Two callings were long considered incompatible in the Christian Church: Ordained ministry and marriage. While the Protestant Reformation made marriage possible for ordained men, it was only relatively recently that women, too, have been widely ordained. Women’s ordination set the stage for the phenomenon of dual-clergy couples: husbands and wives who are both ordained ministers and both working in ministry.
My wife and I are a part of this phenomenon, at least we hope to be after our upcoming graduation from seminary. Ever since our engagement, others have taken it upon themselves to both announce what a “dynamic team” we will be and to warn us of the challenges of life as a clergy couple. Perhaps the first challenge of the clergy couple life is finding employment, and this is the present one for us. With this in mind, I determined to equip myself with a list of the advantages clergy couples give to churches, so as woo nervous committees.
This essay has grown out of my attempts to understand the advantages and challenges of dual-clergy couples both for themselves and for the ministries that they serve. Several questions will be considered: What are the stories of clergy couples regarding their employment and family life? What advantages are there for churches who employ one or two members of a clergy couple? What disadvantages do clergy couples present for churches? What advantages are there for clergy who are married to clergy with whom they may work? What challenges does clergy coupledom pose for the couples themselves and their families? In closing, I will briefly suggest what help the insights gained from these interviews may offer.
II. Method and Participants
Given that little research has been done in this area, I began with the simplest method: interviewing clergy couples to whom I had accessibility, whether locally or through prior contact. I interviewed members of four clergy couples, three of which work together in the same church, and one in which the husband and wife serve different churches. Two of my interviews were with both members of the couple, and two were with only the male member. Each of the clergy couple members work in PC(USA) churches and are ordained, with the exception of one spouse who is ordained in some other way, but who nonetheless serves the Presbyterian Church with her ordained Presbyterian husband.
The agreement among these clergy couples regarding some of the pros and cons of their lives and careers makes me hopeful that their experiences are somewhat reflective of many like them. On the other hand, some of the comments made in interviews seemed to be speculative. That is, some of the interviewees at times seemed to be speculating on potential advantages and disadvantages that they had not yet personally seen play out.
III. The Paths of Clergy Couples
The common denominator among the couples interviewed is that each of their members is currently serving the church. I asked each couple to tell me about their journey from the time that they met to the present. I will represent their stories briefly and anonymously.
Bill and Betty married before their senior years in seminary and decided to look for different calls because, in their own words, “we were too competitive and thought it would be too hard to have every waking moment together.” Bill accepted a call as an Associate Pastor in another region of the country and they moved. Betty was called as a chaplain for a retirement community locally a few months later. A couple of years later they had their first child and Betty quit her job to care for the child. She regularly volunteered to preach locally and many times was the first woman to preach in those churches. She became the chaplain at the local hospice. The couple moved when Bill became a solo-pastor in another town, and they had their second child. They spent five years there.
During that time Betty was looking after the two kids and running the Christian Education program at Bill’s church. Their next move was to Betty’s call as an Associate Pastor in another town. While there, Bill served as her volunteer. “We switched roles,” she said. During this time, Bill was driving a schoolbus and was considering a Ph.D. Betty’s church was led by a clergy couple team which got them thinking about working together. They took their first co-pastorate on the East coast, splitting a single position in which they served together for seven years. During that time they both got D. Min. degrees, Betty starting her's first, and Bill beginning his just before she completed her's. In 1999 they left the East coast and moved out West, where they currently share senior leadership, both working ¾ time, at the same church.
