The challenges of a pastoral change – a clergy spouse’s perspective

My husband and I are both clergy. I was ordained first, in a tradition that allows ministers to decide what positions to seek and where to search. Matt, on the other hand, still had a couple of years to go as a provisional minister in the United Methodist Church, in which clergy are appointed to congregations by the bishop. In other words, I was mobile, and he was not. So it made sense that I would move to where he was pastoring when we got married fifteen years ago.

As it has worked out, I have been the trailing spouse ever since. Though frustrating at first, those circumstances eventually played a part in my decisions to pursue interim ministry, consultant, and coach training as well as opportunities to serve beyond my denomination. I love what I do, and because of my education and network, I can do it anywhere.

It’s helpful to remember that, because it’s moving time again. Next week we’ll migrate our household two hours up the road so that Matt can take a new appointment. For the moving minister, this change is predictably bittersweet. It’s hard to leave a congregation you’ve pastored for several years, but the anticipation of new challenges is (mostly) exciting. There’s a tangible reality this clergyperson is reaching toward. For the spouse of a minister, this new thing is much more nebulous. There’s no pre-set title, role, or responsibilities waiting – there shouldn’t be, at least! – and contact with the new church and community is minimal before the actual move. The feelings of a moving clergy spouse, then, can vary widely, and I think it’s important for churches receiving new pastors to know that.

Specifically, there can be more grief than excitement because what we as spouses are leaving is much more definable that what the future holds. From my perspective, there has been good in our current church, even as there has been difficulty. I have cultivated networks in the surrounding community that I will deeply miss, and I have doubts that there will be similar counterparts in my new town. And I lament the unmet hopes and plans for our time in this city. (For example, I have had to put some developments in my coaching practice on hold to free up time to pack and to be able to put a more long-term address on legal paperwork.)

Also, developing a sense of home is difficult as a clergy spouse, particularly the spouse of an officially itinerant minister. The unknowns around how long we will be living in this place affect how much I invest in the church and community. I wonder whether it’s worth hanging pictures and art on the wall. I hesitate to make friends, knowing we will not be here forever. The anticipatory grief begins almost as soon as a bond is established. I note all these patterns in myself, even as I wonder how to adapt them to be more healthy and settled.

And then there’s the issue of expectations. I am not, will never be, don’t want to be the stereotypical clergy spouse. For example, don’t assume I’ll be at church whenever the doors are open. I also probably won’t teach Sunday School, even though I love kids and have been both a children’s and a youth minister, because I’m on the road some Sundays. This can be hard for a receiving congregation to understand. It’s not rejection. It’s just that I have my own call to ministry, and I’m very introverted to boot. And, of course, these expectations say nothing about my parenting. My kid is always in character. He’s painfully (for me) outgoing. He’s very inquisitive. While I want him to be respectful, I will not change who he is so that he can be a smartly-dressed, seen-but-not-heard preacher’s kid. (More on that next week.)

Clergy spouses, I pray with and for you when you go through a pastoral change. Churches, I encourage you to do the same and to ask your pastoral families what they – and I mean all the family members – need. When the clergy family feels seen, heard, and valued, it makes it much more likely that your pastor will be able to focus on the work at hand. It also breeds the kind of connection that makes the minister and family want to stay in your congregation for a long time.

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash.

Networking that doesn’t feel icky

The last semester of seminary was an anxious time for me. Every day I felt more unemployable as my classmates were appointed or called to their post-graduation churches. Meanwhile, I went on interview after interview, breaking the top two or three several times before hearing the “no” that every minister in a search process dreads.

A big factor in my failed searches was that I didn’t know a lot of people. I was a name on a page, with too little experience to make search teams want to find out more about me. One reason for my small network was that I simply had not met a lot of people. I had only recently found my way to the progressive Baptist world, which was where I wanted to serve, yet as a Candler student most of my friends and professors were United Methodist. But there was also the side of me that rejected networking as I understood it: schmoozing and getting ahead based on the connections I had, not the work I had done or the skills I possessed.

In time I realized that “networking” is one of those words that needs to be re-claimed, like evangelism. Good, healthy networking is not about ladder-climbing. It’s about showing interest in other people and their work. It’s about learning from and sharing wisdom with others. It’s about, in short, understanding our interdependence and strengthening relationships such that both parties can more fully inhabit their personhood and their call.

