They’re the wives of pastors, and across the country, they’re rising up. Joshua DuBois on a new generation of women who are redefining their roles–and changing Christianity in the process.

For years, the wives of male senior pastors of America’s churches–or “first ladies” in the parlance of many churches–found themselves in a very specific place on Sunday mornings, dressed in their worshipful best: the third pew on the left.

Pews–the rows and benches in which church folks sit–have a certain hierarchy on Sundays, especially in the black churches where I grew up. There are rows for deacons and rows for senior citizens, pews for Sunday School teachers, and benches, towards the back, for giggly, whispering children.
Yet there was no more exalted station than the third pew on the left. That’s where the spouse of the pastor sat, regally appointed from head to toe, topped off by an air of authority and a wide-brimmed hat. From that perch, the role of the church’s “first lady” was first and foremost to support her husband, publicly agreeing with his decisions, helping him fend off unwanted demands from church members, perhaps teaching a Sunday School lesson from time to time. People got nervous when the first lady strayed too far from that pew–it was a comforting place for her to be.

But in large congregations and smaller churches across the country, the times are changing. The third-pew-ensconced pastor’s wife has given way to a dynamic type of woman who juggles her own ministries, supports her husband, builds a church, and manages a family, all at the same time. Like another famous first lady, Michelle Obama, these women are not content with being symbols of status and position; they’re getting their hands dirty with the things that matter most.
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