Call…and Response. One couple’s journey through ministry in a time of change.

Three decades ago my wife Mary experienced a call to ministry that would catapult us on a  journey that would lead us to question the expectations of the church, the assumptions of theological education, and the practices of clergy themselves  It would draw us into a deep and sometimes painful exploration of the relationship between clergy, their families, and the congregations they serve. It would test our marriage like nothing else. And, like many others who have found themselves travelling difficult paths, we would discover – eventually – just what God was inviting us to do.

While we had little appreciation of it then, it was a time when changes in American society were straining the conventions of traditional ministry, and our path would repeatedly bring us up against the contadictions between old and new. The landscape had been evolving for some time – since the 1950’s certainly – but seminaries, churches, and pastors in mainline denominations were largely following the old maps. When we started out, those were the only ones available to us, and while they worked much of the time, they would periodically leave us lost and bewildered, wondering where we were and what had gone wrong. We blamed ourselves and each other for a lot of this until it dawned on us that what we really needed was a new map.

Our story, then, is about one couple making their way through these changes while trying to keep faith with each other, their family, the church, and – of course – God.

Both Mary and I had been raised in religious households – mine was Baptist; hers Roman Catholic – but we had drifted away from church. When we met in our mid-twenties we were both yearning for a church that reflected our values and our evolving sense of the nature of God. Together, we discovered a progressive Congregational church that was part of the United Church of Christ.

We married, and worked hard to develop a family centered marriage that embodied equality, shared opportunity, and shared sacrifice. By the time she experienced her call, we had both finished graduate school, had promising careers in the helping professions, and were raising three children. I was in the midst of a three-year stint as a stay at home dad that began when our third child was four months old and Mary was working full time. We were proud of our shared philosophy: family first;  flexible roles; shared housework; equal weight given to our careers; and all decisions made together. We envisioned our marriage as a sheet of paper with a vertical line drawn down the center, each half representing one of us. It was OK to use more than your half of the resources for a time, like going to grad school or moving the family to take a new job, but major changes would be mutually decided and over a lifetime things ought to equal out.

Then came the call to ministry. It turned our life upside down. The line on the sheet of paper disappeared; in fact the paper itself appeared to be gone in a gust of wind.

The generally accepted understanding of a call to ministry in the 1980’s was that when chosen by God to serve, one answered, and this took precedence over everything else. The model of Jesus’ sacrifice seemed to be implicit in much of Christian ministry. It could be a life of great spiritual rewards, but much would be asked of the individual and his or her family. Normal family life was not part of the picture.

That may be oversimplifying things, but we were not aware of any other interpretations or models; not from our years spent in a progressive denomination nor from the liberal seminary which Mary eventually attended. The clergy families we knew were characterized by a pastor working 60-70 hours a week, family time and vacations under constant threat of interruption, life in a fishbowl for spouse and kids, and (unless there were other financial resources) a life of genteel poverty. A friend who attended an orientation at Princeton Theological Seminary about that time was told to expect just that.

For Mary and me, that meant replacing ten years of working for equality in our relationship and balance in our family with a different paradigm and a changed set of rules. So much of what we had accomplished seemed about to be erased. This was the first time when we didn’t know which way to turn. Mary’s call was strong and genuine – I understood that – but so were the principles and values of our marriage and family, and they seemed incompatable. It was a terrible dilemma. We did not want to give up on the ministry, our idea of family, or each other. Yet the very fact that one of us was called and the other not began to separate us.

At this time Mary and I were sharing the role of coordinating the Sunday school programs for our church, a progressive U.C.C. congregation in a university town. We had first met while teaching in Head Start, where we discovered our mutual passion for children, so it was only natural to find ourselves running the church school. It was a vibrant program with lots of kids, and we were happy to be playing a valued part in the life of our church. We were a team.

When Mary began to explore the idea of going to divinity school she received strong encouragement from our pastor, the congregation, colleagues and friends. It was clear that her deep faith and her affinity for pastoral work should lead her in that direction. I could see that, but I had strong reservations. Growing up in a family very involved in church I got to see close up the pressures on the pastor’s family, and that was the last thing I wanted for myself or my kids. The ministers that Mary and I knew at the time all followed the traditional model of putting their congregation’s needs first and their family’s second. We were aware of situations where the dad left Christmas morning because a parishioner had called, or of the pastor leaving his family midway through a long awaited vacation to return home to meet the needs of someone in the congregation.

I cherished being part of the life of the church, but I knew how different it would be if Mary were the minister, and the kids and I were the minister’s family. I really didn’t want that life for us. We were stuck, really stuck, and began to feel the tensions that we now know are common to many couples experiencing a call. We were entering the most difficult period of our marriage. I felt like the odd man out, with everyone else (including God, apparently) telling Mary to go for it. What was wrong with me?

We put off seminary for a year while we wrestled with our dilemma. A resolution eventually came, not all at once but rather piece by piece.

We begin to discern a model of ministry that would work for us.

Our first and most important insight was a broader understanding of call.  God calls us in many ways, toward different things. A call to ministry does not necessarily supercede all others. Mary began thinking of her life in terms of a dual call, family and ministry, with God supporting us as we sought to keep faith with both.  But the “job description” of the conventional ministry was not written with a dual call in mind, and would need to be prayerfully and thoughtfully reconsidered.

