Nancy Wilson never saw herself as a pastor’s wife—and was sure that she would never marry a minister. “I was going to marry someone and go back home to Asheville [North Carolina], and spend the rest of my life there,” remembers Nancy. “But God had other plans.”
And so did Nancy’s grandmother. In 1974 Nancy Vollmer was working as a physical therapist at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California. She usually attended the Campus Hill Church, but this particular Sabbath she decided to attend the University church with her grandmother.
Soon after Nancy and her grandmother found a seat in the large church, a young man accompanying an elderly woman sat down on the other side of the pew. Poking Nancy, her grandma said, “That’s Teddy Wilson. Stick with me and I’ll introduce you after church.”
Ted Wilson was just completing a Master of Science in Public Health at Loma Linda and would soon be moving to Long Island, New York, to begin pastoring.
After the service, Grandma Vollmer introduced Ted and Nancy, and the two talked for a long time in the church foyer. “We had both parked in the same parking lot,” remembers Nancy, “and as Grandma and I were walking to the car, she asked, ‘Shall we invite him to Sabbath dinner or would that be too much?’” As the two debated, Ted was standing by his car some distance away, hoping for an invitation that didn’t come. “I was afraid that it might be too obvious,” Nancy recalled. “I was determined to never chase a guy.” A few weeks later Nancy’s phone rang. It was Ted, wondering if she would like to go out to lunch at Nena’s, an authentic Mexican restaurant in San Bernardino.
A GROWING ATTRACTION
The following weekend, Nancy went up to Northern California to help her grandparents. Her grandfather had fallen while visiting PUC and was scheduled for surgery. Staying at the home of friends in St. Helena, not far from PUC, Nancy was surprised on Friday evening when the phone rang and the call was for her. It was Ted. “Somehow he tracked me down . . . . I don’t know how he did it,” Nancy recalls. “He said that he was driving up from Loma Linda on Sunday morning and that if I stayed in St. Helena we could enjoy Sunday evening together and I could fly back early Monday morning in time for work, so I decided to stay.” Ted was actually on his way to New York to begin his ministry and made this special detour just to see Nancy.
Ted took Nancy to the San Francisco airport early Monday morning to catch a flight south. They talked non-stop all the way to the airport.
As she boarded the plane, Nancy was in for a surprise there in the seat next to hers sat a familiar person—someone that she had previously had an interest in. “However,” said Nancy, “after spending time with Ted, I had NO interest in the other guy!” As Ted drove across the country, he enjoyed munching on special sweet and salty crackers Nancy and her grandmother had made for him.
DOWN THE WEDDING PATH
That was the beginning of a long-distance romance. In January of 1975 Nancy moved from Loma Linda to Reading, Pennsylvania where she worked at Reading Rehab—only a four-hour drive from Ted’s church on Long Island, New York. As the Memorial Day weekend approached at the end of May 1975, Ted and Nancy decided to travel to North Carolina where he could meet Nancy’s parents. Unbeknownst to them, two of their grandmothers were fasting and praying over 2,000 miles away in California, asking the Lord to lead and bless the relationship of their grandchildren. So it was not a surprise to the Wilson and Vollmer grandparents when, on June 1, 1975, Ted and Nancy called to tell them of their engagement.
IN THE FISHBOWL
Following their wedding on September 14, 1975, in Asheville, the couple moved to Long Island, where Ted was pastoring the Adventist church in Patchogue. “All of a sudden, I was in a fishbowl,” recalls Nancy. “Everybody was watching me, and I thought I had to be a certain way because I was the pastor’s wife. That made me very uncomfortable.”
After three months, Nancy realized, “All the Lord wanted was for me to be me, and for me to love the people. I couldn’t be anyone else.”
Once Nancy realized this, everything else fell into place. On Friday nights, the Wilsons hosted young people in their home. At that time, Nancy knew how to bake, but cooking was another thing, so every Sabbath lunch they would serve the same meal— lentil tostadas—but to different guests. During the week Nancy enjoyed being at her husband’s side, visiting church members, giving Bible studies, participating in prayer meetings, and (eventually) presenting cooking schools.
Leaving the Patchogue church was difficult. “I just loved the people. It was the kind of church where you could see the unity that came with the message . . . the group was made up of all kinds of people, and it was wonderful to see how they all came together as this little family. When they had our farewell, I just cried. I hated to leave. I loved being a part of Ted’s work.”
