United Methodist clergy couples navigate balance between church, home

By Porsche Barton

Pastors shoulder a vast amount of responsibilities in leading a church, from preaching the word of God to counseling and handling the overall administration and oversight of a congregation.

Some rely on help from a husband or wife who can handle the demands of a household or the role of “pastor’s spouse” in church life. But for single pastors or clergy couples, there is often no one to take the reins in these areas. And for clergy couples in particular, the challenges can sometimes seep into the home, causing frustration, strain on the relationship—or worse. Many struggle to find a balance between home and work, particularly if one of the two works in a separate town. There are double the pressures and double the commitments.

However, a host of clergy couples in South Carolina are doing their best to achieve a new sense of balance in the responsibility—and thriving in the process.

The Nelson story

The Revs. Ken and Angela Nelson are one of those couples. Ken Nelson is coordinator of clergy services and conference secretary. His wife, Angela, pastors Good Hope Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church, Camden.

“For me, the most important thing that we have learned is that we must be intentional about making time for one another and seeking to over-communicate,” Ken said. “We are people who live in multiple covenants. We have taken marital vows, ordination vows, and we have family and personal relationships that we seek to honor. Ministry will take everything that you will give to it. We have to work hard at keeping the balance. There are ebbs and flows as to how well we do at staying balanced, but our goal is to faithfully honor all of our covenants.”

The couple met through ministry during Ken’s first appointment. He was Angela’s parents’ pastor. They both shared a love for the Gospel of Jesus and a passion for sharing the Gospel with God’s people, which created a solid bond between the two.

“Our friendship began because of this love and it blossomed over time,” Angela said.

After almost 10 years of marriage, the couple has met some challenges throughout their journey together.

“The greatest challenge is the same challenge that every couple faces in every marriage where both spouses are working: finding balance, since we both love ministry, and desire to be fruitful. We tend to feed off of each other,” Ken said. That means that we feed into each other’s perfectionist tendencies at times.”

But no matter the challenge, the couple continues to build and strengthen the bond created so many years ago. Angela said she and her husband strive to do all they can to make things work.

“Coordination of schedules is key, because we are both very busy with ministry, school and with personal matters,” she said. “Carving out time for ‘down time’ is also critical. We love to travel, and finding time to visit new places is something we try to find time for.”

The Dunn story

After more than 18 years of separate appointments, Dr. Robert Dunn, pastor of Trinity UMC, York, and his wife, Dr. Linda Dunn, pastor of Hickory Grove Charge, Hickory Grove, are still discovering what works best for them in fulfilling their duties as disciples while also nurturing their marriage and family.

They said it is difficult to separate home and work because they often overlap. In order to make things work, they said, flexibility, appreciation for each other’s ministry setting, sharing calendar events for planning purposes, time away and being organized are essential.

Both second-career pastors, the Dunns began to experience separation and its effects on their family when Linda completed seminary, was ordained and appointed. During that time, Bob was also completing his final year of seminary out-of-state. The pair said it was a difficult year for the family because of the separation—and difficult for Linda to juggle ministry schedules and family responsibilities.

Because there is no set weekly routine outside of Sunday worship hours, and because every week is different, filled with scheduled meetings and events, not to mention emergencies, the couple is often kept apart.

The Dunns said it can be challenging not being able to worship together and having to arrange schedules to attend activities at all of the churches. And unfortunately, they said, churches don’t always understand realities of clergy couples and have unrealistic expectations of their roles, often wanting spouses to be present when they cannot because of their own separate commitments. Another challenge is when parishioners compare them.

But the couple described their appointments as “smooth” overall, with the exception of one turbulent experience for Linda that resulted in a move after 18 months, which also resulted in a move for Bob when his appointment was going well. His church felt victimized by circumstances, they said. It was a challenging experience for them all.

Since overcoming these obstacles, the couple has found some renewed stability. Provided there aren’t any emergencies, they take a regularly scheduled day off each week and also take day trips on those days to “get away from work,” they said.

The White-Gaither story

The Rev. Sara White, director of congregational development for the conference and her husband, the Rev. Steve Gaither, pastor of Windsor UMC, Columbia, have also experienced challenges as a clergy couple. The pair met at a church where White later served.

As with the Dunns, “The first experience we had as a clergy couple was separation,” White said. “I was appointed in Charleston on the Isle of Palms; he was appointed in the Marion District at the Loris Charge, which was about 90 miles a part.”

It was most difficult for Gaither’s daughter, Bonnie, who was only 12 at the time.

The couple decided early on that they needed a way to communicate and spend quality time, so they established date nights in Murrell’s Inlet. This served them well not only to keep them connected, but also to handle life’s complications.

“It’s just life; there’s so many two-career couples now, so many adjustments that families have made,” White said. “Just the sheer unpredictability of clergy life I think is the difference, because you don’t know when something is going to happen, but for most professionals, life is a little bit unpredictable these days, anyway. The differences are narrowing. They’re not as wide as they used to be.”

And as is a challenge in non-clergy marriages, financial strain can also take a toll. White said taxes are especially tough, because both spouses must pay their own Social Security taxes.

“Most people don’t understand that United Methodist pastors are considered by the IRS as self-employed, so you have two people who are paying their entire Social Security tax. So for clergy couples, that’s a hit financially,” White said.

Positives outweigh negatives

But, the couples said, there are many hidden blessings within the dynamic of clergy relationships, and like all relationships, those relationships are two-fold. With God at the center of these unions, many clergy couples will attest that they’ve experienced far more positives than anything else.

“Having a spouse who is a clergy member means that I have someone who understands my work, the challenges and the rewards,” Angela Nelson said. “Ken is very experienced in ministry, whereas I am just beginning. He is a mentor as well as husband, yet he knows when to stand back and watch, and when to provide input.”

“The blessings are always having a cheerleader in your corner who loves you when you’ve done your best or less than your best. The privilege is also having a confidant,” Ken Nelson said.

The Dunns said the benefits of being a clergy couple include being resources for each other, such as sharing sermon ideas, conflict resolution, continuing education interests and classes, and also encouraging each other to grow and try new things.

The couple said they’ve experienced first-hand the importance of communication, forgiveness and strengthening the marital bond; they’ve learned that their relationship comes before things, and as they’ve learned to help others, they’ve been able to help themselves.

White said being rooted in the church benefits their marriage.

“We do know that at the core of each one of us, there is something shared, and we have a rhythm to our life that is established,” White said. “I consider church a holy place. We have a rhythm to our life that’s established in a holy place, and I believe that helps immensely.”

One way to describe the love, strength and bond of a clergy couple is sacrifice. When there’s a higher, greater sense of calling to give love and light to God’s people, they said, there are many sacrifices that will be made.

Many clergy couples can agree they’ve experienced the good and not-so-great; when tough calls have to be made and things spill over into their homes and families, they work to find their balance and remain grounded in God’s word.

And in turn, they receive many blessings within their partnership of love, life and leadership.

“There’s a Scripture about Paul that’s in the New Testament where it talks about working together and it talks about being yoked evenly,” White said. “What he’s talking about is the necessity of pulling weight together rather than having one leading and another following behind.

“And I think … that’s a wonderful thing about being a clergy couple. You have someone who, though they may have very different ways of approaching ministry. They understand why you’re doing ministry, they understand what’s at stake in your heart for doing ministry. And that’s just been the biggest blessing out of all of it.”

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