On Sundays, from ninety-two different front rows in ninety-two different sanctuaries, pastor’s wives listen to a sermon we’ve already heard. We’ve talked it through over cereal bowls, picked the inky remains of notes from our laundry machines, heard the preacher mumble Hallelujah! in his sleep. Six days a week, our husbands leave wrinkled condoms on the bedroom floor and half-drunk sodas on the end-tables. On Sunday, they are the voice of God. These days God wears Jordan Retros. He schedules promoted Instagram posts. The seats fill up, the money rolls in. It isn’t what we expected, being the preacher’s wife.
The group chat starts on a Wednesday. It starts the day our husband sells his fifth book. It starts the first summer small group numbers are down, the weekend sign-ups open for the youth conference. It starts somewhere warm, somewhere orange trees flower, and works its way up toward the Great Lakes. The group chat finds us at the end of our rope, at choir practice, idling in the carpool line. It finds us crying in the empty baptismal with all the lights off in a 2,000-seat- sanctuary. Wednesday. It finds us. Lit phone screen, white dove in the dark.
The idea starts with a California Lutheran, spreads like gospel. Driving down Sunset Boulevard, she dials an Arkansas number, a woman in the kind of stainless steel kitchen only a Baptist church with eighteen locations can buy. A lifetime ago, they were Bible college roommates in scrunchies and blue eyeshadow, pooling change for McDonald’s apple pies. Now they communicate through assistants. Rainbow flag on one church and Sanctity of Life Sunday at the other. This they still have in common: Two white-toothed husbands in quarter-zips, a shelf of New York Times bestsellers and two billion dollars a year in non-taxable donations.
The Lutheran is driving down Sunset Boulevard drinking an almond smoothie. Round whine of a straw. “A support group, kinda.”
“Pastor’s wives. Congregations of 10,000 or more.” She flexes her fingers on the wheel. Lets her knee bounce. The light red. “You want in or not?”
The Baptist pauses, one hip heavy against the kitchen counter. “I saw the article. About Mark being reinstated.”
The Lutheran feels herself close, like a door. “Rehab,” she says, voice flat. “Not sexual.”
Pause. “Personal leave, it said. I didn’t mean to pry.”
“Outpatient. 32 days sober.” She laughs, businesslike, short. “A regular Baptist.”
The other woman winces, lets it slide. “Do you think it’s — I mean, the elders — they think it’ll be okay for him? The stress?”
The light has been green for a while. Someone honks. The Lutheran starts, slams on the Range Rover pedal. At the sound of the other’s voice they are eighteen again, Texas girls, late for class and sipping cherry Slurpees from the gas station. They were so free back then, they were learning everything for the very first time, and weekends were for bonfires and wondering if it was a sin to listen to Madonna. Once they got caught in a lightning storm driving down I-20 and thought they were going to die. The Baptist was screaming she didn’t want to die before she had sex and the Lutheran was scrabbling around in the glovebox for a pair of sunglasses, the lightning was that bright, and when they pulled off the highway they said they were going to drop out and start a girl band, life was going to be different from then on. But they didn’t.
“I’ll let you go,” the Lutheran says. “It’s a stupid idea. Sorority bullshit.”
The line is stiff, as always, weighted with their disagreements and implied disapproval. “You know, I haven’t had someone to talk to in about ten years,” the Baptist says. “Put me in.”
Introductions. We pick new names, lose numbers, stay anonymous. When you’re married to the most famous Christians in the world, ingratitude is the deadliest of sins. We make aliases of our ancestors. They come to us well-loved and least-preached: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Naomi. One — the Reformed among us worry about her — picks Jezebel. Others of us are already named for the saints; it hasn’t done us any good. We choose simple things: Tulip, Sunshine, Star. The text at the top reads simply: The Elizabeths. A net to catch us all. A lit candle for the very first preacher’s wife, who ignored her husband’s doubt and got what she wanted, a blanket- wrapped baby in her old age, delivered in gold leaf from heaven. No one points out the double meaning. It would be a miracle to see our husbands struck dumb.
In the public eye, we have all kinds of disputes — we are too hardline, not hardline enough, too liberal, too conservative. Anyone richer than us is too rich. We send our children to the wrong schools and sing the wrong songs. Our husbands attack each other, sometimes viciously, on Twitter. They call each other prosperity preachers, snake-charming charismatics, baby-baptizing heretics, the woke police. In the group chat we do not care about these things. We are just getting by.
Our children watch brightly-colored superheroes on the TV who tell them great power comes with great responsibility. Oh sure, we think, cleaning behind the refrigerator. Give me a break.
Oklahoma Nazarene is added by a pastor’s wife she once met over dinner at a conference. They were in some colorless American city during the worst month of the year. The hotel, she remembers, had a smell like wet grass, the duvets made of some kind of fireproof plastic. Her husband asked for a room with two queen beds.
Outside the restaurant, icy rain. The husbands compared baptism numbers over pasta. The other pastor’s wife had dark hair and lipstick so close to natural it looked not even there. She ordered a steak, well-done, and sawed at it viciously for every bite. The Nazarene couldn’t help but stare.
