What’s it like when the man you married is already married to God? asks Pastors’ Wives, an often surprising yet always emotionally true first novel set in a world most of us know only from the outside.
Lisa Takeuchi Cullen’s debut novel Pastors’ Wives follows three women whose lives converge and intertwine at a Southern evangelical megachurch. Ruthie follows her Wall Street husband from New York to Magnolia, a fictional suburb of Atlanta, when he hears a calling to serve at a megachurch called Greenleaf. Reeling from the death of her mother, Ruthie suffers a crisis of faith—in God, in her marriage, and in herself. Candace is Greenleaf’s “First Lady,” a force of nature who’ll stop at nothing to protect her church and her superstar husband. Ginger, married to Candace’s son, struggles to play dutiful wife and mother while burying her calamitous past. All their roads collide in one chaotic event that exposes their true selves. Inspired by Cullen’s reporting as a staff writer for Time magazine, Pastors’ Wives is a dramatic portrayal of the private lives of pastors’ wives, caught between the demands of faith, marriage, duty, and love.
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Lisa Takeuchi Cullen was a longtime staff writer for TIME magazine. She now develops television pilots for production companies. Born in Japan, Cullen lives in New Jersey with family. This is her first novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
On the first day of my life as a pastor’s wife, I decided to buy a Star magazine.
Not People. Not even Us. No: Star, trashy Star, with its cover promises of fabulous people in unfabulous situations, page after page of full-color schadenfreude. You know. Porn for housewives. If I gave it any weight at all, which certainly I did not at the time, I would have to call it a $3.99 act of defiance. A purchase to attest things had not changed, I had not changed. That Ruthie Matters still belonged to a population that consumed celebrity gossip without guilt or thoughts of spiritual consequence.
Still, I hesitated. I stood there in the airport newsstand, my hand hovering over Jennifer Aniston’s chin. Funny thing about becoming a pastor’s wife: You felt watched. Not by God, exactly. Just . . . watched.
With a start I realized I was being watched, by the cashier, an Indian woman with chipmunk cheeks packed tight with chewing gum, black eyes steady and suspicious. It took a moment to comprehend why. I almost laughed. So much for my new status as a moral pillar of society. If a shopkeeper could suspect me of filching a supermarket tabloid, then clearly I did not yet reek of saint-type values.
I withdrew my hand, and the cashier turned back to help the next customer.
Hands in my pockets, I wandered toward the back of the store, past the blister packs of Dramamine and leopard-print neck pillows and twelve varieties of trail mix. Finally I reached the books. Books sold in airports fascinate me for their schizophrenic jumble. Jackie Collins next to Malcolm Gladwell smooshed right up against Jane Austen. Anyplace else, the reading public could expect some distance between pie recipes and the vampire apocalypse.
And here, in a stand-alone display labeled inspirational, were the Greens.
The Greens. Aaron and Candace Green, of Greenleaf Church, coauthors of Serve Your Marriage. It was the latest in a blockbuster series by Pastor Aaron Green, its premise the application of Bible scripture to serving your country, your worship, yourself. Unless you’re in the market, you probably don’t pay attention to books like these. I never did, either. Once you do, though, you realize they’re huge. Just last week I opened up the Sunday New York Times and saw that the book was number one in the self-help category.
Even among the other glossy titles by spiritual sorts, it seemed to me the cover of the Greens’ book popped. Against a white background, Aaron stood behind Candace with his hands on her shoulders, a full head taller than his wife. He looked as silvery and dashing as ever, but then anyone with a TV set knew what he looked like. The George Clooney of the pulpit, they called him.
The surprise was Candace. I forgot my resolve not to touch anything in the store and picked the book up for a closer look. Candace’s face looked etched, her features exact, as if their creator had deliberated over every detail. Her hair was curled high and away from her face, tendrils spun like blue-black cotton candy, defiant of any notion of gravity. Her nose had one of those tiny squares at the tip, like its sculptor had completed it with a push. The inky plume of her lashes fanned out from around her beetle-green eyes. Her lips hinted, just hinted, at a smile. She wore a fitted black suit with a leaf-shaped emerald pin in the lapel. In bearing she resembled Jacqueline Onassis, as played by a thin Elizabeth Taylor.
The surprise was not her beauty, exactly. After all, I’d seen her once or twice, when the camera panned to a close-up during her husband’s telecasts. The surprise was that the woman transcended a two-dimensional surface. That scant smile was like a sorcerer’s wand: One flash and you performed as bidden. It scared me just a little.
“Think that could be us someday?”
Jerry had snuck up behind me. I saw that he’d already inhaled half his bag of peanut M&M’s, his in-flight comfort food. I glanced over my shoulder at the shopkeeper. But Jerry projected goodness, just radiated it. I was pretty sure no one had ever suspected my husband of shoplifting so much as a loose gumball. Sure enough, all I saw of the shopkeeper was the long braid trailing like an oil slick down her back.