Nancy and Ted moved to Rockland County, just north of New York City, where Ted worked with Metropolitan Ministries and Nancy worked as a physical therapist. It was during this time that their first two children were born—Emilie in 1978, and Elizabeth in 1980. It was also where they received their first call to serve as missionaries.
Not long after they were married, Ted had brought up the subject of mission service with Nancy, but she had just started crying. “You don’t understand. I’m so close to my family, I could never live that far away,” she had told him.
But five years later, Nancy was willing to go. Reflecting on that experience, she said, “Even if you think you can’t do something, I am proof that as long as your ultimate goal is to do God’s will, the Lord will give you the heart to do it. Just pray, ‘Lord, I want to do Your will; show me what it is and give me the strength to do it.’”
FROM AFRICA TO AMERICA
Soon, the Wilson family was in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, where Ted served from 1981 to 1990 at what was then known as the Africa-Indian Ocean Division. During this time, Ted and Nancy had a third child—Catherine, who was born in 1983. “It was a great place for kids,” Nancy recalled, and after spending nine years in Africa, when a call came to return to the U.S. where Ted would serve as an associate secretary at the General Conference, the family was reluctant to leave. The move was particularly difficult for their eldest, Emilie, who had just turned 12 and had not lived in the U.S. since she was 3. Hoping to help ease the transition, Ted and Nancy brought Emilie with them to Maryland to help search for a new home, while the two younger children stayed with grandparents.
MOVING ON . . . AGAIN
The Wilsons were pleased to find an affordable yet comfortable house in the country where the girls could feel at home. Just two years later, a call came again this time to Russia.
Nancy was shocked. “I thought, no way. This could not be God’s will. But I prayed, ‘Lord, if it is your will, make it plain. We just want to do your will.’ I was just so upset, not wanting to go but wanting to do God’s will.” In two weeks Nancy lost eight pounds, not being able to eat or sleep well as she wrestled with God. “I’ve always felt strongly about bringing kids up in a rural environment,” she reasoned.
“One day I was standing at the kitchen sink, looking out the back window while I was praying, ‘Lord, you provided this country setting. How can it be your will to leave this and live in the city of Moscow?’ Immediately, He answered me: “Is living in the country your god? Is this more important to you than following Me?’ I was shocked. I learned that you can think some things are absolutes, and they’re not.”
Knowing how difficult the transition from Africa to the U.S. had been for their family, especially for Emilie, who was now 14, Ted and Nancy were concerned about how accepting this call would impact their children. “Ted and I talked about it. We knew our kids needed us, and we felt strongly that we needed to be with our kids. We told each other that if Emilie was adamant against leaving, we would have to turn down the call. We prayed and prayed and waited on the Lord to lead.”
One Friday night, Nancy quietly slipped into Emilie’s bedroom. Her lights were out but she was still awake. As Nancy sat down, she asked her eldest daughter, “Emilie, how do you really feel?” Emilie was quiet for a while, and then answered, “With all the people needing help, it seems a small thing for us to be inconvenienced.”
HOW CAN YOU SAY NO TO GOD?
The next day at church, Nancy again felt the Lord gently calling her. Elder Jan Paulsen was the speaker that day. “I remember sitting in the congregation, listening to him talking about how no one had any excuse for sleeping and not realizing that the end of time was near,” recalled Nancy. “It was like, if God calls, how can you say no? I remember the tears started running down my face, and I knew what our answer would be.”
The Wilsons moved to Russia in 1993, where Ted served as president of the Euro-Asia Division in Moscow. Nancy was delighted with “the wonderful place God provided for us to live—near the forest.”
However, the early 1990s was a time of turbulence in Russia, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and a new form of government just beginning. That October, there was an attempted coup in Moscow. Nancy remembers, “Ted was in India for Annual Council, and I was alone with the girls. You could see the smoke and hear the tanks. It was a very tense time. I remember putting together our passports and everything we needed in case we had to leave in a hurry.”
And yet in spite of various challenges, Nancy believes that “the time we had in Moscow was the most precious experience of our lives together—we were face-to-face with the great controversy every day. It was survival every day. We were aware that it wasn’t the big metal door keeping us safe—it was the angels and God with us, and that He was the only one getting us through.”
In 1996, the Wilson family returned to Maryland, where Ted served as president of the Review & Herald Publishing Association for the next four years, and then as a General Vice President at the General Conference for 10 years. Nancy returned to her work as a physical therapist working part-time in order to be with their girls, who were quickly growing up. By 2010, all three daughters had finished their education, were married, and had children of their own.