Eventually she went to the bathroom. She was washing her hands when the other wife came in. Slick stains of water sat on the countertop, black marble cut with coils of ochre. Their eyes met in the mirror. The Nazarene held out a tube.
“Would you like some of my lipstick?”
They put it on, one after the other, a deep, sickly plum. The color so indulgent it washed both of them out, vampiric and glossy in the light. Back at the table, the husbands had moved on to some kind of budget discussion. The women split a fat slice of chocolate cake, their mouths two pulsing, wine-colored butterflies. They bit down hard on the tins of the forks.
The day she is added to the group chat, the Nazarene can’t stop picking up her phone, showing her teeth, watching as the texts roll in.
Hi, everyone, she says. Call me Smiley.
Pastors are expected to have Elizabeths, sitting on the front row, neon halo humming VACANCY, just like pastors are expected to have children, to be fruitful and multiply. Fifty-one Elizabeths know not to snap at a child screaming their head off during communion, have perfected that look that says Just-You-Wait-Till-We-Get-Home. Twenty are empty-nesters. Five with children that don’t speak to us any more. Two don’t want children at all. Six that shake hands every Sunday and wait for the question, a scalpel: When are you going to start having babies?
It’s Mother’s Day Sunday and Rachel is in the women’s restroom tearing every last white tulip for the children’s church to bits. Her husband is preaching, trying not to look like the same man that asked her, last night, if God has abandoned them. After everything they’ve given. After all they’ve done. She should have three wilting flowers in a rinsed out jam jar, inedible breakfast in bed. Instead she gets a church member with eight kids and dark eyebags shaking her hand after the service. “At least a church lets you sleep,” she says, like it’s funny, “Babies never do!”
We get a picture of the aftermath, green milk sap on tile, raggy and wet. We use two fingers, zoom in. We think she pulled those petals apart with her teeth.
We don’t say They’re in heaven. We don’t say Pray harder. In that moment they are our babies too, our small and graveless hope. We touch our screens so gently, with only the tips of our fingers. We say, it’s a stupid tradition. We say, I would have punched her right in the face. But everyone knows we would have just driven to buy more flowers. We would have swept the floor clean.
Twenty Elizabeths won’t say Black lives matter. Forty Elizabeths say God loves diversity! Sixteen husbands with NYT bestsellers about how much God loves diversity. Fifty- two Elizabeths have only white friends. Nine Elizabeths feel like spies, lose their skin to a digital gray icon, can barely form their mouth around the word savior.
Alabama Episcopalian pauses over the nativity scene graphic for the Christmas service, a porcelain-white baby Jesus under cupfuls of light. He does not look like her children. She is afraid that she recognizes him anyway. Nine Elizabeths looking for a star in the sky, some kind of beacon, wonder if anyone is coming, is anyone out there?
A Korean woman is shot in Chicago for no reason at all.
i’m sad, sends Tulip. she looked like me.
And maybe she gets responses, thoughts and prayers and heart emojis, but they arrive in new, private threads. In the group chat her texts hang still, two blue, clean-lined coffins unburied.
The sermon no one ever preaches: Old Testament God is an Elizabeth, burns whole cities to the ground. This we understand. You try and try and try to tell a person who you are, the glory crusted in the creases of your eyelids, the shape of your name, and by the time next Sunday rolls around you’re a golden cow again. It’s enough to make anyone reach for a match.
And we use it, too. We screech into our reserved parking spot. We buy the designer purse. We fight with our husbands on the day they have a big meeting. We see how far our mistakes can go before the net catches us. The net is the denomination and the brand and kids at home and the money, so much money.
The net is engaged at nineteen, and your parents telling you not to marry a pastor, because it’s a hard life, a poor life, a life of service, and doing it anyway. Falling in love. The net is wanting to change the world.
sometimes I think all of this comes from the fact that I never really believed God could use me, so I bound my life to the kind of person I thought God would use. And now that I’m here I realize I was never supposed to be here. when I feel threatened I go snarling and cornered as an animal. i think about moses who killed a man when they asked him why his people suffered while he sat in the palace. and i think i have killed myself and my husband and then a girl comes up to me at church and says she wants to be just like me and i think i have killed her too
The world is a hard thing to change. The world keeps going, and you with it.
April brings rain all over and a husband on Twitter saying women should be allowed to preach. Some of us shiver a little. It is one of those things we want to believe but don’t think we do. We clench our eyes and pray harder. Others of us hear the news with butterfly hearts, walk around grinning for days, kiss our daughters once extra goodnight. A few of us roll our eyes. Our churches have women deacons and directors — maybe they even call them pastors — and what has that done for us? We wait with bated breath to see whether our churches will denounce it, to see what our husbands will say. We all refresh Twitter.
