A Review of
The Minister’s Wife: A Memoir of Faith, Doubt, Friendship, Loneliness, Forgiveness, and More
Reviewed by Tamara Hill Murphy
It takes moxie to begin a book about being a minister’s wife by telling folks about vacationing with your husband (the minister) at a Cuban resort. That’s the setting Karen Stiller, author of The Minister’s Wife: A Memoir of Faith, Doubt, Friendship, Loneliness, Forgiveness, and More, places the reader. In the prologue, she describes the awkward way a conversation stops once new acquaintances discover what her husband does for a living.
“Not everyone,” she explains “wants to hang out with a pastor on vacation.” She also uses this anecdote to describe the corollary problem: often those who might want to hang out with a pastor on vacation don’t realize that all the pastor (and the pastor’s spouse) really want to do is “snorkel and enjoy the beach, like everybody else” rather than spend their vacation answering questions about “life and pain and God”.
I read the first three pages of Stiller’s book barely noticing her (valid) point about how hard it is to make normal friendships in ministry because I was stuck at the part she shared about going for a week-long vacation at a Cuban resort. All I could hear was the sound of my own dread for the inevitable criticism she’ll receive for going on an international resort vacation – in Cuba, of all places. Although that might not be as much of a problem for Canadians to explain.
The reflex to underplay perceived luxuries has been finely trained in me because not only am I a minister’s wife, I also grew up a minister’s daughter. Three pages into the book and I’m flashing back to the time one of my church friends bitterly complained that her pastor (my Dad) was able to take his family to Virginia Beach with the money given by friends and family for my parents’ twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Come to think of it, like Karen Stiller and her Caribbean acquaintances, my coffee dates with that particular friend ended rather abruptly.
Thankfully, Stiller doesn’t seem anxious about sharing her experience living in the fishbowl of the minister’s home. Instead, she offers stories and insight with a voice that is warm, inviting, and completely unselfconscious. In a year often described as apocalyptic, exposing the realities of our broken systems and celebrities, including prominent ministers, I’m struck by the quiet revelation of Stiller’s book. This is the kind of truth we need to celebrate. It’s calm and not at all titillating. In old Bible language, you might describe the book as honest, virtuous, and lovely. It has the added bonus of making ministers and their spouses not sound more spiritual than Jesus.
The Minister’s Wife is a good report in a loud, cynical world. Ministers and their partners and anyone who wants to love them well, will be rewarded reading Stiller’s personal experience. In fourteen chapters covering topics as sacred as holiness, forgiveness and prayer and as ordinary as marriage, moving, and envy, any ministry family will feel seen and encouraged in their own experiences.
Any of us, ministers, or otherwise, who’ve been surprised by an unexpected journey of following God can probably see our own stories between the lines of this book. Stiller begins Chapter 1 with two simple sentences, “We were not going to Africa. We were going to church.”
The author describes the moment their vocational course correction began to dawn on her while she watched her husband prepare the elements of Eucharist for the congregation he was serving as a college student. Her hopes for living an unconventional life of mission at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro buckled under the simple beauty of serving the gifts of God for the people of God in the Stillers’ own homeland.
I, too, have described myself as a startled wife caught in the headlights of my husband’s unexpected calling. At times, like the author, I’ve felt like I’m following him around making my own work and callings as portable as possible. At times I’ve felt more like a half-asleep Eli in the story of the boy Samuel, grumbling at Brian to go back and listen to the voice without me. More than once, I’ve sat just outside the circle of conversations deciding the future homes for us and our children, hoping God sees me too.
It’s a lonely, exhilarating vantage point and it’s not for the faint of heart nor the ill-humored. For all the wisdom and practical direction Karen Stiller offers in The Minister’s Wife, I want to thank her most of all for the humor. She consistently describes the serious work of ministry with a playfulness that invites all of us church folk to not take ourselves too seriously.
For example, it takes a skillful storyteller to describe the tragic circumstances of a funeral for a baby in a way that leaves the reader with a giggle of recognition.Stiller’s particular genius is allowing us to weep with those who weep (in this story, the teen parents of a “bloom of a girl who’d barely lived”) and to laugh along with her at the memory of her first appearance as the minister’s wife at a stranger’s funeral (“I wanted to help [my husband] by being a…calm assurance. I sobbed through the entire funeral.”)
I suspect this kind of humor is best understood by the folks who’ve been there. One of the most hilarious fits of laughter I’ve ever experienced happened in the safe circle of fellow ministers during a prayer retreat. None of us knew each other very well, but we were tired and it was late and we began swapping stories of church services gone wrong. The more serious the faux pas the more we lost our minds with laughter.
If you know, you know. Karen Stiller knows and her invitation to get a peek behind the curtain of religious ritual is a gift for all of us desperately needing the release valve of levity.
Despite the title, which female clergy and their husbands might find reason to quibble, The Minister’s Wife is more than the gift of commiseration with those of us supporting the work of ministers from behind the scenes. Throughout each chapter, through the stories her own learning, wounding, and healing the author weaves together a love letter to the Church.
Stiller’s book is an invitation to trust the God who calls us to live and forgive and flourish within the most frustrating, imperfect community formed and still held together by Christ, the perfect One. No one knows the vulnerability and reward of this invitation more fully than the minister’s family.
Toward the end of the book, the author tells a story of visiting a minister’s widow in her assisted living apartment. The Stillers were moving again to another congregation in another city and the minister’s wife wanted to say good-bye to the minister’s widow.
“Millicent, I will see you again on the other side,’ I told her. ‘Maybe there’s a nice lounging area in heaven, just for minister’s wives.”Millicent responded by making a sign of the cross through the air and praying a benediction over the younger minister’s wife. Stiller concludes the story, “Millicent blessed me. I am blessed.”
I happened to read this book on a Sunday morning, the first day my husband (the minister) returned from a couple of weeks away from our church this summer. I’d promised to join the service through the new portal of live streaming. Pandemic-era church has made my role as the minister’s spouse a bit easier. I can dispense love to our congregation from the comfort of the couch while the minister works his heart out trying to rouse a congregation through the unblinking eye of a video camera.
I confess I didn’t make it to that live stream service. I lay on my couch and kept reading from that worry-inducing prologue through the epilogue pausing only long enough to mark up meaningful passages.
My heart was aching a good bit and maybe that’s why a simple sentence inserted in the middle of a story about the author’s children participating in the Maundy Thursday liturgy of footwashing caught me so completely off guard. “The youth pastor poured water from a ceramic pitcher,” she describes “into our family’s popcorn bowl.” I howled in utter recognition. Stiller continues with the simple clarification “When a big bowl is needed at the church, this is the one pressed into service.”
The minister’s children receiving the Jesus love of a foot washing. The mother’s heart. The popcorn bowl. It was too much. I laughed until I cried. And then I cried.
It’s always been too much. The ways the lines blur between home and church, intimate and public, play and worship, sacred, and profane. A pastor’s family straddles that line more than anyone else and only a few can simultaneously remind me of the beauty of this calling and make me laugh at the absurd impossibility of it all. I’m grateful to Karen Stiller for being one of those reminders.
The Minister’s Wife:A Memoir of Faith, Doubt, Friendship, Loneliness, Forgiveness, and More blesses any of us who hope to love the Christ who calls us to love Him and to love His Church in all its holy absurdity. We are blessed.