On Being The Listening Type

I like myself. Not in the I’m-God’s-gift-to-the-world kind of way, but in a way that I think God intended us to have a sense of self-respect and gladness for our uniqueness as individuals. And not that I don’t have insecurities, because I’ve got plenty of the standard. I’ve got insecurities about my acne and my weight and the bags under my eyes and my lack of that hipster factor. I’ve especially got insecurities about my awkwardness with small talk, and the fact that I am usually exhausted by my efforts at it, and the fact that I’m convinced everyone is as acutely aware of my faltering as I am.

A guy I dated in college invited me once to a casual gathering of his friends; it was going to be my first time meeting them. I still remember what he said, “You learn a lot about a person when you see them interact with a group of people they don’t know.” Great. What he was about to learn was that this girl who could talk happily and easily with just him, was going to morph into the girl who shut down conversations with pauses too pregnant with overthought and who would ultimately excuse herself to the bathroom just to escape the relentless pressure of trying to overcome this.

The thing is, you see, I like being me. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t want to be any other way. Well, maybe a little less awkward at times would be nice. But I love being quiet. I just do. I love that listening, and listening well, is one of my most commonly identified strengths. I love that people feel they have been heard when they are with me. It means a lot to me and I feel I’ve got something valuable to give to my friends through my listening.

My struggle in being the listening type, however, is that I often feel less heard. I don’t interrupt conversations in groups readily or comfortably. It’s important to me not to cut people off but sometimes that’s how a lively conversation goes, one person after another cutting in, cutting off. But me, I’m uncomfortable cutting people off and equally uncomfortable being cut off. Call me crazy, but I like complete thoughts.

It can feel lonely, lopsided. Often knowing everyone else’s thoughts, big and small, but feeling less heard, less known. No one is more to blame than the other. I love when people ask me real questions and offer a space for my voice, but they don’t necessarily know I’m looking for that. I haven’t told them, how could they know. Sometimes I think that people assume just because I’m quiet means I don’t have a desire to talk. It’s more that I’m always looking for a more comfortable context to voice my thoughts but often struggle to find it. Other times I think that people assume my quietness means I’ve got some kind of extra steady hold over my troubles, and don’t need a listening ear myself. But it’s more that I’ve just got a steady hold over my expression of them. I could still use a listening ear now and then, too.

I’m thankful for authors like Adam McHugh and Susan Cain who recognize the wisdom and grace of God in shaping us introverts the way He has. I could honestly hand you their respective books, “Introverts in the Church” and “Quiet,” and tell you that you would know so many of my intricacies just by reading them. But at the end of the day, I’d like for friends to hear me use my own voice too. I may not be a big talker, but I’ve got some things to say.

a messy answer to a loaded question

It is an incredibly hard question to answer. You’d think that I would have some kind of ready response, given that I think about it every day, but there simply is no neatly packaged answer that seems to do any meaningful justice to the question,

What is it like to be a pastor’s wife?

First, I need to explain why it is so hard to answer this question in the first place. Complexity. This is not just one question. It is at least two. What is it like to be the wife of a pastor? And what is it like to be in the separate but related role of “a pastor’s wife”?

So now, part one of that question: What is it like to be in a marriage relationship with someone who is a pastor?

Well, relationship is fundamentally molded by time shared. And for the pastor, there are demands on his time that do not exist for any other profession, coupled with expectations that he can or should find a way to meet many, if not most, if not all of those demands. This makes for an irregular schedule for your home life. His meetings with people are generally scheduled around the 9-5 work schedule that the majority of people abide by, which means that others’ free time is his work time, i.e. evenings and weekends. The spouse, then, either comes with him or stays home without him, both options having their challenges if the spouse works full-time herself. And it’s not just demands on his time. It’s demands on his emotional, mental, intellectual and spiritual self. He is constantly asked to give, and give well, on all these levels. He needs to find time to recharge, through our marriage but also apart from me. He needs his man-cave time too. It takes a lot of intentional effort on both his and my part to help make sure that happens.

If you are married to the pastor, you don’t hear the sermon the same way as everyone else in the congregation. At least I don’t. I am thinking about the sermon, but I’m also thinking about how he feels about his sermon and what kind of feedback he will want and need from me afterwards. I listen to sermon podcasts from other pastors so that I can listen to a sermon just for the sake of my own learning and growth, and for nothing else. I also have learned how to better negotiate with my pastor-husband just how much he uses me and our relationship as analogies or examples for the things he is preaching about. While I consider myself to be fairly honest and open about my life, I am nonetheless uncomfortable being the center of attention, especially in a larger group. I don’t always want to be worked into the sermon. Our dog has been a nice substitute.

