This year I have visited many different churches. Alan is often invited to preach on a Sunday and I am able to go along with him wherever he is preaching. There are, of course, down sides to that – the most obvious being the lack of belonging to a community. That I do miss but we are aware that this is for a season and, as such, we have embraced it as it is.
One of the most positive aspects to it is that we get to experience church in different shapes and forms. We love meeting different people in different places. Often we are invited to have lunch with some people after the service and we really enjoy the opportunity to hear their stories and share their lives – always over delicious food. N.Irish people certainly excel at hospitality, especially to the visiting speaker and the visiting speaker’s wife (hereafter the VSW).
I think I have a quirky side to my personality because I must admit I do enjoy being able to slip into a church pew anonymously (while Alan has been whisked off to make last minutes changes to the order of service or to pray before the service). It is nice sometimes not being known as ‘the pastor’s wife’ and being able to blend with the church furniture. It can also have its funny side.
Slipping into a pew in a church where I am not known seems to present a problem in some churches. Sometimes people whisper to one another, wondering who the stranger is; sometimes someone will greet me as they pass; at other times – in a particularly friendly church – someone will come and sit beside me. It’s funny when someone comes over and asks ‘Are you the pastor’s wife?’ and then invites me to sit beside them. What would they have done if I’d said no? I hope they would have been just as friendly.
Being the VSW helps me to see church in a different light from being the pastor’s wife – and hopefully to learn some of the things we tend to do which are not very helpful. When I am the VSW, I am a stranger to most people so I can see how people are welcomed (or not) and I am also experiencing church from an outsider’s perspective. It has made me realise how we often assume everyone knows what we mean when we use church jargon – a stranger in the pew would simply not understand. I have been to churches where the announcements included a list of the midweek groups and their leaders – presented with only their Christian names with the assumption that everyone knew them and also knew where they lived.
If you tend to check Facebook on your iPhone during a Sunday service, you should check out where the VSW is sitting. I once sat behind a girl who did that. Now I don’t have anything against Facebook – as all my friends will know – but to watch someone check her friends’ statuses while my husband delivers a sermon which has required hours of preparation – now that I do not find quite so funny.
I find it funny if someone starts telling me what they thought of the sermon without knowing who I am – although I have usually managed to quickly tell them who I am – just to save any embarrassment in case they are about to tell me it was the worst sermon they have ever heard.
There seems to be a problem sometimes in welcoming the VSW. I have been welcomed from the pulpit, along with my husband, as would seem a fairly normal thing to do; once we were welcomed together but then the man presiding over the service, having said it was good to see the two of us, added ‘We are especially glad to see Alan’ – at which the whole congregation burst out laughing at his faux pas. Sometimes I am left out completely, as if I was not there. At other times I am added on at the end, as if I had been forgotten at the beginning.
One of the greatest things about being the VSW is that sometimes I find myself sitting beside someone who shares their story with me and then I have the opportunity of praying with them. Perhaps the fact that I don’t know them or their families helps them to share some of their more personal struggles. That is always a wonderful privilege.