“What are your holiday plans this year?” It’s a common question and conversation starter, since just about everyone regardless of faith tradition finds something to celebrate this time of year. It’s impossible to count how many times I’ve been asked this question, but I recall a very specific instance years ago while chatting with a member of our church during our post-worship coffee time. He asked what my family was doing for Christmas and I responded, “Well, Aaron is working through Christmas Eve and then we’ll head out some time on Christmas day to visit my extended family.”
There really is nothing out of the ordinary in this exchange, except when I said Aaron (who is the lead pastor of our church) would be working, it took a moment to register with my friend. After a brief, seemingly confused moment, he finally said, “Oh yeah, I guess Christmas Eve worship is work for him.”
By no means are clergy unique in having to work on major holidays–doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals are well aware that illness and injury don’t pause for Christmas. But there is a unique dynamic among clergy families when it comes to working on a major holiday, especially one where it’s common for families to attend worship together as part of their celebrations. Yes, nurses need to staff hospitals at Christmas, but it’s not a typical practice for people to gather at a hospital to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the way they head to the candlelight service on Christmas Eve. Unless you are the one actually doing the work (or planning your family’s holiday around your spouse’s schedule), pastoral work at Christmas or Easter doesn’t necessarily look or feel like work. Attending worship on Christmas Eve is what families do. So what does this mean for clergy families?
Courtney and her husband, Austin, both work at the same church and her reflection on holiday commitments illuminates this deeper issue:
“…[H]olidays and Sunday mornings, it’s not necessarily like being in a normal family where we can come to church together and sit together in the pew and worship together because, you know, he’s up front or running the sound board and I’m off with the kids. So that part is certainly different. Holidays are obviously affected because we either have to be here or find someone to fill in for us which is hard.”
A normal family–a relative term, of course, but one that clearly resonates with Courtney and other clergy families who truly feel what it’s like being the ones responsible for creating a space for others to experience God in these significant seasons. And yet, amid the tasks and coordination that comes with pulling together a great worship service, how might laypeople also be creating a space for clergy to experience God? Is this all about work, or is there something more? Jen, who co-pastors a church, expressed a sentiment not uncommon to the people I interviewed:
“And I think the other thing that’s just overwhelming about being a pastor is that people simply by virtue of the role that you are living into, people invite you into their lives in just overwhelmingly extraordinary ways…”
Indeed, worship is not a performance or a service the pastors provide to laypeople/customers. Worship is a communal, shared experience. When clergy (and by extension their families) give of their energy, gifts, and time to create an opportunity for families to celebrate Christ’s birth through worship, those families who participate are also inviting clergy into a key part of their journey through Advent and into Christmas.
As clergy families navigate numerous competing, overlapping commitments this season, I hope the demands are at least somewhat softened by this perspective. Would it be easier to be able to take the holidays off year after year? Perhaps…but consider what you might miss in this communal sharing of family time.
Blessings to you all this Christmas.
Lenore Knight Johnson
My last two posts addressed the unique challenges of parenting as a clergy family, highlighting some of the dynamics parents face raising kids while serving in ministry. Pastors and spouses I met through my research wrestled with so many questions along these lines.
- Do we shield our children from the realities of politics and conflict so they don’t see this ugly side of the church?
- Will doing so create an overly-idealistic image of congregations, resulting in disappointment down the road?
- Will our kids grow to resent the church (and by extension, faith) if they feel like our family is always doing something church related?
These are important questions without easy answers and, as I discovered, what works well for one clergy family may not be successful for another. What I also discovered were some remarkable efforts to live into the unique demands of ministry, its unconventional schedule, and blurred boundaries. In other words, clergy families recognized and acknowledged the issues and challenges that necessarily come with parenting in ministry, but then found ways to re-frame the challenges, drawing out some unique and hidden benefits.
A mainline pastor, after acknowledging the impact on family life that comes with working Sundays, reflected on the advantages of taking Mondays off:
I used to do special Monday with the kids. That was a good thing. Every Monday I was off and so the first Monday was [my older son], the second Monday was [my younger son], the third Monday was [my daughter]. And as soon as school was over, we’d go out and spend the whole rest of the day together and do something fun. We did that for years and years and years.