Jerry took the Greens’ book from my hands and peered intently at the jacket.
I snorted. He glanced up. “What?”
“The thing about us,” I said. “Becoming them.”
We looked at the book cover together. “Yeah,” he said finally. “You’re probably more of a Tammy Faye.” I took the book back and whacked him with it.
“Hey!” he said. “It says Serve Your Marriage, not Beat Your Husband.”
As he took my hand and led me out of the store, I found myself repeating this exchange in my head, sifting it for underlying intent. Was he joking? It sounds crazy, but I wasn’t entirely sure. In our recent life together, I’d lost my grasp of his meaning, my ability to read between his lines. It’s like when you’re channel surfing and you stumble upon a Sandra Bullock movie and you’re happily settling in only to realize it’s dubbed in Spanish. On the surface, all was familiar. But at times like this I became aware I no longer felt fluent in our language.
As we lined up to board, I inspected Jerry from behind. He was even taller than I was, a discovery that had relieved more than attracted me when we first met. It’s not that I minded shorter guys; it’s that they minded me. He still let his wavy dark hair grow over his collar, a style he’d never bothered to change even when he worked on Wall Street. His cheeks were leaner, his jaw more often set. His eyes had taken on the cast of a hotel pool before a summer storm. But otherwise he looked like the Jerry I’d met years ago outside Professor Baker’s office.
Except he wasn’t. He had ceased to be the Jerry I knew that morning in April when we woke to the rain machine-gunning the windowpane and he turned his face to me and said, “I had the most incredible dream.”
The dream. Some might say that was the day I first became a pastor’s wife. When does a man become a man of God? Is it the day he joins a ministry, or the day he’s called?
The word incredible caught me—Jerry wasn’t given to hyperbole—but I grunted a sleepy “huh” and pursued it no more as I padded out to start the coffee. He didn’t mention it again until later that evening, when he returned from work with Thai takeout.
A new place called Basil had just opened down the block in a storefront notorious for the brief life span of its inhabitants. We called it the Cursed Corner. I took a mouthful of shrimp pad Thai and promptly spat it out.
Jerry frowned, upset. “I said no cilantro. I said.”
“Gah,” I said, flailing for water. Cilantro tastes like stinkbugs smell. No need to argue; it’s a fact. “Curse the Cursed Corner!”
Once he refilled my glass and sat down, he clicked off the TV and turned to me. “So about that dream I had,” he said.
I put down the beef satay (more or less a Slim Jim dipped in peanut butter), tucked one leg under the other, and smiled at my sweetheart. His dream. What dream?
He hadn’t even asked me about my day yet, and that was unlike him. Not that I had much to report. I was between jobs, which is to say I was between careers, which is to say I had no clue what to do with my life. Ever since I’d left my job as an assistant publicist at a book-publishing company, I’d spent the days online, reading up on graduate schools. Journalism at CUNY. Film at NYU. Creative writing at the New School. No sooner would I work up the enthusiasm to download an application than I would alight on another, sparklier option. It’s so hard to choose a future.
Still, he always asked, and he always listened. And Jerry was exceptionally good at listening. He’d put down the prospectus in his hand and look in my eyes. He laughed in the right spots. He asked pertinent questions. If I grew vexed, as I admit I often did, Jerry stroked my forearm with his thumb, a sensation I liken to what a cat must feel when it’s rubbed under its chin. It occurred to me only recently that as the middle child of five, I was wholly unaccustomed to anything resembling undivided attention. I never even knew until I met him that I had craved it all my life.
So I faced my husband that night to hear about this dream of his. For despite the casual wording, something in his tone indicated it mattered.
I had no idea how much.
Jerry took a deep breath. “It’s not that I remember the dream so much,” he said. “There was a kind of lightness. Like warm light. Like someone was hugging me.”
I raised my hand. “That would be me. Your wife. I was cold.”
He smiled. “It was . . . I don’t know,” he said. “This feeling of coming home.” He was quiet for a moment, his eyes scanning my face like it held some sort of answer. “I think I was called.”
“By who?” I asked, reaching for a rice chip.
Jerry blinked at me.
“Whom,” I said through a mouthful of chip. “By whom.”
The silence stretched.
“You know,” he said. “By God.”
If my marriage were a timeline—the kind they run in newspapers to mark the meaningful moments in a course of events—this conversation would get a boldfaced mention. Everything up till then was B.C., Before the Call. You might wonder at how dense I was. How I’d utterly failed to understand. But in my defense, B.C., this was not our language. Despite or maybe because of my Catholic upbringing, despite or maybe because of Jerry’s theology degree and his ongoing exploration of faith, religion had heretofore existed in our marriage as an abstract. A topic of intellectual discussion. Words I would soon hear proclaimed at every turn—“I was called,” “I was saved,” “I accepted Jesus”—back then, B.C., this kind of talk was nothing short of alien.