With that in mind, Mary enrolled (part-time, as we still needed her income) in Andover Newton Theological School. We were not sure how, but we began to believe that there was a new way to balance the pastor’s responsibilities, the congregation’s needs, and the desire to have a full family life.

What we did not know then was that the conventional wisdom about clergy families was beginning to be challenged by a few pastors and writers, and that new assumptions and practices were being proposed. We came to know a pastor who practiced balance, drew clear and healthy boundaries, and was still loved by her congregation. She became a mentor. Mary read Eugene Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (published in 1989), a call for a radical redefinition of ministry in which he says “The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzling to describe a banker.” He quotes Hilary of Tours’ description of pastoral busyness as “a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.” Other writers we encountered over the years would help us see that much overwork results from the pastor’s own need to be needed.  Our second principle became Trust God, be humble, and avoid the temptation of indispensability.

We began to think in earnest about schedules and workloads. Much of the sixty to seventy hour workweek of pastors occurs on evenings, weekends, and holidays – the very time that other families spend together. How can clergy avoid becoming part time participants in their own families? A 1992 article in Leadership entitled “Is the Pastor’s Family Safe at Home?” referenced a study in which 81% of pastors admitted their families had insufficient time together.

But if the pastor recaptures some of these hours to spend with spouse and family, how will the work of the church get done?The list of tasks to be accomplished and needs to be met is seemingly endless, and the expectations of congregants high. It looked to us that a forty-hour week was just not possible, and a fifty-hour week difficult to pull off. What could change that?

My own profession was nonprofit management, and my training in organizational development. I was intrigued with the concept of participative management, which is popular now but not widely practiced in the US in the 1980’s. I had adopted it in my own organization with good results. In a nutshell, it involves moving away from a CEO centered leadership model to one where decision-making is more broadly shared in the organization. I began thinking, why wouldn’t this be an answer to the overworked pastor? Could this lead to a different model of parish leadership?

My thinking coincided with something Mary had been thinking about, which she called the “whole church” model, which in her words “calls forth the gifts of the whole people of God, truly living into the ‘priesthood of all believers’ centered in spiritual gifts, vision, and passion, rather than minister-centered and driven. With an empowered laity a more balanced relationship between pastor, family, and congregation could be achieved, one that was more sustainable in the long run.” For this to succeed, the congregation would have to see it as a good thing, and the minister would have to learn to let go. We decided that the whole church model would be our third principle.

We were worried that our emphasis on balance might be misread as a lack of committment to the work of the church, so it was something of a relief when the Rev. Kirk Byron Jones, a professor at Andover Newton, published Rest in the Storm: Self-Care Strategies for Clergy and Other Caregivers.” He challenged many of the sacred cows of ministry, attributing overwork to “uncritical acceptance of traditional expectations that are augmented by new demands in our changing world.” He went on to say “Being saved from deeply entrenched, unrealistic ministerial expectations involves radical reformations of ministerial understandings and behaviors on the part of ministers and their congregations.” He called for all clergy to have regular sabbaticals, take two days off each week, and limit evenings out to one or two per week. Our fourth principle, then, was  envision, and negotiate, a call agreement that has provisions that support balance, guard against overwork, and recognizes the importance of appropriate boundaries between the congregation on the one hand and the pastor and her family on the other.

In a 2002 interview in The Christian Century, Eugene Peterson was quoted as saying “Early on I determined I was never going to treat my parishioners better than I treated my family.” That became our fifth principle.

So how did this work out for us?

This set of principles evolved over a number of years, as Mary continued through seminary, was ordained, and began her career in ministry.  We continued to keep faith with them, and at this point Mary and I feel that we have been successful in combining a successful ministerial career with a full and robust family life, and I think our children would agree. In 2009, Mary and I were asked by our local clergy association to speak on the experience of clergy families, and we have given presentations on balance and ministry many times since.

Living a balanced life in the church is hard. While the number of hours worked and meetings attended can be tracked, the psychological pressures on clergy are harder to see and are the real burden they take home at night. With their heads and hearts so full of concern for others there are times when there is nothing left for their own families. Or themselves. That is the great challenge of parish ministry. But there is great joy as well: the welcome by the congregation, the inclusion in the community, the meaning and importance of the work, and the rich conversations shared by clergy couples. Our perspectives are complementary but often diverge; we respect that minister and spouse experience things differently.

During these years a new model of the relationship between congregation, clergy, and clergy families was beginning to emerge. While it was becoming evident as early as the 1960’s that these three entities were going to change, it wasn’t until the 1980’s and 1990’s that new definitions began materializing. Today, talk of changing “he church of the 1950’s” in response to the “decline of mainline churches” dominates our conversations and our publications. While these renewal efforts tend to emphasize the minister and congregation, there is growing recognition that the third leg of the stool – the pastor’s spouse and family – deserves a fresh look.

We believe that the challenges facing mainline churches cannot be solved unless more consideration is given to the imbalance between congregational needs and the health and wellbeing of pastors and their families. It is one of the factors in the declining number of people choosing to enroll in seminary and entering ministry, and the significant number of established pastors who cite family stress as a reason for leaving the field.

Our journey into ministry has unfolded during this time of change in the church. Much of the time we were in the dark. Some things we figured out for ourselves, and other things we learned from others who were on their own journeys. Mary retired last year after twenty satisying years in ministry. It has been a good trip for us both.