It’s no secret that the life of a pastor’s family is filled with unique challenges. There are few roles that mix work and family life as closely as pastoral ministry, which creates for clergy families a constant battle to maintain healthy boundaries. The pressure from the church and the surrounding community will inevitably take a toll on families unless adequate support is provided.
The type of support a pastor’s family receives often depends on the culture of the congregation. Churches that intentionally create a culture of support for the pastor and their family tend to develop and maintain healthy relationships that allow the congregation to thrive. Those that don't make the effort to create this culture of support often struggle in maintaining healthy relationships with their pastor and their family members. When there is a failure to attend to this relationship it is to the detriment not only of the pastor, but of the entire congregation.
What are these vital things that need attention to create a culture of support? While there are many things that deserve careful thought, I’ve selected five things you can focus on now to help develop a healthy relationship between your pastor, their family members, and congregation.
1. Temper unrealistic expectations.
Your pastor’s family already feels the pressure of living under the microscope of the church and the larger community. Don’t add to this pressure by expecting them to perform unwanted roles within the congregation, especially roles performed by past clergy family members. They need space within the congregation, like everyone else, to choose the areas of ministry where they will participate. If you want your pastor’s family to use their gifts to enrich the life of your congregation, ask them how they prefer to take part. Remember, you called a pastor to serve your church, not their spouse and children; the only family member on the church staff is the minister.
2. Prioritize a pastoral support group.
The organizational structure of many congregations contains a group designed to advocate for the pastor and their family’s needs. In some congregations, this group is called the Pastoral Relations Committee, and in others the same support is provided by the elders, deacons, or a council. Whoever is in charge of this important work needs to make sure it is being taken seriously; the fact this group is in place does not mean it is being used well or at all. Your pastor and their family deserve for this group to function properly and for their needs to be heard by committed church people who will advocate for things such as cost of living raises, child care during church meetings, and deserved time off. When this group is not properly utilized, the pastor and their family are left in a vulnerable position.
3. Support a sabbatical.
Pastoral work is an intense, draining experience that constantly draws pastors away from family life to care for others. Because of the unpredictable nature of the job, which involves a constantly shifting schedule, pastors and their families need time set aside to be together apart from church life. The rates of clergy burnout and the toll it takes on clergy families and congregations make the need for time apart more than evident. An effective way to provide this time is a sabbatical, which typically lasts from two to three months, and is commonly given every five years for the purpose of renewal. Several pastors have shared with me the importance of their sabbaticals in saving their ministry and enriching their family life. There are plenty of resources to help your congregation plan a sabbatical with your pastor and insure it is not a financial burden on either the pastor or the congregation.
4. Provide paid parental leave.
The church is a community that values and supports families. One of the most intense experiences within family life is the birth or adoption of a child. This is a crucial time for family to be together and support one another. It's time for more congregations to join the growing trend of employers who provide paid parental leave for both men and women. Again, the nature of a pastor’s work makes family life challenging, which it is why it is incredibly important for a pastor to be free of all pastoral responsibilities to be with their family during this time. Many clergy have upended their lives to serve congregations far away from family and support networks, which makes it all the more important to support them when there's a new child.
5. Protect your pastor’s sabbath day.
Pastors need time during the week to nurture their spiritual and family life. Because Sunday tends to be one of the busiest days of the week, they usually must carve out other time to practice self-care. Pastors vary on the day of the week they use as a time for rest, but no matter the day they choose, it is inevitable that the demands of the church will try to interrupt it. While crisis cannot be avoided, the pastor needs the help of the congregation to protect this time from things that can wait until later. There are few things that demand the pastor’s attention that cannot wait 24 hours to be addressed. It is your job as a leader to help educate the congregation regarding these important boundaries.
These are only a few of the things your congregation can do to take responsibility for creating a culture of support for your pastor and his or her family. Keep in mind, no one benefits over the long run from neglecting the important work of nurturing a healthy relationship between pastor and congregation. Thriving congregations tend to be a result of healthy leadership who are well supported by people eager to share the blessings and challenges of ministry. I encourage you to take these ideas and discuss them the next time your church leaders gather to carry out the ministry of the church.
Billy Doidge Kilgore blogs at OurDeepestSelves.com.