The Reverend Grace Pritchard Burson is the Associate Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Manchester, New Hampshire. She and I “met” in the comments section of a mutual friend on Facebook. Our friend had asked whether those Housewives of Whatever shows degraded the concept of “housewife.” In her comment, Rev. Burson mentioned a paper she'd written about the role of the clergy as homemaker. When I expressed interest she very kindly posted a copy for me to read, and when I begged her to allow us to re-post it here she graciously agreed.
I can't speak to the ministry aspect, but Rev. Burson's conception of a housewife's mission exactly matches my own. It is as humble as mopping floors and as exalted as nourishing souls. Please pass this entry along to every woman who has ever questioned the value of what she does for her family.
Grace, thank you so much for letting me share this!
The Rev. Burson writes:
This is a short piece that I wrote in 2004 for a class on church administration in seminary. I was 25, in the final semester of my Master of Divinity degree and had just begun the ordination process for the Episcopal priesthood. The assignment was given early on in the class and asked us to explore an image or metaphor for our future ministry. Having become interested in sustainable farming during my time in graduate school, I had recently worked as an organic farm intern. Although some of the content of this piece seems romanticized in hindsight, I have decided not to alter the original text.
An image I find compelling when I imagine my future ministry in a parish is one that is easy to misinterpret: the image of the housewife. But by “housewife” I mean not the 1950s woman with her crinoline, labor-saving devices, and soap operas, but the much older and more meaningful role of the woman who worked as manager of her own self-sufficient household (whether it included a husband or not). She – in cooperation with whoever ran the farm – was responsible for nothing less than the survival of the whole household, and needed to possess all the relevant skills for the job: the provision and preparation of food, clothing, and household objects, treatment of illness, management of servants and children, and concern for the household’s emotional well-being. The housewife’s job required planning, expertise, and a great deal of emotional and practical intelligence. She was both craftsperson and executive, both focused on the practical and concerned with the personal.
The parallels with parish ministry are many. The parish priest must have a similar combination of craft and administrative ability. He or she must pay attention to practical details but remember that the ultimate concern is people. Both priest and housewife must teach, encourage, monitor, and occasionally discipline.
Yet these somewhat abstract comparisons do not capture the image’s appeal to me, which is rooted in two features of the housewife’s work: hospitality and nourishment. The housewife prepares for guests and incorporates them into the thriving life of the household, providing for their physical and emotional comfort. She cleans the house, prepares food, and readies the other members of the household for the celebration of the guests’ arrival. The minister, for his or her part, must be ready to receive all guests as Christ, welcome them, and incorporate them into the life of the parish. The aim is summarized in the lines of the Advent hymn, with its reference to Christ as guest: “Make your house fair as you are able,/Trim the hearth, and set the table:/People, look east, and sing today,/Love the guest is on the way.” The parish priest “trims the hearth and sets the table” by providing a vibrantly functional parish life that draws the guest in.
The minister (unlike the housewife!) hopes that all guests will stay and become members of the household, and it is here that the idea of nourishment comes into play. The housewife is preeminently responsible for keeping her household fed, and for teaching the servants and children the skills they need to participate in the household’s sustenance. Not only does she provide the daily three meals, but also food and drink for festival occasions. The parallels to the priest are obvious: he or she provides spiritual sustenance for the people of the parish household in the form of worship, preaching, pastoral care, education, and outreach. But the housewife teaches her skills to servants and children so they can play their part in the running of the household, without which her workload would be insupportable. Just thus the parish minister must foster active ministry within the parish or he or she will burn out with trying to be the sole nourisher among them all. Nevertheless, the minister remains the one responsible for making it all happen, and especially putting on the lavish feasts and celebrations in the household’s time of rejoicing. Obviously, all households must deal with death as well as birth, sorrow as well as joy, and just as housewives were the ones to wash and lay out the body,comfort the mourners and oversee the wake, the minister cares for and nourishes the parish in times of grief.
A Scriptural warrant for this image of the housewife comes in the wonderful passage at Proverbs 31:10-31, describing the “capable wife” who “looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness,” who “girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong,” who “provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls.” It roots the job of ministry – often at risk of becoming abstract and cerebral – in the realities of life. It affirms the image of a strong woman who rolls up her sleeves and pitches in, who is a good steward of the people and the things of God, who cares intelligently for the members of her household. It is a worthy image for both men and women in the service of God.