My wife, Amy, got ordained about four years ago, and straight out of seminary, we planted a new church together in Pueblo, Colorado. Even when she interviewed for the job with the local team putting the plans together, they talked about how great it would be to bring her on board, especially since they would get me as “a bonus.”
It gave me at least a small taste of what pastors’ spouses probably have endured for decades. The pastor’s wife has, for so long, been seen as a perpetual volunteer who does everything for the church, but for no pay. It’s almost a given, in more traditional circles, that a new minister comes with a partner who will pick up a lot of ancillary jobs that are set aside specifically for that spouse’s role.
My uncle is a pastor, and his wife performs many of the traditional duties in the various churches where they have served. Amy’s dad is a minister, and so was her grandfather, great-grandfather, and so on, each with faithful women at their sides who have facilitated their ministerial vision.
Amy, however, is the first ordained woman in her family, which also means I’m the first male pastor’s spouse. This, however, is not an anomaly in mainline churches. The number of women attending seminary is growing every year. With the rapid attrition of retiring ministers reaching critical levels, even those congregations who once cringed at the idea of a female pastor now must at least consider the possibility if they are going to survive in the twenty-first century.
But this also means there are going to be more men in the role of pastor’s spouse. In some cases, like ours, the husband is involved, but just not in the ways the church generally expects the traditional wife to participate. I preach now and then, lead worship, and help with youth; but I have my own life, my own career, and my own vision of what church should look like—gasp—independent of Amy.
At best, churches are having to get used to these changing roles. Worst case, the husband is not involved at all, or, if he is, it’s only as a congregant rather than as a leader. The days of a two-for-one deal when hiring the prototypical male pastor are quickly fading into the history books, and if we’re going to survive as a relevant faith movement, it’s incumbent upon us to figure out new ways to be church.
One thing that is different about Amy’s and my approach to ministry is the egalitarian nature of our work together. Though she is ordained and I’m not, and although she’s paid and I’m not, we don’t perceive her role in the church as any more important than mine. Just like our approach to parenting, we are less interested in hierarchy and clearly defined roles and more intent on finding a way to share responsibility.
I do believe, however, that the way we’re building this new church in southern Colorado is portentous of things to come. As many of us recognize, the old institution-centric models of churches are increasingly difficult to sustain, and church as we know it will look radically different in coming decades, if it is to survive. One challenge within this new model of church is that, with less of an emphasis on the hierarchic structure of religious institutions, there are fewer resources dedicated to full-time staff persons.
If this new way of doing church takes hold, you will see more and more bi-vocational ministers, which has its benefits and drawbacks. On the positive side, a minister with other sources of income can spend his or her time at church focusing on growing the mission of the faith community, rather than focusing as much on survival. The downside, of course, is that he or she doesn’t have nearly the same amount of time or energy to invest, which means other part-time staff or volunteers have to pick up the slack.
Here’s where our model of building a church as a team actually works well. We’re fortunate with my flexible schedule that Amy can work for the church full time. But if I was in a traditional job and the church had to pay someone to do everything that I do, they couldn’t at this point, because we’re still small. However, if we had to, the church could break up Amy’s and my responsibilities into two positions, managed by two spouses or a pair of bi-vocational part-time ministers, accepting as part of the deal that there would not necessarily be a single person on call at all times for the congregation’s personal needs.
We’re still feeling our way in this new church thing, and so far, it’s worked for us. Sure, I get the jokes now and then, but they’re fewer than they used to be. Amy still has the occasional visitor who walks out when she stands up behind the pulpit to speak, so it’s not all wine and roses for her either. But we’ve decided that, whatever path this calling takes, we’re in it together. Neither one of us could do it without the other, and that sense of interdependence actually makes the hard times easier to manage, knowing we’re not going through them alone.
Christian Piatt is the author of MySpace to Sacred Space: God for a New Generation, and Lost: A Search for Meaning, and he is a columnist for various newspapers, magazines, and websites on the topics of theology and popular culture. He is the founder and president of www.MyWordTree.com and serves as co-founder of Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado, with his wife, Amy. For more information about Christian, visit www.christianpiatt.com.