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Pastor’s Wives: What’s It Really Like to be Married to Men of Prayer, Persuasion & Power

By: Sophia A. Nelson, Esq.

Special to the Russ Parr Morning Show

I had a chance this past December to see a private screening of the TvOne movie, The Undershepherd, written and directed by Russ Parr, in Washington, D.C.  I was just wrapping up six months of reporting on my February 2013 cover feature article for Essence Magazine titled, “First Ladies Club” which was a first ever insider’s look at the lives of some of America’s most prominent Pastor’s wives and their experiences beyond the public Sunday worship services, women’s ministries, big hats, fancy clothes, and luxury homes.In a word The Undershepherd was:  Riveting. The portrayals by actors Isaiah Washington and Lamman Rucker as two up and coming young preachers, who compete for position, and lose their friendship, was convincing and powerful all at once; but it was actress Malinda Williams who stole the movie with her compassionate, candid, and courageous portrayal of what life can be like for many Pastor’s wives behind the scenes. In fact, Williams’s portrayal of life as a young lonely, abused, yet faithful Pastor’s wife won her best actress honors at the 2012 American Black Film Festival for her role as “First Lady” Cassandra Case.I connected instantly with William’s brave and honest portrayal of a first lady living with an abusive, womanizing husband, who has completely destroyed her self-esteem and stomped it into the ground. William’s brings to life the stirring and shameful stories of several “first ladies of the church” that I interviewed for my Essence piece and that we have all read about in various book, magazines, and newspaper articles over the past decade. I listened for hours as former mega church first ladies like Riva Tims, Gizelle Bryant, and others shared their stories of living two lives; One in front of the church, and another behind the scenes. These women spoke (often through tears) of how they had completely surrendered their minds, bodies, and souls to the powerful and charismatic men that they married. Some spoke of marital infidelities, verbal and mental abuse, children born outside of their marriages with other women, or worse. Yet, they stayed. And they did so because of image. They loved the “image” of their lives—the power, the adoration, the lavish trips, private jets, luxury hotels, expensive clothes, and most of all they spoke of being addicted to their exalted “position” as Pastor’s Wives.  Once they left those positions, they had to find their own way outside of the power and prestige of their famed Pastor husbands. But find it they did, and many of these women are now thriving with their own ministries or businesses.

The most important thing that struck me in my interviews of women who had been Pastor’s wives, however, was that they had the courage to actually leave “the church life” at some point. It wasn’t easy. They spoke of being under a kind of “mind control” by their powerful husbands. They talked about how these men often isolated them from friends “outside of the church” and particularly if the Pastor was older than his wife, he had a great deal more control over who she was and who she socialized with. One former first lady from Atlanta shared her story. She talked about how she could not have women friends. Not for long anyway. She shared how any woman she got close to who was independent, accomplished, and successful was a deal breaker for her controlling husband.

She spoke of how her husband would accuse her single women friends, in particular, of being “Lesbians on the hunt”, or worse that they were somehow out to break up their marriage. She shared how her husband would stand over her and have her write hurtful emails or correspondence to women he did not want her associated with—“breaking it off”.  She talked about how he would poison her mind and tell her that these friends had a bad “spirit” on them or that they were “common” and beneath her status as a first lady; when in reality these women were godly, good, loving and faithful friends who her husband feared might help her get free from his ungodly ways and unhealthy control.  The good news for her is that she and her best friend were smart enough to keep their friendship a secret. They literally had to go underground for the friendship to survive. When her friend moved away with her husband to a new state, they maintained their ties; secretly. And when she finally divorced her Pastor husband, she was able to stay with them for a time, get on her feet and now she is thriving on her own with her daughter.

It’s hard to believe that these are the type of things that some (not all) first ladies of the church endure in silence, and in secret. The men they marry are very gifted and very manipulative. Let’s face it most successful people are skilled at manipulating or persuading others. But the power of the modern black Pastor is unlike anything I have ever seen in my life and I am a preacher’s granddaughter and sister. I have been in the church my whole life—and I love the church. But in many places, the church is in need of help. Its leaders are doing her great damage. Their power is absolute and as Malinda accurately portrays in the movie; it corrupts not just the Pastor but his wife if it is allowed to go unchecked. Pastor’s wives, particularly in mega churches may look glamorous, glitzy, and graceful, but they often lead a very lonely, isolated, and sad lives lived behind of mask of pain and brokenness.

What is my point: I hope that audiences will recognize that not all Pastor’s or Bishops are power crazed, womanizing tyrants; who mistreat their wives or that all first ladies have emotional problems that can lead them to various substance addictions or physical disorders like is portrayed in the movie. But I do think it is time that we as a community began to hold these men of God to account. They are human just like you. Their wives are human just like you. At the end of the day we would all do well to remember that man was made to worship, not to be worshipped.


Sophia A. Nelson is an award winning author & journalist. Her first book “Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama” is now available in Trade Paperback in stores everywhere.

TV One presents the world television premiere of Russ Parr’s award-winning film The Undershepherd,  starring Isaiah Washington (“Grey’s Anatomy”), Lamman Rucker (“Meet The Browns”), Malinda Williams (“Soul Food”), Elise Neal (“Belles,” The Hughleys”), Vanessa Bell Calloway (“Shameless”), Clifton Powell (“Ray”), Bill Cobb (“Go On”), Robinne Lee (“Hitch”), Keith David (“Belles,” “Cloud Atlas”) and Academy Award winner Louis Gossett, Jr.  The thought-provoking film exploring the underbelly of power and corruption in the church premieres Saturday, March 30, 8PM/ET and Sunday, March 31, 5:30PM/ET exclusively on TV One.

Pastor’s Wives: What’s It Really Like to be Married to Men of Prayer, Persuasion & Power  was originally published on