Putting on a Murphy Brown suit and making it rain business cards won’t accomplish those ends. But in his WorkLife podcast, organizational psychologist Adam Grant recently offered up ways to network that do build genuine bonds:

Build your skills. As you learn, you not only increase your range and expertise, you meet people in the areas where those skills are needed, some of whom are regularly contacted by organizations looking for those talents. So in the world of ministry, seek out parachurch trainings about how to be a head of staff or mediate conflict or navigate the interim time between settled pastors. Attend continuing education events offered by seminaries. Get coached. Go to denominational gatherings that offer practical workshops.

Give help. Want to learn how to do something new and show your willingness to be a team player? Offer to pitch in. Take on a project at the middle judicatory level. Mentor a new minister. Offer your expertise in a consultant-type role. Lead a retreat. Tread with intentionality, though, making sure you aren’t just accumulating tasks that no one else wants or that others expect women to do.

Ask for advice. Not everyone loves to be asked for help. That can, at times, feel like a burden. But who doesn’t like to be asked for their wisdom? Contact someone who is doing something you’d like to do and ask a few brief questions about how that person got there. If you want to serve a big-steeple church, reach out to a large-church pastor you admire. The same goes if you’re feeling called to be a CPE supervisor, judicatory or denominational leader, or any other role. The veteran will feel recognized for work well done, and you will gain knowledge and plant your name in that person’s memory.

The key in all of these types of network is to be sincere in your interactions. Truly be interested, and you will likely be amazed at the doors that will open for you.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash.

Fatigue’s impact on trust

Recently I was coaching a pastor who was two months into a new call. She was excited about her church and its mission potential. She was also enjoying getting to know the people, but she was having trouble trusting them. She was a bit befuddled by this, because there was no overt reason for this hesitation. She hadn’t received any hurtful criticism or significant pushback. When I asked what the lack of trust was about, she thought for a moment. She then named relational fatigue as a key factor. In this pastor’s case, she had taken a full month off – a typical fallow period – before diving into her new ministry. And yet she was recognizing that she needed more time to tend to her (understandably) tender heart after leaving behind parishioners that she loved.

This pastor had just provided perhaps the most powerful testimonial for taking ample time off between ministry positions. We often cite physical and spiritual exhaustion as the primary motivators for spacing out calls. But bringing closure to relationships with people we’ve walked alongside during their personal milestones, with whom we have dreamed and argued, and who have been present for our own ups and downs is hard, good work. It can be overwhelming to think about opening ourselves up to knowing and being known by a whole new congregation. And yet, the bedrock of strong connections is trust, which we do not lend or receive without the willingness to make ourselves at least a little vulnerable.

This is not to say that it’s easy to take long stretches between ministry positions. Personal financial pressures are real. Churches that have been in long search processes are eager for the uncertainty to end and the settled pastor to arrive. (Search teams in particular are known to apply pressure to be on site as soon as possible. After all, the team members know the incoming minister best and are most excited about her arrival!) The pastor herself is looking forward to a fresh start in a new setting. But before committing to a start date, consider not only what you need in terms of every manner of recovery, but also what time frame will allow you to enter the system with a readiness for mutual belonging. This is a mindset – a heart orientation – that attends to the long-term missional and financial health of both clergy and congregation.

If you are already in place and find yourself reluctant to trust even in the absence of conflict, then self-care is in order. When we are unable to risk exposure, whether we are new in a call or ten years into our tenure, we need time to rest. We need space for introspection. We need opportunities to view or create beauty. We need relief from the relentlessness of ministry. Because if we have not tended to our own inner lives, we will not be able to offer a quality of presence to others. And if we withhold, then we do not build trust and do not forge or maintain relationships that make bold ministry possible.

In the case of my coachee, we strategized ways to create space and clarity within her current personal and professional realities so that she could increase her capacity to trust. If you find yourself turning inward in your ministry setting, what changes do you need to make so that you can be the pastoral leader God has called you to be?

[Note: my coachee graciously granted me permission to share her story.]

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.

