“What’s it like when the man you married is married to God?
That’s the central theme author Lisa Takeuchi Cullen explores in her debut novel, Pastors’ Wives. In it, she tells the stories of three pastors’ wives whose lives come together within the ministry of an evangelical megachurch in Atlanta.
I’ll admit to being unsure what to expect from this book. I won a copy from a website where the book had been reviewed but it sat on my shelf for months. In the midst of my own doubts about being a pastor’s wife and the loss of vision for what I thought that would look like, I avoided it, afraid that it might add to my overall negative attitude. Now I’m sorry I didn’t read it sooner!
Far from a glossed-over, perfect portrayal of the women married to men with a call to ministry, Pastors’ Wives is an honest glimpse of the doubts, fears, complications, expectations and survival mechanisms of these women. I loved every page, and I’d happily hand out copies of this book to most pastors’ wives I know. (I say “most” because the book contains language that some people might find offensive. I didn’t feel it detracted from the story at all.)
One of the strengths of the novel is the author’s research. Pastors’ Wives is based on research Cullen did for a magazine article, including time spent with actual pastors’ wives from a variety of denominations. (You can read more about that on her website.) Those experiences bring to life the three fictional wives–Ruthie, Candace and Ginger.
A little bit about each of them: Ruthie, a nominal Catholic, is in the midst of a crisis of faith when her husband hears a call to leave his job on Wall Street to join the ministry of a suburban Atlanta megachurch. Candace is the church’s “first lady,” wife of the senior pastor and basically the Wizard of Oz. She runs the show for, and sometimes in spite of, her husband. Ginger is married to Candace’s son and struggles to maintain the proper image of wife and mother while hiding her past.
I was surprised to find that I identified with something in each of these women. While each character represents a particular kind of pastor’s wife, none of them felt stereotypical or exaggerated. Cullen seems to have a talent for realism in characters. I hope she decides to write more of them.
Some of my favorite lines from the novel:
- The story opens with Ruthie in an airport newstand buying a Star magazine. “I would have to call it a $3.99 act of defiance. … Funny thing about becoming a pastor’s wife: You felt watched. Not by God, exactly. Just … watched.” Can I get an “amen” for that?
- From Candace, in reflecting on friendships: “For such a public role, being a pastor’s wife can be the loneliest job in the world. No member of a congregation wants to befriend the bedmate of their spiritual leader, lest news of their base humanity filter back to him and handicap their shot at heaven.”
- And Ginger, when her carefully covered up past begins to emerge, wonders: “What was better–living an ugly truth or a comfortable lie?
So many more, but I don’t want to spoil the book for you. I’m passing this on to another pastor’s wife, and I’d recommend it to others, especially those who struggle with their husband’s call or their role in ministry. Definitely, it’ll be among the best books I read in the second quarter of this year.
And if you’re not a pastor’s wife, maybe it will offer insights into the life of the woman behind the man in the pulpit at your church.