As newlyweds, my husband and I enjoyed ministering together. I directed one of the last two-week Vacation Bible Schools in Southern Baptist history and soon became the director of our church’s weekday school. Phil and I both volunteered in Sunday School. One Sunday morning our pastor announced “Irene’s husband will preach.” He never said Phil’s name. We still laugh about his unintentionally reversing my traditional role of “Mrs. Phil” to Phil’s new one, “Mr. Irene.”
Soon a seminary church offered us both ministry positions. The Baptist publishing house enlisted us to lead a summer pilot project and produce their first day camp curriculum. In the project, Phil supervised me, but we designed and wrote the materials together. Then the seminary asked us to be teaching fellows. Phil enjoyed telling people, “I’m a fellow married to a fellow.” All three entities gave us equal status and pay.
Upon graduation, the seminary “floated” my resume with my husband’s, but I doubt that anyone imagined that I might find a position and my husband follow me. So, by default, my ministry became adjunct to Phil’s. Even though we had the same training and experience in educational ministry, larger churches and organizations called him and paid him more. Each time he changed jobs; I dutifully moved and found a new position. We had separate ministries in Tennessee, New Mexico, Florida, and Georgia, but we also supported each other’s work.
Once in Phil’s church, I served as a department director. In a meeting, Phil and I pleasantly disagreed about how to solve some problem. A church member complained, not that volunteers should not disagree with ministers in public, but that wives should not disagree with husbands. On another occasion, my election as leader of the Baptist religious education association was reported in the newspaper. A church member asked, “How can you agree to be president of that organization before your husband is?” We were both ministers, but disregarding our gifts and personalities, people expected me to defer to my husband professionally. In contrast, Phil called himself the “First Gentleman” and assumed the role.
In Georgia we served in different churches for twenty-two years. Phil worked with one large church, and I with several medium-sized churches. We often met for working lunches as co-consultants, so we didn’t discuss work at home around our daughter. At one point I filled an interim position on the same staff with Phil. Some of the search committee was concerned about having a husband-wife duo on the staff, but the church and Phil embraced me as their minister. However, I pressured myself not to affect his job negatively. In positions we both loved, I personally made this the most stressful time I ever experienced in ministering with Phil.
The search committee of the last USA church I served treated Phil as simply my spouse. I thoroughly enjoyed standing by as he was interviewed about his views of, and support for, me and my ministry. Their salary/benefits package matched that for male ministers.
In Hong Kong, Phil has served a medium-sized church, while I’ve related mostly one-on-one. I volunteer as an ESL teacher and university minister, and we teach Bible and Christian Education together throughout Southeast Asia. Also, I have found my place in Hong Kong’s publishing world and through the wonders of technology in a global counseling ministry I could not have envisioned.
As Phil retires, that is, redirects to a volunteer teaching ministry in Asian Bible colleges, my ministry continues with no “Mrs. Phil” label—although he may be called “Mr. Irene” again at any time!
Irene Vinyard Bennett is volunteer minister with university students at Kowloon International Baptist Church, Kowloon Tong, Kowloon, Hong Kong.