Clergy Couples: A Small but Growing Part of the CRC

The ordination of women and an increasing number of women attending seminary set the stage for the phenomenon of clergy couples—married pastors serving in ministry. Some couples share one full-time position in a church, others pastor different congregations, and in other cases, one serves in an area such as chaplaincy or a denominational ministry. Ten of the approximately 30 clergy couples in the Christian Reformed Church offered to talk about the distinctive rewards and challenges of such marriages and ministries. Churches pondering a call to a clergy couple may find some guidance here. Couples in seminary and newly ordained clergy couples may also find the reflections and collective advice helpful. As one pastor commented, “Because it's a lifestyle that there isn't much precedence for, it's been harder to figure out just how to go about this whole thing. There's a plethora of books and resources to guide the traditional solo pastor just starting out. . . .We’re sort of just making it up as we go.”

Trevor and Julia Vanderveen began dating in seminary. They were ordained in 2007 and called to co-pastor First CRC in Vancouver, B.C., where they worked side by side for nearly 10 years. Julia now serves in high school chaplaincy while Trevor remains at the church. “We now serve in different ministry contexts,” said Julia, “and are grateful for this season of being able to continue in ministry together, though not as co-pastors.”

“Over the years, our collaboration brought so much joy. Of course, there were times when the overlapping of life and ministry required resilience and creativity on our part, and encouragement and patience from others. When we welcomed our three boys into our family, we learned that childcare was needed, even on Sunday mornings, in order to help us be fully present at church. We also needed to clarify expectations with each other and with our congregation about how to communicate and who should be responsible for what. There were messy moments, and things we would do differently now, but we still see how God was joining us together in love as we carried out the tasks we felt called to do. We allowed each other to play to our strengths and we covered each other's weaknesses— like teammates do.”  

Tim and Heidi De Jonge married while in seminary. She currently pastors Westside Fellowship CRC in Kingston, Ont.; he is chaplain at Trillium Care Community, a long-term care center. Previously, they have each served in three different settings. The De Jonges discerned and made three commitments early on: they would not serve in the same setting; they would worship in the same congregation; and they would not both work full-time while parenting a young family. They both enjoy understanding the other’s vocation while each having their own place to grow and learn, and they appreciate being able to help each other out. Tim has preached for Heidi, and she has led services at his workplace. Perhaps someday God will lead them to work in the same place, but presently they find their togetherness in marriage and parenting enhanced by their separateness in ministry setting.

Tony and Jennifer Holmes Curran have been co-pastoring for six years, sharing one full-time position at New Hope Community Church, a small rural congregation in Shelby, Mich. “We have a 3-year-old son and 2-year-old twin daughters, so co-pastoring allows us a lot of flexibility we wouldn’t have in more traditional roles,” said Tony. He thinks the best part of sharing a call with his wife is having a constant partner in a role that can otherwise feel lonely and isolating. “It helps when the person who makes God’s love and grace most real to me is sitting right beside me—whether it be at the helm of the weighty council meeting, in the living room of the couple who just lost a baby, or in bed in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep because I’m plagued with self-doubt. When Jen is with me, I remember that ‘the Lord is with me.” 

Joe and Michelle Ellis have shared the role of pastor at Telkwa (B.C.) CRC for almost five years. This is their first call. “What works well for us right now,” explained Michelle,“is the ability to share home and church life responsibilities. We have a young family. It’s a huge gift for me to continue in my role as a pastor and as a mom. I’d say getting to collaborate with someone who knows both me and the church really well has been a gift.”

“We can offer the benefits of team ministry to a church that would not have the resources to hire two pastors,” offered Joe. “I’ve also appreciated that we have the luxury of being able to pass the pastoral baton to each other when the other needs a rest. Additionally, I have enjoyed more family time as a result of our shared position.”

Guarding the boundary between home life and church life can be a challenge. “We try to set up a “no shop-talk” rule on days and times off,” Michelle said, “to allow for a fuller home life. Another challenge can be dividing responsibilities well. We share one full time position . . . it can be tricky to divide the role so that responsibilities are well defined.” 

Amanda Bakale and Brian Bork discerned when they finished seminary that they did not want to pastor together. Brian has been campus pastor at the University of Waterloo for almost 10 years. Amanda worked for several years in an ordained position with World Renew, and is now one of three full-time pastors at Community CRC in Kitchener, Ont., where she’s been for the past three years.

During the school year Brian worships at Waterloo CRC while Amanda and their 2-year-old daughter are members of Community CRC. “I think there’s a lot more positives that outweigh the challenges,” of being a two-congregation household, Amanda said. “We are partners in each other’s ministry. We have a built in support system.” Brian agreed: “It’s a big plus to have a partner dedicated to the same denomination and with an understanding of your ministry.” The couple sets aside Friday evening to Saturday evening as uninterrupted family time.

