the shape of leadership

Spouse on Staff, Part 1

The importance of defining roles

Kristi Northup on May 17, 2017

After working bi-vocationally for four years, it was a privilege and a relief to go full-time on staff at our church alongside my husband, Wayne, who is the lead pastor. No more opposite schedules, with me working days and my husband in church-related meetings every evening. I could devote my time during the day to my role at the church and still pick up my kids from school. For the first time in years, Wayne and I had a regular day off together.

Around the same time, we also hired a full-time assistant pastor and a part-time administrative assistant, expanding the ministry team that previously consisted of my husband and the creative arts director. Almost overnight, we had a staff. We had also recently purchased a facility, which meant we had work space. This created a dynamic that was completely different from the four years proceeding, when the church was portable and everyone worked independently.

It has taken us some time to find our groove. Balancing the culture of a young staff, determining how my role complements my husband’s and adjusting to the work relationship dynamic has taken some effort. There are a few things we have learned along the way that may bring clarity to others in similar situations.

It’s not about my rights; it’s about serving others to further the kingdom of God.

Meet a Need

When we started the church six years ago, my job was basically to do everything that Wayne didn’t do. He defined and communicated the vision, recruited and trained leaders, raised money and preached on Sundays, all while continuing to travel as an evangelist. I had my hands in everything else: I selected children’s curriculum, wrote the content for the website, coordinated the purchase of a thousand items for our portable church, led worship and handled the bookkeeping.

My basic philosophy of ministry has been this: Meet a need. I picked up skills and learned about things I might not have otherwise considered, but there was no one else to do it. Rather than bringing a specific agenda to the table, I’ve tried to serve wherever I could help the most.

Church is a more chaotic structure than business or institutions. There is a constant redefining of roles that helps it grow. Rather than letting this become a source of frustration, I have realized it is an inevitable part of ministry, regardless of staff size. 

Define Expectations
Fortunately, while working outside the church, I managed to remove several tasks from my plate. I found that things ran more smoothly and my frustration level was lower when I didn’t have my hands in everything. When I came back to the church full-time, we chose to keep my role limited and well defined. I do two things: lead the worship team and oversee business administration, working closely with the elders.

I don’t coordinate small groups. I don’t schedule kids’ volunteers. I know as little as possible about church management software, follow-up and events. I naturally have the personality to get involved in everything, and people assume that since I’m the pastor’s wife, I should do just that. I don’t hesitate to say, “That’s not my area,” or jokingly remark, “I just work here.”

The truth is, everyone is better off, especially my husband and me, if I stay in my lane. Often, people on staff ask for my help, and I say, “If it’s helpful, I can give my opinion, but it doesn’t mean I’m making decisions for your area of ministry.”

That way, I can avoid getting overinvolved in execution or decision making without seeming uncaring. I know my words carry extra weight, and I try to be conscientious of that fact.

Your staff role may be completely different. But I encourage you to define the role and stay within the boundaries of that position, unless it formally changes. 

Embrace the Unwritten Role
There is a difference between my clearly-defined position as a staff member and my role as the lead pastor’s wife. I try to visualize myself changing hats. “Pastor’s Wife” is such a strange term, because it does have its own set of expectations, but a title defined by someone else’s job. Yet it’s a critical role that facilitates the health of both the pastor and the leadership by giving encouragement and care. It’s one of the few jobs where both spouses sit for an interview. That is because spousal like-mindedness is critical to embracing the lifestyle of ministry.

I get to care for the wives of staff members, elders and congregants. I host showers and entertain frequently at my house. I always send a gift if I can’t attend. I offer a listening ear to women in our church leadership about their families and lives. I try to give my husband grace on his demanding schedule, knowing there is some flexibility we would not have in other careers.

It’s not about meeting people’s expectations; it’s about knowing in my heart that I loved well in that moment. A pastor we worked under explained the expectation of a staff spouse as being an exemplary volunteer. I think that does encompass much of the basic expectation, especially for staff members who are not the senior leader. This also is helpful for men in a support role.

The people in our congregation may have a minimal understanding of what I do in the office during the week. But they know me as their pastor’s wife, and that’s a special role that I regard as a calling.  

After having worked outside of a clergy role for so long, I can truly say that it is a joy to serve in full-time ministry. It is a life of purpose — with work that brings transformation. Above all, it’s not about my rights; it’s about serving others to further the kingdom of God. It is the greatest privilege of my life, and I get to do it alongside the greatest guy I’ve ever known. That’s a job worth keeping.  

This is the first in a three-part series dealing with the privileges and challenges of working on a church staff with your spouse. See also, "Spouse on Staff, Part 2: Dealing with Disagreement" and "Spouse on Staff, Part 3: All in the Family."

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