There was a wrinkled Pathfinder uniform, two bags of fruit, water, snacks, a diaper bag, my laptop, two backpacks that had enough activities and books to last a day, and a piping hot casserole. I was thinking, “There is no one way I’m going to get all this stuff and the kids in the car and to church on time.” It was one of those Sabbaths – packed with worship services, meetings, afternoon Bible studies, potluck lunch, and an evening concert. We would be spending the entire day at church – all 5 of us: my husband, Orlando; our three boys, Gabriel, Isaiah, and Samuel; and myself. I am not going to lie, I was overwhelmed with the thought of getting into the car, much less having to pastor all day and take care of the kids at the same time.
These ordinary logistical thoughts never entered my mind when my husband and I were first married. We were blissfully unaware of what pastoral life would look like 12 years and three boys later. But when both spouses are pastors, life can get excessively demanding. When we first met, we were so focused on just finding employment, that talking about future career plans, continuing education, and day-to-day scheduling of work and family did not come up. This is our beautiful and blessed reality: my husband and I work as a pastoral team.
This was not always the case. In the past we have pastored in separate congregations. It was quite the challenge to be pregnant with our second son, have a toddler running around, and be working in different churches. I remember clearly one Sabbath, getting ready to preach with my pregnant belly and having to change diapers on my office floor. I was struggling and there was no one to help. A sense of hopelessness rushed over me. I thought to myself, “Where is my husband and why are we separated? There must be a solution!” The lump in my throat made my eyes water as I allowed my emotions to get the better of me. My one-year-old snapped me back into reality by pulling hair and laughing. Being apart as husband and wife pastors meant new challenges and trials. There was an obvious strain on our marriage and an unexpected season of postpartum depression that followed the birth of our second child. I can only describe that period of our life as rough.
Usually, married pastors need the steadfast support of their spouse when they have to attend meetings, preach an evangelistic series, go on weekly visitations, and the manynumerous other activities for which pastors are responsible. The pastor can rest easy knowing their spouse is covering the home front or watching the kids while he or she gets called away for an emergency. But what happens when both spouses are pastors, and they both work in the same church? Two things can happen: You learn how to cope and survive, or you learn how to accept God’s provision and thrive. We are choosing the latter.
We have been at our current church for the last five years and are thankful to be able to minister together. At first it was a scary thought, work with each other, full time? Yikes. After our rough start to marriage and family , I began chaplaincy at the Adventist school beside the church my husband pastored. For four years we were able to delicately balance family and ministry, and enjoyed the support (a.k.a. free babysitting and food) of our nearby family and the blessings of an awesome church and vibrant school. But as you know, pastoral assignments change and the call to work together in a church came as a surprise.
I was quite excited to work as a team, because I really admire my pastor husband’s experience and ministry wisdom. At the same time, I was anxious because this call took us five hours away from family and into a city with no friends or support. And we needed support. Our kids were four and five years old and I was five months pregnant with our third son. How were we going to manage to raise them, nurture our marriage, and lead this new congregation? I was anxious, and I am sure it was not the pregnancy heartburn. It was fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of being out of balance, fear of having my children labeled, and fear of how this new church would accept us.
How awesome is our God that takes all our fears and gives us peace in return. I clung to the promise in Romans 8:28 – “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”[i] A simple yet powerful guarantee to squash my apprehensions. Little did I know, God would call this verse to mind again in the future, to gently remind me of His authority in all things.
We slowly began to figure out how to manage life with two young children, a baby on the way, church work, and everything else. There was a learning curve when it came to fielding members’ concerns about a husband and wife team. Our married relationship was never used to power play board decisions or steam roll congregational interests. At church we were colleagues, at home, we were husband and wife. Sure, there were times we had “staff” meetings at the breakfast table, but we were never inappropriate at church.
The fact I was a woman in ministry also brought up some unkind bias, but encouraging support always overshadowed the negative remarks from people. My husband led by example, speaking to issues of civil, social, and religious justice. By addressing these current topics, he managed to support my calling as a female pastor by using the Word of God to educate our congregation. His steadfast and calm demeanor disarmed rude cynics, and he gently pulled me into focus if I got distracted by their negativity.
Fast forward a year and half later: we were now a family of five, carefully trying to maintain equilibrium on all fronts. There were days when everything went according to plan, other days were a struggle. Such is life with three boys, especially with pastoral parents. Just when we hit a comfortable rhythm, things were about to get turned upside down. During a routine speech therapy assessment for our youngest son (our first child also needed speech therapy, when he was in kindergarten), our world was forever changed. At an introductory appointment I was told that Samuel may have “other issues.” Apparently, “other issues” was code for autism.[ii]
What followed was a year of various testing, assessments, specialist visits, observations, and confusion. For over a year we held our breath on an official diagnosis, trying to get into focused private therapy while waiting to hear back from the doctors. During this time, I cried a lot, my heart was heavy, and it was difficult for me to be at peace with all the uncertainty.
For over 400 days, our morning prayer during family worship was for Samuel to “use his words.” At this point he was 28 months old and did not have enough vocabulary or pronunciation of simple words to meet the age-appropriate milestones. He would have terrible tantrums because he was unable to communicate his needs and wants. During speech therapy he would throw himself on the ground and thrash when he was challenged in any way.
I had a million questions whirling around in my head. What kind of future would my son have? Would he have any friends, how would he learn, would he be bullied? Our Heavenly Father sent the Holy Spirit to calm my troubled heart. He spoke to me during all of this, He said “In all things, I work for the good; even in the tantrums.”
Finally, in June 2016, we received Samuel’s official assessment for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). There were still so many questions I had about the entire process, but now with this diagnosis, we could start to access government programming and resources.
The next 10 months were full of prayer, relentless independent research, applications for funding, interviews at therapy providers, and meeting other families with ASD children ((all wedged in amidst ministry appointments).) It was a very long, frustrating journey. Our awesome God called to my heart every day the promise in Romans 8:28, “In all things, God works for the good.”
Now, putting it simply, over the past 10 months, our Samuel has not only learned how to “use his words,” but he can read at a Grade 1 level, count up to 150, identify his alphabet, colors, shapes, and can independently use the potty. He also sings our praise and worship songs by memory (accompanied by the best dance moves).
Psalm 5:11 says, “But let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you.” God is awesome! He has opened countless doors for Samuel to receive the best therapy and resources for him to thrive despite his challenges.
For us, being a pastoral team means our whole family working together with Jesus. It means acknowledging His authority in our lives; being faithful to His call as spouses, parents, and pastors; accepting His peace for our future; and giving thanks for His providence. Husband and wife pastoral teams may not be common, but I have no doubt the Lord has called us to be exactly where we are. We recognize there will be days of utter exhaustion, crumpled shirts, messy rooms, miscommunication, and misunderstandings. But we celebrate and praise God for this great adventure.
Elizabeth Pule, at the time of writing this article, co-pastored the Ottawa Church in Canada’s capital city
[i] All Scripture references are from the New International Version.
[ii] Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), commonly referred to as Autism, is a complex developmental brain disorder caused by a combination of genetic and environmental influences. ASD is characterized, in varying degrees, by communication difficulties, social and behavioral challenges, and repetitive behaviors and is considered to be a lifespan disorder. An estimated 1 in 68 diagnosed children is on the autism spectrum. Autism Speaks, www.autismspeaks.ca