If God gives you children, you are going to raise the pastor’s children. You want them to be just your children, but the fact remains, they are also the pastor’s children.  No pressure.

You know the pastor in ways that no one else does. You know his dreams, his hopes, his fears, his frailties. And you are to be his main support and encourager through it all. It is wonderful and amazing. It can also be heartbreaking.

Now, part two of the question: What is it like to be in the role of “the pastor’s wife”?

The expected “role” of “the pastor’s wife” is largely defined by your denomination, and more specifically, the personalities in your church congregation. They determine a lot of the underlying definitions and expectations of that “role.” Even if you have a supportive congregation and a fairly healthy sense of self, you still feel yourself constantly negotiating those tensions between what you want and need and what you feel others want and need. What is more, the tensions are not completely static. They will change as your congregation changes, and they will change as your own personal life changes. As a result, you are constantly re-negotiating them to some degree. You’re evaluating your personality type, your social preferences, your boundaries with time, the needs of the church, and your own needs. And you’ve stepped into this role, regardless of any other roles you already play in your own career, family, and other circles of influence.

There are other miscellaneous dynamics that are somewhat unique to the role of the pastor’s wife.

Your financial situation is different from everyone else’s. I’m not talking so much about salary and tax laws, though those can certainly be sticky topics. I’m talking about perception and expectations related to finances. What you buy, what you wear, what you drive, where you live, where you go on vacation. You feel the presence of perceptions and expectations related to all these things more than the spouse of any other profession, I would argue. I know of one pastor’s wife whose husband won a contest from a local sports radio station, which landed a huge HDTV in their living room. I know of another pastor’s wife whose wealthy mother-in-law passed on a used Mercedes to her and her husband. These would be much more normal and acceptable in any other context, but because the husband’s occupation is that of a pastor, they receive, at times, questioning looks about these nicer things in their possession, and they feel a need to explain.

Your relationships are just different. It’s hard to articulate the dynamics in this arena. But I remember going to a family’s home for New Year’s Eve, and they had two energetic, playful dogs who proceeded to do what dogs sometimes do – they humped. Mortified, the teenage son pulled one dog off of the other with this specific scolding: “Not in front of the pastor’s wife!” I was mostly amused but also a little sad. He didn’t feel like he could let his dog just be a dog, simply because I was there, and I was the “pastor’s wife”? I never forgot that, maybe because it reflected a bit of this underlying threat to honest and real relationships that I wish with all my might didn’t exist, but does. Adam McHugh describes this well in his blog post, Why I Sometimes Lie About My Profession.

There are spiritual aspects around this question that I have for now intentionally left out of this post. Not because they aren’t important, and not because life is really that compartmentalized. God knows that without the spiritual aspects for me and my husband, none of this would ever be possible or worth it. But I left them out because usually when people ask me the initial question presented at the beginning of this post, they are asking about the day-to-day, nitty gritty stuff, which is what I’ve tried my best to describe here in hopefully some measure of succinctness.

I also do not intend this blog post to come across as a litany of complaints. I’m just trying to describe the experience of at least this one pastor’s wife as honestly and as straightforward as I can. These are the challenges and tensions that I am constantly working through. Can it be hard? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely.

Guest Blog Post: The Collision of Introversion, Culture, and Confrontation

They say that it is in our relationships with other people where we see our true selves come to light. This is especially true when we are faced with situations in which we must decide whether to confront another person. If not, why not? If so, why and how?

Personality type and culture are obvious factors influencing how we approach (or shy away from) confrontation. I wrote this recent guest post on Adam McHugh’s blog, addressing some of these issues after a very uncomfortable encounter at a local farmer’s market which left me wrestling with a big moral dilemma and a whole lot of soul-searching. Adam is the author of a most wonderful book, Introverts in the Church, which I’ve alluded to in previous posts.

Here is the link to the guest blog post:

http://www.introvertedchurch.com/2012/05/introvert-saturday-collision-of.html

Wearing Pajamas to Work Leads to the Most Schizophrenic Compliments

With my typical work attire being just slightly a notch above pajamas, and my standard work hairdo being the ever so ageless ponytail, I wouldn’t exactly say I dress up for work and dress down on my days off. I could swing through my nursing unit on an off-day for a meeting or a class, dressed in jeans and a decent blouse with my hair let down, and one of the most common comments I get is:

“You look really nice today! I didn’t recognize you at first.”

Haven’t we all either had someone say this to us, or said it to someone else? Somewhere in there is a compliment, but there’s something else there too. Something that consists of… well, not a compliment.