The waiting doesn’t matter. The matter is taken out of the churches and yelled about on CNN. The evangelicals are at it again. Some politician opens his mouth and makes everything worse. Imagine having such little self-respect that you would marry a man like that, people say. I think I’d rather shoot myself. The husbands band together and talk about the importance of Christian witness. This is about the church vs. the world now, not about what happens inside. And everyone forgets about the people who were waiting in the pew to see what would happen. Everyone forgets about the Elizabeths.
North Dakota Presbyterian calls a Florida Methodist. Once, in a previous life, when they had no kids and no money, they were missionaries in Taiwan together for a year. They took pictures at tourist sites and converted no one and danced dead sober in nightclubs until the sun rose. “Are you okay?”
“Why do you care?” The Methodist asks. “You don’t believe in women pastors.”
“I know,” the Presbyterian says. “But it still hurt.”
The line is all static, Tampa humidity meeting the plains. How a storm starts, cold meeting hot.
“The birds are singing here,” the Methodist says. “It’s already spring.”
“Not here yet.”
“It’s coming to you. I’m sending it. Just hold on.”
We don’t have anything to send each other, but we send what we have. We send cursive verses, old recipes, new songs. A prayer: Heavenly Father, turn me as transparent as glass as inevitable as birdsong and most of all never give me what I want. We ask for mercy, for wrath. We wait for spring.
We all have the same worst fear. On a Tuesday in March, it happens to Smiley. In the group chat, we call her the insomniac. We get her texts at 2 a.m. Lowercase-letter, no-punctuation Smiley — the texts of a woman who just keeps racing forward.
Her husband, Nazarene church in Atlanta, multiple women. Consensual, thank God. It could be worse. When the article breaks, we turn off our phones. Look at our husbands and wonder — What are you hiding? Flip through the bank statements. Maybe everyone worries about these things but not like us. If they fail it will be like God falling. Everyone will watch.
It’s not hard to find someone in a group chat. All you have to do is look for the right area code. Maybe Smiley realizes right away. Or maybe it takes a day or two. She goes looking for the text thread and finds it’s no longer there. She won’t know who removed her.
She won’t know how to feel.
Insomniac Smiley. Of course, we sent her remedies — prayer, melatonin gummies, soothing CDs. A prescription under the table from a New Jersey Pentecostal. But secretly, we loved those tiny poems. We loved remembering, when we could not sleep, that she was keeping watch with us.
is anyone awake Out thre
The twelve apostles strung out on the Mediterranean seaboard, sending each other letters while every day someone got beheaded or burned alive. Where did the women at the tomb go? They learned other ways of dying, a heavy loneliness that keeps part of you in bed every day until eventually it is somebody else who gets up and walks around, somebody who isn’t even you at all. You were a Bible college girl with your blue eyeshadow and big dreams. All kinds of boys wanted to put a ring on it. It is not the worst thing that could happen to a person but it is something. Sometimes it not being the worst thing is what makes it so bad, the feeling that you shouldn’t even complain about it. What do you have to complain about, with your marble counters and packed pews? With your fat wallet and every day, people coming down the aisles for saving grace? You’re so ungrateful, Elizabeth!
We wake in the dead dark from nightmares that God is a megachurch pastor. He speaks in soundbites and Instagram graphics. His new book is ghostwritten and already a bestseller. We are stuck in the front row, eyes glazed over, listening.
In the end there’s nothing. Just a phone that doesn’t ring.
Three months after the story about her husband breaks, Smiley gets coffee with a woman from her old church. They talk about the traffic, the weather. There is a crack in the tile square right under Smiley’s chair and she wishes she could move, feels like it is marking her for some reason. She pretends that we are there with her, all ninety-one of us, East and West Coasters, Pentecostals and Presbyterians. She does this often, even now. She forgets she isn’t an Elizabeth anymore.
The woman from Smiley’s church licks foam from her finger. “So. How are you?”
“Oh,” Smiley says. “You know. Not sleeping so well.” The hiss of steaming milk, the scrape and shuffle of chairs. The barista calls an endless line of names. Rahab. Tulip. Naomi. Rebekah. No, she must be imagining things. It has been so long since she had a good night’s sleep. While she’s out, seven weighty cardboard boxes will be delivered to her doorstop, every last backstocked copy of her husband’s book on marriage. They wait just a few feet from their new home in the garage.
“You know,” the woman says. “I always think when I can’t sleep, God’s just giving me a little more time in the day to pray.”
“Huh,” Smiley says, digging her nails into her thigh.
That night, after she’s driven home, after she throws her back out carrying the very last box of books to the garage, Smiley limps up the stairs to bed. Maybe, she thinks, she will start a group chat with all the women her husband has slept with. When she wakes up tonight, alone, back aching, afraid of the dark, she will send out a text.
Kayla Rutledge has an MFA in fiction from North Carolina State University. She is the recipient of the 2019 James Hurst Prize for Fiction from NC State and the 2020 Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Prize in Creative Writing from UNC-Chapel Hill. Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Fractured Literary, Waxwing, and elsewhere. She lives in Durham, North Carolina and is currently at work on a novel.