Survey Looks at United Methodist Clergy Spouses

March 19, 2009

A UMNS Report

By Linda Bloom*

March 19, 2009

Today's clergy spouse, either male or female, often has a graduate degree and a full-time job outside the church.

That is one of the findings of a survey on "Clergy Spouses and Families in The United Methodist Church 2009." The survey was prepared by the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women, in collaboration with the denomination's Board of Pension and Health Benefits, Board of Discipleship and Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

"As a body, clergy spouses have changed over the years and do not fit what many of us have as a stereotype," said M. Garlinda Burton, the commission's top executive.

Nearly 3,100 clergy spouses completed the survey, which was distributed in several different ways. Most respondents - 78 percent were female - learned of the survey through their annual conference.

The number of clergywomen -13 percent of all ordained United Methodist elders - has increased dramatically since the ordination of women was officially approved in 1956 but not all are married.

Raising the issue

The idea for the survey came from former commission directors who were clergy spouses, Burton said. "When they started to realize that part of our job is to look at where women are concentrated and what their concerns are and how we can support them, they raised the issue of clergy spouses," she explained. "The majority of clergy spouses are women."

A pilot study showed "that people had so much to say" on the issue, she noted. Commission staff also receives occasional calls from clergy spouses who need help with marital or family problems or just are not sure where to go for information or assistance.

"We have come to realize that this is an audience that is often not heard," Burton said.

Kim Coffing, a commission executive, took the lead for the survey project. The survey's author and research consultant is the Rev. Gail Murphy-Geiss, a former president of the commission and assistant professor of sociology at Colorado College in Denver.

Murphy-Geiss believes the study could be the first of its type for a specific denomination. She said when she researched the topic, "what I found were studies of clergy families and spouses ... done by psychologists and counselors. Probably the most common literature was self-help books for clergy wives and mothers."

The data from this survey shows that, in general, "clergy spouses seemed to be pretty happy about what they were doing," she added.

Murphy-Geiss has divided the survey project into three phases. The first phase, now complete, was to collect and initially evaluate the data. The second phase will involve a more sophisticated analysis of the data and the final phase will include the reading and correlation of narrative comments on the survey. She expects to complete the entire report by the end of the summer.

Different experience of spouse role

One of her findings was that while male spouses of clergywomen are generally satisfied, they have a different experience of the spouse role than their female counterparts. Murphy-Geiss said she was surprised that male spouses responding to the survey were older than the female spouses were but noted that many of the men were in second marriages.

As reflected in society, the male spouses tended to be more highly educated, held more full-time jobs and had higher average incomes than female spouses. Of the minority of spouses who reported being unhappy with their marriages, men were more likely to be unhappy than the women, she said, which is the opposite of findings in general society. 

Some 40 percent of those taking the survey went to graduate school. 'This is a highly educated group," she added. 

Outside full-time employment was reported by 87 percent of the males and 59.5 percent of the females. Less than 1 percent was childless. About 2.8 percent of the men claimed to be a full-time parent.

Murphy-Geiss said she had expected that spouses who were required to move more often would be less satisfied in their situations, but the data showed that the number of moves does not seem to affect either marital satisfaction or the happiness of the children. Some had only moved once or twice, while one respondent reported moving 36 times. "The average number of moves was 3.9 for everyone," she noted.

The number of years in ministry did seem to contribute to marital satisfaction.
Respondents who had spent 26 or more years in ministry were most satisfied, she reported. Spouses who looked to the marital partner as their own pastor, around 54 percent, had higher marital satisfaction scores than those who did not.

As in many other studies, "marital satisfaction drops when children enter the home and it goes up again when children leave," she said. "That seems to be the pattern here."

Participation in church

The biggest difference between male and female respondents occurred in how they participated in church. "Male spouses, if they're active in the church, are active in the lay speaking program," she explained, adding that women tend to focus on educational programs, music and United Methodist Women.

Making comparisons based on racial-ethnic identity was difficult because many respondents did not identify their spouse in that way. Murphy-Geiss did find that "interracial couples tend to report the same experiences as same-race couples."

Ninety percent felt that their children had a positive experience growing up with a clergy parent, although male spouses seemed less likely to know how their kids are faring.

The institutional church seems to do a good job supporting older spouses and clergy widows. 'The older spouses tended to say they felt highly connected to the church, especially supported by the district," Murphy-Geiss said.

The Commission on the Status and Role of Women plans to share its final report with a variety of groups in the church, including bishops, district superintendents and staff-parish relations committees. "We're going to ask our commission to make recommendations to the appropriate bodies," Burton said. "It may result in some legislation, we don't know that yet." 

Other possibilities include bringing together a group of clergy spouses to hear more directly from them and tailoring the survey for clergy spouses in countries outside the United States, she added.

The report is posted on the Commission's Web site at

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.