish I had kept her number, because it’s not every day that you meet another pilgrim on the highway of Husbands With Strange Careers, and who can haul a giant luggage container through a dark driveway.

These are the moments that I realize how strange our life must seem to people in secular careers. A friend of mine, also a clergy spouse, described being married to a priest as “riding shotgun” to his ministry, and I love that image so much. We get a front row seat to this odd and wonderful calling. Just ask Dwight Schrute, though—the passenger side front seat is a dangerous place to ride. This week marks my husband’s twentieth year as a priest. He was ordained on the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul in a small church on the beach in South Carolina. In my completely biased view, I think that the decision to ordain him was one of the best decisions the Church ever made. He was ordained long before I knew him, and so I climbed into this passenger seat willingly, because the driver is a really nice guy.

Queen Victoria famously told Archbishop Cosmo Lang that he could do with fewer clergy on his staff if he’d just get married. I don’t know about that, but I love the image of Queen Victoria as the pushy aunt who’s bothering the poor bachelor priest to get hitched and giving serious shade to his employment practices at the same time. God I love it so much. Thomas Cranmer had to hide his wife in a wooden crate. Martin Luther married his wife Katie, observing that “his marriage would please his father, rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh, and the devils to weep.” This is no ordinary role, and it never has been.

A lot of people speculate out loud that “it must be hard” to be married to a member of the clergy. It is and it isn’t, but not in the ways you might think. Our weekends probably don’t look like a lot of people’s weekends, but I grew up in a clergy family, and I don’t know anything different. It’s an emotional job, for sure, but I can’t imagine that being married to a nurse or a psychiatrist is any less emotionally taxing. It’s sometimes hard because of how others treat us, inside or outside the church. It’s a public role, whether we want it to be or not. People project all of their hopes and dreams for the church or all of their pain and anger at the church, and sometimes both—on to a clergy person, and often onto his or her family. I don’t know if that happens to bankers’ families, but I’m guessing not. It’s a little bit like being in public office, I suppose, but without the Secret Service and the dress budget. Some people have shared their theory with me that there will be “rewards in heaven” for my marriage to a clergy person. I’m gonna go ahead and call that a load of hogwash. But I’m not suffering too terribly for it here on Earth.

This “riding shotgun” view of the ministry is rarely boring. People tell things to the person riding in the passenger seat that they might not tell to the driver. I’m firmly in the “not a garbage collector” camp for collecting information on behalf of my husband: he has a staff and an email inbox for that purpose, and I’m not afraid to tell folks where they can find him. I don’t pass along grievances, complaints, or “helpful suggestions.” But people still want to know, “But what do you think?” My husband rarely sits in the pew with our small children, and so I become the default “expert” on what’s acceptable behavior from the under-10 set in the pews. My expertise in that regard is limited to shoving as many snacks and stickers into a backpack as I can manage, so I’m not sure how helpful that is. Laughably, I’ve become the go-to source for the dress code for certain events, and I’m afraid my answer of “Man, I don’t know—can I wear leggings?” is not super helpful. But where my husband is the rector, I’m a member of the church. There will always be people who have been there longer than I have, and who actually know where the nave is, but my spot in the passenger seat gives me some kind of assumed authority that I sometimes don’t know what to do with.

One night a few years ago, I had a rough night at church. It was the night of the Easter Vigil, and I was put-upon, tired, and sad. I was Done with a capital D. I texted a friend, who invited me over immediately so that her husband could play with toy lightsabers with my kids while I cried in her living room. That same night, after I went home, a friend from another state emailed me late in the night, desperate for some peace. Her mother was dying, and my friend wanted some reassurances about how to handle her end-of-life care, especially regarding religious observances. I don’t remember what exactly I said, but I was touched that she thought to reach out to me. This wasn’t a question for the clergy on Easter weekend, but this was a question for the clergy-adjacent. You don’t ask the driver for a tissue for your runny nose when the passenger has a box full of them in the glove box. She was comfortable with me, and wanted to know what I would have done, if I had been in her situation. I reassured her, gently but firmly, that she had done everything she could do to honor her mother’s faith tradition. I assured her, in so many words, that the love of Jesus transcends all of our human failings, and that any defect on her part, if there had been any, would be cured—had already been cured—by the Resurrection. I wasn’t preaching an Easter sermon or swinging the incense while we sang “Welcome Happy Morning,” but I was quietly, firmly, confessing my belief in the faith of Christ crucified. I was repeating the words that I’d heard from my husband in the pulpit, over and over, about forgiveness and grace and mercy. I was in a dark room, lying down with our youngest child, typing furiously on my phone, and occasionally slipping downstairs to check with my husband to make sure I wasn’t committing heresy. I was keeping the patient comfortable. It was only because I was riding shotgun in our bizarre family vehicle that I was able to hear and see and type the address into the navigation system for my friend.

There are times when the passenger, like any human, loses direction. The passenger falls asleep, or is passing out sandwiches while the Waze app reprograms itself. The good news is that this car doesn’t really need me to keep going, and when I recite the Creed on Sunday morning with my fellow passengers, I can rely on the faith of the many to sometimes help my lonely unbelief. I love what the historian Jaroslav Pelikan said about this in an interview with Krista Tippett:

…the singing of the creed is a very important and cherished way of indicating a universality of the faith across not only space, but time. To know that in the Philippines this morning this was the creed that was recited at mass and to know that the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century and Thomas Aquinas in the 13th, and my late father and grandfather all affirmed this.

It’s ‘we’ all of us together… My faith and my faith life, like that of everyone else, fluctuates. There are ups and downs and hot spots and cold spots and boredom and ennui and all the rest can be there. And so I’m not asked of a Sunday morning as of 9:20, what do you believe? And then you sit down with a 3×5 index card and say, “Now, let’s see. What do I believe today?” No, that’s not what they’re asking me. They’re asking me, “Are you a member of a community which now for millennium and a half has said, “We believe in one God.” And so that’s what I affirm when I sing it.

From the passenger seat, I’m a part of that community. I get to see the faces on parents’ faces when their babies are baptized. I get to see the relief on worried faces when I hear my husband preach about God’s unending and nonsensical grace, which transcends time and space and even Creeds. I can never hear about that grace too much, and I’m grateful for the message and for the messengers.


6 responses to “Riding Shotgun: On Being the Clergy-Adjacent”

  1. DALE E KLITZKE says:

    This may be the best yet—and that is saying a lot! Great job Carrie–never stop writing–please!

  2. Randy Byrd says:

    Well done, Carrie!

  3. Dan says:

    Well-said. Always remember – we could not live our vocation without you living yours.

  4. David Slagle says:

    Oh, my Sister in Christ, thank you.
    Sincerely, A pastor married to a Wife who saves me and my calling daily.
    David Slagle, grateful husband to Wife Debbie Slagle, a Queen Servant in the Kingdom of God.

  5. Linda says:

    You never cease to amaze me! What insight and uplifting! keep on writing.

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