“Sustaining, Supporting, and Surviving—As the Wife of a Busy Church Worker,” Ensign, Oct. 1980, 48
“All those in favor of this proposition please signify by raising your right hand.” As I brought my arm to the square, I sustained my husband as the new bishop of our ward and once again joined the ranks of women whose husbands are often away from home attending to Church administrative business.
To me it almost seemed that the meeting began to take on the atmosphere of a missionary farewell; I could almost hear the ward choir humming “God Be with You Till We Meet Again.” While deeply grateful for the opportunity my husband was being given, I was nevertheless aware that this was going to be a team effort involving us and our children. A vague uneasiness began swelling inside me. Like any wife whose husband is given an executive position in the Church, I wanted to support and sustain him. But how? He would be given a handbook; I had little definite instruction regarding my role as the wife of a busy priesthood holder.
During the next weeks, I sought out former bishops’ wives, high councilors’ wives, quorum presidents’ wives—anyone who could tell me how to cope with the new assignment. Their suggestions and my own experiences over the next six years answered my three urgent questions.
Most impressive to me was the Lord’s instruction to Emma Smith, which became a frequently read scripture:
“And the office of thy calling shall be for a comfort unto my servant, Joseph Smith, Jun., thy husband, in his afflictions, with consoling words, in the spirit of meekness. …
“Wherefore, lift up thy heart and rejoice, and cleave unto the covenants which thou hast made.
“Continue in the spirit of meekness, and beware of pride. Let thy soul delight in thy husband, and the glory which shall come upon him.
“Keep my commandments continually, and a crown of righteousness thou shalt receive. And except thou do this, where I am you cannot come.
“And verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my voice unto all. Amen” (D&C 25:5, 13–16).
I appreciated one sister who reminded me to complement my husband’s abilities, not compete with them. Serving as a resource person was enjoyable. I read for both of us and told my husband about articles or information he might find useful. I kept a folder of clippings, articles, quotations, and creative ideas, in addition to the material already in our family files.
Stephen Chalmers could have had a Church leader in mind when he wrote, “Out of the dreariness, into its cheeriness, come we in weariness home” (Quoted in Richard L. Evans Quote Book, 1st edition Salt Lake City: Publishers Press, 1971, p. 28). I discovered that keeping our home clean and cheerful created a refuge for my family and for others my husband brought home. We’ll never forget Jim, a lonely teenager who spent several days with us doing odd jobs and soaking up family love like a dry sponge. He put the children’s school pictures in his wallet and asked permission to tell his friends they were his family.
I remember when I was young my mother came home from Relief Society once after a discussion on how women help their husbands with their priesthood callings. The response of the class was that women could pray for their husbands. Being practical, mother emphasized, “Yes, pray for them and fast with them, but also keep a white shirt clean, a dark suit pressed, and a meal prepared.” With this in mind, I tried to make sure that my husband’s clothes were ready to wear and that his appearance reflected the dignity of a servant of the Lord. When he needed a new suit or sportcoat, I did the comparative shopping and then took him to make the final selection. I also found it helpful to have a basic knowledge of haircutting techniques for Saturday night emergencies.
Telephone calls were a twenty-four-hour occurrence which ranged in urgency from messages from the stake president to a sister who wanted help finding a babysitter. We periodically reminded the family how to answer the phone courteously and record messages accurately. When my husband was set apart, we were counseled that I was not to ask, “May I help you?” if the bishop was not at home and I sensed the call was personal. Handling telephone calls pleasantly was one of the most time-consuming services. I had to continually remind myself that the caller did not know that this was the fourth call in five minutes and that the baby had just wandered outside alone while the potatoes were boiling over.
Though we had little time for a social life, we were careful about not creating a clique of ward executive officers, following the advice my husband received when he was set apart. We were also counseled to avoid the very appearance of evil at all costs, so my husband frequently drove past a sister to whom he might have offered a ride, and I occasionally sat in the deserted chapel foyer late at night while my husband counseled a sister alone.
While I tried to be supportive and focus my attention on my husband’s needs, I still had to develop more personal depth. One question kept recurring: “How much should I assist ward members?”
I found myself pulled in so many worthwhile directions that it was difficult to decide how to best use my time and energy. At first I tried to take food to every ward family that had a new baby, illness, or death. Soon it became overwhelming. A friend chided me one day, “Don’t you realize the Church is organized to provide these services and fill these needs? When you rush in, you deprive others of the chance to fulfill their stewardship.” I had been overlooking our own family in my anxiousness to provide what I thought others expected. Thereafter, I assisted according to actual need, and when I prepared food for someone else, I left one just like it at home, where charity begins.
