Co-pastoring, where a husband and a wife equally share a pastoral role, has become more common in recent years. Maybe this sounds like a great idea to you, or maybe it raises some questions. I had the privilege of speaking with Mike and Jen Haddox, who recently became co-pastors and shared about their journey to this place in their life. Their story is one that challenges us to consider the unique concerns and benefits of sharing a position in ministry as a married couple.
The Beginning of their Ministry Journey
Mike and Jen were both called to ministry in high school and have been serving in ministry for about twenty years in various capacities. Jen admitted that when she and Mike first met, she was hesitant to date him because she had only ever experienced single women in ministry; she wasn’t sure if it was possible to do both. When they eventually decided to get married, they were committed to continuing to pursue ministry together, although they did not know where that would take them. While Jen was in seminary, Mike was the director of youth ministry in Oil City, PA. When Mike was called to seminary and pastoral ministry, Jen was primarily leading mission trips for students through the World Mission Initiative Office at Pittsburgh Seminary. Together, a large part of their ministry has been caring for foster kids and cultivating a loving, safe community for kids who have been hurt. They shared that “this has been some of the hardest and most rewarding ministry we've done because it really puts Jesus’ words and his life into real action. Through it, you get to live the love of Jesus in pretty tangible ways.”
The Call to Become Co-pastors
Last year was a big year for the Haddoxes as they celebrated their 20th anniversary and felt the call to be co-pastors for the first time. Earlier in their marriage, however, they had ruled out the option of co-pastoring because they had seen how difficult and awkward it could be. They had seen how it can play out in complicated ways with things like figuring out who preaches, who serves communion, how to manage interruptions at meetings or people stepping on others’ toes, etc. During the time they felt called to become co-pastors, however, they had a lot of people praying and talking with them. Several times, this question came up unexpectedly in separate conversations Mike and Jen would have: “Have you ever thought about co-pastoring with your spouse?” When they shared these comments with each other, they started to see how it became a theme in their conversations.
When First Presbyterian Church in Waynesburg, PA was looking for a new pastor, although they weren’t looking for co-pastors at the time, Mike and Jen went out on a limb and thought, “let’s just put our resume in and see if they’re willing to think outside the box!” After having supported each other’s ministries from the outside for so many years, they were ready to partner together in a new way. Especially for Jen, she had the sense that she was already a pastor in many ways without the actual opportunity to be a pastor. She felt that she wasn’t fully able to use her gifts in ministry because she was ordained but not officially on staff. Because of these hopes and experiences, Jen and Mike were both very excited to take the next step when First Presbyterian Church offered them an opportunity to serve together,.
How does it work?
Many wonder what it looks like to share a pastoring role. How do you split responsibilities? Who makes the final decision if both people disagree? Does this affect the dynamics in a family? Mike and Jen shared that partnering in marriage and in ministry isn’t necessarily easy because you don’t always agree or have the same ideas. Sometimes it takes more effort to get on the same page about things. However, when it came to making the decision for their family, they felt that they were in a good place to be able to thrive in this role together.
There are many ways to split this position, but Mike and Jen decided that they did not want to co-pastor 100% across the board. They decided to delegate responsibilities according to each of their strengths instead. Together, they feel that their gifts really complement each other. Jen is task-oriented, future-focused, and good at coordinating people and ministry opportunities; she moderates meetings and manages the administrative staff. Mike is more of the storyteller with a big pastor’s heart, and he is especially good at working with kids; he preaches three times a month and directs many of the ministries at their church. Mike reflected that, if he’s being honest, he would not have had the spiritual maturity to do this at any point earlier in his life. He is at a good place now to be able to look in the mirror and acknowledge where his strengths and weaknesses lie. It takes a lot of humility to stick to your own tasks and gifts and entrust the rest to your partner even when you disagree.
To help maintain these distinctions in their separate responsibilities, Mike and Jen stick to clear expectations and boundaries. Avoiding triangulation has been especially important. For example, if someone walks into Mike’s office and asks him to pass on information to Jen, he will respond by asking them to contact her directly. The same rule applies in more sensitive situations. If someone comes into Jen’s office and is concerned about how Mike handled some pastoral care issue, Jen will redirect them to confront Mike directly. Not only does this approach help Mike and Jen work well together, but it also prevents any unintentional undermining of the other’s authority and helps people see the equal importance of their respective roles.