Jill and Gary met during college.
recruited Jill to help lead a YoungLife club. After getting married and graduating from seminary with M.Div’s they split an Assistant Pastor for Adult Education position and Gary earned a Th.M during the first two of three years there. They moved states to split a position for five years as Associate Pastor for Discipleship Development at another church. With the birth of their third child, they moved to Europe for three years and Jill parented as Gary earned a Ph.D. Jill and Gary moved back and took positions as co-pastors, still each working ½ time. After seven years, they moved to another co-pastorate, in which they are currently serving. Gary
Rick and Diane met in seminary, but did not begin dating until several months before graduation. Because they were not ready for marriage, they “began to look for a situation where one of us would be permanent and the other wouldn’t because we didn’t know what this would look like.” Diane took the ‘permanent’ call to serve as a Jr. High Pastor at a large church and Richard took a year-long residency position in another department of the church. After this period, they got married and Rick took at 10 hr/wk internship at a church nearby and helped out as the super-Junior High volunteer at Diane’s church. Eventually Rick was hired and ordained as an Associate Pastor at the church he was interning at and they continue to serve in these two churches. Diane just had a child and is still on leave. While they have no immediate plans for either of them to change positions, Rick told me “I don’t know that long term the two churches thing is sustainable.”
Fred was an intern with the college program at a large church when he first met Gayle, a freshman. They didn’t start dating until a few years later when Fred finished seminary. They became engaged after Gayle had begun seminary and they were married while she was still a seminarian. Fred had taken a position as youth pastor. Gayle worked in another department of the church. When they had kids, Gayle quit her job for a few months and then picked up part-time work outside of the church. Eventually she took a Parish Associate position in church different from where Fred continued to serve as youth pastor. Fred changed positions to Adult Ministries, then New Ministries, and Gayle came on staff with him at that point in a non-ordained position. For the last year they have been leading a church plant with 200 members from the church that Fred has been serving for 18 years.
While the sample is too small to make any observations without hesitancy, there are some similarities in these stories that are worth noticing. First, there seems to be a general movement, over time, in each of these couples toward working together. Also similar is the way in which the arrival of children seems to disrupt the women’s careers more than the men’s careers. Two of the couples took advantage of the extra-time afforded to them by splitting single positions to pursue further academic study. In each story there was at some point along the line, one member who was officially under the authority of the other, either because they were in a subordinate position or because they were volunteering.
IV. Advantages for the Church and Ministries
In the following sections I will list and discuss the themes that arose from my interviews, noting how many couples expressed the sentiment. They are generally in the order of expressed most often, to expressed least often.
The first universally mentioned advantage is the collective wisdom that informs work of each member. Whether the clergy couple works together or in separate churches, each member has a theological reflection partner to help them make good decisions in their ministries. One couple said “they get a lot of experience talking to experience” and “extra wisdom.” Another said “Having a spouse who is also a minister, at some level means that you have present with you another subject-matter expert that is conversant on these issues...a sort of in-house consultant...”. One pastor talked about how, even when his wife was doing women’s ministry, his thoughts were helpful to her, because “we’re both are pretty good editors of the others work.” Hiring a member of a clergy couple means that you have not only hired an individual with theological training, but someone equipped with a partner who can help them reflect even more deeply, hence more wisdom and creativity will be applied to the churches needs.
More Work Accomplished
The second universally acknowledged advantage for churches hiring members of clergy couples is that more work is accomplished. It is important to note that there are variations on this theme. Some pointed out that when a clergy couple splits a single position, they do more work than a single person could. One said, ““Obviously, you put in more hours. We share a job. They get more than one person by us sharing a job.”
Another pastor pointed out the way in which the flexibility of the pastoral schedule allows them each, as two full-time employees, to be more engaged in their ministry: “I can cover, you know, she gets a retreat, speaking at a retreat...because I’m flexible I...change my plans and she’s able to be there and vice versa.... So I think the advantage is we’ve probably been a lot more present for the ministries we’ve been involved with than we would have otherwise...”
The third way in which a clergy couple lends itself to more work being accomplished is that even when only one person is officially on duty, if the other is present, they are likely to be also doing ministry, perhaps as a volunteer. One pastor told me about this: “there have been times where one of us is attending a worship service where the other is preaching [and]...there’s somebody in need or in crisis and we end up meeting with them, praying with them, counseling with them.”