While our cultural tendency is to associate family time with weekends, this pastor shifted his perspective and carved out a unique opportunity to spend one-on-one time with his kids outside conventional boundaries. A mainline clergy spouse reframed family time from a different angle, looking forward to the chance to be together as a family even while his wife was working:
I really do look forward to being a pretty active participant here. And as we move on and start to plan a family and have one or two kids eventually, I look forward to all of us being at a church on a Sunday while she’s…You know, mom’s up there in the robe but I think I’ll really enjoy being there with the kids.
Rethinking family time beyond the confines of a nine-to-five, Monday through Friday work week became a means for clergy families to see opportunities, not limitations. Yes, the limitations are there, but the integrated life isn’t about neat and tidy solutions to the pressures of competing demands. It’s about acknowledging the reality of a sometimes messy existence and discovering new, innovative means of making it work and finding joy in the process.
A clergy couple, Julie and Alex, who have several small children embody this model well:
We just bring the kids to rehearsal and they dance and run around and play. It’s chaotic to have them there, it’s easier to not have them there, but enough times we choose to do it so that they are a part of it and they feel part of it. Last week we went on a [a missions trip] and my mom offered. She said, “I’ll keep the kids so you guys can go and just focus on what you’re doing.” Alex and I said no, we want them to do it with us. It was awkward. It was chaotic. It meant that in the morning for the work project time I had to do the kids while Alex did that and then we’d switch and I’d go in the afternoon. It takes more effort, but it is always more satisfying when they are integrated into what we are doing at whatever level that can be done.
While healthy boundaries no doubt have their place, trying to build neat, tidy compartments where they are just not possible might actually create rather than alleviate tension. Throughout my research–and indeed in my own life as the parent of a pastor’s kid–I encountered so many opportunities to discover the satisfaction Julie and Alex describe. And it’s not despite but amid the chaos and awkwardness that this all emerges. I hope as you move into one of the more demanding seasons as a clergy family–Advent and Christmas–you may also find joy and beauty in the chaos.
Lenore Knight Johnson
We’re all familiar with the cultural (and stereotypical) image of the pastor’s kid–the rebellious teenager who shuns all things church or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the straight-laced, biblical expert who is first to raise her hand in Sunday school. As is true with most cultural stereotypes, the difference between image and actual reality can be quite broad. Among the clergy families I studied, most were extremely intentional about letting their kids be their own selves, resisting the pressure to conform to stereotypes or unrealistic expectations. At the same time, clergy families also realize there is only so much shielding they can provide for their children.
Stephanie, a clergy spouse, shared how she noticed the continual spotlight her kids were under:
[O]ne of the men from our church here, when we were being considered to come here, he came down to…Our church there and he snuck in on a Sunday morning and just observed the service. Actually, it was Easter. And I saw him and I wondered who that guy was but I didn’t get to meet him after because he slipped out on purpose. But in the message, Luke mentioned something about that [our son] Trevor was working across the street at Starbucks that morning and you know, something about…He made some little quip about, you know, “Head over and say happy Easter to Trevor.” And so this guy was like, “I’m going to go over and check out the pastor’s son.” So he went over to Starbucks and Trevor was working the drive through window. But he asked the man who was working the counter, “So which one of the guys working here is Trevor?” And this guy standing at the counter was this sweet older guy that worked at Starbucks and he was like, “Oh, Trevor is on the window. He is the greatest kid. We just love him.” And this guy is going on and on. And we find this all out months later. And so this guy who had checked out our son, he said, “He was a good clean cut kid. He didn’t have any weird tattoos or strange piercings.” And I thought, “What if he did?” But there’s that expectation. What if he had been a kid with, you know what I mean, like a ponytail. Is he going to be judged by what he looks like?
Parents can control the messages they send to their children but they cannot control the actions and expectations of other people. For younger kids in the early, developmental years of life, beginning to discover what church is about while in the spotlight as a pastor’s kid can lead to significant questions as they grow older. And as kids come of age through the emotional and spiritual growth many of us experience as teenagers–discovering our own independence while also deciding what among our familial beliefs and practices to embrace as young adults–they discover the kinds of supports most kids have from a church community look different for them. The youth pastor may be their mother or father’s colleague or perhaps their mother or father. One pastor described how he tried to make up for his kids’ potential need for pastoral care during deeply formational seasons of life:
[W]hen my kids were in high school we had a good relationship with the other pastors in town and I talked to one. I went to my kids at one of our family meetings and I said, “If you guys ever have a problem where you need a pastor but you don’t want your dad the pastor, I’ve talked to this other pastor at this other church and he will not divulge anything that you talk to him about to me. He will not even tell me that you’ve talked to him. But he said he’s very willing to be your pastor. He knows you can’t come to his church because your dad is over across the street, but he’s very willing for you to come and say ‘I need a pastor.’ And he’ll be your pastor since your dad is your pastor.”
