A Glimpse into the Life of a Chaplain Spouse
by Dinah D.
Our family recently PCSed. This, of course, brings a lot of changes and stress. Honestly, it is incredibly overwhelming physically, mentally, and emotionally. Especially the emotional part.
I am an advocate for military families and I had spent the past five years of my life fighting and advocating for one community. It was emotionally very difficult to leave those families and that community behind. Then there is the part of having to start all over again, as a chaplain’s wife.
Starting over as a military spouse is stressful; starting over as a chaplain’s wife is super stressful.
The emotional weight chaplain spouses carry is heavy for many reasons. First, we not only deal with our own personal emotional reactions, we deal with our spouse’s reactions, our children’s reactions, and we understand people are watching our reactions. There is pressure that we feel, especially walking into a community we do not know. We do not know how this community views the chaplain. We do not know what their experience has been with the church.
This is what we walk into with each PCS.
I was surprised to be invited to a senior leadership spouse tea upon my arrival to our new base. This is a result of my passion to be very involved in my community; volunteer opportunities present themselves. Walking into that tea, I was nervous. I knew one person, only because I connected with her via email, joining the spouses’ club upon our arrival in Oklahoma and we later met at a Hearts Apart event. I worried about how these spouses would receive me.
This is the hidden part of being a chaplain’s wife people don’t know or see.
As the chaplain’s wife, I feel, based on my experience, there are automatic assumptions. Assumptions people develop based on their own experiences with the church community. Some assume I will judge them for what they say and do. Others may judge what I do and say because of what my husband does. Some hold people in positions of leadership and ministry to higher standards just because of the position they hold.
The reality is, I am a real person living a real military life. I am human and feel things deeply, especially for those I love and care for.
I remember when my husband was deployed. Although I had worked directly with the Key Spouse for the wing in coordinating service projects for the community, she never called to check on me during that deployment. I think she assumed I was equipped and had what I needed. My friends, which included our Wing and Vice Command Spouses, watched after me. I was very blessed in that assignment.
Additionally, I am a very resourceful woman. I helped with coordinating Hearts Apart events and connected with other deployed spouses and families, something I am passionate about. This helped me pass the time and provided support for me as well.
In talking with other Air Force spouse friends, I found they had similar experiences during separations. We are often left to handle everything by ourselves and ask for help if we need it.
This is complicated for those of us who are chaplain spouses. To start, chaplain spouses are usually at an installation or wing level which means we do not belong to any group or squadron. We really do not have a shirt or any clearly identified person we can call if something goes wrong during separation. We call those we are in relationship with. We really have to work hard to build our own support networks.
This makes for a lonely life in many cases. I also think being a minister’s wife in addition to being a spouse of a service member complicates the experience of military life for chaplain spouses. We carry the responsibility of being spiritual leaders for the community.
I also feel as a chaplain spouse I cannot share burdens with just anyone. I would not feel comfortable sharing my personal burdens with those I am responsible for looking after spiritually. It is an ethical conflict for me.
Those we find for our support networks are people we can trust, often located outside our local communities. These are armor bearers, people we ask to pray for us and our ministry and people who are objective enough to give us wisdom when we need it.
Many of us hold volunteer advocate positions in addition to our role as chaplain spouses due to our passion to serve our families and communities. It weighs heavy when you are managing an entire household and children alone. This is added to the expectation that because you have all the answers to the “Sunday School” questions, you are prepared to handle anything life throws at you. It is never that simple, not even for chaplains and their families.
All the wisdom and knowledge of the world will not keep us from suffering. Sometimes it is the suffering that makes us strong; it defines us and shapes us into better leaders.
Another challenge of the chaplain family is the fact that even when the chaplain is home, he is not always available. Even though my husband is home every night, he is still very busy with work. He may be home from the office but he has sermons to prepare and invocations to draft. He has many evening and weekend events he is required to attend. I am unfortunately not able to attend every event with him.
We have young children and some of those events are for single airmen and are not family-friendly. So, even though Saturdays are the only family day we have, they are often taken by mandatory all-day events for single airmen. This is, of course, in addition to his work schedule during the week. Chaplains don’t just work on Sunday; they work all throughout the week too.
At least in this assignment he actually has the opportunity to come home at night. When we were stationed at SAMMC there were weeks he lived at the hospital. I do not joke when I say this. He literally had a room he lived in, due to the work load. I had to come to the hospital at night to have dinner with him and go home by myself. Yes, that was all kinds of fun, in the midst of my fertility treatments and surgeries. Thank goodness we got through it.
Chaplain families are passionate about serving military families but this often requires incredible sacrifice and hard work. We sacrifice quality time together as a couple and as a family. We carry the burdens of our communities, which distract us from our own and that of our family.
I love and have devoted my life’s work to helping and caring for military families because I know and understand personally what sacrifices the service life requires. I will give until there is nothing left to give because I am a very passionate advocate for my families.
Yes, I call them my military families because I treasure them as much as I do my own family.
We carry a heavy load. We will never truly share with you how heavy, but please pray for us. We live this military life too.
Dinah Dziolek, LMHC, LPC
Licensed Professional Counselor