Ten Books for Clergy Couples

Bob James

It might be said that clergy families live in the shadow of the church.  It is a unique and specialized form of family life, with vocation, family, and spiritual life all intertwined. Because of this, pastor and spouse have different and equally challenging roles in their family and within the church community. Ministers have opportunities to reflect on this with peers or with a spiritual advisor, but spouses rarely do. There are even fewer places where they can talk about it as a couple.

We live in a time of transition in the church. There is a growing consensus that many aspects of  the “1950’s church” need to be realigned with a changing social and religious landscape. Expectations toward the pastor’s spouse and family are also decades out of date. Unfortunately, this aspect is often overlooked as new church initiatives are discussed and implemented. Both areas need our attention if the emerging church is to become a sustainable church.

Ministers put in long hours – and then are on call during their family time. The work itself can be emotionally draining, often leaving the pastor spent when he or she does return home.  And the intrusions of e-mails, texts, and phone calls make uninterrupted family time the rarest of commodities in the clergy home. The work follows the pastor wherever he or she goes.

Successful clergy couples have learned to talk about these issues and seek solutions that honor both work and family. No two couples are alike, so different answers emerge. Setting sensible boundaries between a pastor’s work life and his or her family time is essential to a successful ministry, an enduring marriage, happy children, and, in the end, a sustainable church. It is a skill not generally taught (or practiced) in seminary, and has to be learned through trial and error in the real world. Clergy couples need support in negotiating these waters.

One available resource is the increasing number of books out there that address the experience of clergy families. Even before my wife’s ordination we began the habit of reading books on the practice of ministry and talking about them together. It helped us understand what was happening to us as a couple and as a family, and to think our way around the roadblocks we encountered. Here are a few of those we found to be the most useful.

Clergy Moms: A Survival Guide to Balancing Family and Congregation by Allison M. Moore (Seabury Books, 2008). Although particularly helpful for women, this is a book for all genders (it is my personal favorite). Allison Moore has written a very readable book that draws upon research and stories from five mainline denominations to address a range of issues confronting a clergy family. An example of her style: “Parishes and infants make their needs known loudly and insistently; the needs of spouses or partners and older children are often much more subtle and easy to miss.”

How the Other Half Lives: The Challenges Facing Clergy Spouses and Partners by Johnna Fredrickson and William A. Smith (Pilgrim Press, 2010). This collaboration between a clergy spouse (with a Ph.D. in Practical Theology from Princeton) and a marriage and family therapist challenges many conventional ideas, such as the pastor-centered church: “If a pastor serves the faith community in a way that makes that community reliant on him or her alone, damage is done to all concerned. The community begins to see itself and its work only as the extension of the minister’s work and vision rather than as God’s presence for the world. The result is a weakened community and an exhausted minister.”  In dealing with the issue of whether the call of the clergy person supersedes their spouse’s career they ask the simple question “Do both partners get a turn?”

Rest in the Storm: Self-Care Strategies for Clergy and Other Caregivers by Kirk Byron Jones (Judson Press, 2001). While this book was written primarily for pastors, it quickly became a classic in the emerging field of clergy health and balance. As a pastor who had emerged from a significant episode of burnout, Jones has a deep insight into the multiple forces that cause pastors to overwork. At the heart of the problem, he writes, is our fear that if we don’t do it, it won’t get done, or a least done right: “The first delusion is the myth of our own indispensability. In order for us to embrace the time we need and deserve to rest and refuel, we must believe the unbelievable, the preposterous, and the absurd – namely, that life will go along just fine during our temporary retreat.  Indeed, things may go even better without us.  Often, it is when we move out of the picture that we allow for the necessary leadership shifts and decision-making to take place in our various ministry settings.”