Second edition of clergy search and call workbook now available

I believe that the foundation for healthy mutual ministry is laid in the pre-covenanting conversations that clergy and congregations have with one another – namely, the search & call process. It’s a time of determining whether our strengths and purpose align with a church’s needs and mission. It’s a means of sussing out whether there’s a possibility of the two parties growing and serving together, of belonging to one another. It’s an imagining of what could be as minister and ministry setting leave behind what is known.

Because of its importance, this season of discernment can be at turns exhilarating, overwhelming, and downright frustrating for ministers looking for a great-fit position. Search teams move at different speeds, and some are more communicative than others. It can be hard to know how to present ourselves (on paper and in person) in compelling ways. We usually get gut-punched by “no” a few times before we can celebrate a “yes.” And even after a call has been extended, there are so many details to tend to – salary negotiations, leaving the current position gracefully, moving, starting the new position well.

It’s a lot. Sailing Uncertain Seas: A Workbook for Navigating the Search & Call Process is here to help. First published last year, I’ve strengthened some of the coaching questions and added six pages of content to the second edition, primarily around the end of the call process. Here’s what the workbook covers:

  • How do I know when the time is right to make a move?
  • What does a “good fit” position look like for me?
  • How do I attend to gaps in the experience I have and the experience I must have?
  • How do I get my materials in front of a search team?
  • How do I tell my story to search teams?
  • How do I prepare spiritually, mentally, and emotionally for interviews?
  • What do I wear for interviews?
  • How can I reflect on interview experiences in helpful ways?
  • How do I get the real story on congregations I’m interested in?
  • How do I deal with search team gaffes?
  • How do I juggle different search timelines?
  • How do I navigate searching while serving elsewhere?
  • How do I navigate searching while not serving elsewhere?
  • How do I make good use of a search team’s “no”?
  • What else do I need to make a good decision if a call is extended?
  • How do I negotiate compensation?
  • How do I leave my current call well?
  • How do I get off to a good start in my new call?

You can print off a PDF of the workbook and use the coaching questions within to prepare for each phase of your search.

If you’re looking to make a move, this 64-page guide is a great place to start. Click here to purchase it. (Note that a free copy of Sailing Uncertain Seas is included in a search & call coaching package. If you’re interested in learning more, go here to schedule an exploratory call.)

The math of a great-fit call

Navigating search & call is complicated for clergy. There are so many variables in the process, and it’s hard to know much weight to give to each. I want to offer two things to those of you seeking a new ministerial position: a word of encouragement and a formula.

First, the encouragement. I believe there is more than one great-fit position out there for you. The pieces of ministry that give you life can be found in a range of congregations, and you have many gifts that will be well-leveraged in a number of places. I hope this assertion takes some of the pressure off as you weigh your opportunities, particularly when you are dealing with mismatched search timelines (e.g., should I withdraw from this process that I’m a finalist in to explore a relationship with another search team that is about to start initial interviews?).

And now, the formula. If you’re having trouble discerning what a great fit looks like for you, consider this visual:

There are two overriding aspects of fit: vocation and circumstances. Vocation is your purpose in ministry, the essence of what God has called you to do. It is built on your inherent gifts, though we often pick up some learned abilities along the way. It is imperative that we as candidates have a strong sense of our vocation. Otherwise, everything or nothing will look like a great fit.

We live out our vocation in a particular context. That includes the church itself, the larger community/country, and the denomination. We must be paid fairly and provided adequate benefits to engage with the people in our congregation and beyond in healthy ways.

In a great-fit call, all four aspects of vocation and circumstance – a position that utilizes our passions and strengths and a setting we have the desire and means to connect with – must be present. If one is missing, we’ll be working hard emotionally, spiritually, and mentally to avoid frustration and resentment. When all four parts work in harmony, we will flourish, even if we sometimes have to remind ourselves to take time for self-care.

As you look at the diagram above, what resonates with you? What questions does it raise? Where might you push back?

The impact of the 3 Ps on candidates in the call process

Searching for a new call is hard. Congregations are eliminating positions due to shrinking budgets. Systemic inequalities make it difficult for some candidates to get a good look from search teams. Call committees often don’t understand how covenanting with a clergyperson is different from hiring an employee.

