As a church-going Christian marrying a newly ordained curate I never questioned the assumption that I would attend the church my other half ministered to. I thought it would pretty much be just like going to church had been for me for the previous 23 years of my life. I soon discovered that this straightforward relationship with church was over for me. I struggled through the Sunday services but without really understanding why. With time, and having read some clergy spouse (CS) related books, I have come to realise that being married to your minister is far from straightforward. I now feel that for CSs of faith whether or not to attend their partner’s church is something which can benefit from being carefully thought through, rather than simply feeling you have no choice in the matter. Some challenges which I wish I had been aware of include:
1. You know too much about the church
As your spouse’s supporter and confidant you cannot avoid hearing about what is going on in the church and the lives of its members. Even with all the things my other half keeps confidential I am inevitably privy to far more than when I was a ‘normal’ church goer. CSs are often seen as people to be confided in, whether or not they wish to fulfill this role. You are unwillingly made the keeper of others’ secrets and this can be very difficult to manage. As Fredrickson and Smith say in ‘How the Other Half Lives’ “The illusion of perfect harmony and good will doesn’t last very long for a clergy spouse. For better and for worse, the church community is revealed, in all its wonder and its pettiness. There are no rose-colored glasses that can hide the truth.”
2. You know too much about the vicar
I find it very strange being preached to by my husband. It doesn’t have anything to do with his preaching style or content (which are of course excellent) but it is just weird to be exhorted to holiness by someone who really annoyed you 30 minutes ago. It can feel a bit too close to home; even light hearted sermon illustrations involving you only highlight how closely related the message and the messenger are for the CS. The other aspect of knowing the vicar so well is feeling you have to be circumspect in what you say to other congregation members. It is not really acceptable to vent about your other half’s worst flaws to others in church and could damage relationships. This sort of restraint can be another source of pressure.
3. You are not clergy but you are not a ‘normal’ church goer
It can be a strange no-man’s land as the clergy spouse. I only came to understand my feeling of alienation from the church services when Fredrickson and Smith summed it up for me with the metaphor of the clergy being the people who serve and put together a spiritual banquet for the congregation. In this metaphor the CS “is not working, but does not share the experience of the other members of the community. Rather than enjoying the banquet as a beloved guest or as a servant, the partner can be removed from the experience…Worship services are gotten through rather than lived into…What can result is a loneliness all the more profound because it is felt in the midst of those who find themselves brought together in communion with God and each other.”
4. Your spouse is called to a church you would not choose
Thanks to the diversity of churches we now have, most people choose to attend a church which suits them and their spirituality. For the CS attending your clergy person’s church takes choice out of the equation. It is hard work if you do not feel at home in the church you attend or if it is not well equipped for your stage of life. My sense of loneliness was increased by being the only parent with small children sitting in the children’s play space right at the back of a huge church with a small congregation who understandably sat near the front. This was no-one’s fault and I am very fond of the people there but I now find it a much better experience to be in the children’s space (admittedly still the only one usually) in a much smaller church! It is amazing how such a detail can make a huge difference to the worship experience.
Of course there are also huge benefits to worshipping in your other half’s church, such as:
1. Being able to minister to the congregation as a team
Some CSs feel called to work alongside their minister spouse. How this is lived out varies according to the gifts of each couple but would naturally include attending the church. A spouse who does not feel a calling to actively work in the parish may still feel able to minister to the congregation in their own way. That feeling of unity for a couple in looking after a particular church(es) is very special.
2. Sharing a signficant part of your lives
You may be experiencing the service from quite different perspectives but you are at least in the same building! You are together in worship and getting to know the same group of people. If you attend a different church you may have to work harder to remain connected as you each follow your spiritual journey in a different place.
3. Supporting your spouse
This is not to say that CSs who attend a different church are any less supportive of their spouse. However there can be significant comfort simply in being physically present, especially if your other half is encountering difficulties and challenges in their ministry. It gives you more insight into their work if you are there each week, encountering the same people and experiences.
4. Taking you out of your comfort zone
There is a fair chance that you will be in a church you would not have chosen. As mentioned above you will not be able to keep your rose-tinted spectacles intact for long. So it is likely that you will be taken outside of your spiritual comfort zone. This can be an excellent opportunity for growth in your relationship with God and other Christians.
There is no easy answer to whether you should attend your spouse’s church or not. In thinking on these things I am also aware that they probably raise deeper issues about church and faith. In a perfect world there would be full openness between Christians about our flaws and mistakes, both of the clergy and laity. We would not place clergy and their families on a pedestal. CSs would be able to feel fully part of any service our spouse was leading. All Christians would happily go along to their parish church and contribute there rather than shopping around for one they like better. However, in our imperfect world and imperfect churches we have to be realistic about what we as CSs can cope with. If a CS is able to attend their spouse’s church and deal with whatever challenges that brings whilst growing in their faith that is wonderful. But if the CS’s faith is being damaged by such an attempt surely it is better for everyone if they find a space where they too can be fed spiritually.
I am currently benefitting from being in the best of both worlds. We are in a small team ministry and thanks to toddler napping routines my only option was to go to a different church in the team. This means I can enjoy being preached to by someone else’s spouse but still feel part of the same parish as my other half. Whatever you decide, base that decision on what is most life-giving for you and your spouse rather than being dictated to by other people’s expectations.
I’m aware that there are CSs who are of a different faith to their partner or are agnostic/atheistic. As I have no experience of this I have not ventured to comment on what challenges this might involve. If you are a CS in this situation and would be interested in writing about your experiences (you can do so anonymously) I’d be really interested in hearing from you.