Saying No to Say Yes: Everyday Boundaries and Pastoral Excellence by David C. Olsen and Nancy G. Devor (Roman and Littlefield, 2015). Applying Murray Bowen’s work on differentiation and family systems to the ministry, the authors state delve into the complex nature of setting boundaries: “While clergy can go through endless boundary-awareness training and prepare to set healthy boundaries, they are in the end attempting to do so in the midst of anxious parish systems that may resent those boundaries and work even harder to block healthy boundaries from being implemented.”

Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest by Wayne Muller (Bantam Books, 1999). Written for the general reader, Muller takes on “the forgotten necessity of rest”.  “It becomes the standard greeting everywhere: I am so busy.  We say this to one another with no small degree of pride, as if our exhaustion were a trophy, our ability to withstand stress a real mark of character.  The busier we are, the more important we seem to ourselves and, we imagine, to others.  To be unavailable to our friends and family, to be unable to find time for the sunset (or even know that the sun has set at all), to whiz through our obligations without time for a single, mindful breath, this has become the model of a successful life.”   He goes on to warn: “If we do not allow for a rhythm of rest in our overly busy lives, illness becomes our Sabbath.”

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown (Gotham Books, 2012). A remarkable book (for everyone) that goes deep into the dynamics of authentic relationships and why we sometimes shy away from them. “Honest engagement around expectations and behavior is always fraught with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure for everyone involved.” A good companion to Saying No to Say Yes; it explains why that is so damn difficult.

 Clergy Families: Is Normal Life Possible? by Paul A. Mickey and Ginny W. Ashmore (Zondervan Publishing House, 1991). Conclusions drawn from a study of eleven Protestant denominations by the Divinity School at Duke. Although nearly three decades old, the findings remain remarkably relevant today. Even then, they discovered that “the clergy family is in a period of radical transition, a transition as profound as the introduction of married clergy by the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century.”

Yoked: Stories of a Clergy Couple in Marriage, Family, and Ministry by Andrew Kort and Mihee Kim-Kort (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). This married couple – both ordained Presbyterian ministers – describe their partnership in ministry from meeting in seminary through their first years in the field. As the title suggests, the book is conversational in tone as the two writers alternate telling their story. Andy writes: “Growing up and watching my father as a pastor, I saw how necessary it was not to bring work home.  Even though he might not bring sermons or books home all the time, I could see that his mind was still at the office. When the phone rang at home, it was usually for him because there was some kind of pastoral need. I started to hate hearing the phone ring during dinner because I knew that it would take him away for the evening.”

The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction by Eugene H. Peterson (Wm.B.Eerdmans Publishing, 1989). An older book, and one directed at pastors, but a very important one. Peterson advocated that ministry focus on the basics: prayer, preaching, and listening. He felt that pastors succumbed to busyness at their own peril: “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 also said something that every clergy spouses needs to hear from their partner: “Early on I determined that I was never going to treat my parishioners better than I treated my family.”

Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving by Bob Burns, Tasha D. Chapman, and Donald C. Guthrie (InterVarsity Press, 2013). This book summarizes the findings of a multi-year, broad research study of pastors and their spouses funded by the Lilly Endowment. In the section on marriage and family they identify five stressors: (1) The ‘normal’ pressures of marriage and family life; (2) Ministry  as a lifestyle more than a job; (3) Conflicting loyalties of church and home; (4) Abandonment by a spouse who is always on the job; and (5) The need of ministry spouses for confidants.

These are just a few of the many books out there that deal with boundaries, clergy health and wellbeing, and the experiences of clergy families. It should be noted that few of them are written by spouses or partners themselves. One of the goals of this blog is to bring the voices of spouses and partners to the table, so they can be heard directly.


New Hampshire clergy spouses share their experiences as “the other half”

The Clergy Spouse and Partner Support Mission Group of the NH Conference of the United Church of Christ sponsored a workshop at Prepared to Serve 2017 last month that brought clergy spouses together with a small but highly interested group of church leaders, pastors, and others to discuss their perspectives on what it is like to be a clergy family in these changing times.

