It was official. We were co-pastors, elected by our church to serve as a husband and wife team. Now what?
As the bright light of excitement from starting our new co-pastoring journey dimmed, and we settled into the daily grind of parish ministry, we were dismayed to discover we had no idea how to co-pastor. None at all. We both had degrees in ministry and were pursuing master’s level education. We had the tools we needed for exegesis, pastoral counseling, and leadership. Knowledge and information were not the problem—we just had no idea how to wield them as a duo. It was like being an expert at hammering nails only to be told now you must do it with a friend, at the exact same time, in front of an audience—and stay married. Brutal.
In fits and starts, we moved forward, each doing the tasks at hand, but often arguing about who should do what and how. We would iron out a system of “who’s in charge of what” and walk that path for awhile, only to have circumstances change and upset the dynamic―like one person graduating seminary while the other started, having our first child, moving to a new church, and an extended bout with depression. As hard as we tried to find a magic formula to determine the perfect application of our individual skills and gifts, we regularly felt we were coming up short. Our ministry felt stifled―and stifling―to us both, bringing hurt and resentment into our marriage.
We tried to seek counsel, but as there are so few co-pastor spouses in our denomination, we had little to go on. I recall one vague suggestion by a co-pastor pair that we make a Venn diagram of our skills and responsibilities. Supposedly, this would be the magic remedy to what ailed us. However, the “big” stuff―visioning, preaching, teaching―all fell in the middle. So now what? Arm wrestle? I married a college lineman, so that would put me at a very clear disadvantage.
So we just carried on. What else could we do? We sought counsel outside the church with a professional therapist. We talked, fought, prayed, and sought forgiveness. No arm wrestling allowed.
Eight years into this gig and we are still co-pastoring, more happily married than ever. Some days are still very hard, but God’s grace has gone before us, empowering us to be faithful to our vocation, one another, and the church. So, while I’m not usually one for tips and tricks of the trade, I’d like to offer you testimony of our experience and God’s faithfulness in the hopes of giving struggling co-pastors some guidance. These three tips work for any co-pastoring duo, whether or not you’re married:
1. Own your shape.
Upon meeting my husband and me, people always remark on how different we are, and inevitably say, “Well, isn’t that just such a blessing in your ministry?” Sure, whatever. Being so very different is also so very hard. My husband is a triangle―and not even a right triangle, but more like one of those scalene triangles from ninth grade geometry with no matching sides or angles. I am a square―four right angles and four equal lines. The problem comes when I want him to quit acting like such a triangle and square-up! “Why didn’t you run the meeting like this?” “You need to finish your sermon on this day.” “Can you seriously not do… (fill in the blank)?” Or, on the flip side, “My partner is so great at that, and I’m not. I’m obviously a worthless pastor with nothing to contribute.” Both behaviors―trying to re-shape your partner in your image, or re-shape yourself in theirs―are harmful to you, your partner, and your ministry. Own whom God has made you to be, and allow your partner to do the same.
2. Take a cue from parenting.
In many ways, co-pastoring is like parenting: two people working together to love and train others—in our case, our parishioners. Seasoned parents can offer wise counsel. First of all, don’t get played. Unfortunately, even Jesus-loving church folks can misbehave. If they don’t get their way on an issue with one pastor, they might very well try it out with the other pastor. Heed the words of my wise father, “If mom said no, so do I.” This requires consistent communication between pastoral partners and deep trust in one another’s decisions.
That said, remember to praise in public, and critique in private. Even if you are absolutely mortified by your partner’s decision or response to an issue, it is rarely, if ever, appropriate or healthy to correct your partner in front of others. Some would say avoid disagreeing in public altogether, but that is insincere and communicates a false image to your people. Instead, pledge to praise your partner in front of and to others and save critiques for private conversations. When you do disagree with your partner in a meeting or interaction, be a model for Christ-likeness in humility and gentleness as you share your difference of opinion.
3. Communicate, communicate, and then communicate some more.
his might seem excessively practical, and maybe a big, fat “duh” to everyone else, but I will throw it out there just in case. You cannot communicate too much as co-pastors. Simple ways to make this more natural and less of a hassle?
- Synchronize your phone calendars so commitments for one pastor show up for the other.
- Create a combined email account. This not only eases communication, it prevents some of the parishioner shenanigans mentioned earlier, like trying to get a “yes” from one pastor when the other has already said “no.”
- Create intentional time each week to share your week, your intentions, and your challenges. This is also an important time for shared visioning and goal setting. If you are married to your co-pastor, try to resist the temptation to make every one-on-one encounter about church stuff. Healthy boundaries between home and work are essential for the married co-pastoring duo.
My co-pastor hubby and I continue to hash out what it means to be co-pastors in the trenches of everyday ministry and marriage. Some days, it feels awesome and right and exactly what we were made to do. Other days, we would rather do anything but this. Nevertheless, God is faithful and is empowering us to live into our calling. As you wrestle with the challenges of finding your way together, remember co-pastoring is not just a method of ministering―it is an opportunity to embody gospel-fueled cooperation in God’s mission. Live it well.
Stephanie Dyrness Lobdell is a Nazarene pastor, wife, mommy of JoJo and Jack, teacher, lover of learning, and friend. She and her husband, Tommy, have served as co-pastors of several churches. Currently, Stephanie serves as co-lead pastor with Tommy, as well as the worship pastor at Mountain Home Church of the Nazarene, an extraordinary community of believers in Mountain Home, Idaho, and blogs at www.stephanielobdell.com.