Clergy family concerns for raising kids in the church go much deeper than avoiding stereotypes–they hit at the deep significance spiritual formation holds for people of faith and questions over how best to navigate this when church is also mom or dad’s employer. As another pastor noted,
“I try not to be gone too many nights so they don’t associate the church with my absence. I’ll often tell them I’m going to work rather than going to church so they don’t associate all of that together.”
Indeed, parenting as a pastor involves ongoing negotiation of very complex and blurred boundaries between work, family, and religious life and out of this many challenges emerge. But like all the intersecting elements of an integrated life, there is also a unique, positive side to raising kids in the context of vocational ministry. How do parents draw from these benefits to alleviate the challenges? It is yet another way clergy families weave together a complete whole and the topic of my next post on parenting as a pastor.
Lenore Knight Johnson
All Saints Sunday has long been one of my favorite days in the church calendar, a time to celebrate those who have come before us, living lives of unwavering faith. While those vested with an official mark of sainthood are figures who have endured great challenge and often persecution, All Saints is also an opportunity to acknowledge our own saints–the seemingly ordinary people who, to us, are extraordinary. For my church’s celebration of All Saints on Sunday, the kids created a table cloth for the altar decorated with colorful handprints and the names of the saints in their lives. It was wonderful to see the historical figures the kids named but what I loved even more was to see the names of so many moms and dads.
Anyone who has engaged in the joyful but tiring work of caring for small children will no doubt appreciate hearing that kids may actually see their parents and caregivers on par with the saints. Beyond the obvious and visible aspects of parenting, tremendous amounts of thought and emotion go into raising children. It seems so ordinary because it is largely unseen, and yet it is extraordinary work. For people of faith, this extraordinary work includes nurturing kids to understand, appreciate, and hopefully share the same beliefs and traditions as their parents. We bring our kids to church and Sunday school, read stories and pray at home, and model care and compassion for others.
But what does this look like for clergy families who live at the intersections of work, family, and faith? How does a young child understand all that is religious belief and practice when it is so tied up in their mom or dad’s job? While I didn’t interview pastors’ kids for my research, I heard a great deal on the particular dynamics of raising kids in a clergy family. And like so many aspects of clergy family life, I discovered that parenting in ministry lands somewhere at the intersection of uniquely life-giving and unexpectedly challenging. As Eva (not her real name), a mainline pastor told me,
I think as careers go, if I think about it, I think it’s better than many to be a parent and be a pastor. But it is complicated.
Hope, an evangelical clergy spouse, offered more on the complex tensions of raising clergy kids:
I guess just knowing how to do things in ministry as a family is a challenge because you want your kids to see ministry, but you don’t want them to…and participate in ministry, but you don’t want them to get resentful that, “Oh we’ve got to go there again.” or “We’ve got to do this again.” So I think the challenge is trying to find a healthy way that the kids can participate and be who they are and yet not let them feel like they’re being imposed upon all the time.
How does one find the middle ground in all of this? It is one of the most common questions people ask when I talk about my research. The next several posts on this blog will address issues around parenting in a clergy family. I discovered so many examples of parents capitalizing on the hidden benefits of being a clergy family, but I also heard stories of lament. Looking at these diverse experiences together is indicative of the messiness in an integrated life. Continue reading to hear more on how clergy families do the extraordinary.
Throughout my research on clergy families, I encountered many stories illustrating how pastors and spouses weave work, family, and faith. One that stands out as particularly salient came from a pastor who described his view of ministry with the metaphor of a farm:
This pastor’s description of farming and its rough edges is one I’ve repeatedly shared in writing, workshops, and elsewhere because it rings so true to people engaged in ministry. And while the metaphor is meant to highlight the way life can flourish even amid blurred boundaries–one of the themes of this blog–I also love this image because of the important role seasons play in farming.