When Nate and Samantha DeJong McCarran graduated from seminary in 2009, they thought they’d serve somewhere together. They tried it, but things didn’t work out as they expected. Currently, Nate is the lead pastor at Fuller Ave. CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he’s been for four years. They are now a family of five. After years as a stay-at-home mom, Samantha has found joy and fulfillment working part time for the denomination in the office of Pastor Church Resources. The flexibility and limited evening and weekend work fits well with their family’s needs. They feel very blessed in their situation.

Nate is sceptical that co-pastoring can work. “Loyalty will always be first and foremost for the other person, so it can work if things are going well, but difficult if conflict arises. If a clergy couple serves a church and Chair of Council needs to approach one with a complaint or problem, how does the other react? There’s a lot of beauty in both [spouses] being called to ministry, but I would caution clergy couples from seeking to serve in the same church body and encourage them to explore the diversity and richness that God’s call can be in their lives.”

Ed Top and Michelle Gritter have been married 17 years and have served together for 15 years. “We currently share one full time position [at Lantern Community Church in Calgary, Alta.], but we have varied over the years depending on the size of the church and my availability as a parent,” said Michelle. She lists several positives about co-pastoring. “A clergy couple can keep the church’s vision alive even when one of them is having a down time; the enthusiasm and synergy of shared ideas can be a real strength. . . ; clergy couples can be cheerleaders for each other.” Ed added, “Because Michelle and I know well each other’s strengths and weaknesses, we are constantly helping each other to interpret our environments, and diagnose our meetings and dialogues with others.”

“Ed and I chose to try and divide our work based on our sense of giftedness and passion,” explained Michelle. “Ed loves to preach and is a very effective communicator. I like it, but not as much. I love pastoral care and discipleship, and so it was natural for me to do a bit more with that.” One of their challenges? “The work of the kingdom often bleeds into ’real life.’ This overlap can threaten the retreat that couples and families need to stay healthy and energized.”  

Willemina Zwart and Kelly Sibthorpe live in London, Ont., where Willemina is a pastor at Good News CRC and Kelly is chaplain at the local community college. What works well for them as a clergy couple are flexibility in their schedules, having a partner who understands the complexities of ministry, and having a shared purpose and passion. Occasionally, Kelly will preach for Willemina. Again, one of the challenges is maintaining boundaries between “regular” life and ministry and establishing a life as a couple outside of ministry and the church. They have a rule about not talking “shop” on date nights or Sabbath.

Jana and Michael Vander Laan share one full-time position at Sahali Fellowship CRC in Kamloops, B.C. They feel strongly that the benefits both they and the church experience far outweigh the challenges. “As a clergy couple, what works really well for us is the flexibility and our ability to use our individual gifts for the benefit of the church.” Mike is gifted in teaching and Jana is gifted in pastoral care. They also appreciate the mutual support they can give each other. “We can talk candidly and openly about ministry challenges, balancing each other emotionally and providing alternative perspectives on a given matter.” One challenge: “Even though as a clergy couple we may have found ways to navigate through our differences, sometimes a member of the congregation may still prefer one of us over the other and does so publicly.” 

Brittney and David Salverda share one full-time position at Victoria CRC in B.C. “One of us is always home with our young children,” explained David. “That’s important to us. Also, the church hasn’t had to deal with three maternity leaves over the last seven years. Whenever we’ve had a baby, I went full time and Brittney stayed home. Sharing the preaching also means the congregation gets to listen to a fresh voice. We also have different gifts and try to organize our efforts accordingly.”

The Salverdas say they haven’t encountered many challenges. “Communication is big. We tend to send each other emails instead of talking about church at home. It’s not always easy to maintain that boundary, but life is a lot better when we do.” One challenge of both being part-time is finding time to delve into big long-term projects. “Also, since we have three young children at home, we have a hard time knowing when to have these conversations. Recently we hired a babysitter to help us out one afternoon a week. . . .So far, this decision has been really good for us.”

Advice for Clergy Couples Starting Out Their Ministry

  1. Establish and maintain proper work and life boundaries from the get-go. Having good boundaries can keep you healthy over the long haul. 
  2. Do things to prioritize and enrich your marriage. Have a regular date night protected from any ministry obligations—except for emergencies.
  3. Don't talk about church matters before going to bed. 
  4. Develop friendships and hobbies outside of your marriage and church life.
  5. Rejoice with each other’s accomplishments and be supportive when there are failures; only give ministry advice when the other asks for it. 
  6. Find professional supports—like a mentor, spiritual director, counselor, peer support group—outside of your marriage and ministry.
  7. Have an honest conversation about gifts and abilities, and consider dividing the work on that basis. Celebrate each other’s differences.

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