Self-fulfilling Prophecy and Maria Ritter

Bonnie Crandall

© Copyright 2020 by Bonnie Crandall

Photo of handshake.

Here she came again. Every Sunday she came like clockwork. She was probably in her late sixties, early seventies, under five feet tall, a little round gnome-like person with rough hands, her silver hair pulled back into a severe knotted bun at the nape of her neck with a lined face that spoke of a hard lived life. She spoke with a heavy German accent, and she was closing in for the "kill."

"Ah, Bonnie, there you are." she said. "It is so good to see you. You are looking so well, and I just wanted to tell you that God is good and everything will be all right." This was her regular theme, sometimes varied with asking me how I was, waiting for a reply, and then following with "everything will be all right." This statement of assurance was given with my hand securely locked between both of hers. She then would flash this unmistakable smile of faith, pat my hand once more and move on to greet others.

It was "our" first church assignment since we had been married, and though I loved being with my husband and being a newlywed, this "PK" (Preacher's kid) was back in a parsonage and a large chunk of me was not a happy camper! Ron (my wonderful husband) was the associate youth minister, and was a typical gung-ho-fresh-out-of-seminary-type clergy, which meant he thought he had to (and could!) save the whole world in the first year so we could just enjoy being one big happy family waiting for heaven together.

In my single life, I had always been an independent person. I worked my way through college with my own daily radio women's interest program which I taped on weekends. Then every week night I worked as a weather girl on a local TV station with 10 shows a week. This was an amazing feat considering I had never heard of barometric pressure and got all my information on local conditions from a tipsy worker at the city landfill. During the weekdays, I attended classes and/or worked for the college in its development department. This was due in part to my own ambition, but also to financial needs to pay for my tuition (remember, my parents were on clergy salary). By the time I met Ron, I had graduated from college, had done some graduate work, and was now working for an advertising agency in downtown Los Angeles, plus going to auditions for musical comedy work. I had a life! And that life was mine! And then Ron happened.

I truly was glad Ron happened. He was the best thing that had happened to me in a long time. He was finishing up his doctorate in seminary and working as a youth minister at a church my brother-in-law served. I was a pseudo-sophisticated, budding singer and actress. He had been on THE DATING GAME as a contestant about the time I met him, and when he was chosen and his date refused to go on the date since he was a "clergy" (wise woman), he asked me if I wanted to go in her place! Oh temptation! I broke my own rule of never dating a wannabe clergy and blithely went away with him for the weekend in Reno, Nevada. On the plane to Reno, I made it clear I had no intention to ever marry a clergy and he agreed that I wasn't exactly prime clergy wife material, so we relaxed and had a good time.

However, we decided we could be friends, and I discovered he wasn't a bad kisser and I was dateless at the moment, so we would spend hours talking and sharing our thoughts on a myriad of subjects, and occasionally share a kiss or two or forty. After all, we were of an age where great pleasure could be derived from the touching of lips! We became good friends. No, that's not right. We became eternal friends; and now linked by vows taken before God, I was sitting at a rickety table, one of three furniture items in our "furnished" parsonage. The other two were an overstuffed sofa with the stuffing coming out, and a youth bed. I had just quit a job that I truly enjoyed, and was dutifully "nesting" a home. I was bored, lonely and self-righteous. Something was happening to me. I was doing the strangest thing. I was becoming my mother.

In my present calling as a counselor, I have listened over the last few years to many budding clergy spouses and those on active duty and I have discovered several shared traits. One of those is either a conscious or subconscious "program" of expected behavior. The source of these expected behaviors may come from the congregation, the denomination, former role models, their spouses, or inner demands and suppositions (as mine were at the start of our marriage). Much of what I hear from the spouses of seminary students is a fear that they will have to fit someone else's mold. Theirs is a fear of the unknown. They have heard horror stories, and they are filled with the same!

Spouses on "active duty" fit more into one of two groups: those who are the source of their own horror stories, or those who choose not to be molded by any predetermined role of self. Some of the latter had an angry chip of self-defiant "you're not going to change me" in their approach to being a clergy spouse. And since change is a natural part of life, they often became rigid and dug-in. Perhaps that is why some of them became the source of the horror stories. But many of this latter group evolved into a new self-defined choice through experience and personal growth, and with "grace" and true understanding. I eventually made it into this group, but not without a time of turmoil!