When the Wilson family got together for Christmas 2009, Ted and Nancy told the girls (and their families) that it might be the last time that they would celebrate Christmas together in Maryland because they didn’t know what changes might take place at the upcoming General Conference Session in Atlanta. “We didn’t know what might happen and realized that we could be sent anywhere in the world,” said Nancy.
On Friday, June 25, 2010, Nancy was in a hotel room near the convention center in Atlanta with her daughters, Catherine and Emilie, and son-in-law Kameron DeVasher when the phone rang. It was Ted with the news that he had just been invited to be the next General Conference president.
Nancy remembers the call vividly: “I’ve never heard him sound so sober. I started crying. I felt just like when the call came to go to Russia—not wanting to go but wanting to do God’s will.” Trembling, Nancy went over to the convention center, knowing that a new chapter in their ministry had begun.
PASTORAL WORK AGAIN
As Nancy looked over the sea of faces that greeted her as she and Ted walked onto the stage at the Georgia Dome, she fought back tears as she realized the sobering, overwhelming responsibility that would be theirs.
In a sense, the two are working together again as a pastoral couple. Just as she did visitation with Ted when he was a pastor in New York, Nancy now travels with him as much as she can, visiting with various church members around the globe.
“At first I did not realize how important it would be to travel with Ted, but what I am noticing is that I am able to reach out to people, and they will open up to me. Sometimes the men will come up to me and say, ‘Thank you so much for talking with my wife.’ Many people feel isolated, and I am happy to be able to visit with them—this is kind of like having a church again.”
When at home, the Wilsons still enjoy having people over, and they periodically host evening worships and socials around the campfire on their rural property.
In addition to the positives, from time to time Nancy has also noticed some of the negatives of being church leaders—such as being on the receiving end of rumors and criticisms.
“Some of the things we hear are just so laughable, you wonder who came up with them,” smiled Nancy. Like the rumor that Ted closed down Starbucks at the convention center in Atlanta as soon as he was elected GC president. “But he had nothing to do with it closing. It had been set in the contract nine years earlier that Starbucks would close when the GC Session officially began.”
Nancy has a very practical, spiritual approach when it comes to taking criticism: “I think the human side of us wants to respond with our fighting gloves on, but that’s not God’s way. Sometimes the people who criticize us the most, if we reach out to them, become our most loyal friends. Often there is a lack of understanding or some issue that causes them to be critical, but if you reach out to them in a loving way, sometimes that can dissolve. But,” she admits, “it can be very hard to do.”
TAKING TIME FOR FAMILY
Even though they now have many new responsibilities, Nancy and Ted still try to carve out some family time together mainly outdoors, hiking or biking together. In the wintertime, when their children and families come home for Christmas, “we enjoy being together so much,” said Nancy. “We just sit around and talk and talk and talk.” When alone, Nancy loves gardening and reading—“devotional and history books, biographies, books that I can learn from.”
REFLECTING ON THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF BEING A PASTORAL SPOUSE
Nancy does not underestimate the influence of a wife upon a husband. “I don’t think anyone has more influence on our spouses than we do. Whether your husband is a pastor or an administrator—he faces a lot of pressure. And the easiest way to pull our husbands down is for the devil to use us.”
Opening her heart to pastoral spouses around the world, Nancy shares, “The most important thing as wives of pastors and administrators is for us to maintain an intimate walk with the Lord every day, to spend time with Him, to develop an ear to hear that ‘still, small voice’ that will direct us through the day so that we will not only live our lives the way God wants us to, but that we will have a positive influence on our husbands. If we can stay positive and open to the Lord’s leading, it will, in turn, affect our ministry together.”
Looking back over their many years together, Nancy smiles and adds, “Never in my wildest imagination did I know that I would have the experiences I have had. Many times I have gone kicking and screaming, but I knew it was God’s will to go. He always knows best, and He always has a good reason."
WHERE ARE THE WILSON DAUGHTERS NOW?
The Wilson’s eldest daughter, Emilie, is a nurse but is currently stay-at-home mom to little 9-month-old son, Henry. She is married to Kameron DeVasher, a pastor in Avon Park, Florida.
Their second daughter, Elizabeth, is also a nurse and stay-at-home mom to their three little ones: Lauren, 4, Matthew, 2, and Maryanne, who was born April 1, 2011. Elizabeth is married to David Wright, a pastor in north Georgia.
Catherine, their youngest daughter, is a physical therapist and stay-at-home mom to 8-month-old daughter, Charlotte Rose. She is married to Robert Renck, Jr., a dentist in Hagerstown, Maryland.