In summary, there are three ways that clergy couples get more work accomplished. First, and most obviously, clergy couples splitting a single position do more than a single person could. Second, clergy couples each with their own full-time positions are able to accomplish more because their spouses flexible schedule assists. Third, when one member of a clergy couple is working, often the other ends up doing volunteer ministry.
Higher Quality of Work
Three out of the four couples also suggested that clergy couples do higher quality work because, when working together, they are able to delineate tasks based on gifting. One pastor told me, “The parts that I don’t like that [my wife] does get done immensely better. My stewardship campaign sucks, but [my wife’s] doesn’t. They’re really good because she loves stewardship.” Another said, similarly, “I’m not really good in the hospital...I’m really pretty mediocre. [my wife] is that tremendously!... [but] we don’t let her touch anything having to do with money...cause she’d just lose it.” Even when a couple is in different churches, they are able to enhance one another’s quality of work: “there’s been times when...[my wife] has come by [my] church, come into the office because I’ve had this thing that I don’t really want to do...[and I’ll say] ‘hey, help me with this one,’ and vice versa.”
Three couples mentioned the advantage provided by the diversity of ministry style and gender. “It’s two of us, you can pick who you want to talk to,” said one female pastor, to which her husband added, “That’s a huge advantage for the church members. Huge.” In a similar vein, the presence of both a woman and a man provides diversity. Another couple said, “Having a male to relate to, having a female to relate to, just that in it self is huge.” The variety in preaching styles and male or female directed illustrations is also something that can be “a real gift to the church.”
Other advantages that came up were each mentioned by two couples. The first advantage is the model which the presence of a public marriage and family can provide: “I think our marriage is a witness to other people, the way we relate to one another.” The final advantage for churches was the financial advantage that results from the structure of the Board of Pensions benefits program: “it can be economically advantageous to [the church] in the sense that you don’t have to pay benefits on two people, you have to pay benefits on one and [for the other] you got an employee with out having to pay benefits.”
V. Disadvantages for the Church and Ministries
Asking clergy couples to come up with disadvantages for churches in having them on staff is probably not the most effective way of identifying these. Perhaps this is because clergy couples have had to spend their energies convincing churches of the benefits and ignoring the legitimate difficulties that hiring clergy couples create. Nonetheless, several disadvantages did arise.
When two pastors from different families work at a church, one is often covering for the other, especially if the other goes on vacation. When the pastors are married to each other, they go on vacation together. “Even though you’ve got two ministers, you’ve got to have somebody come in [to preach] cause we’re going go together.” This same downside was admitted by three of the couples.
Hard to Replace
The two couples that share time and a half talked about the flipside of the advantage of more work being done by a clergy couple splitting a position. What this means is that when the time comes for them to move on, they will be hard to replace. “I think it would be hard to be a single person following a clergy couple, because we do work more...”
Two couples talked about the complicating power dynamics that clergy couples can create on a staff. “I can conceive of a time in which someone would need to talk to one pastor about another pastor, not in a gossipy or godless chatter kind of way but in a, sort of, ‘hey help me with this’... ‘I don’t know what to do with this, [the other pastor] said this, what do you think she means by that?’ If [the other pastor] and I were married...it’d be hard...” Another couple talked about how a Senior Pastor might feel threatened by an associate position split by a clergy couple: “I think that Associate Pastors can really be a threat to Senior Pastor...here you are you have husband and wife, and you, and now you’re ahead of them [in authority], but boy...they influence a lot of relationships and they control a lot of ministry and so I think there is a wariness of some senior pastors for that...”
There were several other disadvantages that were mentioned just once. One pastor stated that if you hire both members of a clergy couple full-time and they have children, you will get less hours out of them than you would from two individuals. One couple acknowledged the impact of the marital relationship on ministry: “..it always becomes evident.” There is some risk when you know that “almost always if you end up divorced, you’ll end up losing the church.” One couple lamented how clergy couples sometimes subtly expect increases in pay and positions for spouses. One pastor suggested that if a pastor’s spouse is also a pastor then they have no connection to the secular world through their spouse’s career: “If you were married to someone that was a salesman, you’d have all this input from a whole other sphere.” Finally, it was suggested that you would probably get less theological diversity from a couple than you would from two individuals because generally people marry someone with a similar outlook.
