Quick. What do you call the husband of a rabbi?
“Lucky,” says Ross Sadoff, whose wife, Susan Tendler, is rabbi at B’nai Zion Congregation.
An investment adviser, Sadoff is one of a growing number of men who can claim the mantle of clergy husband. Only 17.5 percent of Conservative Jewish rabbis are female, according to the Conservative movement. In Protestant denominations, 10 percent of ministers are female, according to the Barna Group, a research and training firm for churches. But the number for both — and clergy spouses — is growing.
Clergy wives, traditionally, especially when almost all ministers were men, have been expected to sing in the choir, teach Sunday school, act as secretary, play the organ, lead vacation Bible school and be dutiful wives and mothers.
Today, clergy husbands “have somewhat of a blank slate,” says Brent Hobby, a director of information security whose wife, the Rev. Kim Merritt Hobby, is rector of Christ Church Episcopal in South Pittsburg, Tenn. “They don’t know what to do with you.”
Hobby says there’s no template for him at the church.
“If I want to mow, I can,” he says. “If I want to volunteer, I can, but I’m not expected to.”
Sadoff says he detects no preset expectations, “but you are expected to engage and not just be a bump.”
“I am not certain what is expected of me,” he says. “I do whatever it takes to support my wife.”
While he says he can’t fill the roles expected of a traditional rabbitzen — a rabbi’s wife — congregations that hire Tendler get a package deal.
“It does take both people to work” as a team and espouse “family values and a strong marriage,” he says.
Bob Keebler, whose wife, the Rev. Janice Keebler, is senior pastor of the Holston Gap Parish, which has United Methodist churches in Flintstone and Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., as well as Simpson UMC in Rossville, knows his job. The retired Walker County Schools teacher and retired park ranger attends meetings with his wife and serves as her chauffeur. The license plate on his car — “Driving Pastor Janice” — confirms it.“That’s my primary job,” he says.
Keebler says he even managed to get out of a church-related job when he became a pastor’s spouse. After several years of heading the Flintstone church’s administrative council, he announced his attention to step down around the time the widowed Rev. Janice Robertson was appointed to pastor his church. She convinced him to stay one more year, but within a few months, they began dating.
Before the year was up, he closed a council meeting by announcing his resignation as chairman because of their relationship, opened and poured out a box of Cracker Jacks, and gave her the enclosed engagement ring.
“The only way I could get out of [the job],” Keebler says he told the assembled gathering, “is to marry the pastor.”
EYES WIDE OPEN
None of the men went blindly into a relationship with a clergywoman.
Keebler already was a minister; Tendler was in rabbinical school; and before they were married, Kim Merritt Hobby revealed that she harbored thoughts of becoming a priest.
Indeed, Keebler already knew some of what was expected of a clergy spouse, having grown up as the son of a licensed local pastor in the Methodist Church.
“In the ’40s and ’50s,” he says, “wherever Dad went, Mother went as well. I was there, too. Every time the church door open, she drug me with here. I’ve told people, ‘I started out in a minister’s home; I guess I’ll go out in one, too.’”
Sadoff says Tendler was different than any female rabbi he had previously met.
“She broke the mold,” he says. “That’s one of the things that attracted me to her — that she could be a female rabbi, a more modern incarnation, and be able to maintain so much tradition. She has such beautiful balance, the way she interacts with people, the way she touches people’s lives. That was attractive to me.”
After they married and Tendler was hired by a synagogue in Virginia, Sadoff left his job as an associate director of a nonprofit in Atlanta and started a financial planning business, something he’d already considered doing with his business degree.
“It was going to be an easier job to move with me,” he says.
Hobby met his wife when they worked together for an information security firm in Arkansas. After they married and it appeared he would be transferred, she thought — and he agreed — it might be the right time to scratch her seminary itch. And although he wound up not being transferred, she enrolled in seminary in Memphis, then later at the School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.
Eventually, the family moved to Sewanee while she finished her degree, then to Morristown, Tenn., where she was an associate rector. He was able to move with his job and is now home-based at the rectory in South Pittsburg.
SHE WORKS HARD FOR THE MONEY
Hobby says his wife had been an account leader at the security firm in which they worked, so he was familiar with her work ethic. And, while he knew being a priest would require a lot of work, he wasn’t aware of the “sheer amount” of administrative responsibilities she would have.
“Most people go into the clergy thinking they’re going to do all the [usual] things — preaching, teaching, visiting the sick — but the church is a small business,” he says. “It has to be managed, and there’s an awful lot of administration. It’s your job to make it happen. It’s like a small nonprofit with a lot of volunteer help.”
Sadoff’s brother is a rabbi, so he knew what Tendler was up against when he met her when she was in rabbinical school.
“I’ve always known that, no matter what religion, [clergy] work incredibly hard — long hours, odd hours,” he says. “They’re always on.”
Still, “it was a shock” to him when he realized all that a rabbi is called to do. So it’s his job, he says, to “be supporting and providing stability when the hours are long and grueling and when she is very busy.”
In his retirement, Keebler says he is delighted to be able to remind his wife not to forget her Bible, glasses or sermon before she leaves the house and to accompany her on many occasions. She even tolerates him critiquing her sermon in the car between when she delivers it at Flintstone United Methodist, then later at Simpson United Methodist.
“It’s a privilege I get to do,” he says. “I feel like I am a support to her. I hope I am.”
While the number of women clergy has been growing for years, making a female face at the pulpit less shocking, some faith traditions and denominations do not accept them in that role. So many women who enter the field are still trailblazers.
“I think I admire her more because she is a groundbreaker and continues to be a groundbreaker,” Sadoff says of Tendler, with whom he is raising two daughters. There have been “lasting positive effects where she has been. Qualitative changes have remained, changes that have remained a part of that congregation’s legacy.
“I’m her biggest fan and her biggest critic,” he says. “I’m always trying to help her accomplish her goal — to bring more value, more quality, a better life for people.”
Hobby says he is proud of his wife’s position as “one of the few” female Episcopal priests in the area. Indeed, it’s a family affair, he says, with his two children also serving supportive roles.
“We are fully engaged in the church,” he says. “There is no off weekend. There is always something going on, and we have to be aware of things that are going on.
“We love it,” he says, “but it does keep you busy.”
Keebler says he delights in both his wife and his pastor.
“She’s an excellent person, an excellent minister,” he says. “We’re so pleased to have each other. She’s a godsend.”
Contact staff writer Clint Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...