A listening ear

“I like to create that personal space. I want people to feel they have been treated with great respect and kindness.” — Lynn Vissers, Knox College 


It takes less than a minute to walk out the front door of the Principal’s Lodge at Wycliffe College in the heart of Toronto, Canada’s largest city, and into a side door of the Anglican theological college. Since 1911, the college’s principals, along with their spouses and sometimes their children, have lived in the spacious, three-story brick house.

In The Way Forward: A History of Wycliffe College, Toronto, 1877–2002, former principal Reginald Stackhouse writes that a certain Wycliffe principal’s wife was once described as “everyone’s girlfriend” and “the epitome of grace, elegance, and kindness.” Another was called “a principal’s wife who was in the best traditions of that unpaid but not unimportant part of the College’s life.”

To the modern reader, these descriptions sound very old fashioned. Spouses of principals are not just wives anymore, and they’re certainly not “everyone’s girlfriend.” Yet it is clear that, whether husband or wife, the spouse of a seminary president today still plays a pivotal role in the life of the institution. Often these spouses are the president’s main support, whether overtly or behind the scenes, and most are active in formal and informal ministry and in community service. The work of a president’s spouse is frequently hands on, and many spouses find creative ways to carry out their ministry.

Fawna Andrews is the current spouse-in-residence at Wycliffe College. She is a psychotherapist who practices out of a sun-filled home office in the Lodge and also welcomes a revolving cast of college guests — usually those visiting Wycliffe to attend an event or deliver a lecture. Andrews hosts a lot of meals and even invites honored visitors to stay in the Lodge’s guest rooms. She views her role as “coming alongside people,” which includes, first of all, her husband Stephen Andrews. “When we moved to Toronto, I had a fantasy that we would go off every weekend and explore different parts of the city, but most days we are [too] exhausted,” she says.

“One of my jobs is to make sure Steve has a bit of balance in his life,” she adds. “If I wasn’t here, he would work straight through the weekend.”

Balance is something Barby Bailey also tries to provide for her husband Mark, who is president of Dallas Theological Seminary. Mark is about to step down from his position and Barby recently offered some advice to the spouse of her husband’s successor: Take his emotional temperature. “That’s what I’ve done with Mark all these years,” she says. “I’ve taken his emotional temperature and thought, Hmmm, let’s encourage him. Just try to be in tune with him.”

Walking through the storms

Being a sounding board for a spouse who has a job with huge challenges is considered one of the most pivotal roles of the spouses of seminary presidents today — an opinion held by men and women.

A Listening Ear

Stephens Lytch is the husband of Carol Lytch, who is in her ninth year as president of Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. Steve describes himself as the “trailing spouse” and says his role is “mostly just providing support for Carol.” He adds: “There aren’t any formal duties or expectations on the part of the seminary. I don’t feel any expectation to play the host or do anything like that.”

Lytch says he enjoys being “on the periphery” and that his most important role is taking care of the “home environment,” where he tries to create “a place where Carol can decompress and share, and I can be a sounding board.”

Like Carol, Steve is an ordained Presbyterian minister. But his work focuses on churches that need interim or transitional leadership, and he says his ministry does not generally bring extra tension into their home. “It’s not as stressful as if I was still an installed pastor. I think that’s important for this family system.” He sees just how demanding the role of seminary president is.

A Listening Ear

Author and professor Carolyn Custis James is married to Frank James III, president of Missio Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “A seminary president is a very lonely position and a very central role,” she says. “I think part of my role is to watch his back, to be strong for him in the battles he’s called to fight.”

Custis James also says she tries to be a sounding board for her husband: “I want to know how his day went. I want to be a safeguard for him, but I’d want that no matter what he was doing.”

Listening is also a theme for Barb Johnson, who is married to David Johnson, president of Providence University College and Theological Seminary in Otterburne, Manitoba. She says that being a good listener is her most important responsibility. “Walking with Dave through the storms that come along is my role,” says Johnson. “To listen and to be compassionate and to pray and pray and pray.”

A Listening Ear

Barb Johnson (second from the left) on a visit to Myanmar with her husband, David Johnson, the president of Providence University College and Theological Seminary, to present an honorary doctorate to a Providence graduate.  | PHOTO COURTESY OF BARB JOHNSON

A Listening Ear
Barb Johnson standing next to a widowed mother in a camp for displaced persons in Myanmar. The woman’s husband had just died two weeks before, and she nursed her infant while listening to Johnson speak to an assembled group.  PHOTO COURTESY OF: BARB JOHNSON

Space for students to talk

At St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, a lush oasis in Yonkers, New York, there’s an important event on the calendar every other Monday night: the meeting of the St. Juliana Society, a gathering of female students and the wives of male seminarians hosted by Matushka Thekla Hatfield. (Matushka is a Russian title of honor for the wife of a priest.) Hatfield hosts the event in the home that she shares with her husband, Father Chad Hatfield, the seminary president.

