THE MINISTERS' WIVES' TALE. Their `robes' have changed. ASSISTANT PASTORS IN DISGUISE

NOT so many years ago, Jennifer Russell's duties as a minister's wife in this tiny town would have been carefully, if unofficially, prescribed: Lead the church school, play the organ, head the women's group. Today the sign in front of the white-steepled First Congregational Church tells a different story. At the top, just above the hours of worship, the lettering reads: Revs. Richard & Jennifer Russell.

The minister's wife is herself a minister, sharing with her husband responsibilities such as preaching, leading worship, and officiating at marriages and funerals.

Although husband-wife clergy teams still account for only a tiny minority of ministerial couples, the Russells' egalitarian marriage represents part of an evolution in the role of ministers' wives.

No longer can congregations count on hiring a minister and expecting his wife to serve as an unpaid assistant. And increasingly, as women enter the clergy, the minister's ``wife'' is a husband.

``This is the only profession where you get two for the price of one,'' says Shirley Alexander Hart, president of the International Association of Ministers' Wives and Ministers' Widows, a 35,000-member organization based in Richmond, Va. ``When a doctor goes to work, he does not expect his wife to be there assisting him and working with him. When a minister goes to work, the congregation expects the wife to work with him.''

Now, she observes, ``The role is changing. More wives are working, or they are involved in activities other than just those of the church.''

In the living room of the Russells' 200-year-old white frame parsonage, where family photos parade across the mantel and stenciling on the walls hints at Jennifer Russell's artistic talent, the couple talk about these changes.

``I don't think I'd make a very good traditional wife,'' says the Rev. Mrs. Russell, a friendly, casual mother of three. Yet her husband recalls the attitude still in vogue when the couple attended Bangor Theological Seminary in Maine in the early '80s.

``We would hear that the expectation of a male pastor's wife was to assist the pastor, either by singing in the choir or helping with the women's group. We met many wives who fit that role.''

Today, many more do not. But as clergy wives seek outside jobs and perform the home-career balancing act familiar to millions of working women, they are still often asked to serve a wide range of church-related activities once assigned to the pastor's wife - youth groups, women's groups, senior citizen programs, family-life enrichment seminars, and day-care programs.

Last year a survey conducted by Judith Edsall, the wife of an Episcopal priest in Gainesville, Fla., found that the average clergy wife spent about 60 hours a week on activities related to home and family. Another 18 hours a week went to church-related activities.

``Wives aren't cutting back,'' says Mrs. Hart. ``They're getting up earlier, taking care of the home responsibilities, going to work, then leaving those paid positions and going to work at the churches. Our day may begin as early as 5 in the morning and end as late as 1 o'clock the next morning, depending on what is transpiring at the church at that time.''

Ethel Robinson, an associate professor of secretarial science at Roxbury Community College in Boston, illustrates Hart's point. ``I find I now have three jobs,'' she says. ``I have a full-time teaching job. I am the assistant pastor in disguise. And I still have one daughter at home.''

As the wife of a minister currently serving a small Methodist church south of Boston, Mrs. Robinson has spent decades serving as ``assistant pastor in disguise.'' But in the early years of her husband's ministry, when she was at home raising the couple's four children, church-related duties fitted into her schedule more easily.

After returning to college for a master's degree, she began teaching in public schools. ``My days got longer,'' she recalls. ``I just took on more work when I went back to work.''

On one typical afternoon just before fall classes started, Robinson was typing forms for the Sunday School, where she serves as superintendent. That morning she also spent two hours on the telephone counseling a young parishioner.

``People will call the wife if you're a good listener,'' she explains. ``My husband is very generous, but I don't think he would spend that much time listening to a young woman talk about her problems. Parishioners have a tendency to come to the minister's wife.''

These multiple roles can prove especially challenging to young clergy wives, who may be highly educated and primed for careers. Robinson tells of one young wife with a master's degree who had been working 5 days a week for the Ford Motor Company. As a newlywed relatively unfamiliar with the workings of the church, she found her responsibilities overwhelming.

``Her husband wanted her to become involved in the church,'' Robinson says, ``but she couldn't with such a demanding job. So she resigned from her job.''

Congregations, too, have had to adjust.

``It was a struggle for a period of time for the woman who had her own independent career,'' says Merle Jordan, an associate professor at Boston University School of Theology.

``Now many of the wives are better able to draw boundaries around themselves. They don't have as much guilt. And people in the church are better able to accept a two-career couple.''

Adds Sandy Van Ness, assistant to the dean of students at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Mass., ``Most couples today are very clear when they meet with the congregation about what the congregation can expect from them.''

The Russells believe the advantages of these new arrangements outweigh any disadvantages.

``People have told us they very much appreciate the kind of sharing, the interaction, the model of how we interact as man and woman, husband and wife,'' says the Rev. Mr. Russell. ``That is a very helpful model to them.''

Mrs. Hart, a minister's wife whose grandfather, father, brother, and uncle have been clergymen, also sees these new models as positive, both for the clergy couple and their parishioners.

``What's happening to the minister's wife now is very good,'' Hart says. ``She used to be expected to be drab in her dress, and not be very much her own personality.

``Things are changing for the better. Husbands are responsible for that, too. Our husbands are demanding that we are respected and that we are our own individuals, that we dress according to our personal taste, and that we are able to show that we can be a normal human being instead of some mystical character.''

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