Co-Pastoring & Marriage: 5 Things That Helped Us Survive It All

Shawna Songer Gaines

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co-pastoring

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My pastor friends ask, “How can you work with another co-pastor?”

My married friends ask, “How can work with your spouse?”

To be honest, there was a time when my answer would have been, “I don’t know and I don’t wanna.”

My husband Tim and I have been co-pastoring the church of our dreams for the last three years. But believe it or not, co-pastoring was not in our “life plan”. Early in our relationship we struggled with anxiety about the balance of our individual callings, and how life and ministry would unfold for each of us, together.

In our early days of dating and marriage we had seen very few co-pastor models, and the models we had seen didn’t make us crave the possibility. Some might say that Tim and I are both “strong personalities,” which seems like a nice way of saying that we are annoyingly extroverted and stubborn as all get out. How do two people like us work together?

ordination
Ordination

To give a bit of perspective, the worst fight of our wedding planning had nothing to do with colors, flowers, or guest lists. No, we fought over which scripture passages required further exegesis in the ceremony.

We assumed that co-pastoring would be disastrous for our church and for our marriage.

But our days in education and preparation were humbling… deeply humbling. We no longer looked at ministry as a career path to pursue, but as a sacrifice of our lives and our life together. It changed everything.

We never put resumes out for co-pastoring. Shockingly, that’s not a category on monster.com. We never sought the position we hold now. Somehow, when Bakersfield First Church of the Nazarene heard about us, they didn’t ask about “Tim” or “Shawna”, but “Tim and Shawna”. And with some divine intervention we stumbled into a wonderful, “yes.”

On our drive from Chicago to Bakersfield, with our 4 month old son and dog in the back seat, we had endless conversations about how to divide responsibilities and manage tasks as co-pastors. We felt we came to some very wise and reasoned decisions, most of which we threw out the window in the first 6 months of co-pastoring.

But over the last three years I feel like we have learned so much and grown so much. So if you are asking either of the two questions which began this post, here are 5 things that have helped us survive and even thrive as co-pastors and as a couple.

1. Mutual Submission

The most frequent suspicion about co-pastoring is that “someone has to be in charge”. On which desk does the proverbial buck really stop?

Ephesians 5:21 has become an important verse for our ministry. Co-pastoring works because Jesus has charge over our church, life, and marriage. We submit to one another out of our love for Christ.

Many friends have told me, “I could never work with my spouse, it would be terrible for our marriage.” Learning to co-pastor was not without great pain and grueling self-examination. But three years in, I can honestly say that our marriage is so much better than it has ever been!

The false narrative that “someone has to be in charge” has infected far too many Christian marriages… and this narrative is simply not Christian! Christ is the head of a Christian marriage, and Godly men and women happily and joyfully submit to one another in a love shaped on the cross to the glory of God the Father.

2. Advocate for One Another

We were only dating when the idea occurred to us that it might be difficult for both of us to pursue a calling to ministry. Which one would get the job that moved us here or there? Would we take turns pursuing this calling? Would one of us be on the sidelines for a season?

Young and naive, Tim and I vowed that we would always advocate for the other. I would never push forward my desires, ambitions or career. Instead, I would make my primary task to promote and encourage his aspirations and dreams. I would do this with the reassurance that I had an advocate too. Tim would likewise not pursue his own desires or ambitions but be my advocate in ministry and life in every way possible.

Advocating for each other has been harder in some seasons than others. But we’ve learned the harder it is, the more necessary it is. Tim left an ocean view office in San Diego when I asked that we move to Kansas City to attend seminary. I gave up an incredible ministry opportunity back in California to live through the bitter winters of Chicago while he worked on his Ph.D. I’ve shed some tears but I’ve never regretted being his advocate. Not one loss. Not one sacrifice. Not one good-bye. Never.

3. The Eight O’Clock Rule

When our children were both new borns, up at all hours of the night, we made a rule that nothing we said to each other at 2am could be held against us. This tipped us off that timing and talking is important.

When you work together, live together, and raise kids together, that’s an awful lot of together. As much as co-pastoring weaves something beautiful of church, life, and family, we’ve learned that there must be boundaries for each of these things.

One night I came back from a late night hospital visit. It had been emotionally exhausting. I told Tim all about it as I got ready for bed. Relieved to have gotten that experience off my chest, I settled into my pillow and got a great night’s sleep. Tim laid awake for hours bearing the burden I had just unloaded.

We decided that after about eight at night it becomes really unhealthy to talk about anything relating to the church or ministry. It makes it hard for our brains to wind down from the day and can potentially stir up two tired pastors to bicker or stress when we need to be cuddled on the couch in our jammies with a bowl of popcorn. After eight we can talk about the kids, bills, Jimmy Fallon, and how much I hate our cat… but not the church, because we want to love each other and the church for a very long time.

4. One Office, Two Pastors, One Voice

When I say, “one office” I’m not talking about a room with a desk and some cabinets. Tim and I each have separate rooms we call offices and that is very helpful. I am talking about the office of the pastorate, the office responsible to shepherd and guide a congregation in Christlikeness. I do believe that in each congregation there is one office of pastor.

