By Patrick Scriven | Director of Communications, Young People’s Ministries
Being a clergy spouse is a complicated gift. In my experience, it has many positives but also some potential negatives.
As I tend to be much better at seeing negatives, let me name some of the positives first. A pastor’s family is often welcomed into the life of a church in ways I wish all church visitors could experience. You are greeted and asked real questions, your kids are doted upon, and you are likely to receive more casseroles than you ever knew existed. During the best of times, you get an unearned residual on the love and/or admiration the congregation has for your spouse.
But there are real downsides too. The biggest ones typically involve unspoken expectations and church conflicts.
First, let me name an elephant in the proverbial room. As the husband of the pastor, I was free of many of the expectations that clergy wives receive upon entering a church; and yes, they still exist in some churches. A number of these expectations were formed during bygone years when spouses rarely had their own careers. Simply put, they are not only outdated (for example, that the pastor’s wife would manage the church kitchen), they are potentially onerous for two-income families (not to mention solo pastors).
It must be said that some clergy spouses absolutely love to contribute in ways others might define as traditional and restrictive. The important difference lies in whether those expectations are indeed shared, and whether you as the spouse have agency in how they are shaped. Churches should work toward creating space for clergy spouses especially as they head into a transition; they may be blessed by gifts they hadn’t known they’d needed.
As I mentioned, the family often earns a residual on the love a church has for their pastor. Unfortunately, the inverse is sometimes true as well. While a good number of church folk are conscientious enough to leave the family out of any pastoral/church conflict, that isn’t always the case. And even if conflict is handled well by church members, there is still the work of being supportive of your spouse as they weather a difficult situation.
In my experience (some of it earned from doing things wrong), it is never a good thing to get involved as a clergy spouse in church conflict. Setting good boundaries in advance is essential to remaining a healthy partner and contributing church member.
Every family functions differently, and churches bring differing degrees of health or disfunction to the table as well. The following suggestions are offered in reflection upon my experiences and from those of others I have been honored to hear. They may not be perfect for all.
- Avoid serving on a committee with significant decision-making power in the church. Some committees should be an absolute no (like a church’s staff parish committee) but it’s probably best to stay clear of any major leadership roles. In addition to setting up potential conflicts of interest, it makes pastoral transitions that much harder.
- Wherever you serve, make it exceedingly clear that you are not representing your spouse, the pastor. If you hold a different position from them, don’t hide it. Never use your spouse as your trump card (no pun intended).
- On a related note, triangles are not your friend. If someone tries to bend your ear about something they really should be speaking with your spouse about, invite them to have the conversation directly.
- The church will be a big part of your partner’s life because it is where they are expressing their primary vocation. Especially if it is a big part of your life as well, be intentional about developing other things you are both interested in.
- Welcome the generosity of others but avoid becoming indebted to it. There is nothing inherently wrong with a congregation expressing gratitude to their pastor and their family. After all, not every church is equipped to express their appreciation with commensurate compensation. That said, be leery of excessive gifts from individuals, particularly those with strings attached.
- Name the space your family needs to be authentically engaged with the church. Doing so is important to your families’ health and toward helping the local church to know how to care for you. If you have decided that your teenager can sleep in on Sundays, you are the parent, not the congregation. Be kind, but also clear.
Being a clergy spouse really can be a gift. But before that can ever be the case, there has to be consent. We live in a time where the assumptions of the past are no longer helpful; where the husbands, wives, and partners of pastors don’t fit into neat categories. Some are pastors themselves, others are eager disciples. Some belong to different traditions, and still others hold deep questions about the items of faith their spouses profess.
For the church to be blessed by such diversity, and to offer a blessing in exchange, it also needs to be open and willing to receive what that pastor’s spouse may choose, or not choose, to offer. This, in my humble opinion, is the best way to reap more positives than negatives from most any situation.