What do clergy families find stressful?

In 1994, Priscilla White Blanton and Michael Lane Morris reviewed previous research on clergy families and and extended it with their own study of 272 clergy husbands and their wives from six denominations.  They published their findings in an article entitled “The Influence of Work-Related Stressors on Clergy Husbands and Their Wives.”  It appeared in the journal Family Relations, Volume 43, No 2 (April 1994). They seem as true today as they did then. They cited five external stressors:

  • Frequent relocations.  Whether the move is dictated by the denominational hierarchy or is decided mutually by pastor and congregation, clergy typically move from community to community over the course of their lives. The expectation is that upon moving the pastor (and family) steps away from the former church community in order for the congregation to bond with the new minister. This disrupts social networks for all members of the family.
  • Financial compensation. Of all the professions requiring an advanced degree (a Masters of Divinity is typically 90 credits or 3 full years), the ministry on the whole has the lowest compensation. The majority of clergy are underpaid, causing a strain on the entire family.  For people entering seminary today, student loan debt compounds the problem.
  • Expectations and time demands. The never ending needs of a congregation, combined with the unpredictability of the 24/7 nature of the ministry, makes normal family life difficult under the best of circumstances. There are no normal weekends for clergy, and holidays are often the most demanding workdays of the year. In one survey, 80% of clergy stated that their job had a negative impact on their family. Spouses and children often report loneliness and isolation.
  • Intrusion of family boundaries. In the past it was the telephone; now its e-mail. And that’s when the pastor is not out for numerous evening meetings. One of the most difficult things for clergy to do is to set boundaries between work and home. Uninterrupted time for the clergy couple or with children is one of the biggest problems for clergy families, and has resulted in high divorce rates and depression. And clergy families can feel they live in a fishbowl.
  • Lack of adequate social support. Relationships between clergy and parishioners are complicated. The norm is often that the pastor and family do not have close, intimate friendships with members of the congregation. Even at community events they are seen as “the pastor.” Unless the family has been able to establish and maintain other close friends they can feel alone in the crowd.


Clergy families have changed but not everyone has gotten the message

The experience of  clergy families has changed significantly since the 1950’s and 60’s, largely due to broad social developments like the two wage earner family, feminism, and marriage equality. The relationship between the three entities – the pastor, the family, and the congregation – has changed, and the old models no longer serve as reliable guides.  In some church communities this is well understood,  but in others the possibility of new approaches has not yet been realized. A new covenantal relationship is emerging that will lead to something that will be more healthy and sustainable for all.

Absolutely essential to that dialogue is the voice of the clergy partner or spouse (herein called CP). They must be at the table and speak for themselves. A number of thoughtful pastors have undertaken to write about balance and to speak for their CP (Kirk Jones and Eugene Peterson are two), but there are few CP voices out there.

While clergy have many opportunities to engage with one another, there are few opportunities – and many obstacles – for CP’s to connect with one another. I am hoping this blog will in some small way provide a vehicle for communication between CP’s.  After all, we have a distinct role and a valuable perspective on the church community that is different from that of pastor or congregation.  It is a resource that is underutilized.

The stress on clergy families has been widely reported in the media – clergy leaving the church, higher rates of depression and divorce, poor health and chronic overwork. Yet the resources and services offered by most denominations fall disappointingly short of what’s needed. I think CP’s have something important to offer in making things better. Let’s talk with one another.  Let’s speak up.