Spouse-Minister rather than Minister’s Spouse

As some of you may know, my wife (JJ) has been appointed as the RCA’s newest missionary in Italy and we have begun fund raising, language studies, and various other preparations for moving our family to Naples where she will be working (among other things) to coordinate resources for the approximately 500,000 migrants in Naples and its surrounding community.   Although many Americans are unaware of the situation, it is one of the most dire humanitarian crises in Europe.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a fund raising post!  (Although of course, you can find out more at www.tenclay.org or www.facebook.com/tenclay).

This is a post about a changing world.

Once upon a time, missionaries were sent around the world to “bring the gospel to the heathens” dragging their wives and families (sometimes the word “dragging” wasn’t hyperbole ) to far away places with little (or no) communication and minimal (or no) resources.  There’s much to discuss about that last sentence, but for now, just notice the implied genders.

Generally speaking, men were missionaries, and women were missionary spouses.

There were exceptions, of course.  There were (and are) hundreds of missionary families around the world (including in the US and Canada) and many of us are familiar with missional greats like Mary Geegh… nonetheless, the official “mission field” was (like most official ministry) primarily a men’s club.

Naturally, we now realize (but let me say it just to make sure) that women are equal parts of God’s kingdom, equally gifted, equally skilled, and equally as called to vocations that are equally as important to both God’s mission and the world we live in.

What’s new is that the primary “missionary” in missionary families like mine, is now sometimes the woman.

I am a missionary spouse.

Sure, I’m a minister, and yes, I will find a way to use my gifts and skills in Italy, but when push comes to shove, the RCA appointed JJ.   We are moving to Italy because the RCA has recognized her gifts, skills, experience, and calling and has affirmed them, not mine.  (Although, hopefully they do that too!)

For us, this is a fairly old concept.  While we made our last move for my call, we have long proclaimed the parity of our vocations, and she has been the primary “bread winner” in our family for several years now.

Nonetheless, this is a drastic change from the way things were fifty years ago – probably even twenty years ago.  Historically speaking, most pastors have been the “primary bread winner” in their family.  The congregations they serve, therefore, often act (even if they don’t admit it) as if the spouse’s vocational responsibilities are secondary (and thus sacrifice-able, when necessary).  Indeed, on several instances since my graduation from seminary (and her graduation from graduate school) my wife has even been told that.

The world is changing.

Many ordained ministers and their families are unable to live on their church salaries anymore.   Indeed, pastors – with increasing frequency – are the “secondary” income, not the primary one.  That means that in our house, for example, I stay home from work when school is cancelled – not my wife.   I tend to schedule my evening meetings around hers, not the other way around.  My grandfather was a minister, and I’m pretty certain that wouldn’t have been the case in their family!

I realize this isn’t a completely new reality.  This has been the case for many ministers (especially of small churches) and many women in ministry for a long time.  However, I do think it is far more common now than it has been in the past and may be reaching a “tipping point” where its effects will be more broadly influential.

It makes me wonder what will it mean for the church in coming years?

What does it mean for death-bed calls?  Will it change ministerial longevity (positively?  negatively?)  How will it affect the search and call process?  What does it mean for seminaries and the way they recruit, educate, and prepare ministers?  How will ordained ministry be done differently when the “simple” act of paying the bills means the minister‘s job has to take “second chair?”  How will churches have to revise their expectations (both written and unwritten) and their self-perceptions?

I can imagine there are both positive and negative implications to this change…  for individuals… for families… for congregations…  for ministers… for ministers’ spouses…

What do you think?

Grace and peace,



2 thoughts on “Spouse-Minister rather than Minister’s Spouse

  1. I could see this as having a positive impact on ministerial longevity (either because ministers can afford to or will have to stay longer, since the primary breadwinner cannot move so easily), but I am not sure that will always be a good thing, because there will be bad pastor-church relationships that go on even longer than they should.

    On the bright side, it might push classes and synods to utilize their ministers creatively, rather than the most experienced pastors always going where congregations can pay the most.

    My more cynical side, however, wonders whether this will push us to drop the lie about freeing ministers from worldly concerns from the call form.

  2. Tim and JJ, this is quite exciting news about Naples! We visited there a number of years ago during our tour of the Waldensian church. They happened to have a garbage strike when we were in the city of Naples, which is enough to damage any good PR attempts. But the immigrant population, and the waldensian church’s attempts to minister, are incredible…and gigantuan.

    Well, as a “pastor’s wife,” I had been fortunate to have had some folks pave the way quite well for me in decreasing expectations about how much I’d be around back in the days when Terry was serving a church. I still had to remind folks that I worked as a chaplain most days, but also felt honored to be invited to the seniors’ potlucks and other events.

    We intentionally chose not to serve two different congregations as pastors; I still think the social obligations that accompany the role of pastor are pretty demanding. We have friends who are able to do this–serve two different congregations, and I’m pretty much amazed at this. We have enough challenges coordinating ourselves without all of that pressure.

    Thanks for your writing!

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