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.











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.

Six Ways to Support Pastors and Clergy Families While Building Stronger Congregations.

By Bob James and Rev. Mary James

Pastoring a church these days is hard.  Since the 1950’s attendance in mainline denominations has been in steady decline, and is now about half of what it was then. Many young people (known as “Nones”) and older congregants (“Dones”) simply find the churchgoing experience irrelevant. Dwindling attendance has resulted in greater financial pressures for churches, and many will close their doors over the coming years. Seminary enrollment is down; overall clergy health has declined, and pastors cite overwhelming workloads as a cause of stress to themselves and their families, and often a reason for leaving the ministry.

And yet, there is a renewal happening that offers a vision of a transformed church, one that seeks to combine the realities of 21st century life with a radical return to Jesus’ own practices of serving with generosity, welcoming the stranger, speaking to and for the marginalized, and practicing his ministry in the community.  It is exciting to reimagine the church along these lines.

In embracing this promising new direction there is a danger that clergy and church leaders will simply add these 21st century responsibilities to the existing job description of ministers, largely unchanged for decades.  If we are going to renew the church we will need to re-envision the role and responsibilities of clergy and the place that clergy families occupy within the new paradigm.

Where do we begin?  Kirk Jones, in Rest in the Storm writes “Being saved from deeply entrenched, unrealistic ministerial expectations involves radical reformations of ministerial understandings and behaviors on the part of ministers and their congregations.”  In Clergy Burnout, Fred Lehr lists the expectations of a “pastor-centered” church:  “…everything centers around the pastor; the pastor relates to everyone; expectations are high for the pastor to manage and control everything; growth depends on the popularity of the pastor; communication centers on the pastor; the pastor recruits and shepherds new members and volunteers; and the pastor is on an intimate level with all the members even at the expense of attention to the pastor’s spouse and family.”

There is ample evidence that this model no longer works. Yet it is commonly followed.

We would like to suggest six practices that re-imagine a healthier balance between congregations, clergy, and clergy families. They address the major causes of stress in clergy families identified by Priscilla White Blanton in her frequently quoted research, which we have written about in our 6/9/15 piece, “What do clergy families find stressful?”

These practices will  engage the spiritual gifts of congregants, provide needed support to clergy families, and help attract and keep good ministers –  even in this time of challenge and change.

  1. Encourage the discernment and calling out of the particular spiritual gifts of parishioners, rather than continuing a pastor-centered approach.   Consider changing your nominating structure to a  “calling and discernment” function. This “whole church” model calls for the minister to interact in a manner which strengthens the congregation and lessens dependency.  Ronald D. Sisk, in The Competent Pastor, observes “we spend way too much of our time doing things other people could perfectly well do…”   The job description of the minister has expanded continuously over the years, shifting the balance away from calm spiritual leader toward busy multi-tasking manager.  A model of shared responsibility can ensure that everything that is truly important can get done without burning out the minister. If people in your church say “When our pastor leaves I don’t know what we’ll do – she’s so involved in everything”  you might want to look seriously at changing your model.
  2. Be open to change. Most of our churches are still following models of worship and congregational organization that worked well in the 1950’s but which have not adapted to new cultural realities. The role of the minister today is to lead change.  Some church members understand this and are willing to look at new ways of doing church, while others cannot let go of familiar traditions. The toughest job of a pastor is to engage both groups in defining and acting on needed changes. Church growth experts predict that most smaller mainline churches will not be around in 20 to 30 years; those that survive will have embraced change and found ways to minister to the spiritual needs of people today.
  3. Establish well-defined boundaries between the pastor’s work life and family life, and honor them. The intrusion of congregational wants and needs into the family life of the minister is  frequently cited as a source of marital stress and divorce, a cause of depression, and motivation for leaving the ministry.  This weakens the church. The 24/7 nature of the job is certainly a factor, as are the multiplying demands that must be met, but what makes parish ministry unique and different is the difficulty in defining when a pastor is on or off the job, and the way the job becomes indistinguishable from the person. Kirk Jones notes “many well-meaning ministerial aspirants forget who they are apart from any religious activity”.  Another unique challenge in parish ministry is the tendency of congregations to function as second families, competing for the care and attention of the pastor in a way that other jobs do not. Ronald D. Sisk says “Clergy who cross boundaries do so in part when the church becomes their life instead of an appropriate part of their life.” Church leaders and pastoral relations committees can play an important role by being aware of these dynamics and by helping congregation and pastor define and respect good boundaries. This is an essential requirement for a strong church.
  4. Commit to a sustainable and well-supported pastorate. There are best practices that can assure this:  Define full time as a forty-to-fifty hour work week, and half-time as twenty to twenty five, with two full days off.  Limit evenings out each week for the pastor to one or two.  Respect vacation time. This is the only time the pastor’s family is guaranteed uninterrupted time together (the scarcest commodity in clergy life), and should not be disturbed except in the most extreme circumstances. Likewise, honor the pastor’s days off. All too often, congregants interrupt this time  with things that can wait. Provide time for Sabbath. Build in a sabbatical every five years.