“I was the only clergy wife on campus who had parish experience,” says Hatfield, recalling her first months on campus. “I was asked way back then if I’d start the group.”

Hatfield says: “I try to let the wives know that you have to be on board with this. This is not something you take on lightly. You will be just as important in the parish as your husband is. I’ve seen it go south so many times, when wives are not really on board with what their husband is doing.”

Guests from afar, including iconographers, liturgical tailors, and monastics, are often invited to speak at St. Juliana Society meetings, with travel costs paid for by donors. “I have a full slate of people that I bring in from all over,” she says, adding that it’s convenient to be married to someone who travels so much. “He comes home and says, ‘I met so-and-so who would be excellent to bring in as one of your speakers.’”

Back at Wycliffe College in Toronto, Fawna Andrews also gathers the spouses of students in a safe and welcoming environment. “We have a potluck once a month during term time,” says Andrews. “The reality is that it has turned out to be mostly women, and spouses of either M.Div. or Ph.D. students, but they see what they are doing as ministry.”

For the first year of the gathering, Andrews directed the conversation herself, but lately she focuses more on just providing the space to talk. “People talk nonstop when they are here. We end with sharing updates and prayer.”

Barb Bailey, at Dallas, also hosts gatherings for faculty wives and the wives of board members —and she also speaks regularly at gatherings of clergy spouses. “I’ve had the privilege of mentoring wives of students in a program we have here. I love to encourage people.”

Beyond the Monday night gatherings, Thekla Hatfield says she has an open-door policy. “I encourage them to come in. I offer them a cup of tea and a friendly ear. I’m like everybody’s grandmother.”

Hospitality really matters

A Listening Ear

Starla Rowell is well known for her “MoMo” trail mix — imagine a counter full of ingredients like cashews, Honey Nut Cheerios, and M&M’s and free rein to create your own mix. She is married to Jeren Rowell, the president of Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, and is also employed by the school as a part-time event coordinator. In that role, she took over the task of providing snacks during the school’s synchronized break time. “I said, ‘This fits who I am. I will take over.’ I offer that cup of cold water, but also have a candy bowl on my desk,” says Rowell.

“Academics and I aren’t kissing cousins. The faculty scared me spitless at first. But anything to do with hospitality, I’m comfortable with,” she says. “What I’ve learned at this point is that it is a level playing field. I want to support the faculty and the students.” Rowell says she is honored to be “at the crossroads and in the flow of where God is calling men and women to minister. I am seeing firsthand the quality of young people that God has called.”

Rowell says she’s honored to provide hospitality to students and faculty. “What brings joy to me is the table, the towel, and the basin. And the table really matters.”

Lynne Vissers, who is married to John Vissers, the principal of Knox College in Toronto, also has a gift when it comes to providing hospitality. Sometimes she sets a table right in her husband’s office. “If we have a guest in at Knox, and John doesn’t have time to take them out for dinner, I will bring food in and cater a small private dinner at the college.” Vissers shows up with candles, china, and flowers from her family’s home, which is over an hour away, sometimes surprising the college staff. “They think, ‘Let us just call a caterer,’ but I like to create that personal space. I want people to feel they have been treated with great respect and kindness. I bring my teacups.”

Guests eat surrounded by paintings Vissers painted for her husband’s otherwise dark, wood-paneled office. The paintings are vivid portraits of theologians and thinkers who have influenced her husband’s thinking — a unique contribution drawn from her own particular talent.

And perhaps this is the best way to flourish as the spouse of a seminary president in 2020: “Do what you’ve always felt God has given you a gift and a heart for,” says Vissers. “If you stay within that, it will guide you, but it will also protect you from taking on too much. It gives you the ability to keep distance but also to stay engaged.”

Thekla Hatfield, “everybody’s grandmother,” whose door is always open to those who need her, would agree: “I’m a pretty simple person. My priorities are totally in sync with what my husband does. Sometimes I think it’s a really old-fashioned way of thinking in this day and age. But I’ve also created this for myself. I don’t do anything that would make me uncomfortable. I do the things that are who I am.”

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