“Is your husband also…”
People frequently trail off when asking this question after they’ve found out that I am a minister, chaplain, and religious educator. What they’re trying to ask is, “Is your husband also in ministry,” and the fact that people hesitate before finishing their thought makes me believe that they are somewhat uncomfortable with asking it.
But perhaps my answer to their question makes them more uncomfortable: No. He’s not. I am a married female, venturing independently into ministry.
I’ve known lovely couples who minister together but, more often than not, it’s one person in a relationship that’s called to full-time ministry; more often than not, that one person is male. So when that one person is a woman, people – even supportive people – aren’t always sure how to react.
Ministry is this one weird space with expectations that it be a somewhat joint endeavor. Even when only one person in the relationship is the pastor, chaplain, minister, or other church worker, there still seems to be an expectation placed on the other member.
And I’ve been guilty of it, too. I’ve felt confused when a pastor’s spouse wasn’t as warm or sociable as I expected them to be, when a chaplain’s significant other didn’t participate in the life of the chapel.
To my knowledge, my husband has never been asked, “Is your wife also a software engineer?” (Although this perhaps belies a whole other facet of sexism I’m not going to delve into here.) When I was a journalist in my first career, I can’t remember ever getting asked if my husband was also a news reporter. We expect individuals in a marriage to have different interests and even different vocational callings … except when it comes to those serving in ministry.
The expectation for joint involvement runs both ways. It’s there when a woman is the non-ministerial member of the relationship, and it’s there when a man is the non-ministerial member. I think that in either case, we are confronted with sexism, but I can only speak from the experience of being a female minister with a non-ministerial husband.
Yes, most people who have asked me the “is your husband in ministry” question were fully supportive of my seat at the table. They didn’t have bad intentions, but this question presupposes a mindset where I need male support or validation. In this case, discrimination doesn’t stem from bad intentions, it stems from ingrained, systemic practices of inequality and injustice. So a seemingly simple question is not, as it turns out, innocuous.
If we believe (and I do) that there is no sacred or secular divide, that all callings are sacred, fertile ground for ministry, then working in full-time “ministry” shouldn’t be treated differently from ministering full-time at a “secular” job.
We shouldn’t be surprised when two people in a marriage do have different interests, when one of them is vocationally a minister and teacher, and one of them is vocationally a software engineer.
But we are surprised. Why? It’s a numbers game. Even in environments supportive of women’s full inclusion in ministerial leadership, we (as women) are still in the minority. Sometimes we are accompanied in this ministry by our partners; sometimes we are single; and – yes – sometimes we are married to a spouse who is completely uninterested in full-time vocational ministry.
Until the various expressions of women in spiritual leadership begin to become commonplace, we will likely continue to deal with systemic, knee-jerk reactions even from well-intentioned folks.
As I mentioned, the fact that people often let this question trail off indicates their realization – even in the moment – that there’s something potentially unsettling about asking it. So if you’re someone who has asked or would be tempted to ask this question, let it trail off! Recognize your bias, even if it’s unconscious, and address it either in the moment or reflect on it later so you understand where it’s coming from and how to root it out.
On the receiving end, when I’ve been asked this question I let the person trail off till they either conclude the sentence or move on. I let them sit for a second in their own discomfort so they can perhaps realize the undercurrents at work in their thought process. I’m not sadistic, I don’t want them to struggle for the sake of struggling. Rather I do it because it’s my inclination not to just let the moment be. It’s my inclination to move the conversation along and not let it get stuck in awkwardness.
I’ve realized this tendency is rooted in the system I’m trying to upset. It’s rooted in a dis-ease with anything but the status quo. I’ve realized by not giving the person a chance to let their conscious catch up to their subconscious, I’m doing us both a disservice.
So even as we fight a systemic gender imbalance on a larger scale, we can bring practices of equality into our daily lives when it comes to something as simple as asking – or not asking – a question.
Alexis James Waggoner is a theologian, writer, teacher, and founder of The Acropolis Project, an organization dedicated to raising the bar of theological education in communities of faith. She also serves as a chaplain in the Air Force Reserves and is passionate about ministering to women in places where they are often marginalized. She has an M.Div from Union Theological Seminary in New York, a husband of 12 years, and a baby named Junia.
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