       Provide fair and just compensation. Clergy live in the same world and have the same expenses as everyone else but are vastly underpaid in relation to other professions that require the same level of education and have an equivalent  level of responsibility.   The Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014 report) lists the median salary (meaning cash salary plus housing) for clergy as $ 43,950.  That is 37% of what a similarly educated lawyer makes ($ 114.970) and 49% of what an elementary or secondary school administrator earns ($ 89,540).  There is considerable and justified concern in our country that women earn only 78% of what men earn in equivalent positions. If clergy were paid at that rate it would mean an enormous raise.  While a written and signed call agreement between pastor and church is a legal document, it represents a covenantal relationship shaped by their mutual responses to God’s call.

 5.  Encourage and practice prophetic ministry, taking a countercultural stand against the busy and materialistic society around us. In his book, Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, Wayne Muller describes things this way: “It becomes the standard greeting everywhere: I am so busy. We say it to one another with no small degree of pride, as if our exhaustion were a trophy, our ability to withstand stress a mark of real 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 to 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.” That is a society that has lost its way, one that the church should be shepherding back toward right living. Yet unfortunately Muller’s description applies to many clergy these days, multitasking their way through endless tasks and responsibilities. Eugene Peterson, back in 1989, identified this trend and said (in The Contemplative Pastor) “The essence of being a pastor begs for redefinition.  To that end I offer three adjectives to clarify the noun: unbusy, subversive, apocalyptic.”  He went further: “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.  It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.”

6. And finally, the voice of the pastor’s spouse, partner, and family needs to be heard and included.  If a true and healthy balance is to be achieved between clergy, clergy families, and congregations, the families must be invited to the table in churches, denominational activities, and seminaries, and given the opportunity to speak for themselves.  They have a unique perspective on the workings of the church that is essential as we seek to redefine our faith and how it will be practiced in the 21st century. The emerging church will not succeed without their participation.


The emerging church needs a redefined ministry

This letter to the editor appeared in edited form in the November 25, 2015 issue of The Christian Century

Carol Howard Merritt’s “Reflections on the Lectionary” essay of October 28 begins with a description of her exhausted clergy husband awakened on his day off by a call from a community member in need.  She worries about how long he can keep this up and wonders if she should stop him and remind him of boundaries and self-care.  But then she recalls the model of Jesus and says nothing. Off he goes. It is not their admirable commitment to the needy that I take issue with here; it is the sacrificial model of ministry that they both seem to accept.

There is a small but growing clergy spouse and partner movement in the mainline that is increasingly concerned with the well-documented decline in clergy health and increasing levels of stress in clergy families.  Along with others like the Sojourner Truth Leadership Circle at Auburn Theological Seminary we believe that a more balanced model of ministry is not only possible but required for truly prophetic (and sustainable) leadership.  In my state, the New Hampshire Conference of the UCC has formed a Clergy Spouse and Partner Support Mission to bring the voices of clergy spouses and partners to the table.  There are other efforts in other places and denominations, but I would say that a shared goal is to seek a healthy balance between congregations, clergy, and clergy families and thereby contribute to the renewal of the mainline church.

Although the chronically overworked pastor is considered inevitable by some and a matter of pride to others, there is a growing feeling among many of us that, like many inherited aspects of the 1950’s church, it is something that needs to be reexamined as new models of doing church emerge.

Bob James, Durham New Hampshire



Sabbath, Sacrifice, and Sustainability: Why balance and clergy health matter.

Mainline denominations like the United Church of Christ (UCC) are exploring some exciting new ideas these days.  Writers like Molly Phinney Baskette (Real Good Church), Nadia Bolz-Weber (Accidental Saints), and Rachel Held Evans (Searching for Sunday) are suggesting new ways to worship, communicate with congregants, and engage with the larger community. Others in the emerging church movement are redefining our idea of church itself. Since mainline denominations have lost about half their membership since the 1950’s – and continue to do so at an alarming rate – this seems like a good idea.

