The Secret Lives of Clergy Couples

The Secret Lives of Clergy Couples

 The hardest times are when we have to be in three places at once.   

This Tuesday evening, for example, I’m scheduled to be online for 7:30, hosting a Bible Study for a small group of newcomers learning English as a second language.  Meanwhile, Jasmine needs to be at the church to chair a committee meeting at roughly the same time.  Which leaves us, of course, with a couple of minor challenges: Who will drive Sam to soccer practice and who will put Naomi to bed?  With any luck, we can get a babysitter to watch our four-year-old daughter. With even more luck, we can convince one of the other parents on the soccer team to swing by our house on the way to practice and pick up our son. All of this, however, will only happen after a great deal of hustling— a stressful process that leaves both of us tired and frustrated. 

Needless to say, as a husband and wife couple working together in the same church, our lives involve a great deal of sharing. First, there’s the sharing that comes with simply being married— sharing childcare, a home, a bed, a vehicle and (in a pinch) even the same toothbrush.  Being in ministry, however, takes this interdependence to a new level.  In addition to everything mentioned above, Jasmine and I also share a church, an income, an office, a pulpit and (up until very recently) even the same cell phone.  

“Ya’ll are crazy,” the wife of a Texan clergy couple remarked after I informed her of this. Their way of negotiating their mutual calling was somewhat different: Both husband and wife— although working under the same Bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas—  served in two different parishes, receiving two full-time stipends each. For that reason, they were able to afford two separate vehicles which (for all I know) they were able to park in two, separate his-and-her garages. (Everything’s bigger in Texas, after all). 

So what’s best way for clergy couples to do ministry? Should they minister in different churches or the same church?  And if they do minister in the same church, how do they divide the work? Along traditional gender roles? On the basis of strengths and competencies?  What about titles? What about pay? What if they serve in two different denominations?  What if, God forbid, they were to divorce?  These are questions that many clergy couples (and, I’m sure, their bishops) struggle with. What’s interesting, though, is this: We struggle with these questions as if couples in ministry were a new thing, a recent phenomenon that has only come about since the advent of women’s ordination. However, a deeper look at the New Testament church suggests that husband and wife leadership teams can be traced to a very early date indeed. 

Take, for example, Prisca and Aqulila, a ministry couple whom we first meet in the Book of Acts and whom the Apostle Paul references in at least two of his epistles.  A refugee couple forced to flee Rome during a wave of anti-Semitic persecution, this Jewish-Christian couple eventually settled in the Greek City of Corinth (Acts 18:2-4).  Here, they succeeded in launching a thriving family business, crafting tents which they sold to a growing list of clientele.  In short, both Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, were heads of a household (in Greek, oikos). 

When we hear the word “household” we tend to think of the traditional nuclear family or some variation of it— with two adults and their children, all living under the same roof.  However, in the first century Mediterranean world, the household wasn’t just a domestic but an economic arrangement, a locus of manufacturing and trade.  The oikos included, not just father, mother and children but slaves and freedmen, extended family and friends of the family.  As Edward Gibbs writes, “It was ordinarily assumed that the various members of a household, particularly the servile ones, would share the religion of their master.”  And, because Prisca and Aquila were both followers of Jesus, it can be assumed that many others in their household would have been as well.  

This is what a “house church” is in the proper New Testament sense of the word— a community of Jesus followers, based around a small unit of economic production- the family business.  And, because family businesses are often run by married couples (there’s a reason why we call them “mom and pop stores”) it’s possible that there were a number of couples like Prisca and Aquila in the early church— husbands and wives who laboured together in the gospel.  

And, evidently,  they were indeed a force to be reckoned with.  It was Prisca and Aquilla, for example, who first introduced Apollos— a respected preacher and teacher in the first century church— to a more Christ-centred understanding of baptism (Acts 18:24-28).  It was Prisca and Aquila who  laboured alongside the Apostle Paul himself on his church planting sojourn in Corinth, even going so far as to (in Paul’s words) “risk their necks for my life” (Romans 16:3).  

Indeed, I find it interesting that, whenever the new Testament speaks of this particular ministry couple, they are always referenced together.  Aquila is never mentioned apart from his wife and Prisca never apart from her husband.  This suggests to me that their calling to marriage was, in some way, bound-up with their calling to ministry.  In their work as church leaders, they would have depended on each other for support.  Perhaps, when one was exhausted, the other would have to step up and take charge.  Perhaps, when one was discouraged, the other would have to exhort and encourage.  Perhaps they relied on each other’s strengths to compensate for each other’s weaknesses.  And, perhaps Jesus knew all of this when he called them both into his service together.  

All this to say that, despite the struggles we’ve faced as a clergy couple, Jasmine and I have both come to realize the same thing: We’re better serving the Lord and his church together than we are apart. Day after day, we rely on each other’s strengths, skills and competencies which, although different, are complimentary.  In short, we’ve come to understand the importance of what the other does and, in the end, we’ve learned to value each other’s gifts. 

Needless to say, there have been times when it seems like the church just hasn’t known what to do with us.  Like many other clergy couples,  we’ve had to move parishes so that both of us could find work. We’ve had to make sacrifices, accept lower pay or fewer hours; we’ve had to share and juggle things.  But we wouldn’t want to do anything else. God has blessed us with this life together and we pray that our shared labour will bear fruit in its season.  Hopefully, as more clergy couples emerge, the church would learn to embrace them, just as they embraced Prisca and Aquilla— commissioning them to a ministry that was a beautiful and unique expression of God’s goodness.