You Can't Have It All

Discernment deals with both dreams and reality

Bill: When a married United Methodist clergy is up for a change in appointment, how much consideration should be given to the spouse’s career?


Joe: Spousal employment is becoming more and more of a challenge to appointment making by cabinets.  It is just the way of the world these days.  I'm not sure there is any simple solution. We clergy persons need to remember that we can't have it all.  If we are committed to supporting our spouses' career path, we will have to make sacrifices and compromises in our ministry path.  On the other hand, if a couple is fully supportive of the value that the ministry must come first, then as a family we must be committed to be fully itinerant. 


Bill: Over the course of my ministry, I have seen three distinct eras relating to this issue. When I began, in the early 70s, none of the cabinet members or elder statesmen of the conference had working spouses. The cultural bias was that whatever the wife did outside the home was of little consequence. On the other hand, female clergy were always asked about their husband’s work. As the general culture shifted, the church lagged. The second era, which still holds sway in some regions, was to consider clergy spouses that volunteered in the church, or worked in a staff role, to be assets. These pastors were promoted, whereas, those whose spouses had significant secular careers were assigned to financially struggling congregations, with the explanation that priority had been given to providing a location near to the spouse’s employment.


Joe: Having it all isn’t a realistic option. There’s only so much that the cabinet can do as it tries to meet the expectations of both clergy and congregations.


Bill: But, our growing awareness of justice issues has ushered us into a third era. Today, conferences are developing tools to enable clergy families to list their priorities. It is inequitable for the cabinet to appoint a clergy couple in such a way that one is earning less than what they would earn if appointed separately. In a similar vein, it is wrong for a district superintendent to ‘sell’ a pastor to a church by saying that their spouse will play the organ for free. Further, a new ministry is unlikely to be fruitful if it begins with significant clergy family needs being unmet. But, in each of these cases, the unusual thing about the clergy person can be viewed as an asset, rather than as a barrier to full itineracy.


Joe: With a limited number of positions available each year, certain sacrifices need to be made. Honest dialogue in the off-season, before any particular appointment is being considered, enables pastors to clarify their priorities with the cabinet, and say what they are willing to give up in order to get what they need.


Bill: Both clergy persons and congregational situations are becoming increasingly diverse. If appointments continue to be made in the old, paternalistic, way, where a group met in secret to determine what was best for the churches and clergy persons on the table, then United Methodism will become untenable. If however, new forums are developed for both clergy person and congregations to discern the difference between need and want, priority and like-to-have, missional and optional, then there is hope for progress in this third era.

additional author: 
Joe Fort
United Methodist Church