The economy of the family


Before my husband and I began pastoring churches, we had a simple formula for when and how we would get jobs. We would take turns. One of us would receive a call first, the other would receive the next one. Back-and-forth, we would go.

That neat, orderly plan was screwed up from the start. Brian had a lovely, big church in Florida waiting for his graduation from seminary. There was one problem, though. When he said, “My wife’s in seminary too. Do you know if there’s any job possibilities in this area for her?”

The response was, “Well… there’s a Wal-Mart about a mile away.”

Which was not the answer we were hoping for. He began to bring up the question more, not because they were responsible for getting me a job, but because he got a strange vibe from them whenever he mentioned that his wife was going to be a pastor. As he explored it more with them, they kept giving him the wrong answers, until he was pretty sure, they wanted a pastor’s wife. Like… one that might have a part-time retail job, but on Sunday, she teaches Sunday school, sits in the second pew, with her perfect children, looking up at her perfect husband.

In short, they didn’t want me.

Lewie Donelson, our good seminary professor has recently explained to us what we negotiated–it was the economy of the family. In the end, we decided to take two churches in South Louisiana. It wasn’t monetarily better for us, but we both got ordained.

From the beginning, as a clergy couple, we have negotiated the economy of the family in the call process. And when we haven’t, we’ve regretted it. In other words, we might negotiate salaries with our churches, but we also had to think about the entire family, and we quickly discovered that many things trump money. Here are some of the factors that come up when we’re looking for churches, as a family.

Opportunity–This seems to be the most important and the most difficult to figure out. We need to be in a place where there is the possibility for both of us to be employed. Neither one of us would make a good long-term house-spouse, especially now that our child has entered elementary school.

Education–We’re not the sort of parents who are worried about how to get our kid into Harvard now that’s she’s seven. But we’ve served in urban and rural areas where the school systems are some of the worst in the nation, and in those contexts, education becomes important.

Support systems–This has meant different things at different phases in our lives. At times, we needed to be near family. Other times, we needed to be closer to friends. For us, being a part of a vibrant and diverse arts community is extremely important. We’ve just learned that there are things that feed our souls. Things that can’t be found in every place.

Environment–We had to leave Louisiana because the environmental degradation was hurting our infant’s health (they still burn the sugar cane fields, so there are months when smoke and ash fill the air). And there have been other environment factors: I feel more at home closer to water, and my husband used to miss the seasons. Since I practice walking meditation, I need to live near a place where I can walk in nature. Again, our needs shift and change, but I’ve learned to listen to those urges for certain earth.

What about you? What would you add? What things are important to you and your family?

photo’s by Paint Monkey

4 thoughts on “The economy of the family

  1. I’m already holding my breath for our similar trick next year: find me a church and Megan a med school, and/or vice versa. Clearly, she won’t be the typical pastor’s wife either:) We’re planning the order thing as well–her pick for med school and I’ll find a church, but know it won’t be that easy.

    I agree with your list, but what saddens me is how quickly it rules out rural ministry. Rural churches are fantastic and unappreciated calls that are feeling the hurt from the both-partners-working model.

  2. Thanks for a wonderful essay. While I am not a pastor currently, I remember thinking a bit in these terms when I was. I was single when I was pastoring and I needed to know that the church understood my friends functioning as my family – and that a family emergency for me meant not neccessarily jumping a plane for my blood family.

    Now, as a Christian non-profit director and a board chair of my church, my husband is misunderstood a lot because he isn’t the stereotype of pastor’s spouse at all. He supports me and my ministry but it isn’t his.

    Again, thanks for making me think more and more about this issue.

  3. We (my clergy husband and I) also had the take turns plan, and it’s been more about the kids – what’s good for them, educationally, socially, etc. – which means maybe our calling as parents trumps our calling as professional ministers.

    It will be interesting to see what happens after the last one graduates from high school. In my most faithful (or Scarlett O’Hara) moments, I say, “Everything will work out. If he is called to go to Topeka, I’m sure I’ll find a call there too.” But I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work that way much of the time. Frankly, I don’t know what will work.

    Blessings on you two as you figure it out too.

  4. It’s a really difficult thing. My wife and I have been doing that dance for the better part of a decade. I worked so she could finish grad school. We alternated part-time work while I finished seminary. Now, she’s got fulfilling and more-than-full-time secular work, and I’m essentially full-time at my congregation. Between that and raising our two laddies, it’s a challenge.

    Maintaining balance is hard, but my teensy suburban congregation has so far proven willing to let me flex my time, and has been willing to accept my modifications to the 24-7 Pastor expectations that have come to so poorly define our vocation. We’ve also been intentional about staying near family…having an extended support network really helps.

    I do wonder what impacts the increasing prevalence of two-income families will have on the pastorate. It’s a necessary aspect of 21st Century American existence, and while the corporate world has been slow to respond, we in the church really don’t have any excuse.

    And remember, you can do walking meditation pretty much anywhere. The whirl and bustle of a city street is no more a distraction than the fluttering of windblown leaves.

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