BOR #2023: Support for Clergy Families

Over the past several years, clergy, whether single or married, and their families have continued to express serious concerns for the stresses they bear in their congregations. This phrase, “life inthe fishbowl,” describes how pastor and staff therapist Frank J. Stalfa sees the lives of clergy and their spouses and family members in our local congregations. The image is painfully accurate about the situation filled with unrealistic expectations, virtually nonexistent boundaries for privacy and personal time, disrupted lives, crises in careers and educational programs, unending demands of congregational needs, and pressure for spouse and preacher’s kids (PKs) to be persons without personal or professional needs as well as perfect, “model” Christians.

PK syndrome is documented in research on children and youth in clergy families, and it names the pressure on clergy children to set a high standard for other children to follow (the perfect student, the model son/daughter, the high-achieving youth), potentially limiting their individuality and development. Support, encouragement, and opportunities for PKs to share their pressures and joys are being addressed through annual conference PK retreats, blogs and growing recognition among congregations that they are pivotal people in the health and well-being of preacher’s kids.

The 2009 Clergy Spouse and Family Survey, conducted by the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, in collaboration with the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits, and the General Board of Discipleship, received over 3100 responses from United Methodist clergy spouses. This survey echoed many of the responses to the Leadership survey conducted in 1992 as to the contributors for marital stresses among clergy families: insufficient time together, use of money, income level, communication difficulties, differences over leisure activities, difficulties in raising children, pastor’s anger toward spouse, and differences over ministry career and spouse’s career. A significant and troubling finding from the Leadership survey was that 80% of clergy reported that they believed their pastoral ministry negatively affected their families. The 2009 Clergy Spouse and Family Survey revealed similar reflections from spouses and as well as several changes occurring among clergy spouses.

Although the majority of clergy spouses are female, a growing number of these spouses are male. This challenges how the “role” of clergy spouse may be related more to gender than the “position” as a spouse to a clergyperson. Noteworthy among the differences in how men married to women clergy are treated include: rather than being called the clergy spouse, they are the “men married to a minister,” and the expectations placed on female clergy spouses are not placed on these male clergy spouses such as providing child care, being in a choir, teaching a children’s church school, or attending worship services. Their development of a separate personal and professional identity may not be the struggle it is for many female spouses who fight to keep a career or family time or educational opportunities. This suggests that expectations of clergy spouses may not only be traditional but also gender- related. Further research could guide the Church in how to minister effectively to spouses of clergy and congregations as these roles continue to transition.

Also changing is the “traditional” supportive ministerial role identity among clergy spouses. In previous generations, the pastor’s spouse was generally available to provide additional local church leadership. However, the 2009 survey revealed a very different set of life commitments as clergy spouses are now employed full-time (55%), part-time (17%), with only 12% able to be a stay- at-home parent/homemaker; 30% of clergy spouses have college degrees and 43% have graduate degrees, representing being one of the most highly educated groups in the denomination; among those surveyed, 78% were female and 21.7% were male; 70% believed their children are satisfied being a “preacher’s kid” and 18% of parents indicated they didn’t know how their children would assess their experience; 80% of spouses are in their first marriage and rated their marital satisfaction as very high (note that this survey was not able to reach divorced spouses of UMC clergy); and 49% are in the 51-64 age range with a combined total of 38% being younger than age 50. The changing nature of the clergy spouse role has yet to alter many expectations from many of our congregations. (“The Clergy Spouses and Families in the United Methodist Church Survey,” 2009.)

Although the 2009 survey showed that the clergy spouse roles and expectations are changing, it also revealed that the experiences of being invisible, lonely, recipients of parishioner gossip and hostilities, frequent disregard to clergy family needs of adequate, safe, and efficient housing and for honoring spouses’ professional careers and development, and chronic distrust from the consequences of seeking professional marital and/or family counseling for fear of how the Church (local and annual conference) may perceive them as “troubled” remain far too common among our clergy spouses. It is unthinkable to believe that congregations intentionally wish the stress and pain that living life in a “fishbowl” can cause. Certainly, many parishioners would find it unacceptable that their expectations and demands (spoken and unspoken) would cause additional pain and hardship on their clergy family.

Christian Community for All Our Families 

As United Methodists we envision churches and congregations in which all of God’s children are welcome at the Table, all are nurtured and respected for their own gifts and talents, and are transformed to be Christ to others in the world. We are a Church of disciples, each to be fully engaged in transforming the world regardless of family status. 

