#Yoked: Getting Into It

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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.

It’s not like we didn’t know what we were getting into – or did we?

A few months ago my wife Sarah felt called to stop pursuing her PhD in Christian Spirituality, and began looking for a call back into parish ministry.

As Sarah discerned what that looked like for her in the North Shore of Chicago, she had the chance to preach at a friend’s church. Caleb is pretty used to coming to church with me, and so that morning he and I followed our regular Sunday routine and drove to get bagels. As I was paying for our food, he suddenly flopped on the ground and started screaming.

I knew that scream. And you probably know it as well. He was screaming and looking up at me with that look that says, “WHAT IS HAPPENING TO ME!?” I knew I had a few seconds to point his face and mouth away from me. I had just barely turned his head…and then he threw up. All over the floor at Einstein’s Bagels on a busy Sunday morning just barely missing a gentleman’s shoes.

I immediately called Sarah, who was walking out the door, and asked her to lay out a change of clothes for Caleb.

I should mention that I was on my way to pick up the Executive Director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians (and my good friend), Brian Ellison. He was the guest preacher at my church that morning. As I pulled up to the hotel to pick Brian up he noticed that Caleb was only wearing a diaper. “Yah man – this is just how we roll on Sunday mornings.”

I dropped Brian off at church, then went home to change Caleb into new clothes, grab a new tie for myself, and made it back to church. Luckily, Caleb just had to get that out of his system, and he was fine.

That was when I realized that this clergy couple thing wasn’t going to be easy. Thankfully, Caleb was fine and all was well. But if he had kept puking…if he wasn’t okay…Sarah was on her way to preach, I had responsibilities at church that morning…good lord!

A few weeks ago, Sarah started full-time at the congregational church in town serving as an associate pastor. Our roles are similar, our churches are in the same town, and I’m sure that we may not fully appreciate how sweet we have it. Our churches are 1.5 miles from each other. And we have a 3 mile commute to our home. And Caleb’s daycare is exactly halfway between our home and our churches.

So, we have it good. But it doesn’t necessarily make it easier. Sometimes it’s the schedules, the negotiating evening meetings and programs, the stress of church work. Other times it’s trying to figure out something as seemingly simple as a babysitter. But then you realize it’s not so simple because you need someone from 8pm to midnight on CHRISTMAS EVE because churches have evening candlelight services late in the evening, and no, we didn’t want Caleb up until midnight on Christmas Eve because you can only imagine how that would have made Christmas Day.

This past Sunday was Sarah’s first sermon at her new church. And of course, one wants that first sermon to go over well. So, let’s just say there was some stress in our house Saturday evening and early Sunday morning. Makes sense – I was probably the same way, the first time I preached at the churches I’ve served before.

As we were getting dressed and ready (and trying to convince a 3 year old that he really should want to put on his clothes), I asked, “So…is there anything I can do to help?” And of course, she suggested a simple, albeit TERRIFYING idea: “Maybe just read my sermon and tell me it doesn’t suck?“

At 8:00am. Exactly two hours before she would have to be standing in a pulpit and preaching said sermon.

I said “sure” and read the sermon. And just like I thought – it was good. It didn’t suck. And so I told her it was good. That it was a great first sermon at a new church. And then as we kept talking, I continued to tell her it was good, but maybe she could add this, and maybe…just maybe…she could take out that part. And well, those 3 paragraphs…yah. Just delete those…

And it all worked out. I got a chance to offer some thoughts about her sermon, just as she has done for countless sermons of mine (well, let’s be honest, I’m an associate pastor, and we get to preach, like, twice a year? Palm Sunday and the Sunday after Christmas?? So, I probably could count them). She’s been a huge help to the formation of many of my sermons and so it was fun to be able to do so for her.

She preached a great sermon that morning – and got wonderful feedback.

And then there’s the realization that we aren’t going to be able to sit together, or be together, in worship.

Now, part of that just comes with the territory of being a pastor, and needing to be up front (although, I worked in a church where the pastor sat in the congregation with his family during the parts of the service he wasn’t leading…I kind of like that idea). But, as pastors serving two churches, it will be an extremely rare occurrence that we’d be able to worship as a family like that.

I’ve mentioned that before to people and I’ve been told, “Well, you get, like, 6 Sundays for vacation and study leave, right? You could sit with your family then.” And then I just smile, and look at them kindly, and think to myself, ”Oh. That’s so sweet. You think that two pastors are going to go to church on their vacation. Bless your heart.”

We are just getting started experiencing the life of a clergy couple. I’m sure we have much to learn from some of the other folks who have contributed to this blog series.

I know that it will be difficult – but I also know that I’m so happy that Caleb has not one, but two, amazing faith communities, filled with people who will watch him grow up and will help teach him in Sunday School and be there for him. I’m glad to have a partner who gets the frustrations of a pastor, and can offer me some empathy when I need it, and offer me advice when I’m struggling, and generally offer me a kick-in-the-pants…well, most of the rest of the time.

