On #findmarilane and the Martyred Pastor’s Wife

On Sunday, August 2, 2020, Marilane Carter disappeared en route from Kansas City to Birmingham. Almost two weeks later her car was found with a body, her purse, and credit cards inside. The disappearance garnered national attention, particularly in the southeast, including much speculation as to her state of marriage, home, family relations, emotional and mental health.

Out of respect for Marilane, her three young children and the rest of her family, I am not writing a commentary on her disappearance, but responding to a concerning, semi-viral social media post made in response to the news of her death.

On August 18, Clarissa Sidhom identified Marilane’s death as by suicide (which hasn’t been confirmed by family or law enforcement at the time of Sidhom’s or my post) to launch a brief commentary on life as a pastor’s wife. I certainly found the post inappropriately timed and introduced, however, I was more troubled by its content normalizing the martyrdom of the pastor’s wife and family. Even more troubling were the thousands of people sharing a post that neither paid tribute to Marilane’s life nor advocated a healthy ministry life.

1) The tragedy of a woman and her family is not an appropriate moment to project your own emotional needs.

There is no reliable public knowledge as to the emotional and mental circumstances of Marilane’s death, and certainly no connections to any circumstances of her role as the wife of a pastor or her church life. While the family stated that she was seeking psychiatric help, the details ranged from making concerning statements to having trouble sleeping to being upbeat during her final conversation with her husband.

Without a definitive statement from Marilane herself that her partnership with a pastor contributed to her mental deterioration and possible death by suicide, the use of her name, picture, and death in this post is, at best, misleading and, at worst, self-serving.

If this social media post had been made in isolation, I would take issue with it for reasons listed below. However, the particular offense is the dishonor it does to Marilane’s story and experience, and that of her children and other loved ones.

2) It is the responsibility of the pastor and their partner address their personal, emotional, and spiritual needs.

Concerning statements normalizing the denial of friendship and self-care in the pastor’s family included, “Quite often, a pastor’s wife doesn’t have a single friend with whom she can be truly honest and transparent without fear of her words becoming a weapon to demonize her husband. And you can multiply all these factors x1000 for a new church or church plant!” and “But many of us carry sorrows and betrayals that no one has any idea about- and yet we’re always willing to push that aside to counsel and sit with someone who is hurting.”

A pastor must have some sort of emotional and spiritual intimacy with their congregation; however, it is fair to say that this is not the same friendship they will have with individuals outside of the congregation. A full conversation on this topic and the varying camps of opinion is a blog post, or perhaps an entire book, for another time, but I can say for certain that pastors, their partners, and their children need healthy friendships and spiritual guides and that these needs must be met outside of their church (Lura Groen posted several terrific Twitter threads on clergy friendship on July 25, 2020, including this one).

It is not healthy to normalize pushing down sorrow and pain in the name of caring for others. It is not healthy to normalize restraining honesty in the name of preserving the safety of her husband. The pastor and their partner must see their own needs and seek the friendships, therapists, and spiritual directors that may be needed to meet them.

3) It is the responsibility of the pastor and their partner to set necessary boundaries.

Pastoring is easily an all-consuming vocation even for those of us who were/are technically part-time. It is the responsibility of the pastor and their partner to decide and implement what is healthiest for them instead of setting and striving for ever more impossible standards of ministry life.

Consider: When is their yearly sabbatical? What time every night are their phones turned off? When are their off days and who takes the pastoral calls and emergencies on those days? What unfair and uncompensated expectations are placed on the pastor’s partner? Are the children being held to a higher standard than other children in the congregation? Is the pastor’s family subject to gossip or other abuse and how will the elder or leadership board address various unhealthy congregational patterns? What is the pastoral salary? Do they have opportunity for continuing education?

In short, it is not God-honoring for a pastor to sacrifice their family on the altar of ministry. It is not God-honoring for a pastor’s wife to lay herself on the altar. Only the pastor and their partner can make their needs known and set the necessary boundaries to nurture emotional and spiritual health.

Self-martyrdom betrays yourself, betrays God, and betrays the church by misunderstanding and misrepresenting God’s call on your life.

4) We must address the unique challenges of being female in our society with wisdom and intent. 

We live in a patriarchal society and the church is no exception, even those who claim to be affirming of female clergy (check out #churchtoo for more insight into the female experience within stained glass walls). Sidhom’s post is one in a conveyor belt of commentary that expects women to suffer and sacrifice in the name of their husband’s vocation.

Clarissa Sidhom’s post attempted to address the unfair situation of pastor’s wives by making the claim, “I do say this for awareness.” But she created a passive onus for herself and her readers. By introducing her commentary with the death of Marilane Carter, Sidhom made a strong implication that the pastor’s wife denies herself to the point of emotional, spiritual, and mental brokenness (again, Marilane’s exact state of mind is contradicted by the family and unconfirmed to the public, thus this connection is inappropriate, insensitive, and misleading).

At the core of the post is the disturbing thesis that being pastor’s wife may result in self-denial and harm unto death.

This presentation of a pastor’s wife ought to be wholly unacceptable to a pastor, their partner, and the congregation. This is not the moment for praise or passive support. The response ought to be THIS IS NOT OK. What must we change to care for ourselves? What boundaries must we set to foster a healthy relationship with this congregation?

Women, we must speak to the injustice we experience. White women in particular must also be intersectional to speak to the injustice other groups experience. We must speak with an eye toward action.

In summary,

Pastors and their families need friendships and spiritual support from outside their congregation. They need places to expressed unedited honesty, anger, sadness, and hurt. Self-martyrdom and self-denial do not honor God, and will inevitably demand your marriage, children, home, and health.

Marilane’s disappearance as garnered overwhelming concern, support, and action. The community’s visceral reaction demonstrates the human capacity for grief and concern for neighbor. Events like these can be triggering of raw places of hurt in individual lives when those hurts needs have long been unattended. It seems to be the case for Sidhom, who perhaps recognized her own exhaustion and unmet needs in Marilane’s situation.

Once again, however, this demonstrates the importance of tending to one’s own triggers, which requires proactive care for emotional and mental health.

Take time to grieve. Tend your triggers. Care for your body and your mind. Or else you may find yourself using another person’s tragedy to air your own struggles when it dishonors their story and minimizes your own.

Women: speak to the unique challenges you face AND challenge the patriarchal structures that demand our unpaid and unappreciated labor. Be loud. Make trouble. Demand your worth.

Pastor, pastor’s wife, pastor’s husband, pastor’s partner, pastor’s child: You are more than a martyr. You are worth being fought for, and you are worth standing up for yourself.

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