Jun 17, 2014

When Church Work and Family Collide

By Cheryl Magness

Imagine arriving at church one Sunday and being stopped in the narthex by a fellow member. "Please follow me," he says. Confused, you nevertheless obey. Moments later he stops at the door of the conference room. "There," he says. "They're expecting you." Still confused, you open the door and enter. Around the conference table sit the pastor and several lay leaders. There is an ominous feeling in the air and you sense this is not going to turn out well. You sit where directed, and then you hear these words: "We're sorry, but we have come to the conclusion that you are no longer a good fit here. We're going in a different direction, and your gifts and talents are an impediment to our vision. We'll give you two months to find another church home. In the meantime, for the sake of congregational peace, please keep this confidential."

Sounds preposterous, doesn't it? Churches don't fire people! In truth, though, this scenario is not rare. It happens to church workers quite frequently and is a special type of vocational collision that secular workers don't experience. When a church worker is dismissed, he is not just dismissed from his job; he is in effect dismissed from his church. The secular worker who is fired can go to church the following Sunday, seek the support of his church family, and ask for their prayers in his time of trial. The church worker who has been fired cannot. Whether or not the dismissal is justified is not the issue. Every situation is different, and my point here is not to address when and in what manner it is acceptable to fire a church worker. The point is that no matter what circumstances led to the worker's release—whether he is at fault or someone else is, whether he is called or merely contracted—when a church worker is relieved of his duties, he is relieved of much more than just his job. Furthermore, whatever loss he suffers is shared by his family. Take the case of Fred, a day school teacher who has for many years served at St. Smithens-in-the-Swamp. Fred's wife Ethel is organist at the church, and their children are students in the day school. Needless to say, Fred's and his family's lives revolve around the church and school. But the day comes when Fred experiences something like the scene above. In a normal employment situation this would equate to the "mere" loss of a job (no small matter). But in the life of a church worker like Fred, it means not only loss of job and income but loss of church and pastor and social circle and his children's school as well (without the employee subsidy he will no longer be able to afford to send his children to the school, even if he wanted to). Additionally, Fred's wife, the church organist, must decide whether she wants to continue playing at the church that fired her husband. Will the church even want her around anymore, or will they encourage her to leave, too? You can see how all at once, Fred's and his family's entire support system is pulled out from under them. At a time when they most need their church, that church is of little comfort. 

Of course, the above is a worst-case scenario, one which not all church workers face. But all church workers do face the vocational challenge of working at the same place where they attend church. Whereas the secular worker may be able to briefly set aside his work week stress on Sunday , it is much harder for the church worker to do so. By the same token, if a lay person is experiencing conflict at church, he is probably not constantly faced with that conflict during the work week. One of the great blessings of church work is the intersection of faith and livelihood. The church worker is not under pressure, as the secular worker might be, to check his faith at the door. But it can also be a burden in that when one of a church worker's vocations encounters difficulties, chances are they all do. And as many a church worker will attest, that can be very hard.

Dr. Beverly Yahnke, Professor of Psychology at Concordia University-Wisconsin and Executive Director of DOXOLOGY: The Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care and Counsel, speaks often to church workers and their wives about "life in the stained glass fishbowl," her metaphor for what it's like for the church worker's family to live under the constant scrutiny of the congregation to which the worker has been called. Think about it. It's not just the worker who must contend with the judgments and expectations of the congregation: it's his or her family as well. Secular companies sometimes observe "Take your child to work" days; imagine what it would be like to have to take not just one child but your entire family to work with you, not once a year, but every week, and to know that every time you do, conclusions are being reached based on how your spouse and children dress, behave, and interact with others. Such an awareness is status quo for the church worker's family. It is assumed that they will model for the congregation what faithfulness to the Church, and to the parish, looks like. Very often they do. But what is often not seen is the stress on the family of being held up as a model. And unfortunately, when that stress is seen it too often engenders not compassion but criticism. If your kids misbehave, they may be labeled as undisciplined or out of control, and your parenting choices questioned. If, on the other hand, they behave impeccably, you might be blamed for imposing unrealistic standards on them or trying to act holier-than-thou. Sometimes there is just no winning!

So is there anything the church worker can do to protect himself and his family from the emotional and spiritual fallout that can occur when something goes wrong at church? Yes. While there is no way to ensure that you won't one day find yourself in the middle of a congregational conflict or on the wrong side of the powers that be, there are steps you can take to minimize the collateral damage should it happen.

First, remember that after God, your first calling is to your family. Those whom God has called to ministry tend to be passionate about their work, to the point of neglecting their own and their family's well-being as they serve God's people. But a congregation that understands its own calling to care for its worker will respect your need for family time and make provisions for it. Such a congregation will also understand that your primary consideration in making decisions for your family is not to please the congregation or keep up appearances but to do what is best for your loved ones. A congregation that requires 60-70 hours of your time per week is not demonstrating concern for your family, nor is a congregation that insists you put your children in the day school as a prerequisite of working there.

Second, develop a skin thick enough to endure those times when, no matter what you do, someone puts the worst construction on your efforts to do what is best for your family. For example, my now adult son was an academically precocious child. We enrolled him in preschool several months before he turned three years old, and at the same time enrolled him in the three-year-old Sunday School class at church. The following year, the three-year-old Sunday School teacher wanted to hold him in her class another year because he had not yet turned four. But since he was moving up in his weekday preschool class and had made friends in Sunday School who were also moving up a level, I wanted him to move with them. I approached the Sunday School superintendent, and she approved my request, but the teacher herself became so furious that she refused to talk to me at all. I did not understand her anger at the time but now attribute it to her belief that I was trying to exert some measure of staff privilege. That was not my intention. I was simply trying, as any parent would, to do what I thought was best for my child, but that is not how my actions were perceived. 

