The Economy of the Family

The Ones We Love

I’ve noticed something odd. When I’ve talked to older women colleagues, and I’ve said the words, “I had to think about my family” in relation to my career, I often get a little lecture. You know, something along the lines of how my family should not dictate my choices, and how I would never hear a man say something like that.

It has happened so many times that I realized the words “had to think about my family” must have been code for “I will now sacrifice my career and my soul to the gods of patriarchy.”

Since I’m married to a man who moved three times for my career and stayed at home as a full-time dad for three years, I’ve definitely heard a man say, “I had to think about my family.” Thinking about our family may not mean what it used to, but it’s still important.

Before my husband, Brian, and I began pastoring churches, we had a simple formula for when and how we would get jobs. We would take turns. One of us would receive a call first. The family would move for that church opportunity. Then the other one of us would receive the next call, and we would move for that person. Back-and-forth, we would go: husband’s call, wife’s call, husband’s call, etc.

That neat, orderly plan was screwed up from the start. Brian had a lovely, big church in Florida waiting for him upon graduation from seminary. There was one problem though. When he said, “My wife’s in seminary too. Do you know if there’s any job possibilities in this area for her?”

The response was, “Well…there’s a Wal-Mart about a mile away.”

Which was not the answer we were hoping for. He began to bring up the question more, not because they were responsible for getting me a job, but because he got a strange vibe from them whenever he mentioned that his wife was going to be a pastor. As he explored it more with them, they kept giving him the wrong answers, until he was pretty sure they wanted a pastor’s wife. Like, one that might have a part-time retail job, but on Sunday, she teaches Sunday school, sits in the second pew, with her perfect children, looking up at her perfect husband.

In short, they didn’t want us.

In the end, we decided to take two churches in South Louisiana. It wasn’t monetarily better for us, but we both got ordained, and we were both able to start our careers.
Lewie Donelson, a former seminary professor, recently explained to us what we negotiated–it was the economy of the family. From the beginning, especially as a clergy couple, we have had to negotiate the economy of the family in the call process. And when we haven’t, we’ve regretted it. In other words, we might negotiate salaries with our churches, but we also had to think about the entire family, and we quickly discovered that many things trump money. Here are some of the factors that come up when we’re looking for churches, as a family.

Opportunity. This seems to be the most important and the most difficult to figure out. We need to be in a place where there is the possibility for both of us to be employed. Neither one of us would make a good long-term house-spouse, especially now that our child has entered elementary school. Both of us are willing to be flexible, but we realize that we need to be in areas where we both have the potential to thrive.

Education. We’re not the sort of parents who are worried about how to get our kid into Harvard now that’s she’s eight. But we’ve served in urban and rural areas where the school systems are some of the worst in the nation, and in those contexts, education becomes important.

Support systems. This has meant different things at different phases in our lives. At times, we needed to be near family. Other times, we needed to be closer to friends. For us, being a part of a vibrant and diverse arts community is extremely important. We’ve just learned that there are things that feed our souls, and often they are things that can’t be found in every place.

Environment. We had to leave Louisiana because the environmental degradation was hurting our infant’s health (they still burn the sugar cane fields, so there are months when smoke and ash fill the air). And there have been other environmental factors: I feel more at home closer to water, and my husband used to miss the seasons. Since I practice walking meditation, I need to live near a place where I can walk in nature. Again, our needs shift and change, and we can be flexible, but I’ve learned to listen to those urges for certain earth.

Of course, all of these things look different in different families. So, what about you? What would you add? What things are important to you and your family?

4 replies
  1. S
    S says:

    Thank you for this. What a helpful framework–My family is about to move and this will help give us some context for conversation about the choices we make. . .

  2. Texas ClergyPal
    Texas ClergyPal says:

    This is such an excellent piece. My husband has been at home for 7 years with our kids. He just now took an out-of-the-home, fulltime job that might actually be a career for him. Needless to say, it has thrown all of our established ways of doing things up in the air. So we are now moving into the time when it is not just my job/call that influences our decisions. I am having to learn how to be more flexible. I am also having to learn how to let my church know my time boundaries are firmer these days. It is a definite transition for all of us. Thanks for helping us give words to this transition.

  3. pamela
    pamela says:

    I am certainly not a young clery at age 57 but I am entering the ministry as a second career. I FEel the same way that you described in your article and turned down an appointment because of the need of my family. i am currently working in the public sector and doing campus ministry as a volunteer at our church. This is more “family friendly” to my families current needs. I feel it is God first, husband second, family third, then church, Blessings.

  4. Laura Hudson
    Laura Hudson says:

    Carol, this is exactly the article I needed to read as my husband and I, who are about to graduate from APTS, begin seeking calls. We are already deep into negotiating the economy of the family, as we have a one-year-old and are splitting “one” year-long internship at a church currently. I’ve been desperate for a little conversation with someone who’s already walked the “clergy couple” road a little ways. Thanks.


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