VI. Advantages for the Couple and Family
Understanding, Intimacy and Respect
One advantage for the clergy couple itself stood out above all others. Clergy couples believe that because they are both theologically trained and in ministry they have a deepened understanding of, intimacy with, and respect for their spouses. Part of this relates to their understanding regarding the pastoral lifestyle. One couple said, “I think there is a huge advantage, just having two clergy married to each other because it’s such a weird lifestyle.” Others mentioned how it inhibited resentment: “I think there is more peace in the marriage because...the church as mistress, or as...slave master...you still have to fight against it, but it doesn’t become the demon quite so quick...because they understand it”; “If you’re married to someone who also gets relational ministry...she’s gonna be your partner in that...Often ministers spouses can be in a place where they resent [the intrusions of relational ministry].”
Another aspect of the primary advantage for the clergy couple is intimacy and partnership. One couple shared that as a clergy couple “you have this shared Christian life, shared priorities, you have shared values...we’re growing in Christ together...” As partners you avoid having the typical pastors spouse who “can get so bitter cause they know all the scoop and have no clout to do anything about it. And I think when you’re...together in this, you feel it together, but you can find the way out together too.” There is also an important benefit of respect in the clergy couples because they value what their spouses are investing their lives in: “I respect her as a pastor so much because what I care about in my own life is being a pastor...the thing that matters to me the most is what I respect her for and I think that builds a different kind of respect.”
The second most popular answer to “What advantages are there for you as a couple or family?” was “flexibility.” The flexibility of the shared pastoral life was what led one couple to it: “Sharing one job has allowed us to...not have other [child care] providers, it has been [my husband] or it has been me and that has been great.” One pastor told me that flexibility is a huge bonus because it usually allows at least one parent to make it to the kids events. Even for couples without kids, the flexibility is a plus.
Members from two different clergy couples mentioned relational support as one of the benefits of clergy couple life for them and their families. “The upside [of working in separate churches] is there are a whole lot of people, there are two communities that are caring for us, encouraging us, providing for us, loving on us...” This relational investment is also a benefit to the children: “I asked one of my kids a little while ago...who his best friends were and the first three were over 30 years old, cause it was people who had taken an interest in them from church.”
Just as having someone else around that is trained theologically is an aid to ministry it is also an aid for the pastors themselves as spiritual beings, said two couples. “For our spiritual life together to have somebody who—I can be reading something or studying scripture and say, you know, “I was looking though this, and this is kind of exciting”, “I’ve been wrestling” or “What do you think about this?” to be able to have someone who is familiar with different theologians, different fallacies of thinking, that’s really fun.”
Other advantages for the couple were mentioned only once. While it may make others on the church staff uncomfortable, the extra portion of power that a clergy couple has is a benefit in their eyes. “A Benefit for the Pastor of a clergy couple is it’s really hard to work around two of us...when you’ve got Pastors at a Session and you got two Pastors at Session to know what’s going on, to know what the agenda is and play good cop/bad cop and reframe it. I mean, it’s really hard to get stuff around us...it’s a very powerful thing.” Even as a couple splitting an associate position, the two have more influence than any other single Associate.
One member of a clergy couple saw it as an advantage in the interviewing process to often be able to present the idea of a clergy couple to the Pastor Nominating Committee because by doing that “you’re pastoring that group from the beginning.” One pastor suggested that kids benefit from having two pastors for parents in that somehow this lessens the ridicule they get from other kids because “when they find out that both parents are pastors it’s a novelty thing, it like, ‘I don’t know how to categorize that now,’ so actually I think he’s had less...” This same pastor suggested that all the premarital counseling he and his wife does together “has been a really great blessing to our marriage because we’ve got to be honest...it’s like constant marital counseling.”
