Are we treating clergy couples well?

Richard Moy writesIn 2007 the local BBC TV station did a feature on Nicola and me as the youngest clergy couple in the Church of England. Fortunately the footage has since been lost! But what was still quite rare in 2007 is now the new norm – at least for women in training. Apparently 60% of women who are ordained will be in a clergy couple, Emma Ineson reported at the New Wine Clergy Couples gathering, (although when she tried to check this statistic with the CoE they said that they don’t keep those figures). Given that some ordained women will be single, this means that a very high proportion of married ordained women clergy are married to ordained men—and the converse is not true for ordained men.

This blog explores some of the opportunities and issues this raises, based on extensive conversations with clergy couples, seminars at New Wine and on-line engagement.

Included are: Training; power dynamics; corporation sole; job-sharing and job switching; couples working in different contexts; remuneration, including the variation in remuneration between different dioceses and the issues that causes nationally; local possibilities for remuneration and team/cluster ministries. It highlights how dioceses known to be couple-friendly might mitigate some of their recruitment problems through some creative thinking, encouragement and engagement.

The headlines are:

  • Although there are patterns among clergy couples there is great variety in outworking calling.
  • There is also a very unhelpful disparity between different dioceses (DDOs/Bishops) as to how they institutionally respond to a couple presenting for ordination, looking for jobs in their diocese.
  • There is a recruitment opportunity for dioceses if they set out to be clergy couple friendly.
  • There are some learning opportunities for the wider church as well as key things for couples considering ordination to reflect on.
  • Life stage is a key determinant of how calling is outworked, as is whether calling came to both members of the couple separately or together.
  • Overall there is an enormous energy and creativity made possible through clergy couples that pragmatic dioceses could/should capitalise on.

The issues are as follows:

1. Training routes

One college surveyed showed great versatility for training couples with children. Both partners had two-year training routes, but the college enabled them to spread these over 3three years, so that one of them could take a lead on childcare each year. Several colleges were contacted but only this one was able to offer that bespoke flexibility.

2. Power dynamics

The groups in discussions were aware of power dynamics that might be unhelpful from having an ordained couple on a staff team, but equally many have been part of a church where a couple positively exercised overall leadership together (even If one member was not ordained), and some had previously worked together when one or both were lay members of a church staff team. There is sufficient good practice and role models now that a simple code of practice could be written, perhaps commissioned by Archbishop’s Council. With appropriate guidelines and accountability structures DDOs, training incumbents and bishops should not fear placing a couple in ministry together.

Particularly within the evangelical and charismatic tradition a very significant number of churches have informally been de facto led by a couple in ministry for decades, (‘who’s in the room when they are not in the room’). In recent years several resource churches have described themselves as led by a couple (e.g. Gas Street, Birmingham), even when only one of the couple are ordained. Significant New Wine churches like All Saints Woodford Wells, and St Paul’s Ealing have similar terminology. The new reality is that many couples in ministry are now both ordained or are open to both being ordained. This means these ministry couples can now be selected, authorised and trained by the CoE. This should be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat.

3. ‘Corporation sole’

This idea was a 16thCentury invention of Sir Edward Coke that prevented an incumbent squandering benefice property, whilst also enabling them to protect the asset. In the modern UK church corporation sole is largely superflous but was reaffirmed in the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011, ss.34(2) and 37(5).[1]

The impact on clergy couples however is anything but superfluous, and we would argue now is a major barrier to egalitarian ministry exercised jointly and equally by a couple called together. In essence it means only one of them can be the legal incumbent and the role cannot be shared equally in law. The outworking of this is that even in a ‘job share’, one member of the couple will be licensed as the incumbent, and the other will be licensed as the assistant curate. At a local level churches (and even dioceses) may choose or allow other terminology, such as ‘senior pastors’, ‘associate vicars’ and so on, but the licensing remains polarised and hierarchical.