At our first church, I avoided attending the women's organization's meetings since I KNEW I HAD TO GO because I was the minister's wife (not true, but it took a while to learn this!). We were married in September and I waited until the Christmas luncheon to "bless" them with my presence. I had selected a visitor's name tag to make it clear what I was and wasn't about that day. I struck up a conversation about Christmas trees with another visitor, who was also a newlywed. It seems we both had husbands who had purchased unbelievably, idiotically, ugly Christmas trees and we were comparing trees to see who had the cheaper spouse. I had won by stating our tree had only seven branches and could support only tinsel and strings of popcorn. Any heavier ornament caused one of its puny branches to drag the floor.

About this time my husband arrived at the luncheon, since the church staff had been invited. As Ron walked toward us, I said, "And here comes my husband, the idiot!" As I told him we had been discussing husbands' choices of Christmas trees, I couldn't help but notice the puzzled look on her face. Ron read her name-tag and noted that she and her husband had been visiting the church and he had talked to her on the phone earlier that week. Lights went on all over her face as she realized she was now talking to A CLERGY, and therefore had been talking to A CLERGY SPOUSE just minutes before. Her mouth dropped, her eyes got wide as she said, "Oh my God! I hope I didn't say anything wrong!" She then slapped her hand over her mouth and rushed away.

Ironically, her use of "God" as an exclamation was the closest she had gotten to saying anything that might have offended me in our entire conversation and that only emerged upon meeting "my husband, the idiot." I turned to face my bewildered husband with my best minister's wife smile firmly glued on. I tilted my head up close to his face, still dutifully smiling, and whispered sweetly into his ear two words through smiling gritted teeth. They were words that only he could hear to sum up my feelings at that moment, "Oh__!" Insert your favorite word to state extreme frustration into the space, and you will have a good idea of how I felt right then! Ron knew immediately that Bonnie was ticked!

Do you understand where that frustration came from? Probably you were too refined for my vocabulary choice, but I can't help but believe if you are a clergy spouse, that you have shared my feeling. Those moments when you have felt labeled and depersonalized, and when your "self" felt sucked into some great black hole of mental identity which people have for clergy and their spouses. Well, for me, that day confirmed all my fears and I became even more of a rebel without a cause. But I did not know I was without a cause. And that is where Maria came into my life.

Since I did love my husband, and the subconscious role modeling of my mother was still very much a part of me, I did choose to be "supportive" of his ministry by being involved in a few things. However, I chose not to be in the obvious expected places of "service." For instance, I had studied voice for 10 years and had majored in drama and music in college. So did I sing in the choir? No way! Not this rebel! I attended one rehearsal and upon entering the room, a tenor innocently joked how they would have to clean up their act since the minister's wife was there. In my angry state, there was no such thing as an innocent statement, and I never returned. Amazingly, they were able to continue praising God through music without me! But back to Maria.

The church had started small group study cells that involved a commitment of ten weeks, and everyone was assigned and invited to a home organizational meeting. I went, since I figured it was less hassle to show up than to rebel. My group met at Maria's house. It was a house that smelled mildly of mothballs and Vicks VapoRub, and was crowded with pictures and memories of a full and long life.

At the first couple of meetings, I plastered on my PS (preacher's spouse) smile, which was just an upgraded version of my PK smile, and I was so pleasant as to be nauseating! But during the following weeks, something strange was happening. I began to realize I had always viewed the church as THEM and US. To put it in the most quickly understandable terms, US were the paid Christians, and THEM were those that did it for free! As a parsonage child and now a preacher's spouse, I had, to a degree, always been on someone's paid Christian payroll. And while it was not always the highest pay, the church was both faith and occupation. Suddenly I was confronted with persons to whom the church was just faith; a total act of choice. Part of our focus was daily prayer with all of us praying at the same time of day and praying from a common list of prayer requests. In order to form this list, we had to risk sharing our areas of needed prayer. As I listened to the fears, hurts, and concerns of these eight other people, I realized their need for faith in action came from a different life challenge. I was expected, but also privileged to live out my faith without many hassles. I had always viewed this as a burden. However, as I listened to these people who had to make hard choices and had sometimes borne ridicule and rejection as persons called to be faithful to God, I began to see that there was privilege in my position.

After a few weeks of phony role-playing on my part, I ventured to share a concern or two; and as I let down my frozen pleasant facemask, I discovered that they, too, had preconceived barriers in place that came between THEM and US. At least most of them did. Maria didn't, because for her there had never been a barrier. I was simply her "sister in Christ." One meeting when I had risked sharing some of my fears and concerns, she asked a basic question. "Bonnie, do you love the Lord and believe the Lord loves you?" When I honestly said yes, she smiled and began what was to be our weekly ritual as she took both of my young, soft hands in her life-worn, callous hands, patted them and said, "Then everything is going to be all right."