A third strategy for dealing with the "stained glass fish bowl" is to take care to communicate to the congregation you serve, or one that you might serve, that your spouse and children are not extensions of you. There should be no built-in expectations of how they are going to serve the parish. Certainly a church worker's family should participate in congregational life as any church member would. But they should not be viewed as an inexhaustible source of volunteer labor. They have their own lives and identities apart from that of the church worker, and that should be respected.

Fourth, I cannot overstate how important it is for the church worker and his family to cultivate activities, interests, and friendships apart from church. In so doing, you build a life that will retain some normalcy if the day comes when the parish you serve encounters difficulty. This is one of the many reasons my husband and I decided to home school our children. It was one way of putting a buffer between ourselves and the church and maintaining some sovereignty over our days. Another way to assure that you have a sanctuary from church-related stress is to establish a relationship with another church and pastor. When the church worker in your family has a Sunday off (as he should from time to time), make a point of going to church somewhere beside your home parish. If possible, find a Father-Confessor who can provide your family with spiritual care, including Confession and Absolution, apart from the church you serve. This ensures that you and your family will have a pastor who is not your boss or coworker, a situation that can be uncomfortable under the best circumstances but even more so in the case of staff conflict.

In the same vein, when you are choosing people to be involved in your children's lives on a long-term basis, such as godparents, consider carefully before choosing those people from the parish you are currently serving. I am not saying you should never choose congregation or fellow staff members as godparents. But the life of a church worker is unpredictable. You may spend thirty years in the same place, or you may be in a place for only a few years before the Lord calls you elsewhere. People change, relationships fade, and churches go through upheaval. All of this can lead to potentially painful conflicts of interest. If at all possible, choose family or long-time friends from outside the congregation to serve as godparents. In so doing you provide your children with the stability of relationships that exist independent of your current call and will continue unaffected if you move on.  

Last, teach your children the difference between the (lowercase) church and the (uppercase) Church. As the children of a church worker, they are going to be extremely vulnerable to the attacks of the devil, who would love nothing more than to use the occasion of church strife to subject them to doubt and disillusionment. They will probably have a front row seat to problems about which their friends are blissfully unaware, for as much as you try to protect them, it is difficult to completely shield them from church politics. This can be a source of distress, but it can also be an opportunity to teach them that churches, like the world, are full of sinful human beings who need God’s forgiveness, and that such sinfulness extends to their fellow church members and yes, even to pastors and other church workers. This is a hard lesson to learn, but one that will equip them well for future roles as church members, lay leaders, parents, and maybe even church workers.

Many years ago, when my husband accepted a position in a wealthy, suburban parish, I was pulled aside by another one of the staff wives and told, "You will never be one of them. Don't try." At the time I thought she was referring to the challenge of living as a church worker in such an affluent area and cautioning me against the folly of trying to keep up with the prevailing lifestyle. I do think that was part of it. But I now think it was more than that. She was somewhat older than I and had not only been married to a church worker for many years but was one herself. As such, I think she was trying to share with me the wisdom born of experience, and to warn that no matter how wonderful and loving the congregation to which one is called, and no matter how much they embrace their workers, there is a substantive difference between those who are born into a congregation or who choose to join it and those who are called, and paid, to serve it. That difference can lead to vocational challenges that can sometimes turn into head-on collisions. If we can take steps to protect ourselves and our families from such collisions, wouldn't we want to? To those who have not lived through this kind of vocational conflict, some of the precautions in this post might seem pessimistic. They might even appear to display a lack of Christian faith or an unhealthy effort to avoid becoming emotionally invested in a place because to do so might cause pain. However, the faithful Christian knows that in this life, we are at war with our flesh, the world, and the devil; and God tells us to flee temptation instead of hanging around and trusting that we will be able to withstand it. It is our job as church workers to do everything in our power to best fulfill our vocations both in service to the church, and in service to our families, and it is the job of the church to support its workers.


Cheryl is the sister of ten, daughter of two, mother of three, and wife of one. She was an English teacher in a past life but is currently getting a bigger return on her music degree than her English one. Her husband is a Lutheran cantor. When not accompanying one of his choirs, she can most often be found playing piano in the community, homeschooling her youngest, or caring for her aging mother. She blogs at A Round Unvarnish'd Tale

Title Image: North Pearl Street, Albany, by James Eights, 1800s


  1. My dad and my father-in-law are both Lutheran pastors. And while neither of them have ever been asked to leave a parish, so much of what you say about "life in the stained-glass fishbowl" resonated with me. Especially the fact that "you will never be one of them." So very often that is sadly true. Every congregation is different, and some are much better than others at including their pastor and his family into the church family, but there will always be a subtle difference. The best we laypeople can do is remember that a pastor and his family are also members of the congregation, and that while the pastor was called to serve a particular parish, his family was not, and any talents they possess are the same as talents of any other congregation member -- something they can use to serve the church, but not something the church has a "right" to.

    1. I second that! My parents were non-Lutheran when I was young, and were involved in various mission and pastoral work. One of the minor things that my mom really appreciated about the LCMS when they joined is that Lutherans do have a stronger culture of supporting their church workers, and are less likely to assume that the pastor's wife has already learned piano so that she can play all the hymns for all the services for free. :-)


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