Our Church places high value on our families, yet the needs and crises of our clergy families may go unnoticed, unidentified and unaddressed. Clergy families are like every other family with strengths and stresses similar to all families. They need privacy and boundaries that protect life just as other families have. 

What Can Be Done? 

The roles of clergy spouse and family are unique and frequently taken for granted. These roles are, nonetheless, critical to the well-being and success of the clergy’s ministry. Sustaining the emotional, spiritual, physical, and economic health of our clergy families is a ministry to be recommended to every congregation and annual conference. Recognizing that clergy have families that come in different forms and have different needs, congregants can: 

1. Examine their own attitudes, perceptions, and expectations and identifying where they are unrealistic; 

2. Ask themselves the questions that will identify any sexism or racism in their expectations and assumptions: If this clergy spouse/family member were another gender or another race, would I have the same expectations? Would I make the same assumptions? Would I react differently if they were a congregational family member? 

3. Remember clergy and their families are human and have their own personal and professional lives; 

4. Provide safe and honest sharing for clergy families when stress mounts; 

5. Encourage clergy families to seek help, even taking the initiative to provide resources and support; 

6. Regularly clarify and keep their expectations realistic, recognizing that pedestals are for statues; 

7. Reserve family time and protect family life boundaries; 

8. Provide adequate, healthy, clean, safe and efficient parsonages (which clergy families are to also treat with respect and care), with the understanding that this is the home for the clergy and family, not an extension of church property. 

Congregations can share the effective and renewing models working in the episcopal areas and conferences around the Church, including but not limited to these: 

1. Iowa Conference’s “What Do I Do If . . .?” Basic Information Handbook for Clergy Spouses, distributed to clergy spouses upon the commission or ordination of their spouse. 

2. Florida Conference’s program of nurture, healing, and preventative care to clergy and their families, Shade and Fresh Water. (The three-part approach includes a therapeutic presence for families in crisis or need, including professional counseling and safe space; a preventative program for clergy families in transition in appointments; and a sustaining program encouraging healthy modeling of well-balanced lives.) 

3. Varied programs, guidance, and initiatives of organizations like The Center for Ministry, the Center for Pastoral Effectiveness and Spiritual Direction, and websites like “Desperate Preacher’s Site".

4. Website for postings of articles, events, retreats and resources for clergy spouses and families. 

5. The book, How the Other Half Lives: The Challenges Facing Clergy Spouses and Partners, by Johnna Fredrickson & William A. Smith. Published by The Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, Ohio, 


6. Clergy Housing Handbook: Parsonages, a collection of best practices from annual conferences with housing recommendations and checklists, designed to facilitate open, healthy and caring communication among clergy, clergy spouses and families, and parishioners. 

7. Ongoing collaboration between the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits, the General Board of Discipleship, and the General Commission on Religion and Race. 

Therefore, be it resolved, that the General Conference of The United Methodist Church calls on each of the following groups to address this growing crisis among our clergy families: 

1. The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women will work collaboratively with the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits, and the General Board of Discipleship to convene a summit to research issues affecting clergy spouses and families, to identify and promote existing relevant and effective resources, plan the development of needed additional resources to address these concerns, and make any legislative recommendations to the 2016 General Conference. 

2. Bishops, cabinets, and boards of ordained ministry will promote specific conference resources, training and orientation models, and counseling assistance programs to all clergy and families. 

3. Staff-parish relations committees will use strategies and training resources for their members in these specific concerns of clergy and families. 

4. District superintendents and their spouses may be called on to provide modeling and leadership for their clergy families in successful strategies. Superintendents will prioritize this issue as they work with local congregations in transitions and ongoing appointments. 

5. Annual conference commissions on the status and role of women will survey spouses and families of clergy to assist annual conferences, bishops and cabinets, and general agencies in gathering data and developing resources and strategies in response to the challenges of life in the clergy family. 

6. The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women will host a page on the website dedicated to posting available resources, links and conference events related to clergy spouse and family support ministries. 

7. The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women will post on the Clergy Housing Handbook: Parsonages for easy availability and free accessibility to local church and conference boards of trustees, staff-parish councils, bishops, cabinets, boards of ordained ministry, and commissions on the status and role of women. 

8. The research and data from the summit findings from GCSRW and other collaborating general church boards and agencies will be published in a summary document and made available for use by United Methodist annual conferences and other denominations and religious bodies. 






See Social Principles, ¶ 161B

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