Better than flying solo

By on July 1, 2010

Illustration: David Anderson / davidandersonillustration.com

Have you noticed a trend that has been around for a few years now: clergy couples (a husband and wife who are both priests)? Have you experienced such a ministry? Has your parish thought about a clergy couple as co-rectors?

My wife, Dianne, and I have been a clergy couple since Dianne’s ordination 23 years ago. We like this co-operative style of ministry. In fact, we would not want it any other way because, for us, it is more enriching and more effective than “flying solo.”

Quite apart from the conventional wisdom that “two heads are better than one,” experience has shown that one plus one really is more than two when it comes to ministry. Here are some of the ways in which Dianne and I have found the church can benefit.

In the leading of regular worship, we alternate, with one preaching and the other presiding. Our styles are different, so there is more variety and fewer chances for the congregation to get into a rut or experience boredom.

When we preside at weddings (which we do jointly), the sacramental nature of marriage is seen and experienced. There is a sense that we are sharing and passing on something that we have already been given by God. 

In the same way, funerals are enriched by the presiding presence of both a man and a woman, with the somewhat differing approaches to care and nurture. There is also the realization that the person who has died was given life by God through a man and a woman and now that life is being handed back to God by a man and a woman.

Pastoral ministry is more effective when a clergy couple works together. In marriage counselling, there is less sense that a male priest might take the man’s side while a female priest might take the woman’s side. This increases the trust level and makes it easier for the couple being counselled to accept what is being said to them. In this and other counselling situations, there is the added advantage that one can support in silent prayer while the other talks.

Of course, not everything is done together by the clergy couple. This means that best use can be made of each individual’s skills and talents. And, very importantly, it means that referrals can be made so that the most qualified person can address whatever need has been brought for ministry.

Is there a downside? We think the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages, but yes, there can be a downside for clergy couples. Assuming the couple can actually work together well (and not all clergy couples can), the downside has to do with deployment. It is not easy for most bishops to place clergy couples in the same parish and this often results in the two priests being appointed to separate parishes (sometimes requiring two hours or more of driving).

Many parishes simply cannot afford to pay two priests and so a clergy couple may have to share one salary to live and minister together. Then there is the matter of  employment benefits. Both members of the clergy couple are entitled to all the benefit costs, including continuing education, medical benefits, housing allowance and vacation time. However, some parishes balk at paying both husband and wife a housing allowance and some even expect them to take vacations at different times. There are issues of justice here!

Nevertheless, for parishes and for clergy couples, there are great joys and great benefits to this kind of joint ministry. There is a kind of family approach to the ministry. There is variety and there are pooled talents and abilities. After all, Genesis 1:27 tells us that we were created in the image of God; male and female we were created. That is a model for the ministry of clergy couples. Ω

The Rev. Patrick Tomalin and the Ven. Dianne Tomalin are a retired clergy couple who live in Port Alberni, B.C., where they served together for six and a half years.

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