The four clergy spouses, Liz Greenberg, Bob James, Don Tirabassi, and Dea Brickner-Wood, began by saying that while there is a growing sense of renewal happening in our churches and a healthy re-examination of the practices of “the 1950’s church”, there has been too little discussion about the dramatic changes that have happened to clergy families over the past few decades. Yet healthy and happy clergy families are a necessary part a sustainable church. The culture of the church has historically taken the pastor’s family for granted, and even today it is often viewed in terms of its role in supporting the pastor’s ministry.

Noting that the very real joys and satisfactions of being a clergy spouse or partner are often well understood by congregations, the presenters shared some of the aspects that are often not talked about publicly. A few that were discussed:

-It is difficult when your faith community is also your spouse’s workplace. Not only are you deprived of a pastor of your own (unless you attend another church) but you are worshipping at your spouse’s job site. This can complicate one’s spiritual life.

-A clergy spouse spends quite a lot of time standing in the shadow of the pastor. While we love and admire our spouses, it can try one’s patience to hear – for the umpteenth time – how absolutely wonderful they are. One spouse told the story of a well-intentioned parishioner saying “You must wake up in the morning amazed to be married to her!” Even when the minister resists the adoration, some congregants persist in heaping it on.

-Since ministerial compensation is low for the level of education required, spouses either need to hold a higher-paying job in order to balance this out or experience a lower standard of living than they could otherwise have. Some congregants assume – without giving it much thought – that the ministry necessarily entails sacrifice for the pastor and his or her family. We think this is one of the holdovers of “the 1950’s church” that needs to change.

-Healthy and fulfilling relationships between clergy couples and children require uninterrupted time – which any clergy family will tell you is the scarcest commodity in their household. With so many people having the pastor’s cell phone number, text access, or e-mail it is difficult to maintain a healthy boundary between church and home. How many of us have heard “I know it’s your day off, but…” Often tension can arise between the pastor, who feels the need to respond to these intrusions, and their spouse and children who need that time together. When unresolved, this can lead to unhappy families or worse.

As anticipated, the workshop evolved into an energized discussion among all those present. Near the end, one lay church leader said “There are 500 people out there” – referring to the entire conference – “that ought to be hearing this.”

By bringing the voices of clergy spouses and partners to the table, we hope to create a better balance between congregations, clergy, and clergy families, thereby contributing to a more sustainable church community.

[Note: One of the best books on the experience of clergy spouses is “How the Other Half Lives: The Challenges Facing Clergy Spouses and Partners” by Johanna Fredrickson and William A. Smith (Pilgrim Press). While the perspectives shared at the workshop were those of the presenters, this book is recommended for further reading.]

-Bob James


A day in the life

Bob James

[It is often said that clergy families live in a fishbowl, under the scrutiny of others. Yet even with that, people may not really know what it’s really like in here.  Like all families, we experience glorious moments and stressful ones.  This little story sets out to dramatize a challenging but not untypical day in the life of a fictional minister and his spouse.  While I have chosen to represent this couple as a male clergy and a female spouse, it could just as easily be a female clergy/male spouse (as in my own case) or a gay couple.]

It is a Saturday night in November at the home of the Rev. Dan Oaks and his wife Sarah.  Having gotten their kids off to bed, they sit in front of the fire with a glass of wine.

Dan: Thanks for making the fire, hon. This is just right. Just what we need. What’s this wine? It’s really good.

Sarah: It’s that Malbec you liked so much at Diane and Larry’s. I found it at the state liquor store. Tell me, how did the Christmas Fair go?

Dan: Great. More people than last year. I’m sorry I was so late; I know I said I’d be home by four but Maureen asked if I could talk with her after – you know Jim’s receiving hospice now. It was hard to get away.

Sarah: It’s been hectic. You look worn out. I worry about you.

Dan: I know. I hope things slow down after Advent.  I’d like to keep it to two nights out a week; three max.  And maybe getting off the Committee on Ministry if I can find someone to take over being chair. I wish the Conference wouldn’t schedule so damn many things on Saturdays.

