Derek Maul has packed a lot of living into his 55 years: world traveler, teacher of emotionally disturbed children, author, speaker, father of two.

But hands-down, his favorite role is preacher’s husband.

“Because you’re not locked into a stereotype,” he says. “There’s no well-worn path to follow, no box to be put into. That gives me the freedom to follow Jesus. So I look at this as a great opportunity.”

This love story began when a fetching and confident woman named Rebekah asked a Brit named Derek out on a date. Both were students at Stetson University in Deland, Fla. Their first date was Feb 4, 1977.

He was pursuing a psychology degree (which he jokingly says is good for either graduate school or unemployment). She was already planning to follow a calling in ministry. So right from the get-go, he knew that life with this woman would be different.

When Rebekah went to Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., in the early 1980s, she was one of only four women in the class. And it was pretty much conveyed to the females that if they got a call from a church to serve, it would not be a plum assignment.

The seminary president even gave her this warning: If you do follow through with a career in the ministry, don’t get married. Either the marriage or the ministry won’t last.

“Rebekah never let anything like that get in her way. She’s a groundbreaker who is not afraid to fight the system,” her husband says with pride.

Despite that warning, it’s been a wonderful ride for both. Now married 31 years, with two grown children, the Mauls have enjoyed two long-term posts. They spent 14 years in Pensacola, FL, where Rebekah served as associate pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, then moved here 15 years ago when she was hired as senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Brandon.

Rebekah and her associate, the Rev. Tim Black, must be doing something right. At a time when membership at mainline churches is stagnant or losing ground, First Presbyterian Church is thriving. Attendance was less than 200 when the Mauls arrived. It’s more than doubled now, to 400. In October, the congregation will dedicate its new educational center and fellowship hall.

Derek has always been the preacher’s husband, and he’s always been fine with the role. But he knows some still view his position as rather odd. They may wonder: Who’s in charge in that household? If they have the guts to ask him to his face, he’ll gladly tell them.

“It’s not me, it’s not Rebekah. It’s God,” he says. “I still run into people once in a while who have a problem with women preachers. But I know this isn’t a theological issue. It’s a cultural one.”

With his vantage point and experience, Derek decided he wanted to “get the conversation going” about being a preacher’s spouse. He had heard enough negative comments over the years, and frankly, was distressed that all the positives were being overlooked. His experience has been mainly favorable. Surely he’d be able to share his insight and learn a few things from others as well.

In December, he launched a blog with a commitment to make weekly entries and offer encouragement to spouses of preachers. Since he left teaching six years ago to concentrate on speaking and writing books, he has more time to dedicate to this latest project.

So far, he’s posted 57 entries, getting as many as 300 hits at one time. He’s confident it will grow through word-of-mouth. Though his main emphasis began with husbands, he now includes wives, who also have to contend with certain stereotypes and expectations.

“When you’re married to a preacher, it’s easy to feel isolated. Sometimes you feel as if you’re the only person around in this position,” he said. “We all have a unique perspective, but we share a lot of common ground.”

One challenge Derek had to overcome in his role is “keeping my mouth shut” when his wife is the recipient of harsh words by the occasional congregant. When you lead hundreds of people, that’s bound to happen from time to time, no matter how congenial the congregation is.

“We made a vow when we got married to give the gift of love wherever we went,” he says. “Sometimes, that vow is put to the test. Your natural inclination is to defend your wife, but you have to step aside. That’s why a spouse should never serve on a church board.”

He’s his wife’s biggest fan. Derek sings her praises, calling her “a most excellent preacher and writer,” and says she is still as beautiful as when they met. For Christmas, he showed his affection with an incredible gift. He presented her with three cookbooks, and told her: Pick one recipe a week and I will make it for you.

Their love story continues to thrive. They’re looking forward to trips in 2012 to the Middle East with a group of New Testament scholars, and to Tuscany to visit their son, who lives and works there. Their daughter will give them their first grandchild this fall. And the nest isn’t quite empty at home. Scout, their Labradoodle, keeps them constantly amused.

“It’s been a fabulous ride,” Derek says. “And it’s still going strong. For me, being the preacher’s hubby is a blessing.”

This story ran in “The Tampa Tribune” on July 21, 2011.