The challenges of a pastoral change – a PK parent’s perspective

Last week I talked about the challenges of moving as a clergy spouse. This week I want to address an issue of even greater concern to me personally: moving a preacher’s kid.

When our family relocated to our current city for my husband’s pastoral appointment, our son was two. He didn’t really understand what was happening. He was also a bit delayed in stringing together words, so he couldn’t ask us questions or verbally share many of his feelings. We tried to make him feel safe, and we explained as simply and as well as we knew how. Still, his anxiety ramped up as he saw boxes accumulating in our old house, causing behavior changes and stress-induced illness. And when we moved into our current house, which was a great situation in many ways, he spent the first day wandering around the house in tears. What was this place? Why were we here? Would we leave him here alone? Where was all of his stuff? It broke my mama heart.

He’s an adaptable kid, though, and it didn’t take long for him to love his new surroundings. So much so that my husband and I dreaded telling him that now, four years later, it is time to move again. We knew we would be moving months before we could tell our son. For one thing, we were bound by confidentiality. For another, we weren’t sure yet where we were going. Once we found out, we sat him down and gave him the news. “You mean I’ll have to leave my school? My NanNan and Papa? My church?” That last one really stung. When a clergy parent moves, the whole family loses its faith community and the anchor of its social connections.  (That is, if the family has been coming to church with the clergy parent. Some do not, and churches should not assume that the family will attend.) It’s hard to explain to a child that mom or dad’s job is the link to a particular congregation and that changing jobs means severing that link.

As you can hear, the grief is potent in a PK. Here our son made his first real friends. He claimed his church and his school, and they claimed him in return. He will move away from one set of grandparents, an aunt and uncle, and three cousins who are like his siblings. He will leave behind his own activities, like the martial arts academy where he has learned so many life skills and the music school that promoted his verbal development. In all of this sadness his dad and I are trying to balance honoring his feelings and helping him get excited about a new adventure.

One of my son’s biggest worries relates to parsonage/manse/rectory life. Not everything in our house belongs to us – some furnishings belong to the church. He is trying to get straight what will be going with us and wondering if some of his toys and stuffed animals were never really his. And what if we leave something behind? And where will I sleep in my new house? Will I have a bed since this bed stays here? These are all hard concepts for a 6-year-old, especially as the boxes tower over us and the anxiety mounts and the truck’s arrival date grows ever closer.

When we get to our new town, our routines (specifically our Sunday morning ones) will change. He and I won’t go to Panera Bread for breakfast before Sunday School at 10:00 and worship at 11:00, because there is no Panera Bread. We don’t know which worship service we’ll attend, traditional at 9:00 or contemporary at 11:00.  Our son’s Sunday School teachers will have to learn that he is always in costume, whether as a penguin or Batman or a book character named Galaxy Zack. And he’s a method actor, so expect the voice and persona to go with the character. He’s not going to be a sharply-dressed, perfectly still and reverent preacher’s kid.

You know from reading to this point that though the circumstances are causing some of my son’s anxiety, some of my own is probably adding on. It’s kind of a cycle. I’m working on it, I promise! But it is important for clergy to be aware of what their children might experience with a move – knowing adversity can be character-building – and for churches receiving new pastors with children to understand what the minister will be coping with on the home front. Make an effort to get to know clergy children, to make them feel valued in their own right. Soon they will be at home in your congregation, and your new pastor can focus more fully on ministry alongside you.

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash.

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.

A positive spin on moving

Creative Commons "Helpful Advice" by Santos "Grim Santo" Gonzalez licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Creative Commons “Helpful Advice” by Santos “Grim Santo” Gonzalez is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Moving is a hassle with a capital H. I hate the packing and cleaning on one end, only to clean and unpack on the other. Very few ministers (or people of any vocation) stay in one place their entire career, though, so moving is pretty much inevitable. Why not try to put lipstick on that pig, then?

Nostalgia. When was the last time you went through your old yearbooks and mementos, as packing prompts you to do? Maybe it was when you were preparing to move to your current location.

Purging. Stuff tends to accumulate faster than we can give it away. Moving forces some tough but liberating choices.

Moolah. All that unwanted stuff? Yard sale or Craigslist it. Or give it to a charitable organization to give away or sell.

Appreciation. Paring down what we have tends to help us remember what we really need and how lucky we are.

Mental and emotional transition time. Has the impending reality of your next phase not yet sunk in? Pack a few boxes and then see where you stand.

Potential. Nothing says “clean slate” like a completely empty house or apartment, just waiting for your homey touch.

May your moves be few, and may they be to places full of possibility.