Standing On Shifting Ground

A Pastor’s Wife’s Journey to Find Freedom

Part of 6 of in
by Joyce Chang with Rae Weng
Illustrations by Alice Young
May 01, 2015 | min read
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Marriage to a pastor can be challenging. But sometimes outside expectations can make things even more difficult. Rae navigates her struggles and triumphs, finally learning what God expected of her as a pastor’s wife.

IT WAS RAE and Benson’s last premarital counseling session, a week before their wedding. They had overcome long distances, baggage, fears of marriage, and more to make it to where they were. And yet, on this day, Benson was sobbing.

Benson had seen a vision of Jesus coming out from the stained glass window of a church. “Lord, wait for me,” he called out as Jesus passed him. Jesus turned back and replied, “Come! Follow me.”

Deeply moved, Benson confessed, “I feel called to be a pastor.” And yet for Rae, who had never imagined this possibility before, there was only shock as she struggled to place herself in this quickly-shifting picture.

meetings

Rae’s warm voice over the phone relayed to me her unhappy childhood matter-of-factly, as if she did not want to invite sympathy. I had called Rae to find out what kind of woman would sign up to be a “Pastor’s Wife” without any prior notice. Why didn’t she run? What kinds of hurdles did she have to overcome? And most importantly, how is she doing now?

Growing up in Taiwan, Rae had come from a broken family. Her father was an alcoholic while her mother was strict and emotionally unavailable. All Rae had wanted was to quickly graduate from college, become independent, and leave home.

After college, Rae worked as a nurse for five years before moving to the United States to get her master’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin (UT Austin). It was during her time in Los Angeles, a month before starting her program, that she met Jesus at Evangelical Formosan Church of Los Angeles (EFCLA).

Standing on Shifting Ground

Rae continued to attend church in Texas. It was there she met Benson, who was studying for a Ph.D. in material science and planning to become an engineer.

“Because of my family background, I never wanted to get married. I was so scared. After my conversion, I naively thought that if I met a godly man, I would probably have a better marriage than my parents.

After my conversion, I naively thought that if I met a godly man, I would probably have a better marriage than my parents.

“Benson was wonderful. He was so caring, and not just nice to me, but nice to everyone. After fellowship, he was always the one to stay and clean up. You could see the difference.”

Rae moved back to LA after graduating in 1990. After being in a long-distance relationship for a year, Benson was able to transfer to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), to be reunited with Rae and to finish his Ph.D. They planned to be married in 1993.

I asked Rae what her dreams had been growing up and she said she didn’t really have any. She had wanted to be a vet, but became a nurse instead for practical reasons.

“All the steps I’d taken up to that point had been the next realistic thing to do. But if I had a dream, it was probably to live a stable, financially secure life.”

With Benson’s engineering degree, this was the life she thought she would have.

the call

“When I first heard Benson’s dream, I tried to convince myself that this was just a ‘general calling’. I rationalized that it was the same for every believer, since all Christians should follow Jesus.”

The night before the wedding was a long night. Rae couldn’t sleep and called her advisor.

“I’ve never prayed so hard before: ‘Oh dear Lord, please come right away!’ It’s funny now, but I was so scared then.”

“Did you have thoughts of not marrying him?” I pressed.

“No,” she replied simply. “It didn’t cross my mind.”

After the wedding, Benson asked Rae if he should drop his Ph.D. and go to seminary. But Rae convinced him to finish his studies.

“I asked him, ‘Do you think your studies are also God’s calling? God opened the door for you to transfer from UT Austin to UCLA. Before you have a clearer vision, why don’t you finish your studies?”

Benson went on to do two postdoc programs at UCLA. Gradually however, Rae saw that he was becoming unhappy. It was she who brought up seminary again.

“You don’t want to see the person you love live unhappily every day.”

Benson followed his calling from years ago and studied at Logos Evangelical Seminary, eventually becoming a pastor at EFCLA. Rae continued to work as a nurse, supporting their family as the primary breadwinner. Her role in the church where she became a Christian also began to shift.

“The pressure started to build while he was studying at seminary. I could see church members start to look at me differently — it prepared me — I was going to be the pastor’s wife.”

I could see church members start to look at me differently — it prepared me — I was going to be the pastor’s wife.

finding solid ground

There are often unspoken expectations for pastor’s wives. They hold highly visible positions in the church, living in a fishbowl where every move they make is scrutinized. Pastor’s wives can be treated as unpaid, full-time employees, part and parcel to their husband’s vocation. Sometimes, they’re expected to wear many hats — the uncalled assistant pastor, the office volunteer, the Bible expert, the compassionate counselor, the welcoming usher. And, of course they should be dressed conservatively, yet attractively.

For Rae, these perceptions fed into the existing expectations she placed on herself, and she struggled to settle into her new role.

“I felt so inadequate because I couldn’t fit into the frame of what a traditional pastor’s wife does. I wanted to support my husband, but I didn’t know how.” On top of these pressures, Rae became increasingly isolated. Two months after Benson started working full-time at EFCLA, Rae gave birth to their daughter; Benson did not have much time off.

“I felt so inadequate because I couldn’t fit into the frame of what a traditional pastor’s wife does."

“As a new mom with a baby to care for, I felt I shared my husband with the entire church.”

Yet Rae felt she could not turn to her friends at church for support. People advised the pastor’s wife to refrain from forming close friendships with church members to avoid the appearance of favoritism.

“I was very confused. I don’t understand why I must cut off my entire support network — all my friendships — just because I became the pastor’s wife.”

During this transitional time, Rae struggled with loneliness and depression.

