‘The Partner’s Path’ provides support for clergy spouses churchwide

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Mar 26, 2024

The nonprofit organization The Partner’s Path offers support for spouses of clergy of The Episcopal Church, including spouses of bishops like these at the Lambeth Conference in 2022. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service] The Partner’s Path, a nonprofit that serves people who are married to Episcopal clergy, exists because being a clergy spouse is unlike any other role inside or outside the church, according to Laura Jackson, the group’s executive director.

“I have a friend who is a psychiatrist and married to a priest, and she said, ‘My husband doesn’t come to my job and watch me work,’ yet clergy spouses often are expected to be in church every Sunday,” she told Episcopal News Service.

The seeds of The Partner’s Path began years ago, when Ardelle Walters, credited as the group’s founder, headed off to seminary with her husband. She expected her life to change, but she didn’t understand “that your whole life will be the church, your family’s whole life will be the church, but it’s all about only one person in the family,” a situation she told ENS was unhealthy.

During that time, she also learned of a faculty member’s dissertation on spouses of clergy and seminarians that described much of what she was feeling. She said, “I remember thinking, oh, this isn’t just me, and I almost wish I hadn’t seen this, because now I clearly have to do something about this someday.”

Twenty years later, she began to wonder who else might be thinking about spouses, which led her to Jackson, also a clergy spouse. Jackson began reading memoirs written by clergy spouses, some going back more than a century, as part of her work toward a doctoral degree in spirituality.

She found that what clergy spouses were feeling – the dual issues of living in a fishbowl (knowing that people are observing you and your family) and a sense of spiritual rootlessness (when how you relate to the church impacts your relationship to God) – were not new.

Her research also showed that these feelings hold true regardless of the gender, orientation, race or age of the spouse. “It doesn’t come from anybody having bad intentions,” she said. “It’s systemic.”

The fishbowl experience can be everything from having your family literally on display during services and other events to unstated expectations about a spouse’s church involvement. Spiritual struggles can range from being in a parish whose worship style is different from what a spouse prefers to being hurt by a parish struggle and beginning to feel God was the source of the hurt.

Spouses tend to think these problems lie just within themselves, Jackson said, and the answer is having a place where it’s safe to express their feelings out loud. “And that place is a room that only has other clergy spouses,” she said.

The work of providing that started three years ago, when the Rev. Cathy Tyndall Boyd, a retired priest who spent 33 years as a clergy spouse before her ordination in 2007, started interviewing a variety of spouses online. Boyd has worked for the church in a variety of roles, from seminary bookstore employee to diocesan communicator to parish ministry, and she told ENS, “I have come to believe that the clergy spouse is one of the single biggest underserved and invisible populations of the church.”

From those early interviews – now called “Conversations on The Partner’s Path” and taking place monthly – the organization has developed multiple ways to serve spouses. The first is through encouraging the formation of local chapters in every diocese. There currently are 14 dioceses listed as affiliates, which help create a local community without relying on the bishop’s spouse to oversee them.

Ellen Prall, an elementary music teacher married to a priest, is active in the Diocese of Chicago’s affiliate and said relying on a bishop’s spouse, a potential burden to them, to organize gatherings makes little sense.

“It depends on whether or not the bishop has a spouse, and then whether that bishop’s spouse feels called to that ministry,” she told ENS. “Just like I don’t want to be told at my church that I’m supposed to do something, we don’t want to make the bishop’s spouse feel like they need to lead the clergy spouses.”

Prall now leads one of the newer elements of The Partner’s Path – monthly online affinity groups for spouses who have something in common but may be geographically dispersed. She leads a gathering for parents of young children, and there also are groups for LGBTQ+ spouses and for spouses and partners who are Black, Indigenous or people of color.

There also are monthly online roundtable gatherings called “Not Coffee Hour,” as well as monthly yoga sessions.

Funding for the organization comes from donations, including many from bishops and clergy spouses themselves, as well as other fundraising efforts, including a 2023 walk of last 60 miles of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain that Walters and her husband led.

Walters makes it a point to tell bishops that supporting clergy spouses isn’t just about helping them but also is about making the entire Episcopal Church stronger, because supporting spouses means “clergy will be healthier, and churches will be healthier.”

—Melodie Woerman is a freelance reporter based in Kansas.