This is a true saying, if a man desire the office of a bishop*, he desireth a good work.A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous;One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) (1 Timothy 3:1-5,King James Version)
*often translated overseer or presbyter.
It was a typical Saturday morning at the rectory,and I was dressed casually in a T-shirt and shorts. I heard a knock at the kitchen door, opened it,and saw a woman, a member of the congregation, standing there. She took one look at my informal attire and covered her face in shocked embarrassment as she said, “I never expected to see you looking like that!” Fortunately, my wife Angela was near at hand and so I quickly retreated with the words, “It’s for you!”
Later, as I reflected on the incident, I wondered how she thought we lived. Did she imagine that I spent all of my days robed in formal vestments, attended by faithful acolytes, with J.S. Bach organ music playing gently in the background? What was her picture of normal clergy life?
My mother attended a Wesleyan Methodist Church during her childhood, and John Wesley (founder of Methodism) was a much discussed and admired role model in our family. The town where I grew up was only sixty miles from Epworth, the hometown of the Reverend Samuel and Susanna Wesley and their nineteen children (only nine of whom lived beyond infancy). I had visited the historic site and marveled at the stories of this clergy home. As in many families at the time, Wesley's parents gave their children their early education. Each child, including each girl, was taught to read as soon as they could walk and talk. They were expected to become proficient in Latin and Greek and to learn major portions of the New Testament by heart. Susanna Wesley examined each child before the midday meal and before evening prayers. The children were not allowed to eat between meals and were interviewed singly by their mother one evening each week for the purpose of intensive spiritual instruction. The Wesleys lived through hardship and trials, including the famous house fire when John was barely rescued from the flames. Samuel, their father, spent a good bit of time in debtors’ prison, because he was such a poor financial manager. Their remarkable faith in the midst of adversity sets a daunting standard for clergy family life.
When we began our life as clergy family, we returned to our home church in Darien, Connecticut. We lived in the neighboring community of New Canaan but were immediately confronted with a sizable financial challenge – the diocese insisted that all deacons be paid the same stipend, with no regard for the cost of living or size of family. As a result, our family income was cut by more than 75%. I served as a deacon for only one year, and eventually the parish was able to provide a somewhat more adequate stipend, but finances remained a constant struggle and a focus for our daily prayers. We did witness many examples of God’s supernatural provision – parishioners were wonderfully generous sharing hand-me-down clothing for our children, and several invited us to use their summer homes for our family vacations. But I struggled to keep from bitterness at the underlying assumption that clergy families were destined to live on handouts. Eventually, Angela was permitted to join the church staff as the office receptionist – a position for which she was eminently qualified – and her modest salary helped lift some of our financial burden. But there was considerable pushback, because it didn’t seem “right” that a clergy wife was on the church payroll. At times I did have considerable sympathy for the Reverend Samuel Wesley! However, as I often reminded the children, we never missed a meal, our prayers were answered, and as we grew in our awareness of the daily struggles of so many Christian families around the world, we realized that we were richly blessed.
There was another aspect of clergy life for which I was unprepared, and that was the sense of isolation that comes with taking on the mantle of ordained ministry. Even though we were back in the same community and serving with people that we had known for ten years or more, an invisible barrier had been erected as a result of my ordination. We were not just the Minns family, we were now seen as “clergy,” “different,” and people didn’t quite know how to relate to us anymore. We were also seen as representative people – we represented the church. If people were angry at the church or at God, we became a convenient target. But this occasionally worked to our advantage!
One famous incident took place quite early in our time in New Canaan. Our son Jon, age seven, was walking home from school and got into an argument with some older boys, and it quickly erupted into the typical pushing and shoving. Along came his sister Catherine, nine years old and fiercely loyal to her brother, who joined the fray. But the odds were still against them. Finally, along came sister Helen, eleven years old, and already a star on the soccer field. As she joined in,the other boys protested that it was no longer a fair fight. To this, Helen responded, in words that have often been quoted since, “When you take on one Minns, you take on all of the Minns, and that’s not all – you take on God! ”At that point the boys ran away, and family honor was satisfied!
As we reflect on more than forty years as a clergy family, we are profoundly grateful for God’s call and the friends that we have made along the way. We could not have imagined a more fulfilling life. But we know that some clergy families do struggle financially or face a surprising isolation and loneliness in pastoral work or find a vital and growing life in Christ a too-distant dream. If you are in that sort of season, it is our hope that you will feel the freedom to reach out to us for help. One particular source of help is a ministry that Geoff Chapman, former Rector of St. Stephen’s Church, Sewickley, has initiated – he describes it as Clergy Care Groups.
These small groups provide a safe and healing place for clergy to meet together and grow spiritually. If you would like to know more, take a look at this testimony from one of the groups: https://americananglican.org/featured/the-impact-of-the-aacs-clergy-covenant-care/ If you would like to be a part of a group like this, I encourage you to contact Geoff directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call him. He would be glad to hear from you.
Your brother in Christ’s service,