Sleeping with the Bishop
Maria is the author of this fabulous guest post. Thanks for sending it our way!
I was teaching sharing time one Sunday when the branch president’s 7-year-old son excitedly announced to the primary, “It’s a secret, but our family is moving!” Almost the moment the words left his mouth, I had a strong spiritual impression that my husband would be called to be the new branch president. The impression puzzled me—we were both only 25, we’d only lived in the branch a few months, we’d only been married a few months, and there were plenty of other men (read: men who were more capable) to choose from. But a few weeks later my impression was confirmed. The district president called us in and extended the calling to my husband. A short time later our district became a stake, and then branch became a ward, and I’ve been sleeping with the bishop ever since… It’s a good thing for me to reminisce about that initial impression, because it’s been a wild, and sometimes surreal, ride these past few years. As we live in a highly transient area, we’ve seen a lot of people come and go: five bishopric counselors, three RS presidents, and five EQ presidents. Oh, and there was that arsonist that tried to burn down the chapel, the graffiti artist who “decorated” our car in the church parking lot, the gypsy children from Romania with lice (I combed the nits out of their hair in the women’s restroom), the mentally ill eternal investigator who sneaked into the local temple for a few endowment sessions (the temple president asked my husband to make WANTED posters of her face to hang behind the recommend desk), the processional of Moonies that marched into the chapel and demanded an audience with our “great leader,” and the unhappy foreign circus performer passing through town who sought welfare assistance to help him out of indentured servitude in the circus. And those are just a few of the more…ahem…unusual situations we’ve found ourselves in.
Normal “all-bishops-go-through-this” stuff happens all the time, too—like sobbing women calling at all hours of the night (or showing up on the doorstep) because of their marital problems, porn-addicted men calling during dinner because they’re having a rough temptation night (or so I’m guessing), screaming mothers and teenage daughters demanding that the bishop come and act as referee during their weekly power struggles, etc.
But by far the biggest challenge for me has been dealing with feelings of isolation and loneliness. I think there are many factors that contribute to this. One factor is the difficulty I have had in making close friends within the ward. Many ward members view me as a not-so-secret agent on a constant reconnaissance mission for my husband (“I can’t let her know I’m anything but perfect, because if she figures it out then she’ll tell her husband…”). This leads presumably normal people to act incredibly weird around me, and said weirdness is often a challenging foundation to form a friendship upon.
To be fair, I have to say that as the bishop’s wife I often have a hard time being myself around ward members, too. I find that I am constantly self-censoring so that I don’t say anything Ensign-unfriendly that will then be attributed to my husband, or offend any testimony-teetering members into inactivity, or seem too outspoken for a wife who certainly has no authority over anything going on in the ward.
I feel like all bishops’ wives should be read Miranda-like warnings when their husbands are called: “anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of ward opinion.” I figured out early on (in, oh, the first week my husband was branch president, through a nasty three-page email) that any opinion I expressed, no matter how benign (that particular email was about…gasp…a testimony I had given about the Savior), would be subject to the strictest of scrutiny by ward members.
I thus began to plead the 5th on almost all occasions—better to be reticent than to have to deal with any blowback later on. But then I started getting blowback for being non-participatory, and I learned the next bishop’s wife’s rule of thumb: “No matter what you do or don’t do, someone in the ward will be unhappy about it, and won’t hesitate to let you know it.”
Not only is it difficult to make close friends within the ward, but the bishop’s wife’s best friend, her husband, is gone an extra 20 to 40 hours per week performing his bishoply duties. I can’t tell you how many dark nights I’ve spent alone as my husband attended meetings, interviews, and disciplinary councils, or rushed to members’ homes to minister in the way that only the bishop can. And, on the rare occasion he is at home, he is often fatigued, saddened, or stressed-out by the problems of the ward—emotionally unavailable to an already lonely wife. Add to that the fact that he really can’t discuss anything that’s bothering him in the ward (confidentiality issues), and some nights we just stare at each other and cry. On one particularly sad night I realized that he probably feels just as isolated, overwhelmed, and lonely as I do.
When we first began to feel the weight of my husband’s calling press down on our young shoulders, we sought out comfort, information, and advice. We prayed. We fasted. We did countless searches on lds.org for articles that would offer helpful suggestions. While a few of the articles were pleasant enough, I felt most of them sugar-coated the challenges inherent to being a bishop or bishop’s wife. Rather than address concerns directly, the mantra seemed to be that if we would just focus on the “many great blessings” we have because of the calling, “everything will just start to feel better soon.”
Hitting that dead end, I began to cautiously approach other bishops’ wives in the area and in our extended families. Each of these women was uncomfortable expressing anything negative about her husband’s calling—even though I could often see the pain and frustration brimming in their eyes. With that dead end, my husband and I just kind of gave up trying to find answers for this issue. While we’re committed to talking about our feelings with each other if we’re having a particularly Bad Bishop Day, we mostly just try to ignore the challenges his calling brings into our lives. If we don’t think too much about the hard stuff, it’ll just go away, right? Not a very mature or effective coping mechanism—but it’s surprisingly sort of worked over the past few years.
Recently I read an article in TIME magazine that piqued my interest: “What God Joined Together: Pastors’ wives have changed with the times. Now they’re finding fellowship—online.” <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1604902,00.html >
One of the large-font headlines reads: “What do you think is the No. 1 problem that preachers’ wives have? Loneliness.” I excitedly called my husband after reading only a few lines—I felt that the pastors’ wives in the article were channeling me. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before, but the article describes that many pastors’ wives face the same complex feelings about their husbands’ callings that I do—sadness, pride, isolation, joy, under-appreciation, guilt, pressure to be perfect, gratitude, uncertainty about their roles, and occasional anger and resentment. But, most importantly, these women are finding comfort, community, and answers to their problems online by conversing with other women in similarly-challenging situations.
I’ve visited many of the blogs and websites that these women have created, and have found them to be incredibly warm and inviting. Most make an up-front invitation to women of all faiths to participate in their conversations. A wealth of absolutely-applicable information is available at my fingertips. Practical tips on dealing with cranky congregation members, making the most of limited family time, learning how to say no to relentless inappropriate requests for your assistance (today a ward member informed me I am planning her wedding…uh…no…), and, the mother lode: improving communication with your husband about delicate topics such as gender roles within the church community. Unbelievable! SO helpful! I think these blogs are an answer to my prayers.
Maybe someday when I get my act together I’ll start my own blog specifically for bishops’ wives…if I do, I think I’ll call it “Sleeping with the Bishop.”