Winkler case reveals common problems, inspires some to help

Trial begins Monday for woman accused of killing minister husband

BOLIVAR, Tenn. – Dana James only knew the sparest of details:

Minister’s wife in Selmer, Tenn., age 32, shoots and kills her husband. She sits in a jail in the next county.

Yet Dana says she knew immediately what God would have her do: go visit this broken woman.

“It’s real hard for me to see myself as a pastor’s wife,” says Dana, 52, whose husband, Earnest, is pastor of First Baptist Church in Bolivar. “I can’t make coffee. I don’t play the organ or the piano, and I don’t sing in the choir – all the things a pastor’s wife is supposed to do.

“But the ironic thing is, God has put me in a position where I do a lot of ministering to pastors’ wives,” she said.

By all accounts, there is a lot of ministering to be done. For decades, bookstore shelves have been lined with offerings on the subject. Titles range from the smug – “So You’re the Pastor’s Wife” – to the defiant – “I’m More Than the Pastor’s Wife” – to the desperate – “Help! I’m a Pastor’s Wife.”

There’s even a new novel entitled “Desperate Pastors’ Wives.”

That description may have fit Mary Winkler the morning of March 22, 2006, when authorities allege she used a shotgun to kill her husband, Matthew, the pastor of Fourth Street Church of Christ in Selmer and the father of their three young daughters.

The former Knoxville woman’s first-degree murder trial begins Monday in Selmer.

“A lot of women suffer in silence,” says Shelly Esser, editor of “Just Between Us,” a magazine targeted to pastors’ wives. “And, from the outside, they look like the perfect pastors’ wives.”

A ‘fishbowl existence’

Mary told police she “snapped.”

“I was upset at him because he had really been on me lately, criticizing me for things, the way I walk, the way I eat, everything,” she said after her arrest. “It was just building up to this point ”

The night before the shooting, they had argued over finances, a common cause of conflict in any marriage, and the prosecution is expected to say that Mary participated in a foreign check scam.

The Winklers secured a marriage license in 1996 in Knox County. In 1992, Mary graduated as Mary Freeman from South-Doyle High School.

Whatever the facts in the Winkler case, there is evidence that many ministers’ wives routinely experience a “building up” of frustrations and tension.

In 2005, the Pastoral Ministries Division for Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colo., conducted a survey of 1,000 pastors’ wives. Among the findings: Within the previous year, 73 percent said they had experienced frustration or discouragement, 45 percent anger, 39 percent depression and 5 percent suicidal thoughts.

H.B. London, 70, who is vice president of pastoral ministries for Focus and the co-author of “Married to a Pastor’s Wife,” says women married to ministers often experience feelings of loneliness and isolation while simultaneously feeling that everything about them and their families is up for inspection and judgment.

“It’s the fishbowl existence,” says Michelle Hamilton, 32, whose husband Tony is pastor at Prescott Church of Christ in Prescott, Ark.

“You’re expected to raise your children correctly and always be dressed appropriately,” adds Melinda Hatcher, whose husband, Chip, has been at First Presbyterian Church in Hernando, Miss., for 16 years. “No swimsuit going through the grocery store, for heaven’s sake.”

Small towns sometimes bring to bear only bigger expectations.

“There are a lot of expectations for women in small churches in rural areas,” says Esser. “If they were to reach out and get help, chances are it would get around. Somebody would know the counselor.”

Mission revealed

That former pastor’s wife who showed up at the jail just after Dana?

She ended up telling Dana her personal story, a story of neglect, abuse and loneliness that bottomed out in divorce. Dana believes now that this was what that day was for – to meet and know this woman.

As for Mary, Dana now has written her more than a half-dozen notes and cards. In one, Dana quoted Psalm 94: 17-19:

“Unless the Lord had given me help, I would soon have dwelt in the silence of death. When I said, ‘my foot is slipping,’ your love, O Lord, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul.”

Mary has never responded.

In Memphis, a group founded by minister’s wife Vivian Berryhill to support pastors’ spouses also is interceding, lifting Mary up in prayer.

“My heart goes out to First Lady Winkler,” Berryhill says. “For her to shoot and kill her husband, and deprive her children of their father, she must have been in a situation so tight. …”

So tight that there seemed no other way out?

It is a lot to suppose. But even a former pastor such as London, who says it is far tougher to be the pastor’s wife than it is to be the pastor, can imagine what life might have been like for this particular woman.

“I have a great empathy for her,” he says. “Her husband was probably very controlling, abusive (Mary’s family has alleged physical abuse), and image-conscious. He demanded a lot and knew the better she looked, the better he looked.

“That’s an observance from afar, understand. But we deal all the time with pastors’ wives that can’t take it anymore,” London says.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday April 9, 2007.
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