VII. Disadvantages for the Couple and Family
Demands of Church Work
The most cited disadvantage of clergy couple life for the family is the high demands of church work and how they encroach on family time. This idea was echoed in the voices of all four couples: “You can’t get away”; ““It’s hard to get away from the ministry”; “It can own you, it’ll be all you do”; “the church is insatiable.” The consuming nature of pastoral work leaves one couple saying, “We’ve got church and we’ve got kids and that is sum total of our lives.” The stress is persistent: “Every 168 hours at least one of you has to prepare a sermon.” One pastor commented that little spare time is the flipside to the blessing of flexibility. He gave me an idea of his hours early in ministry: “I was probably 80+ hours before kids and then with kids I cut back to probably 50 or 60 hours.”
No Shared Worship
While one couple pointed out the spiritual advantages for the clergy couple above, two mentioned the spiritual detriment. One said, “It’s hard to worship together.” Another said similarly, “Worship together is rare.” This second pastor, who works in a different church than his wife, qualified this as a disadvantage saying that every pastor has this disadvantage, so it is not unique or heightened for clergy couples. This couple finds that their “spiritual growth dynamic has to come from places outside the church...cause we’re not hearing the same sermons...we’re not expressing our faith in the same ministries.”
The nature of pastoral ministry also can tend to isolate the clergy couple relationally, though I do not believe this is unique to clergy couples. “There are no trusted friends,” said one couple. A second couple expressed a similar sentiment regarding the “bubble” of their isolation.
Disadvantages for the Kids
Two of the couples discussed the specific disadvantages for the kids. It is common knowledge that it is tough being a pastor’s kid, but one couple said while expectations of perfection have faded away, expectations of participation remain because church members and staff still think “that maybe [the pastor] valued...activities less if [their] kids weren’t signed up.” Two parents worn out from the demands of church work have less to give their kids in terms of energy. Parents often show up late for kids events, and the kids are often stuck at church waiting for their parents to finish talking to someone after the service. Kids of clergy couples also run the risk of being “immunized” to the gospel “because they see the ugly side [of the church].”
VIII. Additional Themes
Several other ideas came up in number of my interviews that I think are worth considering even though they are not responses to the questions about advantages and disadvantages.
Not Serving As Liaison
Two couples told me about how intentional they are in avoiding triangling, or serving as a liaison for others to their spouse and two others hinted at it. If a member comes to one pastor with a question about something the other is responsible for the one pastor says “that’s a very nice question, go talk to [my husband].” Another couple defers attempts to triangle by saying, “If he said something that hurt you, you should talk to [him].” I also encountered this resistance to serve as the spouse’s liaison while scheduling interviews. One pastor, while accepting the request for he and his wife to be interviewed told me he “should know better” than to accept something for her. Another pastor lived this out, telling me she was willing, but that I had to talk to her husband first, and I would have to call him myself.
The Importance of Being Equally Yoked
One couple I spoke with was emphatic that “you have to have equal speaking gifts to be a clergy couple” because those are the gifts that show who has power. A pastor from a different couple said the same thing: “If one pastor can preach and the other can’t...then it can be tough...‘Oh we love having Billy here, and Sandy’s really nice.’ Preaching is probably the place where this most manifests itself...” A pastor from a third couple talked about how it really unfortunate for the church and the couple when one of the pastors is liked more or better suited for the church.
Three of the four couples made some reference to the role of boundaries in their pastoral lives. The rule in one family, which any of the kids could tell you, was “never talk about family...even to family.” Boundaries, while important, are hard to enforce said one couple who also expressed one boundary emphatically: “I have very strong boundaries surrounding my house. It’s not open!” Another couple talked about how church-talk was off limits after 8pm. This same couple shared that they did a fine job of boundaries for themselves, but it was their kids who they forgot to consider: “our kids had a lot of boundary issues that we needed to learn to be sensitive to.” A pastor from a third couple disparaged those who come out of seminary so determined to set boundaries that they stifle relational work.