And those issues don’t even address the mental, spiritual, and emotional toll of the search process on a candidate. In a previous post I described psychologist Martin Seligman‘s three Ps – personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence – and the ways these shame responses show up in congregational life. They also manifest in powerful, potentially debilitating ways in search & call. When a candidate hears “no” over and over, she can begin to think that:

  • the problem is on her end (personalization),
  • that every call committee will see her supposed unworthiness (pervasiveness),
  • and that she will be stuck in this vocational purgatory forever (permanence).

The three Ps can suck any energy for a minister’s search and for her current position in a hurry. Let me assure you that you are a gifted and called minister and that with time you will find a great fit. I really believe that.

So now you feel confident and ready to hit the interview trail again, right? Yeah, I didn’t figure a positive word from me alone would make the difference, even though I truly, deeply mean it. Then let me propose a few ways to combat the three Ps and their pernicious effects during that trying search season.

  • Pray. Make sure your search is deeply rooted in your relationship with God.
  • Seek encouragement from people who know you. Spend time regularly with a friend or small group that recognizes and affirms your many talents. Getting an attitude boost from those who cheer us on can help when it feels like we’re hearing a lot of rejection.
  • Approach every interview as an opportunity to network. Not every church will extend a call to you, but with every encounter you expand your exposure and gain invaluable interview experience.
  • Debrief interviews. Set a timer for 15-30 minutes to mull what you thought went well, where you felt hesitant, what questions bubbled up in you during the interaction, and what your prayer is going forward.
  • Ask for feedback from search teams. Did you get a no from a church you were excited about? See if the search chair will give you a few pointers based on your time with the team.
  • Focus your search. Have you been scattershot with your search approach? It might seem counterintuitive, but it could be time to cull your options. Create a one-sentence mission statement and self-refer only to those congregations whose positions would allow you to live well into that purpose. You’ll be better able to explain why you’re a good fit – and you’ll be much happier if you end up going to that church.
  • Work on telling your story. Of the parts of the search process we can control, none is more important than good storytelling. Refine your paperwork, making sure you have included action words and vivid examples. Think before interviews about what you want to be sure a search team knows about you by the end of the hour. Role play with a colleague. Spend time picking out an interview ensemble that tells the story you want.
  • Remember that you were called before, and you will be called again. If you are serving or have served a church, a search team has seen and responded to your gifts. It will happen again! (For years I held onto my first congregation’s newsletter that announced my call for this very reason.)

The church needs you, your gifts, and your call. Hang tight – a great fit is out there.

Supporting the pastor-parent, part two

Last week I shared my positive experience with a congregation that worked with me so that I could live into my dual calling as pastor and parent. Since then I have heard from several clergy: those whose churches who have made similar efforts and those who have left congregational ministry or are considering doing so because their churches want them to compartmentalize their pastoring and parenting selves.

Sometimes congregations simply don’t know how to support the pastor-parent. Below I have shared a few ways a church can reduce parenting stress so that the pastor can better focus on ministry. For the unconvinced, I have thrown in some notes on how these actions benefit the congregation as a whole – beyond having a grateful and less frazzled leader.

If your church has a daycare or preschool, offer a reduced rate to the minister. Side benefit: the minister will undoubtedly be more involved in the school and will be a more informed and enthusiastic evangelist for it in the community.

Allow flexibility in work arrangements, such as permitting the minister to work from home or bring a child to work as needed. Side benefit: though it may seem counterintuitive, ministers will likely be more available and productive if they are not spending time and mental and emotional energies on arranging emergency childcare.

Set up a rotation of church parents/grandparents to help the minister’s child(ren) participate in worship – or to care for young children during worship, if there’s no formal nursery. Side benefit: the church will develop more cross-generational communication and investment.

Provide childcare for evening and weekend meetings that the minister must attend. Side benefit: other parents with young children will now be able to participate in those meetings when childcare is a given.

Help the minister manage the congregation’s expectations of the minister’s family. Side benefit: the graciousness extended to the pastor’s children and significant other can reinforce or help establish a church atmosphere in which everyone feels safe to be their true selves before one another and God.

What would you add to this list?

In summary, congregations need not be afraid to call pastor-parents. In addition to their many gifts, these ministers bring a deepened investment in the church as their child(ren)’s faith community, an instant means of connection with parents and grandparents in the church, and a unique perspective on hospitality toward and the spiritual formation of young families. For pastor-parents to call upon these “extras,” though, the congregation must demonstrate its willingness to welcome both aspects of the minister’s identity.