It’s curious, and rather revealing, the things we say without actually verbalizing them. Other unintentionally mixed compliments that leave me awkwardly scrambling to find a non-awkward response include:

“You’re really good at (some ability). I wish I could be as good as you.”

“Oh, so you’re a (fill in job title or some other specific role)? I could never do that.”

“You’re so funny” (in reaction to something you said that was not an actual joke).

There is a Bible verse that says, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” It’s true. We aren’t so good at not saying what we don’t mean to say. (How’s that for a brain-bending sentence?) We inadvertently end up saying it anyhow, somehow. It makes sense then that the responder to a schizophrenic compliment has a hard time knowing which aspect of the schizophrenia to respond to. It’s easier to just say “thank you” to the compliment portion, but somehow the other implied commentary lingers in the air and begs for our attention.

Somehow, I think there has got to be a better way to have these conversations. Either keeping the compliment in pure compliment form (which we still have struggles giving and receiving), or else shamelessly but ever so graciously delving into more honest discussions about what we’re actually thinking. Maybe what we have a hard time with is keeping that conversation going from a place in both parties that is full of grace and free of shame.

Why is that? Why do grace and shame exert such strong influence over the dynamics of these kinds of conversations?

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For reference and credit, Adam McHugh’s recent blog post, “Why I Sometimes Lie About my Profession” inspired me to write this.

How introversion suits my pastor’s wife. And oh, that’s me.

Back in my college years, I remember dreaming about becoming a pastor’s wife. Oh silly, naive me. I certainly found a shepherd’s heart to be wonderfully attractive. I thought it would be neat to be an encourager, the main encourager, to a person in that role. I thought it would be neat for my own self to have more doors open for me to care for others.Then, I married a pastor, and I cried.  I can’t do this. I can’t. do. this.

Please don’t get me wrong. Our church community is as genuinely supportive as it gets in their care towards us and their respect of our boundaries around our personal lives. They are actually quite amazing in how supportive they are. But even still, the roles of pastor and pastor’s wife are just inherently hard. Boundaries between the professional and the personal and incredibly blurry. Our personal life, in so many ways, is completely intertwined with my husband’s professional life. That’s a lot of pressure when you’re having a bad day. When my Sunday mornings come on the heels of a busy stretch of shifts at work in the hospital, I can tell that my ability to engage in meaningful conversation at church is not so stellar, and it’s in those moments that I hope people can understand that this introvert can’t always keep up so well with the roles of nurse and pastor’s wife without a bit of social faltering here and there. I hope they can remember that I’m primarily Stephen’s wife, not ‘the pastor’s wife’. Well, beyond that, I hope they can remember that I’m just me.

After reading Adam McHugh‘s lifechanging book, Introverts in the Church, followed by Susan Cain‘s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, I have become significantly more comfortable with my personality type and have learned how to recognize, treasure, and make the most out of the strengths that introversion has to offer. I’ve learned how to pull myself out of overstimulating crowds and engage in smaller, quieter conversations with just one or two people. I’ve learned how to communicate my needs for periods of solitude to my husband so that he can plan his meetings and dinners at our home accordingly. I’ve learned that I do not need to feel guilty when I keep my open days open, and use much of that free time to read, write, and take long walks to pray. I’ve learned that this is what makes me a better listener and a better talker in the long run. And I have to admit, I still relish the shock on peoples’ faces when they find that I have a very sarcastic, pranksterish side that I love to keep quietly hidden until just the right time.

But really, as I have gained a much better understanding of who I am and what my introverted rhythms are in terms of a social versus private balance, I honestly feel that this has helped my husband and I guard our own time together in a much healthier way. While he is an introvert as well, he has much more social stamina and he does not have as strong of a need for structure in his days. My counselor suggested that I help build in structure, not only for my own alone time, but for the two of us, in order to help ensure that we both have sufficient space to breathe, rest, and receive.

Some may say that pastors and pastors’ wives would do better if they were all extroverts. I would say that I love being an introvert married to an introverted pastor, and I would say that our personality type is a good, good thing for us.

A Quiet Peace: guest blog post

Adam McHugh, author of Introverts in the Church, has been posting a blog series on ‘A Quiet Advent.’ Each week, his blog series has covered a quiet hope, a quiet love, a quiet joy, and in this final week of advent, a quiet peace. I was given the opportunity to write a guest blog post for this week, which I find somewhat ironic given that my external circumstances have felt anything but peaceful. Which, I suppose, is the point of my blog post.

You can find the blog post here. Thanks for reading!