#Yoked: Vocational Niche

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This is part of a series on clergy couples and their stories. Andy and I wrote a book about being a clergy couple and all the insanity that goes along with it called Yoked: Stories of a Clergy Couple in Marriage, Family, and Ministry. For the rest of the wonderful series, click here.

I did not go to seminary to get my MRS degree. I had spent my formative years in the pews and plastic molded chairs of Southern Baptist congregations, where I often heard that women’s worth came from being a wife and mom. While I deeply respected both of those choices, I wasn’t sure that either was for me. I also didn’t think Jesus loved me any less for my uncertainty.

At Candler School of Theology and at Oakhurst Baptist Church, my faith community during seminary, I was surrounded by people who were more interested in my development as a minister than my fulfillment of others’ expectations. I also learned what it means to be Baptist in the historical sense, and I celebrated that Baptist principles freed me up to diversify my definition of family. It was like my lungs were finally fully expanding, and I wasn’t sure how to channel all the energy I had previously used to justify my call to ministry on its own terms. (Thank goodness for my weekly appointment with a group of fabulous women and a karaoke machine.)

All this is not to say that I didn’t date. My friends encouraged me to pair up with a particular classmate for the entertainment factor: they thought we looked like a couple on a Precious Moments Bible. On my second outing with Matt, who was on his way to becoming a pastor in the United Methodist Church, he and I realized that we had gone to Space Camp a week apart in the summer of 1988. That coincidence made the room go fuzzy for me, and I knew instantly that I was in trouble.

Matt and I married after spending a very difficult first year of full-time ministry several states apart. We both loved our jobs, but I was the one to move since I was ordained and Matt was still two years away from the bishop laying hands on his head. With no professional prospects, I joined Matt in a part of Alabama dominated by the Church of Christ. We were optimistic (ok, naïve) about how eager the UMC connectional system would be to accommodate a two-call, two-call-system clergy couple. It soon became evident that I was to be the trailing spouse, no matter how committed Matt was and is to the equal importance of our ministries. In marrying Matt, I had vowed my willingness to itinerate, no matter how firmly I believed in congregational polity.

I had a hard time finding my vocational niche in Alabama. Moderate-to-progressive Baptist churches are few and far between. I was scared to find a position I liked, convinced we’d get a call from the district superintendent the following spring that it was time to pull up stakes. I loved Matt more than ever, but I was resentful that my professional options seemed so limited by circumstances beyond our control.

I eventually landed a job in a toxic setting. Oh, there were signs the size and weight of falling anvils before I put my name on the dotted line, but I was so relieved to be in paid, full-time ministry that I chose to ignore them. It was a brutal eight months, and at the end I was forced to resign. It was a turning point. I never wanted any colleague to go through what I had just endured. Suddenly I had not just a ministry, but a mission: to promote congregational and clergy health. I also had a renewed understanding of my own strength, Matt’s dogged support, and our ability not just to get by but to thrive when one of us was un- or underemployed.

I became trained as an intentional interim minister, consultant, and coach. I built up an ecumenical network of ministry partners. I no longer saw myself as the trailing spouse. Yes, we live wherever Matt is appointed. But the security of the connectional system has provided me – us – with opportunities to become versatile and to take calculated vocational risks. I love what I do, and new ways to do it keep unfurling in front of me.

This shift in outlook had another, very surprising outcome. I was now able to envision the future, not just wait for it to happen. And in a sacred moment, I saw our child – the one who wasn’t just yet to be conceived, but also yet to be conceived of, at least by Matt and me. I now wear the badge of Mama as proudly as Pastor. Not because anyone told me I must, but because it was my earnest desire and is my greatest joy.

After a well-timed pause between ministry positions that allowed me to focus on nursery preparation and gestational diabetes management, I followed my son back to work. I enrolled him in part-time church daycare, and then a part-time staff opportunity opened up at the same congregation. Now L cruises past my office door in the Bye-Bye Buggy, smiling and waving to let me know he’s having a blast with his friends. On the weekdays we’re not at the church, Matt (who, as a solo pastor, works mostly from home) and I take turns caring for L. When I’m locked away in my home office, coaching clergy or preparing for retreats, I hear muffled music, laughter, and bouncing balls.

The early days of our clergy coupledom were so anxious compared to these. I marvel that adding a third person to the mix has made things easier in some ways. I know it won’t always be this seamless. But for now I inhale deeply, thankful for every aspect of this life that has been shaped by a God who has a sense of irony, inexhaustible patience, and unbounded grace.

Laura SRLaura Stephens-Reed is a part-time minister on the staff of First Christian Church (Huntsville, Alabama), a clergy coach and congregational consultant, and a regional director of peer learning groups for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Her husband, Matt Reed, is the pastor of New Market United Methodist Church. Their almost-two-year-old son is an avid reader, climber, artist, runner, musician, and all-around merry- (mischief?) maker.

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