The Invisible Family

Recently, after speaking to a group of pastors about clergy roles in the large church, I was approached by a senior minister who said, “I’m surprised that you didn’t talk about the unique family dynamics that occur for clergy leaders of very large congregations, you know … the invisibility factor.”  I stood there looking rather dumbstruck for a few moments because frankly, I didn’t know what he was referring to. 

The senior pastor went on to talk about how differently the stress of family life manifests itself in the large church. As he talked I began to recognize the phenomenon that he was describing. I had encountered the issue before in other congregations with other clergy leaders; I just hadn’t heard it referred to under the label of invisibility. I immediately recognized the phenomenon as something real and profound for clergy families in large congregations.

In the small to mid-sized church the pastor and his or her family learn to live in a fishbowl. Everything that the pastor’s spouse and children do is subject to the intense scrutiny of the congregation, which places incredible pressure upon the family system. Most clergy families become oriented to life in the ministry through this fish bowl kind of environment. It becomes a way of life. They are accustomed to being known and watched by everyone in the congregation. The pastor’s spouse learns to view himself or herself as a partner in the ministry and is often treated as the “first spouse” of the church family. Many clergy spouses in the small to mid-sized church are viewed as equal ministry partners alongside their ordained spouse. They function as unpaid clergy leaders. For better or worse, they tend to be vocationally identified with their spouse’s role. Some clergy spouses thrive in the fishbowl and others wilt under the scrutiny and the expectations.

Clergy family life in the large church is a different kind of experience.  In the very large church the pastor’s family assumes a cloak of invisibility. The senior clergy leader who occupies the pulpit in the large church is a persona; everyone knows or feels like they know the preacher. It’s difficult for the primary preacher in the large church to go out in public places without being recognized. He/she is always on display; being watched from a close distance by those who occupy the pews on Sunday morning.

At the same time, the preacher’s family is having a very different kind of experience.  Few people recognize or know the family of the senior clergy leader, unless they appear at the side of the clergy leader. For many clergy families, being able to step out of the fishbowl is a welcome relief. Life feels a little more normal without the close scrutiny that comes from being known as the pastor’s significant others.  In other families, the loss of identity can be devastating. If a clergy spouse has vocationally identified with the role of clergy spouse, the loss of identity can result in the loss of validation. Suddenly, the clergy spouse is not the significant other when attending church functions. The clergy leader may be sharing their experience of church life more intensely and directly with other clergy leaders on the staff team, and not with the spouse at home. The spouse begins to feel unimportant to the ministry and left out. It seems like the ministry has become centered around “the pastor” and not at all about the family.  I’ve even heard some leaders talk about the confusion (and hurt) that takes place within a marriage when newcomers to a congregation assume that the male senior clergy leader is married to the female associate clergy leader, simply because they occupy a shared vocational space.

The fishbowl dilemma and the invisibility dilemma represent polar anchors on the same continuum of clergy family life. Each end of the continuum hosts its own set of problems. What kinds of adaptations have you and your family had to make as clergy leaders in a large church context? Which part of the continuum feels most comfortable to you, to your spouse, and to your children?

Photo Credit: T_Squared

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