Spouses as Co-Pastors?

On a flight from Toronto to Calgary I happened to be sitting across the aisle from a senior denominational leader who had over many years worked directly with congregations and congregational leaders.   As we chatted I raised an issue, wanting to get his perspective.  We both knew of a congregation where the wife of the senior pastor was full and active member of the pastoral staff.   And I asked him if this was something that he thought had the capacity to work – to actually be a viable way to build and engage a team in shared ministry.   His response was immediate:  “no, it does not work.” 

This arose in part because I was in correspondence with a pastor in central British Columbia who identified as the “co-pastor” with his wife.   We were back and forth by e-mail about governance and best practices.   And I had my doubts whether this could work; but I thought to get another perspective.   I had known of various examples where there was a co-pastor of a church or in a small academic institute, a “co-president”, and I knew from my observations of these situations that they were filled with problems that I was inclined to think was due to this dynamic of either a shared senior role or a spouse who was a member of the leadership team.  But still, I decided to press back and insist that surely, in some cases, surely if there is an awareness of the potential limitations, surely there might be a situation where it might be workable. 

He insisted with little hesitation:  “it never works.” 

And, well, I think he is right.  It never works.   Two things here.  First, there always needs to be clarity about who is the senior leader in the organization.   And if there is doubt on this score, it will be difficult to sustain both transparency in decision making and accountability for the actions taken.   You can only hold an individual accountable, not a team.  Further, it might work at the beginning – perhaps when a church is still in its infancy; but it will be increasing difficult to sustain as the congregation grows and the governance structures mature. 

But second, it will without doubt be impossible if the pastoral team is anything larger than the two – husband/wife.   And if one of them in a larger staff is identified as senior, it is inevitable that a senior leader will privilege the voice of the spouse on the team.  It is inevitable.  The home kitchen table will be the true decision-making venue, not the team meeting.  The rest of the team will know that they have to somehow work not only with their formal accountability but also in some form or another keep the spouse “happy.”   The situation, in other words, is fraught. 

Only those who are either [wilfully or unwittingly] blind to these dynamics or are, frankly, just naïve about how governance works, will try to make it work.  It does not work.     So, I have asked my correspondent at the church in British Columbia to come back to me and persuade me otherwise.   I’ll include his responses in a future blog if he chooses to take me up on this invitation.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.