When she agreed to marry Billy Graham, Ruth Bell Graham said she knew her life would "be lost in Bill's." For her generation, the pastor's wife was expected to work solely in service to her husband and his flock. There was no job title, no pay and enormous pressure to be perfect.
Today, ministers' wives are forging a different role, through their own careers or as very public, equal partners with their husbands.
Ruth Graham, whose memorial service is Saturday in Montreat, N.C., was too strong-willed and vibrant to disappear completely behind the world's best-known evangelist. Admirers noted after her death Thursday at age 87 that she became her husband's most trusted adviser. But she still abandoned many of her personal goals for the sake of his ministry.
As women have gained independence in society at large, awareness about what pastors' wives provide the church also has grown. Seminaries have started support and educational programs for the spouses. Web sites and chat rooms for such women have sprung up around the Internet.
"I've basically been doing anything I've wanted to," said Kay Warren, wife of pastor Rick Warren, who wrote the phenomenally best-selling book "The Purpose Driven Life," and founded the Saddleback Church in California. "It's really allowed me to specialize. For me, I'm focused on calling the church to the fight against HIV."
At Lakewood Church, the massive Houston congregation that draws 38,000 people for weekly worship, leader Joel Osteen and his wife, Victoria, are both listed as the pastors.
Lois Evans, wife of evangelist and radio preacher Tony Evans, has her own ministry dedicated to pastors' wives and has organized a "First Lady Conference" every year for nearly a decade. The meetings offer training and a chance for networking.
"Thirty-one years ago, when I started as a pastor's wife, I was looking for a venue for the support I needed," said Evans, who is a senior vice president of her husband's organization, handling the business side of his work. "I was running around the country with Tony as he was ministered to at pastors' conferences, and for us, there were just tea parties."
Ruth Graham faced all these challenges and more as her husband's fame grew.
He was on the road for months at a time, leaving her to raise their five children. Their daughter Anne Graham Lotz said Thursday that her mother was effectively "a single parent." Ruth sometimes grew so lonely when Billy was away that she slept with his tweed jacket for comfort.
But she understood the importance of his preaching and "saw it as a calling herself," said Robert Coleman, who knew and worked with the Grahams, and once ran the Billy Graham Center Institute of Evangelism at Wheaton College in Illinois, where the Grahams met.
Ruth Graham read constantly, trying to learn as much as possible about events in the church and the world, partly to provide sermon ideas for her husband. During one visit to the Graham home in Montreat, Coleman said Ruth questioned him for an hour and a half about a spiritual revival he had witnessed in Kentucky.
When she was able to attend her husband's events, "sometimes she would speak, but I don't think she liked to be in that position," said Coleman who teaches evangelism at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, based in South Hamilton, Mass. "She'd rather stay behind Billy."
Still, her contribution became increasingly clear, in part through the many books she wrote, and she became known as "the strong woman behind America's preacher," said the Rev. Kurt Fredrickson, who teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.
Pastors' wives today still struggle with the outsized expectations of their congregations, and some of the most conservative denominations still see the women in a traditional role. The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a Southern Baptist school, plans to start a Christian homemaking program this fall, teaching cooking, raising children and making clothes.
But that way of thinking is becoming the exception, rather than the norm.
"I think pastors' wives today see themselves more as part of an active team," Kay Warren said. "Instead of the husband ahead and the wife behind, I think they see themselves more as side-by-side."
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