Clergy Couples Conference held for priests, bishops

June 23, 2014

Clergy from 12 dioceses met to celebrate the gifts for ministry that clergy couples bring to the wider church at the first Clergy Couples Conference held in the Episcopal Church in more than 20 years.

The conference and retreat, which was underwritten in part by grants from the Virginia Theological Seminary and the Gadsen Foundation at R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington, Virginia, was held at Bon Secours Retreat Center in Marriottsville, Maryland. This event was the brain child of the Rev. Diane Vie of St. John’s, Lynchburg Virginia. Vie, who is married to the Rev. Todd Vie of St. Paul’s, Lynchburg, has been passionate about this topic since seminary.

“The project began before I could actually claim clergy status, when I was a seminarian married to a seminarian. I was deeply interested in the gifts and challenges of clergy couples and looked for information from the wider church on how clergy couples navigate this amazing life to which we are called not only as individuals but as a married couple. What I found was that there was little information and few resources for us. So, when I was a senior at VTS in 2006/2007 I began an independent study with my husband Todd and our friends the Revs. Chip and Lisa Graves, another clergy couple.” says Vie.   “My interest in clergy couples has deepened since ordination. Ten years later, I am back at VTS in the third year of my doctoral studies and I continue to study clergy couples in the Episcopal Church. There are still not many other voices out there, but there are many clergy couples who contact me anxious to explore.”

There were plenty of voices in mid-June this year as clergy from all over the United States, from 12 diocese including clergy couples, representatives from Church Pension Group, Transition officers from the Diocese of Atlanta, Virginia and Maryland and a new breed of clergy couples; bishop/priest couples. The conference was held to support, engage and celebrate the ministry of episcopal clergy married to other clergy.

This is an important topic as there are at least 428 couples in the Episcopal Church that are comprised of two ordained persons.

The Rev. Canon Richard H. Callaway, transition officer for the Diocese of Atlanta, says that he was surprised to learn that his diocese has 14 clergy couples. If you had asked him before the conference he would have guessed a much smaller number.

Lindsey Ryland, transition officer for the Diocese of Virginia, reports 15 clergy couples and the Rev. Stuart Wright of the Diocese of Maryland reports 17.

The clergy in attendance agreed that all priests have highs and lows in their journey – and clergy couples share some of those and can claim a few unique ones as well. “It’s not that we have it any better or worse than other clergy,” says the Rev. Lisa Graves of St. John’s Church in Huntington, West Virginia, “it’s that we have a unique set of joys and sorrows. Gathering together to identify the best practices and worst pitfalls is true gift. The camaraderie and immediate understanding among these couples is uplifting.”

Adaptability on the journey was a recurring theme at the conference, as couples spoke about the difficulties of navigating transition and search when there are two collars in the family. Many times one spouse will pursue parish ministry while another spouse pursues teaching, counseling or institutional ministry. Other times, clergy will take turns being the lead person in search with the “trailing clergy spouse” finding interim work, an assistantship or associate work or another call to ministry nearby.

The dual nature of the sacrament of marriage and the sacrament of ordination fed many discussion as couples discussed raising children (double PKs) in two churches, the give and take of discerning call, the joys of having a built-in clergy sounding board and the adaptability of ministry required to maintain marriage and mission.

“In the midst of tough times, I can’t imagine going through it without being married to another priest!” commented Todd Vie.

One of the interesting components of this conference were the two sessions that focused on a new phenomenon; bishop/priest couples. The Rt. Rev. Clay Matthews, head of the Office of Pastoral Development for the Episcopal Church, talked with the group, which had two bishop/priest couples attending, about the fact that the Episcopal Church now has six members of the House of Bishops who are married to clergy, and a seventh is the new bishop coadjutor in Mississippi.

Bishop Doug Fisher of Western Massachusetts is married to Betsy Fisher, vicar of St. Thomas in Amenia Union, New York. Fisher says that “the key to meeting the challenges and developing the opportunities of anything is an understanding of the situation. ‘Clergy couples’ have been part of the church’s reality for forty years. Diane Vie’s research and her willingness to document our stories will help the church go a long way in understanding, so challenges may be met, opportunities developed and God’s mission in the world celebrated.” The clergy in attendance agreed that all priests have highs and lows in their journey – and clergy couples share some of those and can claim a few unique ones as well.

Vie is beginning a registry of clergy couples and hopes to offer another conference for clergy couples that can handle even more clergy couples. “We’ve created a Facebook page and are working on a website,” says Vie. “Knowing other couples and being able to advise or seek counsel from our peers is invaluable and a great gift to us.”

Callaway said that it was an eye-opening gift for the transition officers to attend the event. “It was really meaningful for us to hear of the gifts and wonderful ministries of clergy couples. I came away more aware of the deep richness the couples have – even in the struggles – in their ministries.”

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