In Chicago, the seasons are distinct, with hot, humid summers and polar vortex winters bookended by the shedding of leaves in the fall and the muddy, rainy new growth that comes with spring. While there are days when I ask myself why I still live here–typically a question I ponder while shoveling my car out of two feet of snow–I really do love seasons because they offer such a rich and fitting metaphor for the ebbs and flows of life. And as I learned in my research on clergy families, so much of weaving work, family, and faith follows the kinds of changes that come with the end of one season and the beginning of something new.
Seasons play out from year to year, from week to week, and even from day to day for clergy families. Emily, a pastor’s spouse who also works in a non-parish ministry role, shared how an especially challenging season sparked an intentional effort to rethink patterns and priorities for her family:
Early on when it was a harder transition, one of the biggest things that was helpful was that Travis started tracking his hours. And so instead of me saying “I can’t…” you know, “I’m so upset. This is frustrating,” blah, blah blah, it’s “Okay honey, you worked 70 hours for this week and that week and I’m feeling it because I’m exhausted with the kids” and all that kind of thing. So if he’s going to have a really crazy week or if he’s going to be going away or those kinds of things, we really work to kind of anticipate that and get some time before and after together. And he’ll try to give me a day to…we do what we call a day away with God.
Seasons of transition are a reality for clergy families, in this case Travis starting a new job with heavy demands on his time. But just as the leaves fall and the plants go dormant for the long, cold winter, eventually without fail, the snow melts and new growth emerges out of the muck.Moving through fall and preparing for winter is an opportunity to take stock of the seasonal changes in work, family, and faith. How do our integrated lives look different in a time of dormancy, and how do they evolve into new patterns of integration in a season of new growth? What are the markers of these seasonal changes, and how can we pay attention to them?
When people ask about the kind of research I do as a sociologist, I usually give the “in a nutshell” description that I study work-life balance for clergy families. And then I promptly follow-up by saying I don’t really believe in work-life balance.
Work-life balance is a common phrase in our culture and a concept we put on a pedestal in hopes we will one day get there. The fact that we idealize work-life balance speaks to the reality that we need better options for the myriad pressures individuals and families face. Careers, kids, aging parents, volunteer work, commitment to a faith community–not to mention self-care and plain old sleep–all compete for our attention and time each day. And since there is only so much attention one can give and only so much time in each day, we frantically try to balance it all out in hopes that we don’t give too much to one area at the expense of another. It sounds nice in theory but in practice this approach is an absolute recipe for failure.
Why did I give up on work-life balance? There are many reasons I find this concept unrealistic and unhelpful in thinking about ways to manage competing demands, and I’ve had the opportunity to reflect and write on this in several contexts and from multiple perspectives. As a sociologist, I am increasingly aware that our lives, commitments, pressures, and pursuits are incredibly complex and fluid, evolving as our broader social, political, economic, and cultural landscape also evolves. And as one who is (like everyone) trying to do more than just keep my head above water when it comes to career, family, faith, and self, my experiences and perspectives have taught me that a top priority at one moment may quickly fall to the bottom of my list as circumstances shift and that it’s okay to live into those changes. The scales are always tipping back and forth, rarely balancing out and more often creating something a bit messy and out of sorts. I think we need to embrace the mess.
It wasn’t until I experienced life in a clergy family and started studying other clergy families that I truly realized how misguided work-life balance really is and where I learned that embracing the mess is the way forward. I don’t like messes–few people do but assuming we can seamlessly balance it all is sort of like hauling the dried-up Christmas tree out of your house in January and thinking the process will be neat and tidy. It’s not and it never will be so why even create such unrealistic expectations? As I’ve lived into life in a clergy family, I’ve found that it’s a lot less about balance and a lot more about weaving together a life. Terms like “weaving” or “integration” are more in line with my experience and the experiences of those I interviewed. These terms provide more salient imagery because they imply mutuality, fluidity, and complexity. When we weave pieces together, we are creating a complete whole where the various elements offer shared support. It can be neat and balanced, but when there’s a snag in the fabric, the other parts keep the whole together. That’s more in line with my experience.
“Weaving” is a theme for this blog and the metaphor I will use to frame my reflections on on faith life, friendships, self-care, family, and identity. If you are hoping my posts will offer a quick, magical solution to the competing demands of clergy family life, you may be disappointed. I hope instead you continue along on this journey as I write more about what it means to embrace the mess, and why that can be a really great thing.
Lenore Knight Johnson, PhD