Monday, March 23, 2009

Clergy Spouses

Results of a survey of United Methodist clergy spouses have just been released. I remember taking that survey several months ago and being almost moved to tears that someone (the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women) actually asked how I feel about being a clergy spouse. I let it all out, and was quite eager to read about the findings when UMNS released this article last week.

Overall, “clergy spouses seemed to be pretty happy about what they were doing,” said the Rev. Gail Murphy-Geiss, research consultant. Interestingly, the study found that spouses in ministry over 26 years were the most happy, suggesting that spouses learn over time to take the difficulties of ministry in stride and/or to appreciate certain aspects of ministry. The study also found that “marital satisfaction drops when children enter the home and it goes up again when children leave.” I remember questions on the survey about raising children in clergy families, and I admit I have a lot of concern about it: children being singled out as “the pastor’s kid,” or expected to be better behaved than the other kids, not allowed to just be themselves, etc. More than that, I worry that my own frustration and cynicism about the institutional church today will tarnish their experience of church, or worse, hinder their faith. (I know such an attitude and how I express it is within my control, but I still worry about it.)

The article reported, “Murphy-Geiss said she had expected that spouses who were required to move more often would be less satisfied in their situations, but the data showed that the number of moves does not seem to affect either marital satisfaction or the happiness of the children.” The survey found the average number of moves to be 3.9, though one respondent reported moving 36 times. I wish they had broken that statistic down to number of moves per decade of ministry, or in other words, average length of stay at a congregation, since 3.9 doesn’t tell us much given that it’s averaging the responses of 75-year old respondents and 27-year-olds like me. How many moves is typical for a 40-year career, and how does that number affect spouses’ happiness, I wonder?

One of the most important findings of the survey, I think, pertain to the educational and professional qualifications of clergy spouses. Forty percent have graduate degrees and a majority (59% of women and 87% of men) have full time jobs outside the home. These are not your stereotypical pastors' wives of the mid-20th century, working exclusively in the home or in a secretarial or women's ministry role at the church, but rather these are professionals whose jobs limit their ability to move to the far reaches of the conference. This finding should have a profound impact on the United Methodist itineracy system, as cabinets must take into consideration the spouse’s career and the potentially negative impact certain appointments could have on the pastor’s family.

This is obviously a very sensitive issue to me personally, as a woman married to a pastor appointed to a church (with a parsonage) several counties away from my workplace. The hour-long commute (each way) that was previously an annoyance or inconvenience will now be a hardship that keeps me away from my child two extra hours a day. I hope the United Methodist powers-that-be will come to take the realities of the 21st century family more seriously in the future and make appointments accordingly.

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