Parenting as a Pastor

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.

Lenore Knight Johnson
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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:
[W]hen I think of it as a system, I think of it as a farm. I don’t know farming personally but reading about it and imagining it as this complicated system of interactive parts that all help make a healthy whole, I think of that as our church and I think of that as our family, as it interacts with community. And that’s sort of the dominant metaphor. So we’re kind of part of this thing, when functioning well, actually helps life flourish in all areas. And the boundaries and the edges are, by design, rough.
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 towe 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?
Lenore Knight Johnson
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Embracing the Mess

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


Weaving Work, Family, and Faith

In a recent interview, researcher, professor, and best-selling author Brené Brown shared that after giving talks on shame and resilience–the topic for which she is not only best known but also deserves significant credit for bringing into the forefront of public discourse–she frequently hears people say, “I already knew everything you were talking about, I just didn’t have the words.” Brown’s work has always resonated with me, partly because of her ability to give language to real human struggles but more so in the way her writing weaves together research with personal experience. Indeed, Brown’s movement toward household name status came out of widely viewed TED Talk in which she shared her own experience of rebuilding after a breakdown and how that season informed her professional pursuits. It is a posture that is brave and vulnerable–concepts at the heart of her research–and what makes her so skilled at giving people the words for what they already know.

This new, online space at Ministry Mentors is my own effort at drawing together my professional life as a sociologist, researcher, and educator with my personal story rooted in a rather unexpected journey as a pastor’s spouse. I describe my identity as a pastor’s spouse as “unexpected” because my husband, Aaron, did not intend to pursue traditional parish ministry. His ten-plus years as the pastor of a vibrant urban congregation came as a call–literally, by phone, from denominational leaders asking if he would consider joining a co-pastor team to revitalize a dying church–and spiritually, in now recognizing God’s movement in his professional path.

Where did I fit in all of this? What did this mean for our family life? Our shared commitment to being part of faith community? Our social life? My identity? These are questions I asked a lot in those early days of Aaron’s ministry and I’m admittedly still seeking answers. What I do know, though, is this journey led me down a path much like Brown’s where my personal life intersected with my professional life in ways I never thought possible. As I began exploring these questions around clergy family life and what they meant for me and my family, I decided to ask these questions of others, spending the next ten years studying, analyzing, writing, and speaking on the intersections of work, family, faith, relationships, and identity among clergy families.

Which brings me back to this blog I am calling Weaving Work, Family, and Faith. This is a place for reflection on the complicated, messy, but life-giving realities of being a clergy family. It is a space for connection with others. And it is an opportunity to think about the ways our lives are never separated into neat, tidy compartments. In writing about the intersections of my research and my own life, I hope this becomes a space where readers discover something new, but also one where they find themselves saying that same line Brown so often hears: “I already knew everything you were talking about, I just didn’t have the words.”

Lenore Knight Johnson, PhD



Lenore Knight Johnson, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Trinity Christian College. Her research areas include religion, gender, families, and social inequalities with projects focusing on work-life integration among clergy families, women’s ordination, and a new, developing project on whiteness among social justice oriented Christians. Prior to her academic career, Lenore worked in the not-for-profit sector and social services, primarily in refugee resettlement and immigrant advocacy, a background that informs her interest and experience in community-based and applied sociological research. 

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