Out of the Shadows

First Ladies of the Church

How pastors’ wives are redefining their roles—and changing Christianity. By Joshua DuBois.

Tara Jenkins; Lynne Hybels; Kay Warren

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.

Lynne Hybels, for example, is busy. A few weeks ago, the first lady of one of the largest churches in the country—her husband Bill’s Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois—decided to organize a group of friends to memorize Jesus’ entire “Sermon on the Mount,” because, as Lynne wrote recently in a blog post, when she goes into war-torn areas of the world, she wants to “carry Jesus’s words within me.” After putting this memorization group together, Lynne jetted off to the Holy Land, where she visited the Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem; shared Shabbat dinner with an Orthodox Jewish family; and chatted with Palestinian refugees at a camp in the West Bank. Lynne has been doing these Holy Land trips for years, part of her quiet quest to bridge divides among Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders. That is, when she’s not in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, aiding rape victims. Or helping spearhead the push for comprehensive immigration reform among American Christians. Or taking her grandkids to 3D movies back in Illinois (she and grandson Henry just saw Escape from Planet Earth).

In between world travels and domestic responsibilities, I asked Lynne how she sees the role of a church’s first lady in the modern world. Lynne said that public speaking still “terrifies” her—but “I’ve been entrusted with the stories of horrifically abused women in the DRC, and peacemaking Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land, and undocumented immigrants who worship at my church … If I refuse to tell their stories, for me it would be an act of disobedience, a failure to love.” Lynne spends time encouraging other women in the church to take leading roles, and “know who they are in God, know their giftedness, and honor their God-given dreams.”

Tara Jenkins knows something about first ladies living out their destinies—in fact, she wrote an entire doctoral dissertation on it. Tara’s husband, Pastor Charles Jenkins, runs Fellowship Baptist Church, one of Chicago’s leading congregations, and he’s a Stellar Award-winning gospel artist to boot. But Tara has carved out a place of her own, and she’s helping the spouses of other pastors do the same.

Every Thursday morning, Tara leads a conference call with pastors’ wives from around the country called “WifeLine.” According to Tara, the goal is to help first ladies do “what they’re gifted to do, not what they’re expected to do.” The WifeLine group convenes in person every month, and last year they kicked off a first-lady-led voter registration campaign around the country. Tara thinks there is much more pastors’ spouses could do, if they only saw their own potential.

“I feel called to convene the ‘Esthers’ of this millennium to utilize their influence to change the world,” Tara told me, evoking one of the Bible’s leading women. “I’m often in settings with pastors’ wives who are woefully underutilized. Sure, their congregations will follow their hairstyle or their clothing—but will they follow them into community service? God didn’t invite me into this role to sit; he invited me to serve.”

Charles Jenkins, Tara’s husband, agrees: “Tara’s my senior advisor, confidant, most enduring friend—my greatest blessing.” He calls her ministry “one of quiet power,” and counts it as one of the key reasons for his church’s success, including a $100 million community service center that Fellowship Baptist is building on Chicago’s South Side.

Quiet power is something Kay Warren knows a little about. Her husband Rick—pastor of Orange County’s Saddleback Church and author of the worldwide bestseller The Purpose Driven Life—is one of the country’s best-known pastors, and compared to Rick’s hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter and millions of book readers, not as many people know Kay. But behind the scenes, Kay Warren, a self-described “introvert,” has become the evangelical world’s leading expert on HIV/AIDS and women’s health, while supporting Rick’s ministry and raising three kids at the same time.

Eleven years ago, Kay read an article that, in her words, “broke” her. It was about the 15 million children around the globe who lost their parents to AIDS, and how support for orphans was lacking. “I wasn’t trying to respond on a grand scale,” she told me. “I was responding as a woman confronted with extraordinary suffering in the world, and I’d have to explain to God why I chose to ignore it.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Kay didn’t ignore it. She and Rick co-founded Saddleback’s HIV/AIDS initiative, which helps churches tackle HIV/AIDS, focusing on testing, counseling, and reducing stigma. They launched an orphan care program, working to place kids in homes from Rwanda to their backyard in Orange County. Kay kicked off an outreach effort to African-American churches about HIV/AIDS, and partnered with U.S. officials and foreign governments in their work against the disease. And she counts everyone from conservative mega-church pastors to USAID chief Raj Shah and White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett as friends and allies in the fight.

I asked Kay how she balances her multiple roles, including being a grandma to five, and she told me it’s never perfect. “It’s a constant series of adjustments—from my family to my marriage to my church to my friendships. You never have it fully figured out, but you just keep trying.”

Kay Warren, Lynne Hybels, Tara Jenkins, and others—women like Serita Jakes and Christine Caine—in many ways typify the new evangelical woman. They’re as committed to God and family as ever, but they are living out that commitment in dynamic ways, in their communities and around the world. And if you go looking for them on Sunday, you may want to try an inner city neighborhood or a Kinshasa slum; you’ll have a hard time finding them in the third pew on the left.