The challenges of a pastoral change - a clergy spouse's perspective

My husband and I are both clergy. I was ordained first, in a tradition that allows ministers to decide what positions to seek and where to search. Matt, on the other hand, still had a couple of years to go as a provisional minister in the United Methodist Church, in which clergy are appointed to congregations by the bishop. In other words, I was mobile, and he was not. So it made sense that I would move to where he was pastoring when we got married fifteen years ago.

As it has worked out, I have been the trailing spouse ever since. Though frustrating at first, those circumstances eventually played a part in my decisions to pursue interim ministry, consultant, and coach training as well as opportunities to serve beyond my denomination. I love what I do, and because of my education and network, I can do it anywhere.

It’s helpful to remember that, because it’s moving time again. Next week we’ll migrate our household two hours up the road so that Matt can take a new appointment. For the moving minister, this change is predictably bittersweet. It’s hard to leave a congregation you’ve pastored for several years, but the anticipation of new challenges is (mostly) exciting. There’s a tangible reality this clergyperson is reaching toward. For the spouse of a minister, this new thing is much more nebulous. There’s no pre-set title, role, or responsibilities waiting - there shouldn’t be, at least! - and contact with the new church and community is minimal before the actual move. The feelings of a moving clergy spouse, then, can vary widely, and I think it's important for churches receiving new pastors to know that.

Specifically, there can be more grief than excitement because what we as spouses are leaving is much more definable that what the future holds. From my perspective, there has been good in our current church, even as there has been difficulty. I have cultivated networks in the surrounding community that I will deeply miss, and I have doubts that there will be similar counterparts in my new town. And I lament the unmet hopes and plans for our time in this city. (For example, I have had to put some developments in my coaching practice on hold to free up time to pack and to be able to put a more long-term address on legal paperwork.)

Also, developing a sense of home is difficult as a clergy spouse, particularly the spouse of an officially itinerant minister. The unknowns around how long we will be living in this place affect how much I invest in the church and community. I wonder whether it’s worth hanging pictures and art on the wall. I hesitate to make friends, knowing we will not be here forever. The anticipatory grief begins almost as soon as a bond is established. I note all these patterns in myself, even as I wonder how to adapt them to be more healthy and settled.

And then there’s the issue of expectations. I am not, will never be, don’t want to be the stereotypical clergy spouse. For example, don’t assume I’ll be at church whenever the doors are open. I also probably won’t teach Sunday School, even though I love kids and have been both a children’s and a youth minister, because I’m on the road some Sundays. This can be hard for a receiving congregation to understand. It’s not rejection. It’s just that I have my own call to ministry, and I’m very introverted to boot. And, of course, these expectations say nothing about my parenting. My kid is always in character. He’s painfully (for me) outgoing. He's very inquisitive. While I want him to be respectful, I will not change who he is so that he can be a smartly-dressed, seen-but-not-heard preacher’s kid. (More on that next week.)

Clergy spouses, I pray with and for you when you go through a pastoral change. Churches, I encourage you to do the same and to ask your pastoral families what they - and I mean all the family members - need. When the clergy family feels seen, heard, and valued, it makes it much more likely that your pastor will be able to focus on the work at hand. It also breeds the kind of connection that makes the minister and family want to stay in your congregation for a long time.

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash.