That’s the Pastor’s Wife!

Living in a big city, we don’t experience the fishbowl existence like some clergy families in small, more insular and tight-knit communities. And context aside, I’ve never really felt like people in our church community are peering into our lives, watching our every move. It certainly happens for clergy families–it just doesn’t seem like an issue or concern in our community. But I do remember quite clearly the moment I realized my husband Aaron’s new role as co-pastor of a church also meant something for me. To clarify, I actually realized the impact Aaron’s path into ministry would have on my life fairly early on–before he even accepted the position–but this specific experience solidified what I had been sensing for some time:  that my identity now included an element rooted in my spouse’s vocation.
I was shopping at Target–a rather ordinary occurrence in my day to day life–pushing my cart filled with the three or four items that were on my list and twenty-seven or so other items that, in the course of my journey through the store, I discovered I absolutely couldn’t live without. As I approached the checkout, I saw a young woman from our church walking toward me with an older man I assumed from the resemblance was her dad. I said hello, made some brief small talk, and moved on like one does. As I walked away, I heard her say to her father in one of those loud whispers, “That’s the pastor’s wife!” There I was, pushing my Target cart–an ordinary person on an ordinary day running an ordinary errand–but somehow now with a giant “pastor’s wife” stamp on my life, it was all a bit different.
This sense of wearing a stamp or label emerged among clergy spouses in my research. And even among those who enthusiastically embraced their role as a pastor’s wife or husband, describing it as another sort of calling, there was a very real and significant sense of identity in these stories. Hope, a clergy spouse who saw her role as a ministry partner with her husband, Marcus, described this realization:
Before becoming a pastor’s wife, I had a good sense of my calling and was very active and did lots of things you know, street ministry, youth ministry, kids’ ministry, and things like that. And then once I became a pastor’s wife, and I don’t know if it was for other people as much as myself, I felt labeled. Automatically, there was a label on me and I felt like I had to be a certain way. And so I didn’t feel like those same things that I used to do maybe went hand in hand with how I felt I should be. And so I had gone through this whole, “Okay what am I supposed to do?” kind of thing.
Some spouses experienced the label as an imposition on their identity, others expressed deep pride and responsibility, and most fell somewhere in between these polar ends of the spectrum. Whether the stereotype is positive or negative, no one enjoys when others make assumptions. We are complex people who therefore resist labels that oversimplify who we are and what we think, do, and believe. And yet, the label on our identity is still there, whether we like it or not.
Indeed, it is difficult to really know what to do with a label or image that is always and everywhere present but still something we can shape and define for ourselves. Nancy, for instance, recognizes how the clergy spouse label is just part of who she is, but maintains control over its impact by carefully choosing when and where she discloses this element of her life and identity:
I’ve been getting my hair cut from the same person here for 7 years. I haven’t told her I’m a pastor’s wife. I don’t know why. I guess maybe I don’t want to be stereotyped. I guess I want to be myself first.
Jessie, whose outgoing and vibrant personality is the type that lights up any room she enters, was far more willing to wear the clergy spouse label on her sleeve. She maintains control in a different way, by acknowledging she only has so much power over what other people think:
What’s very important to me is that this is my one chance to establish that I need to remain authentically myself. And I’m a girl who needs to have an authentic faith but an authentic personality, too. And I’ve never been someone who’s been a very…like typical pastor’s wife. It kind of terrified me at the very beginning. Like I’m not going to be able to do this because every once in a while I like to tell an off color joke or I like to…You know, if I drop something on my foot, I’m going to cuss. You know, it’s going to happen. And different people respond to that differently. Some people love it and some people don’t. It just is what it is.
These are two distinct approaches but neither is right or wrong, better or worse, because in the end they land at the same point of acknowledging how being authentic to yourself is an act of self-care.
I’ve often said there is not one right way to be a clergy spouse, but I’ve since changed my mind. There is a right way–it’s the way that best aligns with an individual’s complex and unique gifts, interests, flaws, and uncertainties. Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted as saying, “Remember always that you not only have the right to be an individual, you have an obligation to be one.” When we try to be someone we are not, we not only chip away at our internal sense of self-worth but we also chip away at our capacity to be someone in the world that no one else can be.

Lenore Knight Johnson 

Self-Awareness as Self-Care

I recently commented to a friend that I wish I’d recognized and embraced my introversion much earlier in life, as doing so would have helped me better navigate relationships, social situations, and transitions both significant and minor. More recently, I’ve discovered the Enneagram as an incredibly useful tool for understanding how we respond to situations and engage with people who also have their own, unique standpoints and styles. I have grown far more aware of myself moving through the intersecting realms of work, family, and personal life.
A simple reaction to all of this would be to avoid uncomfortable social situations, vulnerability, or conflict so we never find ourselves at the crossroads between our self and the world. But instead, self-awareness should not be an avoidance mechanism but rather a means of making a rocky path a little smoother. Embracing our internal self-identity, as an act of self-care, can help us embrace other elements of our identity rooted in work, family, relationships, and belief systems. In turn, instead of relentlessly trying to fit into a dominant cultural image or stereotype, we begin to reshape these images around who we are and the gifts we bring to a position, informed by our unique style of action and interaction.
My research interviews always included a discussion on the stereotypical image of a pastor or clergy spouse, and it was interesting to hear how people described themselves in relation to the images embedded in our culture. Micah, who has twenty-plus years of ministry experience, described the role of a pastor as “impossible:”
It can’t be fulfilled. The expectations are that you are…You lead like a CEO, you shepherd like a Franciscan monk, you have a prayer life like a Franciscan monk, you’re available like a chaplain in a hospital, you’re like the dad of all dads or mother of all mothers, you are a cultural exegete, you’re a missionary, you’re an evangelist, you’re a communicator, you are a financially solvent person, you’re an administrator, you’re a coach, you’re a mentor. You know, of course you have to have mentors because it’s expected that you’re healthy. It’s not possible. It’s not possible. And then when you put on top of that the growth edges of yourself and the church, it’s just like being in the bottom of the NFL pile on, you know?  
While few people I met felt they fit the mold, everyone still felt the weight of these cultural pressures. Micah, along with other pastors who named similarly unattainable characteristics, were pretty open about the reality of these images and the pressures that clergy, in turn, face on a daily basis. It is what it is, to use the clichéd phrase.
While one might expect either avoidance or resignation to the pressures, the conversation almost always took a different turn following these reflections, evolving into self-reflection and self-awareness. Instead of letting the cultural images shape who they are as a pastor or clergy spouse, these women and men led with their style and personality in shaping how they live out their role as a pastor or clergy spouse. Indeed, our task is not to change who we are to fit a particular image but instead to recognize who we are in the midst of it all. As one pastor stated,
Part of what was hard for me being a pastor is I’ve never seen myself as the most put together person or the most righteous person or things like that. All these things I think people expect of their pastors, I’ve never seen myself like that. And so I try to do it in a different way and try to be more authentic and be myself and relate to people as I would.
My next two posts will draw from these conversations on self-awareness, addressing how pastors and clergy spouses navigate their roles, not by conforming to cultural images but by reshaping that image through practices of self-awareness and, in turn, self-care. In the meantime, consider who you are as an individual and ask how that fits or doesn’t fit with the pressures you may encounter in ministry life. How can you build practices of self-care out of this awareness, opening up opportunities rather than finding yourself stifled or stuck? I look forward to this exploration and reflection in the coming weeks.
Lenore Knight Johnson

New Year, New Focus

I am not a fan of New Year’s resolutions and I don’t think I am alone in that sentiment, but I do appreciate new seasons, which offer opportunities to stop, reflect, and revisit our patterns and consider how and where we might benefit from refocusing our attention. Sounds like a resolution, I know, but it’s a process that can occur at any time of year when we have a sudden feeling of sluggishness–physical, emotional, or spiritual.

My time for this falls at the start of each semester, when I pause to look over my schedule for the coming months–new courses, writing deadlines, faculty committee projects–thinking about my professional priorities alongside the regular practices I hope to either maintain or incorporate into my rhythms of life, such as exercise, exploring new recipes, checking out into the world of a great book or television series, and of course plenty of time with my family. We all have our responsibilities with work, family, and friends but also need to step back and recognize what keeps us as individuals healthy and flourishing. Beyond unrealistic resolutions (I vow to hit the gym every day this year!!), it’s important to intentionally carve out space in our lives to reset, refocus, rewrite, reorient, reimagine–all the ways we absolutely must take care of ourselves so that we can best take care of others.

People who exist amid high demand from others–educators, therapists, full-time parents, and clergy–are especially prone to the gradual process of skimming off layers of their own self-care in order to make enough space for the needs of people they serve. I certainly noticed this among the clergy families I met through my research who, like Jeff (part of a clergy couple), feel the very real demands of a caring profession:

“[T]he way I always describe it is there’s sort of this movement in life from dependence to independence. And I always thought independence was the end of it, but then there’s this stage called responsibility. And in a sense the responsibility is always there, but being a pastor and having people depend on you, being a parent, having a child completely dependent on you, things like that, it’s sort of this stage I call responsibility where burden is maybe not the right word but I feel the weight of…I feel that on a daily basis.”

Regular periods of resetting and refocusing can help halt the skimming off process before it gets too out of control or becomes irreparable.

My blog posts this past fall and early winter introduced the notion of work-life integration, focusing on seasons of life, embracing the messiness of an integrated life, and carving out opportunities for family–immediate and extended–in a vocation that can, at times, come into conflict with our conventional notions of family time. Many of these posts, though, focused greater attention on the outward lives of clergy families, exploring how to parent well or balance family holiday plans alongside work demands. All of this is important, but a healthy integrated life requires effective and ongoing self-reflection and self-care.

The themes for the next few months will be on ways clergy and clergy spouses, in caring for their inner selves, can better care for others. I’ll be exploring issues of self-care, identity, and personal faith generally, and specifically how these important elements of an individual’s life extend into the care and connection we bring to others. Because we are all unique, our resetting and refocusing processes must conform to our particular circumstances. But I hope my reflections in the coming months–which, as always, will draw from my research data and my own family’s experiences–will provide opportunities for your own reflection on what you need for a healthy inner life.

Lenore Knight Johnson

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Holidays as Work

 “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

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Parenting as a Pastor, Part 3

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, wed 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 shesYou know, moms up there in the robe but I think Ill 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.  Its chaotic to have them there, its 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, Ill keep the kids so you guys can go and just focus on what youre 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 wed switch and Id 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

Parenting as a Pastor–Part 2

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

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