|Survey looks at United Methodist clergy spouses|
A recent survey of clergy spouses reveals that they “have changed over
the years and do not fit what many of us have as a stereotype,” says M.
Garlinda Burton of the Commission of the Status and Role of Women that
conducted the study.
A UMNS photo by Maile Bradfield.
A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*
March 19, 2009
Today’s clergy spouse, either male or female, often has a graduate degree and a full-time job outside the church.
That is one of the findings of a survey on “Clergy Spouses and Families in The United Methodist Church 2009.”
The survey was prepared by the United Methodist Commission on the
Status and Role of Women, in collaboration with the denomination’s
Board of Pension and Health Benefits, Board of Discipleship and Board
of Higher Education and Ministry.
M. Garlinda Burton
“As a body, clergy spouses have changed over the years and do not
fit what many of us have as a stereotype,” said M. Garlinda Burton, the
commission’s top executive.
Nearly 3,100 clergy spouses completed the survey, which was
distributed in several different ways. Most respondents – 78 percent
were female – learned of the survey through their annual conference.
The number of clergywomen – 13 percent of all ordained United
Methodist elders – has increased dramatically since the ordination of
women was officially approved in 1956 but not all are married.
Raising the issue
The idea for the survey came from former commission directors who
were clergy spouses, Burton said. “When they started to realize that
part of our job is to look at where women are concentrated and what
their concerns are and how we can support them, they raised the issue
of clergy spouses,” she explained. “The majority of clergy spouses are
A pilot study showed “that people had so much to say” on the issue,
she noted. Commission staff also receives occasional calls from clergy
spouses who need help with marital or family problems or just are not
sure where to go for information or assistance.
“We have come to realize that this is an audience that is often not heard,” Burton said.
Kim Coffing, a commission executive, took the lead for the survey
project. The survey’s author and research consultant is the Rev. Gail
Murphy-Geiss, a former president of the commission and assistant
professor of sociology at Colorado College in Denver.
Murphy-Geiss believes the study could be the first of its type for a
specific denomination. She said when she researched the topic, “what I
found were studies of clergy families and spouses … done by
psychologists and counselors. Probably the most common literature was
self-help books for clergy wives and mothers.”
The data from this survey shows that, in general, “clergy spouses
seemed to be pretty happy about what they were doing,” she added.
Murphy-Geiss has divided the survey project into three phases. The
first phase, now complete, was to collect and initially evaluate the
data. The second phase will involve a more sophisticated analysis of
the data and the final phase will include the reading and correlation
of narrative comments on the survey. She expects to complete the entire
report by the end of the summer.
Different experience of spouse role
One of her findings was that while male spouses of clergywomen are
generally satisfied, they have a different experience of the spouse
role than their female counterparts. Murphy-Geiss said she was
surprised that male spouses responding to the survey were older than
the female spouses were but noted that many of the men were in second
As reflected in society, the male spouses tended to be more highly
educated, held more full-time jobs and had higher average incomes than
female spouses. Of the minority of spouses who reported being unhappy
with their marriages, men were more likely to be unhappy than the
women, she said, which is the opposite of findings in general
The Rev. Gail Murphy-Geiss
Some 40 percent of those taking the survey went to graduate school. “This is a highly educated group,” she added.
Outside full-time employment was reported by 87 percent of the males
and 59.5 percent of the females. Less than 1 percent was childless.
About 2.8 percent of the men claimed to be a full-time parent.
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. Some had only
moved once or twice, while one respondent reported moving 36 times.
“The average number of moves was 3.9 for everyone,” she noted.
The number of years in ministry did seem to contribute to marital
satisfaction. Respondents who had spent 26 or more years in ministry
were most satisfied, she reported. Spouses who looked to the marital
partner as their own pastor, around 54 percent, had higher marital
satisfaction scores than those who did not.
As in many other studies, “marital satisfaction drops when children
enter the home and it goes up again when children leave,” she said.
“That seems to be the pattern here.”
Participation in church
The biggest difference between male and female respondents occurred
in how they participated in church. “Male spouses, if they’re active in
the church, are active in the lay speaking program,” she explained,
adding that women tend to focus on educational programs, music and
United Methodist Women.
Making comparisons based on racial-ethnic identity was difficult
because many respondents did not identify their spouse in that way.
Murphy-Geiss did find that “interracial couples tend to report the same
experiences as same-race couples.”
Ninety percent felt had their children had a positive experience
growing up with a clergy parent, although male spouses seemed less
likely to know how their kids are faring.
The institutional church seems to do a good job supporting older
spouses and clergy widows. “The older spouses tended to say they felt
highly connected to the church, especially supported by the district,”
The Commission on the Status and Role of Women plans to share its
final report with a variety of groups in the church, including bishops,
district superintendents and staff-parish relations committees. “We’re
going to ask our commission to make recommendations to the appropriate
bodies,” Burton said. “It may result in some legislation, we don’t know
Other possibilities include bringing together a group of clergy
spouses to hear more directly from them and tailoring the survey for
clergy spouses in countries outside the United States, she added.
The report is posted on the Commission’s Web site at www.gcsrw.org.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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