“Growing up in my family, I was not allowed to express my emotions. Even in my marriage, we didn’t really fight. Whenever I felt pressure or conflict, I just built a wall around myself. I kept everything bottled up, until I realized I was sick inside.”

"Whenever I felt pressure or conflict, I just built a wall around myself. I kept everything bottled up, until I realized I was sick inside."

That was when Rae decided to step outside of her comfort zone and go to seminary too.

She attended a counseling class held by a Caucasian pastor who had spent 40 years in Taiwan. In this class, the pastor spoke of many Taiwanese people he had witnessed struggling with depression, with flows of rage deep within their hearts.

“I realized that was me and started sobbing quietly in the back. I didn’t realize I had so much anger, towards my parents, towards everything. There was a frozen rage built deep inside. I didn’t want to be sick anymore, so I started to pray desperately for healing. From that moment, I started to open up.”

Rae remembers reading to her daughter every night when she was little. She read Bible stories and children’s books such as “Berenstain Bears”, “Arthur”, or “The Best I Can Be” series. To Rae, these were stories about how people felt and expressed themselves.

“The stories I read to my daughter, I also read to myself. I learned the vocabulary to express my emotions, word by word.” And Rae used these words to reconnect and communicate with her husband and her friends from church.

"I learned the vocabulary to express my emotions, word by word."

“I took small steps to tell them how I was really feeling and they encouraged me and prayed for me. So I put my trust in them again and became more real and transparent. We became team players, doing ministry together.”

Things began to turn around. Rae learned to find her identity exclusively in God instead of the title, Pastor’s Wife, to know her limitations, and to set her own boundaries, instead of trying to live up to other people’s expectations.

“I realized that I was married to a man who is a pastor, but my identity does not get subsumed by my husband’s. I do not believe that is what God meant by ‘two becoming one’.

“I believe God called me by name – Rae, His beloved daughter — not Mrs. Wang. With God’s help, I could finally shrug off false pressure and gain the freedom to be myself and serve the Lord the way He has wired me to.”

"With God’s help, I could finally shrug off false pressure and gain the freedom to be myself and serve the Lord the way He has wired me to.”

In doing so, she began to find her own place in ministry.

“I remember when I asked God what I could do, He gave me the answer. He told me, ‘You enjoy reading. But don’t read only to yourself. Read to other people. Read with other people.’ And everything began from there.”

five loaves and two fish

At that time, there was a group of new stay-at-home moms in Rae’s fellowship. Rae saw their needs and empathized with their loneliness and hardships. She began a book club with three moms; they called themselves the 3Ms. The 3Ms read through books about adjusting to life as new moms.

“We kind of learned about parenting and how to deal with the emotions of being moms together. We became close.”

Other moms in the fellowship heard about the 3Ms and wanted to join Rae’s study group. As working moms however, they could not make the regular week day times the 3M’s had been meeting. So Rae began a study group on Sunday during Sunday school hours, expanding the group to include men as well. Together, Rae’s study group learned to minister to each other.

“These study groups were developed with my co-workers. I invited them to co-lead study groups and they started to show various gifts. I didn’t know it at the time, but we were discipling. Now we have a team.”

Rae started to invite mental health professionals and counselors from their church to speak during these study groups.The topics focused on crises like suicide, abortion, and death.

Gradually, Rae saw the need in the church for counseling on these topics and gathered the mental health professionals together to start Heart Keeper, Inc., a private non-profit organization. On their website, they introduce themselves as “a team of lay counselors, psychologists, social workers and marriage family therapists ... available for consultation” and invite anyone with a specific need or question to contact them.

Heart Keeper, Inc. regularly holds classes open to the community, dealing with parenting, marriage, communication skills, crisis for all ages, and stress or anger management. Currently, Rae hosts a women’s group every Friday morning outside of the church campus.

“Everyone is so unique. We can only be ourselves. We need to find our true identity with God first. I still don’t feel like I can fit the traditional frame for a pastor’s wife. I still cannot play the piano or cook very well.

“Everyone is so unique. We can only be ourselves. We need to find our true identity with God first."

“He provided opportunities for me to serve and relate to people in my ministry in a new way. I started small and grew into my spiritual gifts. But through this journey, the miracle of the five loaves and two fish became so real to me.”

I asked Rae if she could start again knowing what she knows now, whether or not she would choose to become pastor’s wife a second time.

“I certainly didn’t set out to become a pastor’s wife, but it was the path God chose for me. Now, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I enjoy doing the ministry God has prepared me to do and am very passionate about promoting personal growth, building healthy marriages, and strengthening parent-child relationships.

“I hope my sharing helps other people preparing to be pastor’s wives. I was afraid as well and totally understand; it’s a long journey as the pastor’s wife. But now when I look back, I see a life full of blessings. I am so willing to serve God because He’s just so faithful.”

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Joyce Chang

Joyce Chang is a follower of Jesus and a celebrator of life. She studied Comparative Literature and Education at UC Berkeley and has a passion for telling stories and coffee shops. 

Rae Weng

Rae Weng came to the United States for graduate study in 1989. She is the wife of Benson Wang, who is the senior pastor at Evangelical Formosan Church of Los Angeles, and has a 14-year-old daughter. She works part-time as a Resident Nurse of the Intensive Care Unit at Methodist Hospital of Southern California. She also serves on the board of Heart Keeper, Inc., a counseling ministry.

Alice Young

Alice Young studied illustration at Art Center College of Design and philosophy of religion at Talbot Theological Seminary. She is an illustrator based in Los Angeles. Learn more about her work at alicesyoung.com.

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