This has implications when a couple is looking for further jobs. A clergy couple may have co-led a church, and but only one will have ‘prior incumbency status’ when looking for next jobs. The group had specific examples of patrons and dioceses not willing to consider the ‘non-incumbent’ half of a clergy couple for an incumbent level next job in a church where the advert required previous incumbency experience. A majority of those entering into clergy couple ministry have little awareness of this legislation.

4. Job sharing in practice

Major discrepancies are apparent between different dioceses and even areas within dioceses as to how these may be outworked. Some have required one of the couple to be full stipendiary incumbent and the other an NSM assistant curate. Where this has happened a further discrepancy occurs between those who treat the second member as an anonymous irrelevance in terms of training and other opportunities and those who, despite the legal terminology, are prepared to treat the second person as a full stipendiary clergyperson for internal training purposes and other opportunities.

Others have allowed a each person to have a 0.5 stipend, whilst having to designate one as the designated vicar under corporation sole. Although this option has an attraction for egalitarian couples seeking to work together, and at first glance it looks financially sound as it neither will be liable for much/any income tax, couples are now finding that they are not deemed eligible for the Heating, Lighting and Cleaning Tax allowance if they are both part-time, so in a large vicarage this may be end up being punitive, unless a way around that can be found by the national church.

The 2 x 0.5 stipend option leaves both members of the couple the option of earning additional monies outside of their parochial role. Anecdotally a clergy couple job sharing is likely to end up doing the equivalent of an 8-12 day working week – usually for one stipend. This partly reflects the ontological nature of priestly ministry, and the inevitable ‘on-duty’ nature of being a priest resident in a parish. Those who limited it to a clearly combined 6 days a week were usually involved in other defined roles that occupied significant parts of their time. But when not well managed/defined shared clerical roles can be all consuming for a couple, with conversations and life almost entirely centred around ministry and parish.

5. Job switching

Some couples doing a longer stretch in one parish had attempted to swop roles half-way through their term with varied responses from their Dioceses. Job swopping is an alternate way of achieving a degree of parity in role for some, validating both partners in a clergy couple as ‘incumbent’ level. It could work well for some couples when life stages / other ministerial opportunities mean one or other is more able to take the lead role in a parish. Clearly due process involving the parish/patrons/Bishop is needed.

Consistency is again an issue. Where one cleric had been headhunted to a national church position, the spouse had been allowed to take on the incumbency of the parish. Where another couple had attempted it within the same diocese they had been told it was not possible. Consistency and a code of practice is desirable.

6. Couples working in two parishes, or a parish and sector ministry

There is a range of preferences, opinions, theologies and experiences among clergy couples with regards to working in two parishes. Some have a dominant ‘church as family’ model and find the idea of working in separate parishes problematic. Some end up working in separate parishes as the Diocese has insisted on it for a stipendiary curacy. Others found it preferable or validating for their individual call and ministry to exercise priestly calling in separate parochial contexts (and some found it better for their marriages).

When working in separate parishes has been imposed on couples they reported some significant costs of the policy. There was an unexpected loss of involvement in their spouses’ life and ministry. Several reported feeling they were being treated as a single person or single parent in ministry. Having two parochial roles often led to significant diary clashes, including Sundays.

Couples in two parishes may or may not require two vicarages. This partly depends on the understanding of vicarage being drawn upon, and partly on the geographical separation of the parishes. With regards to the former there is a question whether it is a mission base or retreat for vicar, or simply a home? With regards to the later some prominent clergy couples are separated by county or diocesan boundaries and inevitably operate from two residential bases. This may provoke further theological reflection on ministry and marriage, and a possible distinction between couples who are both clergy – but to all intents and purposes exercising entirely distinctive ministry and clergy couples who see themselves as a ministry unit (with an assortment of variations in between the polar positions, and an acknowledgment that these may change with life-stage in a variety of directions).

It was common where the couple had began in two parishes for one of them to have quickly taken on a sector job (diocesan/chaplaincy/parachurch) to achieve more life balance. It is common for clergy couples to be looking for one parish + one sector job. 

7. Remuneration

This is part of a broader, and different conversation about the nature of stipends, but it does have a particular bearing on those for whom their entire earnings potential is (in the usual scheme of things) vested in the church – i.e. couples where both partners are clergy.