Sarah: Have you thought any more about Christmas? About seeing your folks? I don’t think your mom is well enough to make the drive up here this year.

Dan: I hate the idea of them alone in that house on Christmas.  Can we at least try to get down there sometime in January? A Thursday through Saturday? Can you get a couple of days off?

Sarah: I’ll try, but they still haven’t filled Jeff’s position so everyone’s straight out.

Sarah pours herself another glass of wine.

Sarah: By the way, I’ve been meaning to tell you. Several people came up to me this week to tell me how much they liked your sermon. Everyone agrees Christmas has gotten way too busy. Your message about simplifying things and slowing down seemed to hit home.

Dan: I heard that too. My sermon this week is kind of a followup on that. I’m going to talk a bit about Sabbath, and the importance of doing things as a family during the holidays.

The phone rings.  Dan looks at caller ID and sighs.

Dan: It’s Maureen.

Sarah: Do you have to take it now?  It’s 9:30. You just talked with her this afternoon.

Dan: I know, but she needs a lot of support right now, and I’m the only one she talks to.  I’ll be as quick as I can.

Dan goes in the study and closes the door. Sarah stares into the fire as she sips her wine. She thinks about adding another log but decides not to. After a while she goes to the study door, taps lightly, then opens it. Dan puts his hand over the receiver.

Dan: I’m sorry hon; this is going to be a while longer. Can we try it again tomorrow night?

Sarah: Tomorrow’s the interfaith thing isn’t it?

Dan: Oh, yeah. Well, we can’t figure this out while I’m on the phone. Let’s get our calendars out after church tomorrow.

Sarah: All right. I guess I’ll go up to bed. Don’t stay up too late – you have your meeting before church.

Dan: OK. Love you.

Sarah: Love you too.

Sarah quietly closes the door and takes the wine glasses to the kitchen. Dan’s is still nearly full and she finishes it off on the way to the sink.








Clergy Spouses and Partners Speak Up!

Each year, the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ offers a day of workshops called Prepared to Serve, bringing together the church community to reflect on our work and learn from one another.  This year, 500 people gathered in what turned out to be the largest Conference event in a decade.  More than 70 workshops were offered.

One of them was called Clergy Spouses and Partners Speak Up! and marked the first time a workshop was offered at PTS by clergy spouses and partners with the express purpose of sharing our perspective and experiences with one another and other interested folks.  Five presenters representing diverse backgrounds of age and experience, gender and sexual orientation engaged in a lively discussion with a small but highly interested audience.  The workshop ended with a decision by all to plan a day long discussion later in the spring. There is clearly a huge unmet need in this area.

The workshop was led by Stacy Baker, Liz Greenberg, Bob James, Debbie Leavitt, and Don Tirabassi.

It was sponsored by the Clergy Spouse and Partner Support Mission Group, part of a larger Clergy Support Ministry of the NHCUCC that seeks to understand and address the needs and issues of active and retired clergy and their families.

Our goal is to connect clergy spouses and partners from all over New Hampshire in order to support each other, educate our congregations,  and to bring our collective voice to the table as our churches and our denomination discuss the future.

This is a challenging yet promising time.  Mainline denominations like the United Church of Christ are trying out new and exciting ideas. Books by Molly Baskette (Real Good Church), Nadia Bolz-Weber (Accidental Saints), Rachel Held Evans (Searching for Sunday), are being read and discussed by congregations. Many of the traditions of the 1950’s church are being rethought as we revisit Jesus’ ministry and understand it in our current context.

Clergy spouses and partners want to be part of this.  We feel we have a valuable perspective on things. Issues like the declining state of clergy health, stress in clergy families, and workloads that drive pastors out of the profession (or discourage them from entering it at all) are not getting sufficient attention – yet they represent essential elements of a sustainable church.  We know something about these things.

We believe that is possible to have vibrant congregations, healthy ministers, and happy clergy families, and are committed to making this happen.

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.