As a clergy spouse seeking to promote balance between congregations, clergy, and clergy families (and caring about the health of my partner), I want to be sure that these important new initiatives do not exacerbate an already serious and under discussed (at least in my denomination, the UCC) issue of clergy workload and health. Because church attendance isn’t the only thing that has steadily declined since the 1950’s; so has the health of our clergy.

Recently, the Duke Divinity School’s Leadership Education website republished an article entitled “Which Way to Clergy Health?” by Bob Wells. I recommend you Google it. It summarizes the findings of Dr. Gwen Halaas, project director of the Ministerial Health and Wellness Program of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and although the original article is a dozen years old it is still relevant. And shocking. Halaas contrasted studies from the 1950’s to 1999 that showed that protestant clergy went from being healthier than the general population in the 1950’s to being less healthy than the average person in a few short decades. Take a look at this statistically based overview of the typical Lutheran pastor, written in the format of a doctor’s case study:

“A 51 year-old-male with symptoms of depression, the patient has high blood pressure and is overweight, presenting a heightened risk of heart disease and other illnesses. He works 60-70 hours a week in a sedentary job, does not currently engage in any physical exercise, and reports considerable work-related stress. Patient is married, with three children, one of whom expresses interest in following patient’s career path. Patient expresses little enthusiasm for encouraging child to do so.”

Unfortunately, this describes too many of the ministers I know.

The 2015 Clergy Health Survey conducted by the United Methodist Church showed clergy having a higher than average incidence in the following areas: high cholesterol, borderline hypertension, asthma, borderline diabetes, obesity and being overweight, and depression. I quote from other denominations because, on a national level, the UCC does comparatively little on the topics of clergy health, clergy spouses, or clergy families, perhaps leaving it up to individual conferences. (I am pleased to say that the New Hampshire Conference of the UCC has both a Clergy Support Ministry and a Clergy Spouse/Partner Support Mission Group.)

What is the chief cause of the relatively poor health of clergy? Let’s see what pastors said when asked to name their biggest concerns in a 2000-2001 survey conducted by the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary (reported on the Alban Institute website):

“In the survey…74 percent of the pastors reported that they had too many demands on their time…This was by far the most significant stressor in pastor’s lives.” Other studies and articles have reported similar findings.

My own conversations with clergy suggest this is actually getting worse. They describe being stressed and often exhausted by needing to meet all the traditional expectations of the congregation while at the same time reaching out to younger people and potential new members through new initiatives like social media, cafe church, and the like. Adding to this, many ministers have an unexamined “need to be needed” that is a factor in their own behavior. Together, this is a potent recipe for chronic overwork and unbalanced lives. Roy M. Oswald, Senior Consultant with the Alban Institute and author of Clergy Self-Care: Finding a Balance for Effective Ministry estimates that one-fourth of all clergy are burned out, and that clergy wives have higher stress levels than either clergymen or clergywomen.

This is not a sustainable state of affairs. We cannot have healthy churches without healthy clergy. And healthy clergy families.

Some feel that many pastors and congregations consciously or unconsciously subscribe to what I call the sacrificial model of ministry. “There is a false notion that effective ministry is about the imitation of Christ,” says the Rev Pamela Cranston, chair of the Clergy Wellness Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of California. “There is the idea that ministry is about dying to the self and living to other people…The theological problem around that is that Jesus already did it and we don’t have to.”

There is another model that ministers can choose to follow.

I recently attended a workshop led by Lisa Anderson and sponsored by the National Church Leadership Institute entitled “Self-Care is a Mandate for Prophetic Leadership.” Lisa is part of an initiative at Auburn Theological Seminary called The Sojourner Truth Leadership Circle, a program which “explores integration of self-care into strong leadership and activism.”  It challenges the concept of selfless leadership, and declares that “Self-care is defined as the spiritually grounded intention to honor the one body, mind and spirit given to us by God as we do the work of love and justice in the world.”  In short, God cares about all God’s children, and presumably does not favor a model of church that sacrifices the pastor to get the job done. And yet that seems to be what we have grown to accept.

Speaking of God, what about Sabbath? “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation” Genesis 2:3 (NRSV).  In handing down the Ten Commandments, God is quite clear that it is a model that his followers are commanded to follow: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that it is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” Exodus 20:8-11.

The message seems pretty clear here. Yet this is the one commandment that we have deemed optional.

So, to return to the crisis in the mainline church and the many new ideas to transform it: Let’s please not continue this trend toward overworked clergy and a lack of a sustainable and healthy balance between congregations, clergy, and clergy families. As the society around us speeds up to produce more, let us remember our countercultural mission and adopt a prophetic model of ministry, one that answers God’s commandments as well as God’s call, and one that cares for and serves all.

-Bob James

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.