Setting Boundaries and Expectations
When conflicts do come up, Mike and Jen have found that the best way to handle it is in the privacy of their own home apart from others’ ears. Rather than contradicting their spouse in front of people, they have found that it is best to respect their decision and discuss things privately if necessary. Mike stated that if he ever disagrees with Jen’s decisions or vice versa, they can consider making changes, but he ultimately needs to trust that God has given her the gifts and resources to navigate that particular situation. Furthermore, they realize the need for grace with one another. They know that everyone makes mistakes in ministry, but that each person is just as blessed and equipped as the other to handle those circumstances.
Challenges with Gender Roles and the Importance of Family
While the church has been very welcoming and supportive of Mike and Jen, a natural question that has come up is the consideration of women in leadership in a church and how that corresponds with Scripture. Realizing that this might be a concern, Mike and Jen didn’t want people sitting in the pews wondering if they are going against God’s Word, so they decided to do a Bible Study about the role of women in ministry and leadership. Jen discussed how she and Mike saw their work being affirmed by the call of the Holy Spirit to men and women in the book of Acts, along with Paul’s language of men and women being coworkers. Similarly, they pointed to the overarching story of Scripture and the way Jesus treated women as affirming of the gifts of both men and women in leadership roles.
Instead of going in with their own agenda, they wanted to acknowledge that there are some difficult passages to work through, and they wanted to explore them in their original context. Coming to terms with the complexity of biblical interpretation requires admitting that we don’t yet live in the fully realized Kingdom of God. Where men and women are not yet seen as created equally in God’s image in this broken world, there is going to be tension between them until the final consummation. Jen reflected that the Bible study was a humbling and healthy learning experience for them and their church. She concluded with the conviction that this really is where she feels God has called her to be – not just supporting her husband in ministry but ministering alongside him.
A similar challenge they have encountered is the impact of underlying cultural gender roles and stereotypes. On paper, people might not have an issue with women in leadership, but in reality, Mike explained that “when you put a whole bunch of successful men in a room and there is a disagreement that comes up, a male will more often gain the support of the rest of the group than a female.” In a church setting, people’s gut reaction is to see women in a supportive or administrative role.
On the flip side, it can be confusing and frowned upon to see a male pastor not participating in a service and leaving the entirety of it to his wife instead. Mike remembers an interaction he had at another church where his wife was going to preach that day. After helping the kids get ready and out the door, he sat down with them in the pew before the service started. Another member of the church approached him and said that he hadn’t realized Jen was going to be preaching. He then asked Mike if he wanted to participate in the service in some other way. When Mike declined, the member asked him, “Are you just going to sit here and do nothing?” Mike responded, “No, I’m going to sit here and actively worship and answer my kids’ questions and tell them to pick up their crayons. I’m going to be a dad.” This concept tends to turn a lot of heads. As they were going home though, one of his kids said, “I like when mom’s the preacher because then you and I get to do church.”
This past Christmas season was the first time Mike has been able to sit with his family during the holidays, because he and Jen have decided to switch off who preaches during holiday services. He expressed his gratitude for this and his commitment to their belief that “family life is part of our call.” He never wants to see his kids harbor bitterness or feel that their dad picked the church over them, and he shared that “what’s been a blessing is to truly have a partner in the call of where God has brought us as a family.”
Hopes for the Future
As Mike and Jen look to the future and envision what fruitfulness looks like in their unique position, there are several hopes they have. Again, it is clear to see how interwoven their hearts are between raising a godly family and doing ministry at church. Jen explained that “if our kids get to middle school and still want to be involved in a Christian church, that’s a big deal for me. Disciplining your kids is one of the most important things God has given us to do, so if we can co-pastor in a way that fosters their faith and sense of connection to the church, that would be a sign of health for me.” Similarly, Mike hopes that those same individuals will be able to point back and say, “this is what a healthy relationship looks like in the church.” His desire is that their marriage, which is such a fundamental part of their ministry, can be an example that helps people learn the difference between finding a spouse who gives you permission and finding a spouse who is truly your partner.
