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 Expectations toward the pastor’s spouse and family are also decades out of date.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.