First Ladies: The Unsung Pulpit Partners (Part 2)

(For the backstory, check out Part 1 first.)

Transition to the Pulpit

Since Denise was already a member of the church where she became first lady, there was quite an adjustment from being a college girl to becoming the first lady. “I made a lot of friends at Emmanuel from my years at Buff State, so my friends had to learn how to respect me in a different light,” she says.

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I’ve been told I don’t act like a pastor’s wife,” Sharon says, “but I take it as a complement to say that I’m down to earth.  I’ve been told by people that they are waiting to see what I have on in the pulpit and I just take it that I’m a role model which can be a positive tool to use to minister to young ladies.  I have never heard any negative things about me directly, but I learned to evaluate what is being said. If it’s true, I try to be mindful of it and grow and develop in the area, but if it is not true, I pray that the individual who said it would grow and mature in that area.”

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“Being a pastor’s wife is rewarding, but you can also feel isolated,” Denise admits. Another first lady advised Denise to be mindful of how she behaves—to never let people see her cry or get upset. Denise said she felt like she had to be perfect.  She also had to deal with people’s expectations of how she should act and dress. “Some people wanted me to wear hats like their previous first lady.”

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Iris says she wasn’t a kind of first lady who could sit around and look cute wearing a big hat. “Ladies have to see that you’re a person,” she says. “Sometimes you like to have fun, but sometimes you cry and you go through things.”  Similar to Denise, when Iris became the first lady, well-meaning, mature people in ministry advised her not to be friends with the other women in the church, but to just be friends with other ministers and keep to herself otherwise. But Iris rejected that notion. “I like to hang out with the other ladies, I invite them to my house, and I teach them. I tell people that we do things not because the pastor says so, but because the Bible says so.”

Iris is an Accreditation and Regulatory Standards Consultant at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, and she notes that wherever she is, she acts the same. “I like to play and joke around, but the Iris you see at Sentara is the same person you see at church, or at home.” Her co-worker Carla L. Allen agrees: “A lot of times when people are at work, they act professional when they really don’t want to be bothered with you, but I always noticed that Iris is different—she is genuinely nice. After I found out that she is a Christian, I understood why she always seemed so different, which is a really a testament to how she’s living the Christian life.”

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There are expectations that come with a church that has a new first lady. People get their expectations based on their own opinions and experiences they have had elsewhere, but expectations are not requirements. “You’ll never meet everyone’s expectations because most of them are unspoken,” Mona’ says. “But the minute you don’t do it, you realize it [because someone will let you know],” Mona’ says. “I had a circle of friends who helped me, and gave me resources. To be the best wife, mother, and first lady I can be, I have to be true to myself and follow the assignment that God gave me. God trusted me and equipped me to move into this role.”

“At every point, whether in Arkansas or Virginia, I felt so inadequate for the task,” Tammy remembers. “There were so many needs I saw that I could not meet. I was trying to do everything for everyone and that’s impossible. In quiet time, I told the Lord I couldn’t do this—it’s too much. I can’t be all that Grant, my kids, the women of the church need me to be. It was just like He walked up along side of me, and said, “Just love Me and be all you can for Me, and when you do that, I will meet those needs.” God will walk with you. No person can do it all—we need to focus on Him and keep our eyes on Him and give Him our all. He will show us who we need to minister to. The task is overwhelming if we look at it any other light. It’s true for a pastor’s wife with a congregation of 50, 5,000, or 50,000.”

“We can only be who we are,” Tammy says. “There may have been those who tried to fit me into a certain mold or box, but as people see you ministering and serving God, people see your heart. As long as you love people, care about them, and show concern, which is the heart of Jesus. Members just want to see that you love Jesus. I’m not sure what the perfect Pastor’s wife looks like. But you’ll never please everybody, no matter what your job is, but there’s only one person that we have to please, and if we please Him, He will take care of all the other details. If we don’t please Him, what else matters?”

Challenges

Tammy had quite a unique experience in coming to her current church. Tammy and her husband spent the 19 of their 25 years together in Arkansas, raising their four children. It was in their last year in Arkansas that Tammy faced the toughest trial of her life.

During the Christmas season of 2005, Tammy was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She says it felt surreal going to the car in the parking lot after the getting the news, and both she and Grant were crying. All she could think was, “I thought God had so much more for me to do.”  With so much more work Tammy still wanted to accomplish, she didn’t understand what God was doing.

Tammy got a second opinion, and that doctor told her that her brain tumor was inoperable. Then she got a third opinion from a doctor whom is sought worldwide, as he is a specialist for the specific part of the brain where Tammy needed relief. In February 2006, she spent 19 hours in surgery, and this doctor removed 80% of the tumor. She has had two surgeries since then (the most recent on was in May 2009), and so far the tumor has not grown. She will have more testing done in Spring 2010, but she says God has been faithful to her every step of the way.

When the pastor search committee at Liberty contacted Tammy’s husband, they prayed, fasted and sought God about moving. Tammy said she could not travel by plane because of cabin pressure, and she wondered why God would move them at a time when she was so ill. Not to mention, the Ethridges had never even visited Liberty Baptist Church, so it was sight unseen. But God reminded Tammy about when He sent Abraham on a journey and he didn’t know where he was going. “We had to step out on faith and trust God’s leading. We wouldn’t have chosen this path for ourselves because it went against logic, but as we told the Lord, ‘We are your servants and we are reporting to duty’.” The Ethridges moved to Virginia in August 2006.

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Iris said when she and her husband were getting the church organized, it was a struggle setting up the youth ministry, women’s ministry, and the traditional things that the pastor’s wife is responsible for. She stresses the importance of having a mentor in the beginning stages. “You either learn by mentors or by mistakes. I choose mentors,” she says.

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Denise’s M.S. in Human Service Administration helps her in her role as the Church Administrator at her church. She is a very hands-on first lady, working behind the scenes to coordinate staffing, programs and events at the church. Her attitude is, I’m here to serve people—not to be a popular celebrity.”

And serve she did—at the expense of herself. Lady Denise found herself entering a depression after she had her second child, Dynnell. “I’m such a hands-on first lady, and I couldn’t do as much with two kids as I used to do with just one,” she remembers. She practically lived in the church, and did so much for others that she neglected herself. “It was hard to juggle so many duties, and I had no time for myself. I lived, slept, breathed church, and I wasn’t feeling fulfilled because with me doing so much for ministry, there was no time for anything else.”

District Elder Hurst recognized that his wife was getting stressed and depressed, and he told her to take time for herself. So Denise began to evaluate her personal goals, and prayed about it. “I asked God to help me find something fulfilling to do,” she says. And thus began the balancing act. Now she takes time to treat herself to “spa days” and maintains friendships with a circle of women who do not attend her church—some of which are also first ladies. She also spends time alone with her husband, who made a rule that they cannot talk about anything church-related while they are out together.

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“I am a very focused person and I’m in tune with my needs as an individual therefore I have “me” time engraved in my lifestyle,” Sharon says. Her favorite activities include going to the movies or the beach, travel, hang out with family and friends, check out live theater, shopping, and bowling.

To Be Continued…

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