As I came to know more about Maria's life and the horror of W.W.II in Germany for her and her family, she helped me understand that "all right" was not about personal well-being or life turning out as you wanted it. It was rooted in a quote I now have on my kitchen wall. "There's nothing I face today that God and I can't handle together." And through Maria, and her weekly statement of simple faith, I began to realize that there should be no THEM and US. It has to be only US if the kingdom of God is real. It has to be not separate and fearful, but trusting and together. It has to trust that if I am good enough for God to love, I am good enough for another to love. It has to be true to the person God designed me uniquely to be, and not to another's idea.

As I became more of "myself" in that group, another amazing thing happened; it gave the others in the group permission to be themselves. They shared that at first they had been uncomfortable in a group with the "Preacher's Wife." They assumed I would be holier-than-thou and aloof and perfect and all those other creative stereotypes. As I risked being me, I unknowingly gave them permission to be themselves, warts and all. And I discovered that we PSs often box ourselves into self-chosen corners by imposing on ourselves all the supposed "imposed images" of a clergy spouse. Then we are surprised when others treat us differently. And, we treat them differently. We close them out. And we are the losers. Actually, we both lose.

Now that doesn't mean that risk is not a real part of this mask dropping. By definition to risk means to expose oneself to hazard or peril as part of a venture. Sounds to me like a working definition of living life. And like the saying goes: "Life is what happens to you while you are making plans." Life is the unknown. Sometimes it is painful and disappointing. Sometimes it is joyful and fulfilling. But it is never dull if you are willing to risk the hazard and the venture! I find many clergy and spouses living in fear; fear that they may do the wrong thing, so they often do nothing at all. Fear that they will displease someone, so they try to please all. Fear that if they don't do everything perfectly, their church, their spouse, their denomination, and ultimately, their God will not love and accept them. And life, the life God gave them to live to the fullness of God's grace, is not lived but merely endured. And the Marias that God sends are passed by and closed out.

Maria refused to be closed out as she challenged my persona each Sunday with her simple reminder of one person in Christ to the other, "Bonnie, it's going to be all right."

We moved on from that church to others. But at each place I discovered there was another "Maria." I had never noticed them before, but then I hadn't been looking. I was looking to be offended, to be shut out by THEM, not blessed by THEM. The names of my Marias changed. Sometimes they were called Howard or Charlie or Joanne or Mary or Jerry or Susan. But they encouraged and accepted and loved me in ways I could not have accepted until I learned to give up the THEM and US. True, there were those that were the opposite of the "Marias," but I learned that also is a part of human nature. They are part of US, and I had to realize that I sometimes was called to love some that would never return that love. The New Testament is full of this struggle. Yet God was gracious through the "Marias" that were there to love, support and even challenge me to be honest and real in my relationship to God and to others. And what about that self-fulfilling prophecy of the clergy spouse life? Thanks to Maria and the other "Marias" who followed, it began a slow, but much needed demise. I began to give myself permission to be free to be me!

Yet the old habits and images proved hard to break, and often Iíve had to ask forgiveness for failing to realize the presence of God's grace in my life. I would hide in my self-imposed prison of pity and fear. Plus, there were persons at each church we went to that just didn't like me! Thatís a reality of human nature that even Abraham Lincoln recognized when he talked about not being able to please all the people all the time. In fact, I recall a woman at a particular congregation who left the church because "Bonnie doesn't talk to me as much as she does the other women in the church." And she was right. I truly had no idea who the woman was! So I sought her out and made an effort to overcome my first impression. It didn't happen and she still left the church. Those times come in ministry and in life.

However, they are not the core of what we are about. To be able to look on each person as a potential brother or sister in God and be open to the possibilities of our lives enriching each other's is a gift not to be ignored. At times I still have to trust that "everything will be all right" and believe in the rewards of risk, and not be overcome by fears, even in times when the realities of life don't seem "all right."

God bless Maria, and all those who serve in this special way in the body of Christ! Through her and others like her, I have come to believe that if the church is ever to be truly empowered to change the world, we must begin by the clergy and laity respecting, encouraging, and loving one another. And that happens one child of God at a time risking to reach out in love to another, spiritual warts and all. Inside each person I encounter is a potential Child of God and therefore a Person Of Worth. Or as I dubbed it - a COGPOW. That concept became a basic principle of my counseling and it all began with Maria.

Thank you God for all the Marias you placed in our lives. Give us eyes and ears to recognize them and be grateful ... and also allow us the privilege of being a Maria to others.

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