Adam-SarahAdam Walker Cleaveland* serves as Associate Pastor at Winnetka Presbyterian Church, while Sarah Walker Cleaveland** serves as Acting Associate Pastor at Winnetka Congregational Church. Adam spends his free time drawing, while Sarah has recently taken up woodworking. They live in Wilmette, IL with their amazing 3-year old son, Caleb, and their lab-pit mix, Sadie. You can find information about them at their respective websites: adamwc.com and sarahwalkercleaveland.com.

Postscript: **Sarah and I have very different styles of ministry – some of that might be evident in this photo. This was taken at the presbytery meeting when she was examined to be approved for ordination. She’s dutifully paying attention…and I’m taking a selfie.

#Yoked: Parenting and Planting

#Yoked: Parenting and Planting

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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.

Back in the days when we were newlyweds, I was serving as a pastor and my husband was in seminary, and we dreamed big dreams. We dreamed of a larger family (though my husband wanted many more kids than I did), we dreamed of moving across the country, and we dreamed of starting a new church.

Fast forward a few years, and we have lived into the dream of planting a new church but it hasn’t been easy. It has been nothing like we imagined it would be. Neither has the journey for our family been anything like we dreamed at the time.

We have one child, our son AJ, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of three. We are planting a church, but serving two other churches part-time in addition to planting this new church. We did move across the country, but with a two-and-a-half year stop in Oklahoma in which we bought a house, then felt called a year later to move, after our son’s diagnosis and discovery that the resources for our son were few and far between where we lived.

When we moved to the Seattle area, we naturally began connecting with other families that had children with disabilities. We found that we shared similar experiences in terms of church—not all churches are welcoming of people with disabilities. Sometimes our children are too loud, too mobile, and too disruptive. We have been asked to take our child (who was four at the time) to the nursery where the babies were. We have also been told our child was not welcome in childcare because the workers were not trained for autism (we always answer, “Neither are we”). So many families of children with disabilities have also not found church to be a welcoming place.

We also found families of typically developing children that had another family member or friend that had a disability and knew some of the challenges we faced. We also found adults with disabilities, their families and friends, and the vision of Open Gathering, our church, came to be—a worshipping community that gathered together, where a child running around and yelling, or another child dancing, or an adult asking serious questions that might seem silly to others would all be welcome, and not only welcomed but included and valued. As we prayed about the vision for our church and who we might be, we know that our own experience helped to shape that vision and continues to frame its future.

We still don’t have it right all the time. We have had times where one of us is wrangling our child while the other is leading the music or prayers. Several times this fall our son has slept through Open Gathering because we meet on Sunday late afternoons and he didn’t sleep well the night before.  One of the common issues for individuals with autism is sleep disruption. Our son AJ has not slept well for the past few months, and because he is a PK (pastor’s kid) of course he often does not sleep well Saturday night into Sunday morning.

Parenting is tough. Pastoring is tough. Planting a church is tough. Combine it all together, and throw in sleep disorder and autism and we struggle at times. But I don’t see how we could follow this call to this particular community without us both being clergy, both understanding what we are doing and why we are doing it, and feeling called by God to this work. We believe in this vision for our church because we are both clergy, because we are both parents of a child with a disability. The dream has changed, but it is still there.

Family portraitRev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell is an ordained American Baptist minister serving in the Seattle area along with her husband, Rev. JC Mitchell who is ordained Disciples of Christ. Together, they have begun Open Gathering, a new church community in Bellevue, WA that seeks to be welcoming and inclusive of people of different abilities. They have one child, AJ, who has autism. Mindi blogs at http://rev-o-lution.org and has recently launched autismandchurch.com with another clergy colleague.

#Yoked: All We Know

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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.

I never wanted to marry a pastor. Hell, I never wanted to be a pastor. My dad was a pastor. I watched the ways being a pastor’s wife, in the very traditional sense of the role, was slowly killing my mom, and eroding their marriage.

So, you think I would have been smarter going in. Part of my problem was I never actually thought we’d get married. Then, as it happens, we fell in love and got engaged and will be married. Two pastors. Two churches.

There are times when it is the Worst. The Worst. Like, when our wacky schedules are wacky in all the wrong ways and his half day is my long day, and my evening meetings are his nights free. We aren’t even married yet, and already we know well the rhythm of passing each other by with a certain “see you when I see you” air.

And then, there are times when it is the Best Gift Ever. We can speak in code; we get it without having to explain the nuances of church politics and church lady group dynamics. Even better, we get it without having anything professional on the line, personally speaking. When our wacky schedules are wacky in the same way – neither of us has to feel guilty for missing all the evenings this week, or working a fourteen hour Sunday.

When you’re a pastor your job becomes so much of your life – we care about people for a living. Even those among us with the best of boundaries can’t just shut that off. For me, then, one of the most difficult things already about  sharing life with another pastor is the limits on how much we can share our church life with each other. Sundays are work days for both of us – in different buildings. We have worked hard to find ways to connect with each other’s colleagues and church folks. But worshiping together is rare. Finding ways to be in community as a couple are also challenging. On the flip side, the expectations for either of us fitting into a “pastor’s wife” mold have been out the window from the get-go. We are both fortunate, as well, that our respective congregations are supportive of our relationship.