It’s a Unique Calling – Know Thyself
The idea that doing ministry as a clergy couple is the best thing a couple can do was repudiated several times. One couple said, “You can have a fabulous marriage and not be able to work together.” Another said, “We happen to compliment each other in our likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses and there are couples who can’t do what we do.” A pastor from a third couple stressed that while some couples “are wired that they can absolutely share a position” others should steer clear. He urged, “Know thyself. Know how you guys relate and what situations are gonna be successful and then give yourself flexibility to change cause you don’t know it until you see it.”
Woman Members of Clergy Couples
Twice interviewees hinted that clergy couple life had been more difficult for the women. I asked two male pastors individually, what their wives would add to the conversation and they gave me similar answers. The first said “My wife would say: “It can own you, it’ll be all you do,” and then went on to say why he did not mind the consuming nature of ministry. The second replied, “She probably would have said I painted it too rosy...cause its harder on the mom.” This pastor attributed the added difficulty for his wife to an instinct of children to prefer mom to dad, but shortly thereafter wanted to say that it is not necessarily harder on the moms but on the one who is working less hours for the church.
I noticed something else about the women of the clergy couples I interviewed—they were strong women. In the two interviews with couples, both women did noticeably more of the talking. One of the husbands identified his wife as “one of the original women’s libbers.” He also jokingly suggested that when there is conflict he just gives in rolls over: “Do I want a little love, or do I care about the mission budget...”. One of the pastors I interviewed alone told me he and his wife never self-identified as a “clergy couple” partially because of his impression of “clergy couples”: “I don’t want to say prideful, but it was a big deal. You know, the woman was really concerned about being considered equal with the man and the man was...really liked the church game...kind of liked the church politics thing.” It seems that often the women members of clergy couples are strong, confident, outspoken women.
IX. Concluding Thoughts
This brief and tentative sample of insights on the facets of clergy couple ministry and life may offer something to three groups of people.
First, it may offer some guidance to churches. If they are deliberating over whether to hire a clergy couple, they may be enticed by the promise of increased volume and quality of work, the diversity of genders or the collective wisdom that each member brings. On the other hand, they may prefer to hire two pastors who can cover for one another during vacation times, or feel that a clergy couple would be a power threat.
To churches with clergy couples these insights can engender both understanding and appreciation. Seeing the dangers of the insatiable church for the clergy couple family should help congregations understand the boundaries which the couples set. Perhaps the congregations also will learn to appreciate the diversity, wisdom and models that they are afforded in addition to the more commonly recognized financial and workload benefits of clergy couples.
Second, these insights may be helpful to couples in seminary together. If they are considering whether to look for jobs in the same of different churches, they will want to know that some couples find serving two-churches unsustainable, especially once children enter the picture, and also the apparent trend of clergy couples toward one church over the course of their lives. Seminary couples will want to know the importance of being equally-yoked as well as the high stress, and congregational support they could expect as a clergy couple.
Third and finally, perhaps these insights will be helpful to those already serving as clergy couples. By being able to identify the benefits of their own careers, as well as its disadvantages may prove to empower them to take advantage of the advantages, and be proactive about it’s dangers. If they are not already allowing their ministries to be informed by the wisdom of their spouse, they may want to be intentional in doing this so as to enhance their work. If they are not benefiting from the blessing of having a spiritually mature journeying partner, they may want to set aside time to enjoy this. If they had been unconscious of the isolation of their lives from those outside the church, they may become proactive in breaking out of this.
As members of the second category of beneficiaries listed above, my wife and I are no longer blissfully ignorant, but soberly expectant about the dynamics of clergy couple life and ministry.
 It should be noted that this pastor was in student ministry, and makes a distinction between hard and soft (fun/relational) hours. When kids entered the picture, it was the soft hours that were dramatically cut.