Sharing a vocation

Clergy couples find different ways to minister together
January 31, 2004

David Hussey and Mercy Hobbs met while attending seminary in Chicago and married after graduation. Hobbs was called to serve four congregations in Nebraska and South Dakota after her ordination to the diaconate in 1995. David Hussey was a lay postulant in the Diocese of Chicago, so when he moved to South Dakota he had to "start over" with the process.

Hobbs became vicar of St. Paul's Church, Vermillion, S.D., in 1997. After several years of working to combine their households, Hussey, ordained in 2000, became vicar of St. Paul's. Hobbs is part-time assistant vicar.

According to a report published in September 2003 by the Church Deployment Office (CDO) at the Episcopal Church Center, there are 335 clergy couples across the United States registered with the office.

Clergy married to an ordained person say it can be a joyous partnership. Their partners understand the ministry, the setting in which each labors, which makes it easy for them to fully support each other. They enjoy being able to pray with each other, doing the same things and believing in the same things.

But they also face challenges that, some say, can have a profound impact on their marriage if not dealt with. These include being unable to worship together on Sundays, serving different congregations -- or serving in the same parish, needing to coordinate schedules, negotiating territorial and competitive issues, undertaking interim ministries and facing a lack of opportunities for ministry for both spouses when one is called to ministry in another state.

Their resolve and commitment to find ways to make their relationships work while staying committed to serving the wider church have kept some couples together for many years. Through all this, many report, they depend on their love for each other and the integral and crucial role that God plays in their married lives.

Compromise and respect

For Hobbs and Hussey, married nine years, compromising and respecting boundaries are paramount. Serving the same parish since 2001, Hussey says he finds that they have their own ministries and gifts, which they do together, but separately.

"One of Mercy's gifts is teaching, retreat leader, adult education," Hussey says. "I don't dabble in that, not because she does not let me, but just recognizing who has the best skills or gifts in that area.

"Sometimes when we are working together we butt heads on how things should be done, and our own perceptions of the right way to do them," he says.

The way to handle it, says Hobbs, is knowing when to walk away. "When I was changing from vicar to assistant, I had to learn how to let go."

The Revs. Nancy and Barry Miller, married since 1996, have a history of working in interim ministries and living great distances apart. Currently, Barry Miller is interim rector in Fishkills, N.Y., while his wife is interim assistant director of the CDO. They rent an apartment in an area 25 minutes from work for Barry by car, and one hour and 20 minutes by train for Nancy.

"We are both doing interims, it's not forever, which helps to keep the length of the commute in perspective," says Nancy Miller.

Serving separate ministries can make it harder to spend quality time together.

The Rev. Barbara Cheney has been rector of the Episcopal Church of St. Paul and St. James, New Haven, Conn., for more than 10 years. The Rev. Dexter Cheney, her husband since 1981, has been the missioner/superintendent of the Greater Hartford Regional Ministries, serving four churches with five congregations, for more than a year.

Scheduling is a challenge. "Not having enough time is hard," says Barbara Cheney. "Two people that work weekends, the days are long. And with Dexter's commute [40 minutes from home while Barbara's is about five minutes], when he is gone, he is gone until the end of the day, and it means that we really only have dinner together sometimes once or twice a week at the most."

Setting aside time to be with each other is a priority, says Dexter Cheney. "I have four vestry meetings each month instead of one, which means if I was serving one congregation, I could be home three more nights for supper. ... That's just not the way it is right now.

"It gets pretty tiring sometimes, but I try to set aside time for rest and do something totally different for a healthy change of pace and focus," he says. "Each week we try to take a ballroom dance lesson, even if one person had to return to a responsibility late in the evening. It just means making some tough choices about priorities."

Serving together

Deciding that their relationship and their family are primary and where God wants them to focus, the Revs. Leonard and Lindsay Freeman made the decision to serve the same parish. Leonard Freeman is rector of St. Martins' by-the-Lake, Minnetonka Beach, Minn. His wife of 15 years is the priest associate, owns a small communications company and edits Vestry Papers.

"We have made the decision as a family to not work in different parishes because of our children," says Leonard Freeman. "We like to worship as a family."

Lindsay Freeman adds, "The fact that our whole family is engaged in ministry and church life, and we really share this Christian faith together professionally, is fulfilling. Personally, we are making a very important statement as a family. Even our 25-year-old [son] is teaching Sunday school."

As a clergy couple, one aspect that bonds the Millers is the joy in having a built-in prayer partner. "You have someone who has a faith and commitment to living a Christian existence," says Nancy Miller.

For Hussey, the joy of being married comes from the full support he receives from Hobbs. "My wife is also my partner in my vocation. She knows what I am talking about, we share many of the same experiences. It's really helpful."

That sharing, however, sometimes results in competition, he says. "Mercy and I are somewhat territorial, somewhat competitive, and we both have a desire to control our environment and our ministries. I think it would be difficult to be co-vicars or co-rectors in the sense where everything is divided down the middle. The way that the Spirit has led us to find those balance points makes a difference in what could be stressful and aggravating in both the professional and personal relationship."

While clergy couples strive to enrich and sustain both their personal and professional relationships, Nancy Miller says that God is in charge of their future happiness.

"It is very clear to us that God has called us," she concludes. "He is in charge of this ministry. It is God that will make things possible in both the marriage and the ministry; therefore we don't have to worry about [whether] we have to make it come out all right. That's God's job, and we have absolute faith and confidence."

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