Why the voices of clergy spouses and partners must be heard

The spouses and partners of clergy (CP’s) play an important role in the church community. But unlike clergy they have few opportunities to communicate with one another, meet, or otherwise share (and build upon) their experiences and perspectives.

This important voice in the church community is not being represented in any meaningful way. As the neglected third leg of the stool of congregation, pastor, and family their wisdom and insight is largely missing from seminary, conferences, clergy convocations, and General Synods, at least in my otherwise progressive denomination, the United Church of Christ (UCC). Without the opportunity to interact, their individual experiences and ideas are relegated to the advice they give their clergy half, or, if asked, their individual congregation. Yet they have a body of experience that can contribute to the emerging church. This is a loss, and something the larger church community can no longer afford to do without.

It is no secret that the mainline church is in the midst of challenge and change. Some believe this can lead to renewal, others fear a long and steady decline. Either way, clergy spouses and partners need to be at the table, their voices heard.  The conversation that is happening will be incomplete and ultimately unsuccessful if it occurs exclusively between pastors and congregations, because the happiness and wellbeing of the pastor’s family is an essential element of a healthy and sustainable church community. God is still speaking, to and through clergy families as well.

The Rev. Kirk Jones, one of our most articulate proponents of balance in ministry, attributes the pervasive problem of overworked clergy  to “uncritical acceptance of traditional expectations that are augmented by new demands in our changing world.”  He states that “Being saved from deeply entrenched, unrealistic ministerial expectations involves radical reformations of ministerial understandings and behaviors on the part of ministers and congregations.” (from Rest in the Storm). The CP is often in the thankless and lonely role of providing this insight. In their recent book, How the Other Half Lives: The Challenges Facing Clergy and Spouses, Fredrickson and Smith state:  “The spouse may be the only person who can address the consequences of ministry.  The cost of ordained ministry is paid by the couple, not just the individual.”  Barbara G. Gilbert, in Who Ministers to Ministers describes the impossible position of the CP “when the church defines its work as “God’s work” and its partners as God’s agents.” She goes on to say “If the church is the primary responsibility and marriage secondary, the spouse of a parish minister is up against a very powerful rival.” Clearly, there is a real need for conversation and support among CP’s.

I am the husband of a minister of a UCC congregation in New England. I’ve also served in numerous lay leadership roles in the church. My own career has been in managing nonprofit agencies and advocating for people with developmental disabilities. These experiences have led me to believe that the empowerment of others is the way to bring out the best in people, in organizations, and in our communities. For a number of years now my wife and I have been exploring the idea of finding the right balance between congregations, clergy, and clergy families, and we’ve been struck by how interested folks are in the topic.  Clergy spouses and partners are often the most hungry to have this conversation, which has led to this blog.

I hope that in this space I can share some of what we have learned along the way as well as provide a forum for conversation and sharing by CP’s.  We’ll see.

Bob James

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