As in other areas, there is significant divergence of practice on this nationally. At core is the issue of stipend and what that means in today’s church. The historic understanding of stipend was an amount of money that made it possible to live without earning money in other ways. However, a stipend is in no way means tested. In a household where there are two working age adults in a couple the most common contemporary pattern in UK society is for both to earn a wage. These wages take into account housing and commuting as the major expenditure items. In a couple where accommodation is provided freely as one person is a clergyperson with tied accommodation and the other in a professional job the overall disposable household income will be high. Average professional salaries in London in property, HR, legal, accountancy, IT, construction and consultancy range from £47,000-£63,500pa.[2]

So a couple where one was clergy and one in a professional job, could easily have a total household income of £70,000-£100,000+ (including a £25,000 stipend and free housing). If such a couple had no children with a £70,000 combined income they would have a net household equalised income in the top 4% of the UK.[3][With three children this would still put them in the top 15%].

By contrast a couple sharing a stipend could have a total household income of £25,000 (+benefits). According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies a family on one stipend with three dependent children have a net household equalised income in the bottom 20% of UK.[4]

If they worked on one stipend between them for the full 43 years needed to be eligible for full pension, then on current projections they would have a total of £12,500pa church pension & National Insurance. From this they would need to rent a home assuming the likely reality that they have not been able to raise a deposit/mortgage from their solitary stipend over those 43 years of service.

The key question is: Is a stipend still in any way ‘the money that is needed to live off and not take on another source of income’ if it does not take into account i) other household income; ii) cost of living variations between regions; iii) number of dependents supported by that ‘stipend’ iv) ability to contribute into retirement housing – which is no longer routinely provided.

These are some of the realities that Dioceses and clergy need to think through when agreeing to a one ‘stipend’ job share.

8. Varying remuneration practices

If a stipend is not in fact a stipend it becomes a de facto wage or salary – at least in popular understanding, if not in law. Part of having a wage is to reimburse you the opportunity cost of doing other things. In vocational jobs it is common to accept that wages may be lower, as the job is closely related to what you want to do – i.e. there is less opportunity cost. If either the wage or the enjoyment/vocational factor drop too low people will seek alternative employment (assuming they have the skill set to do so). The level of remuneration is a way that people measure self-worth, achievement and so on.

If a Diocese ordain two curates and say: ‘you must work where we tell you, in two separate contexts, for one stipend,’ it should not surprise them if this leads to problems. If a stipend is a wage and you are asking someone to work unwaged in a context they do not want to work in, you will be challenging their sense of self-worth. Similarly, if one of those curates is told to be non-stipendiary and the other stipendiary one will inevitably seem to be more validated than the other.

Similarly, if stipend is in reality a wage, a candidate for a Diocesan officer post who is in a clergy couple where their spouse is a vicar in another Diocese may be affronted not to be offered a housing allowance for his work, if another candidate whose spouse was not a vicar would have been offered housing + accommodation or accommodation allowance. If the work is worth £25,000 + £12,500 housing allowance, to be asked to do it just for £25,000 feels like a relative 33% paycut. The same may be true for 2 parochial clergy operating separately but not given the chance to operate from two vicarages, then if they have a vision for ministry in each parish from a base there, they might want to utilise the second home for workspace, hospitality, hosting interns, etc, and, in some cases, to save daily commuting over substantial distances.

9. Remuneration and local arrangements: opportunities and issues

Clergy couples / parishes where couples are willing and able to work together and one hopes to be ‘locally supported’ would benefit from being willing to negotiate on remuneration/pensions. In reality stipendiary clergy are more expensive than they at first appear as a huge pension contribution is added to the stipend to offset the historic issues in management of the Church of England Pension scheme. A premium of 38.2% of stipend is paid into the pension scheme – but 40% of this (14.7% of the 38.2%) is simply to cover the historic deficit.[5]

So a parish inclined to fully fund a second stipendiary post for a clergy couple will find the on-costs of paying that additional clergy person unusually high compared to other staff they may have the privilege of employing, even without giving anything towards a housing allowance. Instead of a £25,000 stipend & usual on costs that they might pay for a lay-worker (20-25%), they will be adding on around 50%. So the pension & stipend part of the salary package would cost a parish £37,500 – and that is assuming no housing allowance. £37,500 is a substantial budget expenditure for any parish, and would fund high-calibre lay workers with a specialist ministry in operations, youth/children’s, worship etc. It is important to consider why the parish might need an additional clergy person as opposed to one of these other workers.

