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Ministry presents benefits, challenges, for clergy couples

 


Ministry presents benefits, challenges, for clergy couples

March 30, 2004

By Reed Criswell and Elisabeth Stagg*

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
UMNS photo courtesy of Divinity magazine

The Revs. Carol and David Goehrings share a moment with daughters Kendra and Lindsey.

DURHAM, N.C. (UMNS) - An inevitable outgrowth of women's ordination, clergy marriages bring both distinctive rewards and challenges.

Placements, whether in the same or separate churches, can be tricky and child care is often complicated. But these unions also make for extraordinary, enriching ministries, both for clergy couples and the parishioners they serve.

When Carol and David Goehring were married on Aug. 28, 1976 - exactly a year after meeting at Duke Divinity School's orientation - the forecast for clergy couples was bleak. As it turned out, after the couple graduated in 1978, their bishop in the United Methodist Church's North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference was supportive, but there was concern that clergy couples would be a burden for churches.

Nearly 25 years later, the Goehrings are co-pastors of Jarvis Memorial United Methodist Church in Greenville, N.C. Their ministry flows with an ease that belies many years of compromises and challenges as a clergy couple. They are vocal advocates of the benefits for all involved.

"We do not see the clergy couple as more limited in ministry," David says. "Rather, we see almost endless possibilities for service."

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
UMNS photo courtesy of Divinity magazine

The Revs. Connie and Joey Shelton officiate at a wedding in Hattiesburg, Miss.

While co-leadership gives them more time together than serving separate churches, the Goehrings rarely work side by side. By 10 a.m. on Sundays, they have led an early worship service and parted ways. While Carol rehearses with the hand-bell choir in the sanctuary, David is teaching the "Living the Adventure" Sunday school class in the education building. Carol opens the 11 a.m. worship in the sanctuary, but it is her turn to lead a simultaneous contemporary service in the nearby gymnasium. Somewhere between the announcements and the welcome of new members, she slips out, sheds her robe for a jacket and hurries to join worshippers in the gym.

"People are always surprised that David and I aren't with each other all the time since we 'work together,'" Carol says. "But we feel we each need to be in different places, doing what needs to be done."

After worship, the Goehrings meet in their offices with daughters Kendra, 22, and Lindsey, 18, for a discussion without theological implications: where to have lunch.

Co-leading the 2,100-member Jarvis congregation is a logistical dream compared to serving separate churches. David was once "a circuit rider" in his Pinto, traveling among three small churches near Winfall, N.C., while Carol served a four-point charge 22 miles away. For Carol to drive home before evening meetings wasn't feasible, so David became the primary caregiver for Kendra. That wasn't a bad thing, the couple agrees, but finding good child care was often a headache.

Family matters

The Revs. Mark and Annette Flynn can relate. Their lives as a clergy couple changed dramatically when they began a family.

The low point for Annette was moving to a new appointment when their younger child was 6 weeks old. "I had two small children and no support system, while Mark was expending his energy in the first year of a new appointment," she says. Annette took leaves after the birth of each child, and then chose part-time ministry. "Mark has always had a wife," she says. "I did not."

Annette eventually decided to leave pastoral ministry. She is about to complete her master's degree from Pepperdine University in leadership and organizational development and is starting her own consulting firm, Flynn Consulting Group. Mark is the senior pastor at Kern Memorial United Methodist Church in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

While the church generally supported them as a clergy couple, Annette finds fault with the broader culture's response to women clergy.

"I believe the social structure of our society and the expectations of the role of the clergy undermine female clergy - whether or not they are part of a clergy couple," she says.

Although the ordination of women in the United States dates to 1853, when the Congregational Church ordained Antoinette Brown, the pastor's role still seems off-limits to some women. Recent research by Pulpit & Pew, a Lilly-funded research project on pastoral excellence based at Duke Divinity School, indicates that resistance to women clergy is not imaginary: the typical lay search committee's ideal candidate is a throwback to an earlier era - a young married man with a decade of experience, a stay-at-home wife, and children.

Never a temptation

For the Revs. Barry and Sandra L. Steiner Ball of Milford, Del., a joint appointment has never been a temptation.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
UMNS photo courtesy of Divinity magazine

The Revs. Susan and L. Gregory Jones pose for their 1983 wedding photo.

"We take highly different approaches," says Sandra Steiner Ball, superintendent for the Dover (Del.) District of the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference. "I believe it would be difficult for us to share an appointment and to maintain a healthy marriage."

As a clergy couple, the Balls "trusted that God would work through the appointment system," Sandra says. "However, we also knew that in a smaller conference like Peninsula-Delaware, even if we were appointed to opposite ends of the conference, one or both of us would still be able to commute."

In their first appointment as a clergy couple, Sandra did the commuting. "Sometimes the commute one way was 30 minutes," she remembers. "At other times, it was three hours, depending on bridge openings and beach traffic. Today, Barry is the one who commutes."

Barry, whom she met at Duke Divinity School, is a chaplain with the Maryland State Department of Natural Resources. In addition to crisis intervention, he serves on the drug task force and heads up Hot Spots, a program for troubled youth and their families on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Also a captain with the Air Force Reserves, he is on standby status at the national mortuary at Dover Air Base.

The Balls' two daughters, 14 and 10, became part of their parents' ministry from the start. Sometimes Sandra was able to take the children with her. At other times, the couple met midway through the day to pass off the baby. "I was also blessed with a number of adopted grandparents who would watch my children when it was not appropriate for them to be present," Sandra says.

During part of their careers, the Balls served church appointments that were less than 30 minutes apart. This gave them the opportunity to share a number of community ministries. But serving different churches, they acknowledge, can "suck up all your time if you are not intentional about setting time apart."

Living in the moment

Joey and Connie Shelton had been married for seven years and were involved in careers when they were called to ministry. Joey was an attorney and Connie worked with the "United Methodist Hour," the radio and TV ministry of the Mississippi Annual Conference, when they decided to move and attend Duke Divinity School.

"It was a relief when we realized that we both felt called to seminary," Connie says. "We knew divinity school was the first step."

Both ordained elders, Joey now serves as pastor of Court Street United Methodist Church in Hattiesburg, Miss. Connie is the executive director/preacher of the "United Methodist Hour."

"My clergy spouse always understands whatever I am going through," Connie says. "At the same time, the emotional demands - from ministry with the dying to ministry with failing relationships - can cause an emotional drain on the family. Creating healthy boundaries with ministry demands is an ongoing challenge."

They strive to be present wherever they are, Connie says, whether with family or in ministry. "When we have opportunities to combine the two, we gratefully live in the moment."

*This story was adapted from an article that originally appeared in Winter 2004 Divinity, the alumni magazine of Duke Divinity School. Criswell is the school's publication coordinator. Stagg is the magazine editor and the school's associate director of communications.  News media can contact Linda Green at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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