What clergy families really look like

June 14th, 2016

Last week, the Facebook page for Hacking Christianity posted a graphic that was produced by the clergy spouses in the Texas United Methodist Conference entitled “Top 10 Ways to Encourage Your Spouse and Church Staff.” According to the document, it was the product of brainstorming at a monthly meeting that takes place on Tuesday mornings and was published in the Spring Texas Annual Conference Clergy Spouses Newsletter. While certainly well-intentioned, the tenor of the list reads as painfully tone-deaf to many of us operating in the 21st century church. In particular, #10 quotes “a wise clergy spouse” who at a retreat quipped, “Just love ‘em and wear lipstick!”

I have written about the unique and often awkward role of clergy husbands on Ministry Matters before, but since that time, the culture of the church still has not caught up to the reality of the family lives of many of its clergy. Not only are some of our clergy spouses husbands whose strengths might not lie in wearing lipstick or hosting the staff Christmas party, some of them might be clergy themselves or not even Christian. In other denominations, clergy spouses might be the same gender as the clergyperson. Additionally, positions that allow a clergyperson to support their family with only that income are scarce and growing scarcer.

Documents like this one out of the Texas United Methodist Conference continue to perpetuate a dated and unrealistic view of what the family lives of clergy are like, not to mention adding another list of “shoulds” to the high expectations many clergy spouses receive both implicitly and explicitly. Ultimately, every couple, every family situation, every call or placement is different, and couples with one or more clergy will need to work out for themselves how to best support one another in their ministerial vocations as well as their Christian vocation.

That being said, one thing this list gets right is an emphasis on supporting a clergyperson’s efforts at self-care, whether that’s encouraging friendships outside of church, a relationship with a spiritual director or therapist or making sure he or she sets aside time for activities that feed the soul. In conversation with other young clergywomen about this post, this aspect came up over again. Supporting me might look like helping me keep my Sabbath (i.e., don’t give me chores to do on my “day off”), making sure we plan vacations and time off together, and taking on some of the emotional labor for our extended families, particularly around the holidays.

As with any couple, an awareness of particularly high-stress meetings or seasons goes a long way, whether that’s offering to make a cup of tea or pour a glass of wine after a rough finance committee meeting or recognizing that I’m more prone to picking a fight during Holy Week because I’m tired and emotional. Likewise, I give my spouse space before big deadlines and pick up the slack around the house during his unusually hectic times, though we both are responsible for our own Sunday morning breakfast most weeks.

While intending to be helpful and encouraging, lists like these promote an ideal version of a clergy spouse and family that is at odds with the reality of most clergy and their families, particularly in the 21st century. Rather than an encouragement, too often it feels like yet another reminder of all the ways clergy and their families fail to live up to the expectations of the church. More and more, clergy families mirror the complexity and diversity of the families in our pews — single parents, same-gender parents, married couples without kids, divorced and blended families, families where both adults work outside the home, families where the father is the primary parent and families with religious differences. All of these are beautiful and holy expressions of what it means to be a family and should be supported and lifted up in the family of Jesus Christ into which we have been baptized.

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