This may be particularly problematic for curates. A good training parish/incumbent will invest significant time in a curate’s training. A curacy is not designed to be primarily about output fulfilling the vision of the PCC, but a necessary part of training to prepare someone for a lifetime of ministry in the wider church and hence in most Dioceses the costs of having a curate are absorbed by central funds. When a PCC funds a curate that changes the dynamic, and expectations inevitably rise. As it is a training post Curates tend to be increasingly productive year on year, but the trajectory is to grow and leave. Married curates will also (most likely) both leave at the same time. Given a choice of funding a potentially long-term specialist worker or a second curate with substantial training needs and a definite exit point, ordinands negotiating for funding from a PCC towards a second stipend should be aware that this is a big ask for the above reasons.

On the other hand, if an additional clergy person in a parish is necessary, a clergy couple becomes fantastic value for money, if they are willing to work without an additional housing allowance, due to saving in housing costs that would arise from installing an alternative vicar. [Housing costs vary by region, but if an additional vicar needed housing this could add an additional £15-35,000 to parish costs / or loss of rental income if the parish already has property].

Where there is locally supported ministry it is worth noting local arrangements can also be made for pensions. Financial advice should be taken, but clergy can opt out of the clergy pension scheme, and may find it prudent to invest in other ways, particularly with regards to retirement housing.

10. Working locally in a team or cluster ministry

Deaneries and Dioceses operating cluster/team ministries should be particularly aware of the opportunities of appointing a clergy couple. In such contexts a clergy couple where both are focused on leading a local church can be a viable way of sharing ministry, whilst have a distinct vocation. In such a case there will already by common fund positions that a couple can step into.

Life stage is again significant. Many clergy couples report a willingness to do 1.5 posts between them, particularly if raising children. Dioceses should continue to consider advertising for 0.5 / 0.75 and 1.5 posts and indicate if they have a willingness to consider a couple in ministry.

11. Looking ahead

Clergy couples are one of the key strategic opportunities for the church. There is a rapid increase of those offering more ministry where both spouses will be clergy.

‘Clergy Couple Friendly Dioceses’ have recruitment opportunities that are barely being scratched at. Clergy couples tend to have a very high combined vocation and a willingness to serve, often for very little recognition or remuneration. So dioceses, local churches and para-church organisations who offer better than average recognition and remuneration will find a very loyal, skilled and trained workforce who have a habit of going above and beyond.

However, the national church, through Archbishop’s Council and General Synod, would be well advised to pursue this further strategically. The New Wine Clergy Couples Network are very happy to share our experiences and expertise.







Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

9 thoughts on “Are we treating clergy couples well?”

  1. There is something in the monastic vows which involves giving up personal desires but then trusting the monastery to cater for all essential needs; that is a pattern of thinking that has gone in to the understanding of ‘stipend’ being not remuneration. However, with changing demographics etc, and the enforced retirement age, clergy have gone from being housed for life to being thrown out. If such clergy have followed a ‘traditional’ pattern of life – as opposed to being DINKy’s – then they face an old age of significant poverty (= significant dependency on state benefits). I don’t believe that this is honourable. Perhaps the church might hold on to houses for a lot longer – and acquire a more extensive portfolio of suitable retirement properties – in order to properly honour the spirit of the stipend. Otherwise it will continue to be abusive.

