Book Review: How the Other Half Lives

How the other half lives: the challenges facing clergy spouses and partners by Johnna Fredrickson and William A. Smith. The Pilgrim Press, 2010.

I read this book a couple of years ago and had somehow forgotten how good it is. Fredrickson is a clergy spouse and Christian educator, Smith is a marriage and family therapist; both are American but most of the book is equally applicable in a British context and across denominations. The two have teamed up to create a resource which primarily focuses on the CS and the marriage and how both can be sustained through the challenges faced by clergy couples. It is for both male and female spouses and aims to be accessible to all CSs, regardless of their level of involvement in the ordained person’s ministry.  It is a very thoughtful book which digs deep into the complexities of the challenges. It does not shy away from the difficulties but discusses positive options for finding a way to cope with them. Rather than presenting one-size-fits-all solutions, it looks at various ways couples can tackle things, depending on their own situation and needs. I found it to have good practical advice and strong theological grounding. Even if the theology is not for you, or you are of a different faith, there are chapters which will be informative and thought provoking.

I found it more accessible than other CS books I’ve read because the theological approach taken by the authors is more in line with my own. Most significantly they begin from chapter 1 with the standpoint that we all have a baptismal ministry to live out and that ordained ministry is just one way of doing this. Rather than seeing ordained ministry as more important than any other calling they argue that, ‘whatever the baptismal ministries of both are, both are meant to be valued and equally explored.’ The emphasis is on supporting CSs because they and their ministry are as important as ordained ministry. This sets the stage for a book which genuinely focuses on the CS and how they can live an abundant life in the context of their spouse’s ministry.

Chapter 2 focuses on the church community and is the section I found particularly helpful when I first read the book. They consider what happens when CSs worship in the minister’s church or in a different church community. The bit that particularly struck me was the way they get to the heart of the loneliness that can be felt when participating in worship led by your spouse. There is an acknowledgement that there are no easy solutions to the issues that arise in life after ordination but also a call for CSs to find their own path in this new reality; ‘There is great hope and great adventure in charting a new course, especially when help is offered.’

Chapters 3 and 4 are practical and look at the working life of the CS and the things to consider around housing. Chapter 5 brings in some more great theology, talking about the importance of Sabbath as a life-giving practice which helps a clergy couple stay connected to each other and God. They recognise how challenging it can be to find the space for a Sabbath when both partners work and look at various ways of finding a way to keep a day of rest. It also covers the fact that holidays, such as Christmas, are working days for the clergy and suggest alternative ways for clergy families to celebrate around these times. There is much common sense here which demonstrates that, with a bit of flexibility and imagination, you can create times of rest and celebration.

Chapter 6 looks at the marriage relationship. Looking at scientific studies it outlines the key things which can damage or protect a relationship. They then go on to apply this specifically to clergy marriages. Reading this chapter as a couple would be particularly beneficial and some questions are suggested to start a discussion process. Chapter 7 continues to focus on the family by looking at the particular challenges clergy children may face. There is much wisdom here and plenty that is relevant to all parents, such as the importance of valuing children for their own sake as a gift of God, rather than as our own possession.

For Christians the final chapter is the most important as the authors turn from the practicalities to asking what our foundation for life is. Do we believe God holds us fast whatever happens in our lives and marriages? This is a hopeful end to the book and this paragraph sums up the challenges but also the exciting possibilities opened up by this life: ‘Life for the spouses and partners of ministers is risky because the complexities of clergy life require a lot of personal energy and attention. If the minister cannot reserve enough of his or her life for a partner, the partner is left with no companion for life’s journey. It often falls to the spouse to sound the alarm when ministry threatens the covenant promises, or when the faith life of the nonordained half is suffering. It takes diligence to maintain a relationship with a partner, and it takes sacrifice and integrity to do it alongside an ordained ministry. These very complexities that make it difficult are also the very things that make it rich. It is up to the couple to decide: will we seek an abundant covenant life while working out our faith together, or will we choose another path? In either case, God will hold all things fast.’

If I were to only have one book about CS life on the bookshelf, this would be the one I would pick. It left me feeling encouraged, informed, prepared and excited about the adventure of being married to an ordained minister. Unlike other books I’ve come across it never made me feel inadequate or guilty. I would highly recommend it to all CSs and the clergy person in their life, as well as congregations seeking to understand how better to look after their clergy family.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: How the Other Half Lives

  1. This looks like a great book, I will have to give it a read! Thanks for sharing. I’ll try to write something for you this week and you can see what you think 🙂

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