Opinion | The Perilous Power of the Preacher’s Wife

In this world of Christian celebrity, a tragedy could be an opportunity for a new brand, a wider platform and a new set of credentials, and it took me a full minute of glaring at her to remind myself that this was simply the dark logic of the marketplace. She had her own book to sell, and the capitalist ethos of this limited spiritual economy made competitors out of friends and resentment a natural response to meeting a woman with Stage 4 cancer.

Almost every popular Christian speaker has a story of walking through fire. The death of a child. An abusive childhood. A critical illness. Unless someone finds fame by relation (a pastor’s wife or daughter), it is otherwise nearly impossible to find a niche in this crowded industry. Formal qualifications matter little in a world in which a woman’s authority is found by turning her insides out.

The most successful careers transform the course of a human life into a long string of revelations. I once joked with an ambitious young speaker about how many tragedies she could hope for in her career and she answered quickly, without irony: “Four.”

A female Christian celebrity is part of a greater industry of disclosure. She must give something away, but not too much. For this reason, women usually “confess” to almost nothing at all, offering the appearance of vulnerability without the substance. A woman who is a “slave” to eating too much bread or “convicted” of sniping at her husband surrenders little and gains much. Despite her perceived flaws, she must remain a Christian Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way. Missing are those deemed too fat, old, gay, ugly, sick, single, childless or liberal to stand in the spotlight. The world of megaministry is a fragile enterprise with careers that hang like a spider on a web of thousands of filaments. These women’s power is relational, conditional and unofficial, requiring a monetization of their private and public lives. Every step of their rise has to be carefully planned and perilously maintained.

The history of evangelical women celebrities is an account of limited agency, women confined by theology and custom who nonetheless carved out influence from the hardwood of American conservatism. And perhaps also the story I needed as I came to terms with my own precarious situation. Facing down a dangerous surgery to cut out more compromised organs, the doctors didn’t speak about my prognosis in certainties and offered little optimism beyond “wait and see.” I needed to make pragmatic decisions about whether I would continue to believe I would live — and perhaps continue to reach for tenure — or give up altogether.

Knowing that I would never be cured, I stewed about what to do with what remained of my life. Was it worth spending hundreds of hours to transform this research into a book? Should I go see the pyramids? With so little I could control, I borrowed a page from the playbook of the women I had interviewed. I abandoned what was ideal and reached for what was possible instead. I put the final touches on the manuscript and submitted it the day before I was rolled into surgery with the pleasant exhaustion of deep work. After all, who doesn’t hope to spin the straw of their lives into gold? Or at least nicer straw.

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