  2. The stipend principle is, in practice, bust. There were some dioceses paying extra to Rural Deans and Team Rectors. Sadly 🙂 I was both, twice, without extra renumeration. More money would have been useful but I think I’d have been uncomfortable among my colleagues. For the stipend to hold true then Residential Canons to Diocesean Bishops need to be on the same salary as everyone else. As a dweller in the NW I don’t think the reference to well paid London jobs cuts much ice. Is there a way to navigate between stipend and salary that honours work but is not merely world-imitating?

    One clergy couples… is there a deployment issue here in that movement can more directed by the needs of the couple than the need of the kingdom? A variation on the 750 men who felt Gid was calling them to a parish in Devon? I do think individual needs might be part of where God is calling people to serve but we are all vulnerable to loosing track of that. It’s a question not a judgement.

    “..ability to contribute into retirement housing – which is no longer routinely provided.” I think that’s a real issue but housing has never (in my 40 years on ordination ) been routinely provided. I think some of us assumed the future would be taken care of for us but, in reality, that was not so.

  3. “In recent years several resource churches have described themselves as led by a couple (e.g. Gas Street, Birmingham), even when only one of the couple are ordained. Significant New Wine churches like All Saints Woodford Wells, and St Paul’s Ealing have similar terminology.”

    Does anyone else find this practice concerning? I speak as someone who is extremely sympathetic to New Wine, and yet I’ve been in at least two such environments where this approach has led directly to complete breakdown within the church. The process of having ones call tested by an independent and systematic process provides a measure of accountability in the suitability of who gets to lead God’s people, though I am aware the system is not perfect. What’s the situation regarding Canon Law in this regard?

  4. It depends, in part, on whether the minister sees being a vicar as (i) something that God has called him/her to *be*, or (ii) as a job that God has called him/her to do in a situation where God could equally well have called him/her to labour on a building site.

    As a general rule, (i) is associated with an anglo-catholic outlook, and the stipend concept then works if said priest’s spouse shares the vision and has some intuitive idea of what economic standard-of-living they are willing to accept and consequently of what paid work they will probably need to do.

    (ii) is the more evangelical concept, and should have the feature that every child of God sees what they do as a calling, something that God has initiated and sustains as explicitly as he does for the minister. Further, the financial package, whether referred to as stipend or salary+benefits, is then part of the call, to be evaluated at the time the call is offered.

    Difficulties most probably arise if the 2 spouses of the couple have contrasting visions of the ministry – one believing (i) and the other believing (ii). And this is true, whether both are ordained or only one.

  5. The Salvation Army will train a couple together for a joint ministry together. This is true for the son and daughter-in-law of an Anglican bishop. However, the SA send you where they think you should go – no applying for jobs!

    • However, the SA send you where they think you should go

      Clue’s in the name, I guess — you can’t say you didn’t know what you were joining.

  6. I’m amazed that Ian let through a reference to the ‘ontological nature of priestly ministry’! 😉

    Did anyone mention needing to think about how differential stipends interact with parental leave? Financially a couple may be better off if, when one of them (usually the wife) is planning to take say a year of maternity leave, it is the husband who has the (higher) stipend, since then they don’t lose out so much when any additional maternity pay stops.

  7. Though I would call myself an evangelical and a charismatic I have some discomfort with the ‘New Wine’ style shared ministry in a CofE context with one of the partners not being ordained. I hope it doesn’t happen too often, but what happens when things go wrong? Does it go wrong in a spectacularly worse way for a clergy family with this style of leadership if the ordained one is disciplined ( and possibly removed) for whatever reason? If both are ordained then at least there may be some continuity if the other of the couple is in another parish or ordained ministry. I know one must not assume the worst, but I can see it being an utter disaster if it goes wrong. Also, obviously not a reason for not doing it…but does this style of ministry put pressure on clergy spouses of new wine style, evangelical/charismatic clergy who do not want to be partnered with their spouse in ‘leadership’. Perhaps it works well enough for these questions not to be issue. Just flagging them up and hoping they are addressed at some point in clergy/non ordained couples forums. As a one time clergy spouse myself I shied away from being seen as ‘in leadership’ with my spouse. Maybe it was self preservation!!


Leave a comment