Mike and Jen also anticipate being able to connect the church to the surrounding community in a more integrated way. There is a large part of Waynesburg that is disconnected from church life, as well as a lot of poverty nearby. Especially with their heart for and previous experience with foster care, they feel that one of the things God is calling them to is to help the church extend their resources as good neighbors to the surrounding community both locally and beyond. Their goal is to develop more compassion ministries that will help meet some of the community’s tangible needs and increase their engagement with the church.
Lessons Learned and Parting Advice
In parting words, Jen advised that as a pastor, one ought to lead out of one’s marriage. After reading Peter Scazzero’s book, Emotionally Healthy Leadership, she found his chapter on this topic to be a helpful guide. Jen explained that Scazzero discusses how “spiritual and emotional maturity have to be things that you experience as a leader in order to lead with integrity.” He almost lost his marriage as a pastor because he wasn’t paying attention to it, so it was a huge wake-up call for him to figure out how to be a leader whose ministry flows out of the love and partnership he has with his wife. For Jen, that phrase, “leading out of your marriage,” means that when the foundation of her relationship with her husband is committed to integrity, forgiveness, and care for one another, that can overflow into their ministry. “The opposite isn’t true,” she continued. “You can’t experience those things pouring into your relationship from the church; the church can’t save your marriage even if you’re the pastor. So you really need to pay attention to that primary relationship in your life – not that it should be an idol, but paying attention to your marriage in healthy ways can allow it to become a source of goodness that you can share with others.”
In Mike’s concluding words of advice, he emphasized that the small things matter. Given his own story, he would direct this suggestion to young men in particular. He shared that there was one point in his journey where he became frustrated by the lack of opportunities to minister at his church. It was in that space that God got hold of his heart and pointed out that he wasn’t even taking care of his wife. Mike reflected, “If you can’t take care of your wife, what makes you think you can take care of a whole church? If you can’t take care of your kids, what makes you think you can run a whole children’s ministry?” He speculated that one of the reasons so many marriages and families fall apart is because we haven’t taken seriously the call to love our families, our children, and even our parents. “You can’t sacrifice the ‘little’ stuff for ‘big’ stuff,” he said. “What happens at the end of the day if you’ve preached a great sermon and you have lots of people in the pews and your giving is up and your programming is up, but your spouse is worn out and your kids are spiritually dried up and there’s bitterness? In that case, you’ve basically built every single thing on a lie that is one bad day from falling apart.”
In a touching example, Mike shared a story of how he saw this concept put into practice by his own son when he was only five or six years old. One Sunday morning, Mike had been preaching about this and had made a comment to the congregation that, “If you see a hungry person, a lonely person, or a sick person, you don't need to discern what God wants you to do because he’s already told you what to do.” When he woke up from a nap later that afternoon, he realized his son had emptied out their kitchen cabinet and was in the backyard throwing snacks over the fence. Mike went outside and asked, “What are you doing? Those snacks are expensive.” His son replied, “You said if someone was hungry we should feed them.” And then Mike noticed a little eyeball looking at him through the fence; here they were, sharing a property line with several little kids who were basically neglected. Isaac had paid attention. He had seen that they were hungry, and he took a simple action to meet their need. “We spend so many years trying to figure out what God wants us to do, and we think so big that we never think small,” Mike said. “If we would just read the gospels and pay attention to the teachings of Jesus, we would have enough to do for the rest of our lives, but we so often don’t value the small moments where we can be used as God’s instruments.”
Mike and Jen’s story demonstrates some of the challenges and questions that can result from sharing a pastoral role as a husband and wife, but it also provides encouragement and advice for others in the same position. Balancing responsibility, setting clear expectations, providing grace, extending forgiveness, and maintaining humility are aspects that largely contribute to their success. They remind us that like anyone in ministry, it is important to remember that everyone will make mistakes, but faithfully seeking God’s will and cultivating a teachable spirit will go a long way in furthering his kingdom.
Mikayla is a writing intern for the PRM and a junior majoring in Psychology and Biblical and Religious Studies. She is from the Chicago area.