Pastor and Parent: Bringing Back the Parsonage Family

November 1st, 2010
This article is featured in the Calling & Career (Nov/Dec/Jan 2010-11) issue of Circuit Rider

For the past three decades, the United Methodist Church has primarily had clergy whose children are grown and gone from the home. These empty nesters have related well to congregations full of grandparents, living in white-carpet parsonages that have gotten used to the quiet absence of children. Our denominational focus area of empowering leaders, especially those ordained clergy under 35, has the direct effect of bringing back children and families to churches and parsonages that are ill-prepared to embrace them. If we are serious in wanting leaders who are younger than 35, then we must get serious about how to best support young families who happen to have a pastor-parent in them.

In my nine years as a full-time clergy person, I have gone from single to newlywed to new parent in one parsonage and acutely felt the stress that adding children to the family brought to my professional life. Because of the baby, I could no longer go to the retreat, out-of-town meeting, or connectional event that I wanted to. These were things that had previously fed my spirit and my ministry, but it became painfully obvious that these events were planned with 55 year-old pastors in mind—not the 26-year-old with a baby or even the 32-year-old with school-aged kids.

As a denomination, we must work together at every level to build layers of support for clergy families so that young parents will not feel as though the choice between their call as parents and their call as clergy is put into conflict by their church.

Support can come in many forms, not just providing babysitting. (Although that is a huge need for parents!) Support comes from formal policies and informal practices as well as in the attitudes of individuals who create the institution. The United Methodist Church cannot simply pass a resolution saying that it wants more clergy under 35 and therefore welcomes clergy families. We have to build a new infrastructure of support at multiple levels so that clergy who are parenting, or plan to parent, can do their best ministry while providing sufficiently for their families.

Financial Support

As anyone who has ever calculated the price of each diaper in a bulk package knows, children are expensive, and can especially put a financial strain on a young couple who are early in their careers. Student loan repayments for college and seminary take a huge chunk out of a family budget. My loans topped out at $80,000, and I worked every year of my education, even graduating a year early.

Not only do parents need adequate salaries, but excellent health insurance coverage for prenatal care, well-baby checks, and contraception. Parents also need more dental, vision, and accident coverage than couples without children. We also need to keep in mind that families are created by God in many ways. Adoption is encouraged in our Book of Discipline, so how many Conferences offer an adoption benefit to help cover the enormous costs of adopting? Starbucks gives $5,000 to even part-time employees who are adopting!

Schedules that Work

To enable clergy who are parents to participate fully in the connectional life of our denomination, we must have churches, denominational offices and events that are welcoming places for children and families. Children do best when they stay on schedule and have a predictable life. Churches should be expected, by their District Superintendent, to chose one night a week on which all meetings will take place so that kids, parents, and members know this is the one night a week the clergy person will be at the church. Congregations should see parents going to their kids’ events as both an absolute necessity for the parent and a bonus for their church because this is how clergy get to be known in the community and by other families.

Overnight events should be avoided if at all possible, especially on school nights. Retreats that meet Friday night through Saturday and make accommodations for children can work as a family holiday and work time for the pastor if the planners are willing to make the extra effort. All churches and denominational offices should provide a safe nursery or child-friendly space adjacent to the meeting area so that parents can keep an eye on a child while meeting. Some beanbags, blocks, crayons, and books in a cozy corner can make the difference between a parent being at that evening meeting or not.

Supporting Kids in the Office and Home

At least 125 organizations have made it possible for parents to care for their babies in the workplace. The website gives some good information on how to do this well. What made it possible for me to go back into full-time ministry after the birth of my daughter was: an office with a bathroom and enough room for baby stuff, new curtains on the office windows for privacy when nursing, a paid secretary, and a congregation’s trust that I would be working while rocking the baby.

Churches become a clergy-family’s second home. My six-year-old son once stopped a UMW member who was taking home a flower arrangement because he thought she was stealing “his” flowers from “his” church! Pastor’s kids need a place in the church where they can be kids, get away from the adults and hang out while mom or dad is working.

Parsonage families need understanding when it comes to use of the parsonage. “Normal wear and tear” for a couple without kids is very different from a young couple with a toddler and a baby or kids of any age for that matter.

Parents who have to drive long distances from home to work are less connected to their child’s school, friends and home life. Parents and churches benefit from the home being in the same community as the church. Multi-point charges that require a lot of driving and place a parent in a different community from their home make it more difficult for the parsonage family to stay connected, creating dissatisfaction with ministry and home life. My clergy husband and I served small, multi-point charges prior to our divorce and just so happened to be preceded in those churches by another clergy couple with children who divorced soon after moving. Perhaps both situations would have unfolded the same if the clergy couples were serving single-point charges; I know that in my case the pressures and stress of our multi-point charges certainly added to the disconnectedness between my husband and me.

Ministry is a lifestyle as well as a career calling. Young adults want our families and ministry to blend into a healthy lifestyle that is mutually beneficial. There are many things that we can do as a denomination to support young pastors with young families if we have the will to change. These are top-down changes requiring leadership of all ages in order to create a culture that supports families and enables young clergy to do excellent ministry as they raise their families.

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