I don’t take for granted our situation. We are both in full time positions in different churches, and not far from each other. I know we might not always have it so easy. We deal with it by having lots of logistical conversations and lots of talk about how we’re doing. It’s working – at least so far.

People used to ask me growing up, “What’s it like being a pastor’s kid?” My highly evolved answer was usually a shrug of the shoulders. But it was honest – I didn’t know because it was all I knew. In many ways, I think that defines us. Two full time pastors – one (almost) marriage. I don’t know what it’s like, because it’s all I know.

10644505_10100356512418062_4262858173905461954_oMeredith Holladay has been the minister of membership development at Country Club Christian Church in Kansas City, Missouri for 5 months. She, too, is still trying to figure out what her job title means. Primarily she works with small groups, new members, young adults, and “other duties as assigned.” She loves words, dessert, and telling herself she ought to go for a run. She is engaged to Zach, the youth pastor at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas. Their wedding is coming up soon and they only fight about it every other day. 

#Yoked: Two Churches Two Kids

Yoked magnetThis 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.

Having two kids in two years while both you and your spouse are pastors at program-sized churches is not for the faint of heart.  With so many evening meetings and weekend obligations, trying to have any kind of normal family life becomes kind of a joke.  We both loved our congregations and our positions but it became more and more obvious that it was not a situation that could work in the long term.

There was the time that my newborn son contracted pneumonia and I wasn’t there for the doctor’s visits because of a Sunday afternoon meeting.  Or the time that my husband was out of state officiating a wedding when I began having pre-term contractions.  Or the one where the kid starts throwing up early on Sunday morning and you and your spouse have to negotiate who gets to leave and who has to stay.  Or when you realize that you haven’t all been together for a meal in several weeks.

Even with all of the difficulty, we struggled with the decision to leave.  Both congregations were so excited for us when we announced that we were expecting, that they threw us incredible baby showers.  Both congregations had loving and wonderful nursery staffs that our children grew to love.  Our kids were regularly on a blanket in the corner or crawling under a table during any number of meetings.  They were embraced by our congregations wholeheartedly.  These were the churches where our children had been baptized, where they starred in their first Christmas pageants, where they first learned of the incredible love of a church family.

And yet, for us, the sacrifices to our family life were just too great.  We moved to ministry situations that allowed us more family time.  Our children still choose on a Sunday between “Daddy’s church” and “Mommy’s church”.  They still are unfazed when one of their parents has a meeting that means they’ll miss breakfast or dinner.  But for now, two kids and two churches feels a bit more manageable.  I just hope the double PK moniker doesn’t scar them too badly.

Heidi Bolt photoRev. Heidi Bolt lives in Nebraska City, NE with her husband who is also a pastor. She works part-time at a UCC Church in rural Iowa and part-time as a hospice chaplain.  She and her husband have two kids, age 3 and 5.

#Yoked: Callings Woven Together

Yoked magnet

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.

“I don’t know how this is all going to work out if we get married.” The sentence hung in the air where we were sitting at a Starbucks in New Jersey. Austin and I were engaged and talking through the logistics of how we were both going to serve in the church, and live together in the same town, and feel fulfilled in our callings, and not feel like we were stifling each other… and… and… and…

My plan-for-the-future brain was on hyper drive. We didn’t know how things would look a year from then, much less a decade down the road once we threw in some hypothetical children. Walking into the unknown was scary for both of us. It’s scary for anyone.

Yet we took a deep breath, got married, entered into the call process, graduated from seminary, and moved halfway across the country for my husband to serve as an associate pastor at a church.

Fast-forward 5 ½ years, and we can see how everything did work out for both of us to serve churches and feel fulfilled, all while married to each other.  Some years were more difficult than others but the journey strengthened our faith. The first 14 months after seminary, before I took a call, were hard for me and I often times wondered “ok, God, where am I going to serve? Where am I going to use my gifts?” Looking back, I can see that the God who called us together in marriage and called us both into ministry is big enough to help us both fulfill our callings to ministry and to each other.

It seems trite and unprofound. So much so that I almost e-mailed Mihee and backed out of writing a blog post. Yet as I sat with that truth in my head last night, I realized that it’s not trite. It’s not unprofound. That fact is the basis for our ministry- for every person’s ministry. The God who calls you to something is going to give you the avenue and the grace to fulfill that calling.

The unknowns of serving of a ministry couple can be paralyzing. By resting in the fact that God has helped us both live out our calls to ministry and be extremely fulfilled thus far, that helps me remember that God will continue to do so. Thanks be to God.

hillsThe Revs. Austin and Sara Hill currently serve the First Presbyterian Church in Fort Dodge, IA, where they live and raise their two toddlers. Sara previously served the United Presbyterian Church in Goldfield, IA. Austin and Sara met at Princeton Theological Seminary. They both graduated from PTS in 2009 with their M.Divs. Austin is currently getting his D.Min. from Fuller Theological Seminary. You can keep up with them both on Instagram: @hillaustind, @scrhill. Sara hopes to one day meet Mihee in person.