Later I would think of the Tower of Babel. You know the story. These people gather from all over the world and decide to build a structure that will challenge God’s glory. Of course, God doesn’t like to be fronted like that, and in his fury he not only blows the tower to smithereens but smites the people with disparate tongues so they can no longer communicate. That was kind of what it was like for us. Like the marriage we’d built was a tower God recognized as temporal. In the moment, I did not see. Facing my husband on the couch, bad Thai food congealing on the coffee table, I did not see the pillars and stanchions crashing down around us, the ruins that promised to swallow our marriage whole if we did not find each other soon and hold fast.
Meantime, I had questions. No sooner did I spit one out than another crowded up. “What does that mean?” I spluttered. “How do you know? What did God say? Are you feeling warm? Could it be stress? Or that homeopathic crap you’ve been taking for your sinuses, that weed of Saint What’s-his-face—”
Jerry took my face in both his hands. I loved those hands; I trusted those hands. Instinctively I nestled my cheek against his palm.
“I don’t know what it means,” he said. “I don’t know how I know it was God—I just do. He didn’t say anything. It was more of a feeling. And I’m not sick. I’m not hallucinating. I’ve never felt better in my life. In any case, I’m not doing anything about it yet. I just wanted you to know.” And then he leaned forward and kissed me.
He just wanted me to know. It was one thing to know and another to understand. I pulled back to stare at my husband. And for the first time I wondered: Who are you?
* * *
It all happened so quickly. Months after Jerry’s dream, on a Saturday morning in July, he called me over to his laptop.
“Hold up,” I said, looking over his shoulder as I extracted the bagel clamped between my teeth. “They advertise church jobs online?”
Jerry laughed. “How else?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a holy grapevine. A want ad from above.” At least that’s how it seemed to work in the Catholic church.
We looked at the listing together. It read:
SEEKING: Associate Pastor
Evangelical church (20,000 members and growing) in suburban Atlanta seeks gifted, motivated young pastor with finance and/ or business experience to assist in management of sizable endowment. Academic degree in theology accepted in lieu of pastoral experience. Pay commensurate . . .
In the weeks and months following Jerry’s calling—though it still felt weird to call it that, and I avoided the word—we had discussed the implications. That maybe he would leave Wall Street. He had always said he would, sooner rather than later, and now he had somewhere to go. He had been called to serve. A church job made sense, as a start.
“The question is where,” said Jerry. And I understood he wasn’t referring to geographical location.
A Catholic is a Catholic is a Catholic. So I marveled at the way Protestants could flit from one denomination to another. Jerry had attended Presbyterian services growing up in a wealthy suburb of New York City, and over the years had sampled from a pupu platter of Protestantism: Episcopalian (too Catholic), Baptist (too emphatic), Charismatic (flat-out insane). He liked the inclusivity of the Unitarians, but not their loosey-goosey services; the work ethic of the Lutherans, but not the pole up their backsides; the politics of the Methodists, but not their lousy worship music.
“You should start your own church,” I joked, then immediately realized this had already occurred to Jerry.
“I need to learn the ropes first,” he said.
What kind of man contemplates starting his own church? Who are you?
“Greenleaf Church, it’s called,” Jerry was saying, tapping the computer screen. “In a place called Magnolia, outside Atlanta. What do you think?”
What did I think? My Wall Street Journal–reading, NPR-listening, Yankees-loving husband was looking at a job opening at a Southern evangelical megachurch, and he wanted to know what I thought?
I said the only thing I could say with honesty. “I think they’ll love you.”
* * *
“Flight 4502 to Atlanta,” called the gate agent.
Passengers surged forward. The family of four ahead of us was dressed in shorts and flip-flops, which I thought premature; ten-to-one the little girl in the sleeveless shift would throw a fit when the flight got chilly. The snowbirds to my right showed off the kind of bone-deep perma-tan that’s a formal invitation for melanoma.
I caught myself. Judgy. That’s what Candace Green would think I was: uncharitable and judgy. Just what she’d expect of a Northeastern liberal, not to mention a papist. No one needed to tell me that for a pastor’s wife, there were certain behaviors that simply would not fly. But someone did need to tell me which. Was there a handbook? Some sort of guide?
We settled in our seats, a window and an aisle. The middle seat remained open, just as the nice ticket lady had promised. People did things like that for Jerry. He smiled and the world turned to goo. Jerry took the aisle seat to stretch out his long legs, and before takeoff he’d fallen asleep. This, too, was a gift, one I envied at least as much as his talent for public speaking and facility with ...
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