February 23, 2010

"We" or "They"?

“How are things going at the church?” a casual acquaintance asked.

This is not a rare question for a pastor’s spouse to hear, of course, especially from a person in the community who knows you only by your affiliation with a given congregation. But I noticed something in my reply that gave me pause.

Throughout my description of the congregation, I consistently used the word “they,” rather than “we.”

The fact that I don’t feel “a part of things” at this congregation was no surprise to me, but the language I unconsciously used put my separateness in stark relief. Though we’ve been at this church for several years, the church is still “they” to me. They do this, and They think that, but I do not. My husband and I do have different theological and stylistic preferences from most of the congregation, but this feeling is about more than a lack of consensus--it's a lack of belonging. I may have sat in that pew most every Sunday, said my vows to become a “member” of that congregation, attended most special events, and even taught a class or two… but they are they, and while they would say I am part of their community, I do not feel it.

I recently read an article on itineracy in the United Methodist Church, which pointed out how the itineracy system and the parsonages that are meant to facilitate that system hinder the clergy family’s integration into the church and its community.

As the writer says:
“Moving often sacrifices the spouse’s career or a child’s final year at a school. Allowing pastors to invest fully in a local community by purchasing a home would be beneficial to church growth as it allows pastors to choose the type and size of home that fits their needs, [and] gives a healthier psychological separation between work and private family time…”

Knowing that we are sent to that church and will soon be sent elsewhere—so temporary that we are not even allowed to select a home of our own—reinforces our status as transients, as visitors in a place where we theoretically hold a central role.

What has been your experience? Do you say “we” or “they”? Do you feel like a real part of your church community? How has the length of your tenures and/or residence in a parsonage affected your sense of belonging?

This writer prefers to remain anonymous.


  1. This is really tough, and for me it comes down to making friends in the congregation. And that has gotten harder the older my children have gotten.

    When they were little, it was easy to find other new moms and new friends. I've always thought this is because when couples become families (with kids), there is a realignment of social connections and that it is often the time when families start coming to church. I'm new; they're new; we have lots in common; we become friends.

    Now that my kids live away, I've had to become more proactive about making new friends in the congregation. Even so, I've typically always found at least one person.

    But the other side is also true for me. There have been times when I thought I was part of the congregation only to find out that the congregation didn't see me that way, as though when my spouse left the church, I was dead (a little over stated)to them.
    But also as belonging to a local congregation comes and goes, I've found my friendships with other clergy spouses has strengthened and become more important.

  2. I've worked really hard to think of the church as "we," but it is work because, in reality, I'm inclined to think of our congregation as "they." "They" have a shared local history that is different from "our's." It seems like the general Christian story we all share should be powerful enough to make us all a "we," and so I have tried mentally to focus on what we have in common. But, like you said, the fact is that we are only passing by this congregation and so by default our relationships with people here are not the same as the relationships formed between people and families who will be spending their entire lives together.

    I've lived with itinerancy my whole life, and it has definitely affected my sense of belonging. But one really wonderful thing has come out of that, which I wouldn't trade for anything, and that is how powerfully meaningful it is for me to think of my home as being with God. It is forever in my face that everything I see and know is just temporary, and while that is painful for the moment, it kind of forces me to dig a home for myself, a place that I never move away from, in God. And while I do not have anything like the "feast" of community other people in the churches seem to have with one another, God has provided me with enough "bread" for survival. I have my family and a some lasting friends who I can call. I'm really very grateful for that. One day I'll receive my reward, and it will last forever.