I know I have advocated for mutual submission under the Lordship of Jesus, and these two points need not contradict as the office of pastor is submissive to Christ, and in that, a servant leader. There is one office from which a local congregation receives a vision of Kingdom life embodied in the context of a particular community and people. There is one office that cares for and oversees the preaching and teaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments.

But one office does not have to mean one pastor and one person. We are two pastors who share one office. So the vision we cast, the care we give, and the oversight we administer is done in unison and partnership. We share all responsibilities that pertain to these ends. We divide up the responsibilities that do not.

We don’t always agree on everything and we often make mistakes. I’ll give someone an answer, not knowing that Tim had been asked first and had given a different answer. But we both respect the sharing of one office and in doing so, we are careful to speak with one voice.

We are careful to talk through most important matters before we are ever put on the spot. But there are still times when Tim says something in a board meeting and I disagree or I make an announcement in church that makes him uncomfortable. When these things happen, we do not contradict one another. We speak with one voice. What he says, I say. What I say, he says too. Kinda like good parenting!

Speaking with one voice takes a lot of trust in the Spirit. If we truly believe it is the Spirit speaking in and through us and bringing to light the word of God for the people of God, then why would I contradict my co-pastor whom God has called and filled with the Spirit? Then again, I guess marriage takes a lot of trust in the Spirit too!

5. Irreverently Holy Laughter

As hard as it can be to share the burden of pastoring with your spouse, we also share the great joys and, let’s be honest, the hilarity of church life. I have had run ins with people – made in the image of God, bless their hearts!!! – that requires some side splitting laughter… alone in my prayer closet of course. I can’t share that moment with anyone in the church… except my co-pastor. As great as jammies and popcorn are, nothing relieves the stress of a long day, week, or month in ministry like tears-down-your-contorted-face-I-just-might-pee-my-pants laughter.

Yes, co-pastoring is hard work.

It’s hard to constantly have to submit, advocate, share, and talk through decisions. Then again, I’m not sure what kind of pastor I would be if I didn’t do those things. I’m not sure what kind of wife, mother, or child of God I would be. So I am grateful for this opportunity we stumbled into together. We will keep stumbling forward after the Spirit’s leading.

Shawna Songer Gaines

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14 Comments

  • Thanks Shawna, great article. My husband and I have been in ministry together as co-pastors in two churches, one in Australia and then in England. In the first church we said that Rick was the final authority, but in reality, we didn’t live by that. By the time we got to the second church, we knew better. The congregation looked to either or both of us in any given situation and we were blessed. That was over a 25 year period. Because we became a church planting movement (charismatic/pentecostal) raising up leaders and sending out churches, we led that together also ….

    It hasn’t always been easy and we’ve had stuff to work out, but the fruit is that most of the leaders we raised up also lead as married couples, and they don’t have to stumble over the learning issues like we did, because we went before them.

    Good on you… YOu’re doing a great job.

  • For the last 6 years my wife and I have been co-pastors working with youth. Everything you said is spot on and was helpful to read. Your sharing with your husband, falling asleep, while he agonized over it into the night is so true! Very well said about the false narrative of “someone has to be in charge”. Thanks for writing this out! We were fortunate to serve with two co-pastors from the Salvation Army early in our ministry (Kelly was the pastor and I was the intern), then at our first assignment together our pastors were a husband and wife team. They helped us to believe that God had truly given us both callings to serve as pastors together.It is good to hear great insights from other co-pastors.

  • In our denomination, co-pastoring is the norm, and we spent 32 years doing so. What a great way to think through the dynamics of shared ministry. I’m going to be sharing this with young friends who are anticipating ordination. Thanks.

  • Shawna, each point is well stated, and well supported. Thank you so much for writing this. I especially appreciate your fourth point about one office. I hadn’t thought of that aspect of co-pastoring before but it’s absolutely true. And it is the one that also is most comparable to marriage, where the couple is not two people but one in Christ and no one is given the deciding vote.

    • Tim, thanks for your engagement! I have recently been encouraged to think and write about the need for “one-office” in a multi-staff church. I’d love your thoughts on that!

      • One thing to examine is whether it’s possible for a church to have multiple pastors handling different duties, or whether it has a single pastoral office (perhaps held by two people as in your situation) and others who do other things that are not part of that office despite perhaps giving those people a title that include the word “pastor”.

  • Great article! My wife and I have been co-pastoring for about 3 1/2 years and really enjoy it. The first couple of months were a bit of challenge as we navigated what it was like to work together. She had been ordained for 4 years and I had been ordained for 8 at the time.

    We also have a 6 month rule. You can’t bring up old baggage after 6 months. we each track our time and report it back to our board each month as pastoring unit (we combine the figures). This helps us to make sure one of us isn’t working significantly more than the other. We’ve posted some of our favorite resources at http://www.MyGraceCafe.com

    • Ben, thank you so much for your insights! It’s so nice to “meet” another co-pastor couple. Your six month rule is a good one for any pastoral staff or ministry couple. I’ll be visiting MyGraceCafe for sure!

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