Not only did I learn flexibility with our home and personal schedules, but I also learned to do things for which I felt entirely unsuited. For instance, at a ward Hawaiian luau the bishopric and their wives were called out of the audience of nearly 600 and taught the hula. To dance a hula barefoot in public went against all my inhibitions. Fighting self-consciousness and tears, I performed. I also learned that a leader’s wife may be called on as a last-minute speaker replacement. I kept a talk prepared and tucked inside my scriptures.
Controlling my tongue at times was a lesson in self-discipline. Frequently, when I felt that unwise choices had been made, I resisted the temptation to counsel the bishop. I reminded myself that he had two capable counselors who knew more about internal circumstances in the ward than I did. Consequently, I watched my husband grow through the influence of the Lord and the assistance of the ward members.
I wanted my image to reflect high standards of cleanliness, modesty, simplicity, femininity, and appropriateness. Because I was so impressed with “Pretty is as pretty does” as a child, I tried to be friendly and gracious. (I laughed with another bishop’s wife who confided that she had always wanted to dye her hair red but was waiting until her husband was released.)
Sunday was an especially trying day before the implementation of the consolidated meeting schedule. I identified with one bishop’s wife who mentioned that when her husband went out the front door on Sunday morning, she was sure Satan came in the back. The responsibility for getting the family to meetings, participating, maintaining order, and keeping the Sabbath holy fell on me—and was frequently overwhelming. I organized and prepared on Saturday and we established a few rules which helped maintain a reverent atmosphere. They included greatly restricted television, wearing school clothes instead of playclothes, not having friends over until after sacrament meeting, and playing restful music all day.
The most difficult decision I had to make concerning Sunday involved our toddler. When I took her to Sacrament meeting, she stood on the bench, pointed to the front, called “Dada!” loudly, and struggled to get to him. Taking her out left the other children alone, and I was not able to worship. By the time the sacrament service was over I was exhausted and irritable. I needed the meeting’s spiritual uplift to get me through the next week. Finally, after thought and prayer my husband and I decided to leave her at home for that hour with my younger sister, whose ward met at another time. At first I felt guilty, but my dread of Sunday turned into anticipation. The older children were able to be reverent by themselves, and so I was even able to participate in the ward choir, which was extremely rejuvenating. After a while, our toddler began to want to go with us on Sunday afternoons. I said, “When you can behave reverently like a big girl, then you may go to sacrament meeting with us.” She understood. There are, of course, other ways to handle the problem, but this worked well for us. We worked with that child, especially, to teach her the purpose of sacrament meeting and the good feelings associated with reverence.
Regardless of how much time a couple has together, there is no substitute for adequate communication. I found I could be long-suffering and patient until I began to feel neglected and was attending too many functions alone. Then I had to make my feelings known. My husband felt the same. We had our best talks in the car since it was hard to schedule time together. We found that unless our own marriage was on solid ground, neither of us could function effectively. Praying together was an essential part of each day. If my husband was fasting for a specific purpose, I joined him whenever possible.
Some wives find sharing their husbands’ time with others to be painful, especially at first. One friend whose husband has held several executive positions commented, “For years we tried to be ‘as one,’ and suddenly I found I was not included in his most pressing problems. I felt cut off.” I learned to concentrate on what we could share, rather than on what we could not share. Programs, baptisms, weddings, funerals, and other close family times with ward members could be shared, but the majority of a bishop’s Church business must be confidential. I didn’t ask prying questions. When a ward member asked me who the new Relief Society president was going to be, I could honestly say, “I don’t know.”
We had prayed that our children would understand what was certain to be a time-consuming schedule for their father. An effective leader must be accessible to others, and it seemed that someone needed something much of the time. We found it helpful to ignore the telephone during home evening on Mondays and occasionally during mealtimes.
The difficult choices between my husband’s responsibilities as a father and as a bishop were resolved daily with prayer and discretion. He realized the importance of spending quality time with the children and made extra efforts to involve the children in his activities. One friend, also a bishop, took his family along on weekly visits to ward members.
We taught the children that they should be examples of Christian living and make proper choices, not just because they were the bishop’s children but because it was right. We reminded ourselves often that they were individuals with free agency; they could be guided and led, but not pushed and forced for the sake of appearance.
As months blended into years and as we met crisis after crisis, we developed a tempered stability in our home life. My confidence was at its peak the night my husband confided his feelings about his possible release. This premonition was confirmed a few weeks later as once again I sat in sacrament meeting, surrounded by our children. I knew I was going to miss being the bishop’s wife. I would miss getting letters from missionaries, being invited to witness temple sealings, and being remembered in others’ prayers. I would miss having close contact with the children and young people in the ward.
As before, the meeting took on the tone of a missionary service. The earmarks were there: the joy of service, increased testimony of the gospel, gratitude for the opportunity, love for the Lord, personal growth, and the ever-present tears.
I realized that as a family and as individuals we had not only survived but actually thrived. We had each learned valuable lessons. It was fulfilling to bring my right arm to the square in sustaining the new bishop.