Thursday, April 26, 2012

Eight Essentials for the Ecumenical Family

(This is a post I wrote about a year ago back when I was just starting to blog. I thought that it was worth a second read)

When people comment that my husband and I do such a great job of managing our ecumenical marriage and family (him Mennonite and me Presbyterian), I often reply, "well, when you are both pastors it is a lot easier." In some ways that might sound counter-intuitive. If we are both so committed to our particular denominations that we would serve as clergy in them, then certainly we would prefer to "be" with someone of that same tradition. Interestingly there are many ways that being from different traditions actually helps foster self-awareness and complements our respective denominations - but that is a discussion for another day.

I realized that I tend to think that because we are pastors my husband and I have been blessed with or worked to achieve a level of cohabitation as an ecumenical family that might be unattainable for those who are not religious professionals. That seems a little snobby, so instead I want to try to demystify the ways that we live as an ecumenical family, with the hope that all families like ours might achieve the same kind of respect and collaboration. I also want to include some reflections based on experiences I have had with other ecumenical families within my congregation.

1. Cultivate an environment of mutual respect.  You would think this would go without saying, but it is important to show respect to the other person's tradition. It is never going to work if you secretly or openly believe that your tradition is superior to your partner's. This also entails having the respect and confidence to manage  extended families if they do not show the same respect and/or do not buy into the ecumenical vibe you are trying to encourage in your nuclear family. This may seem like a tall order for some, but it is essential to the rest of the items listed below.

2. Talk  early and often about how you plan to raise your children.  Good premarital counseling should include conversations about how you plan to share faith and religion with your children, especially if you come from fairly disparate traditions as my husband and I do. This early conversation is vitally important when it comes to your respective traditions' understanding of baptism. I come from a tradition that practices infant baptism and my husband from one that does not. It was important for us to have conversations early about how we would handle this once we had children. When we fail to talk openly we can live based on faulty assumptions, only discovering that our expectations are in conflict with each other when a decision needs to be made.

3. Be open to share what you value in your own tradition, as well as the things that challenge you.  This is one of the areas where we as pastors have a slight advantage, in that we are expected to be experts in our traditions. For the two of us, as well, we claim our faith tradition as a part of our personal identity, so getting to know each other well also meant getting to know each other's traditions better. In sharing about ourselves, we also share why we want to continue in our traditions even after we were married and had a child. It is also important and helpful for us to be honest about the things that we feel are missing in our own traditions, or that are challenging to us.

4. Decide whether or not it is important for you to worship together as a couple/family.  As pastors this question is somewhat moot, since pastors rarely get to worship with their families anyway, but even after my husband left the pastorate to go back to school he chose to remain an active member of a Mennonite church rather than simply starting to attend my Presbyterian church.

I realize that there are a lot of couples in which one partner agrees to temorarily step outside of their own tradition, participating in their spouse's church as a non-member so that the family can participate in a church community together. In many instances this person will need to be mindful of what it means to be a non-member but active participant in that congregation. In my congregation a spouse from another tradition who is active but not technically a member is treated the same as a regular member in most respects - especially when comes to issues of pastoral care. In my experience, however, not all congregations are so inclusive of non-members. I would suggest to those living ecumenically in this way to consider what it might mean if the church does not fully recognize you as a part of the community because of your non-member status.

5. Don't assume you have to choose between traditions in which to raise your children.  It is possible to raise a child in two faith traditions, especially if you are equally committed to both. This works best if you are willing to give both traditions equal time. For example a Catholic/Protestant couple might choose to send their child to Catholic School while being active members of a Protestant congregation. This takes a lot of effort, and in a world where it is a lot to expect for a family to even participate in one tradition, to give equal time to two might seem overwhelming.

6. Don't let the daunting task of teaching two traditions to your children cause you to fall into teaching them nothing. While my husband and I know that some day our son will most likely choose to be either Mennonite or Presbyterian, we do not tell him that until he chooses for himself he is neither. Until he makes that choice, we consider him to be BOTH. The myth of letting our children decide for themselves what faith they will be is based on the lie that teaching them how to practice that faith has nothing to do with how they will go about making that decision.

7. Don't get so caught up in the polity of your partner's tradition that you loose sight of the theology of the tradition. In layman's terms, this means that we shouldn't be limited to looking at how our partner's tradition runs its church and lose sight of the basic beliefs of the tradition. While the way we are church together should be theologically rooted, to get stuck on issues of church governance can limit our appreciation for the theological insights another tradition offers.

For my husband and I, one way this temptation manifests itself is in arguments related to the status of a pastor within the congregation. In his Mennonite tradition the pastor is a member of the congregation in which she (or he) serves, whereas in my Presbyterian tradition the pastor is never and can never be a member of any congregation. Recognizing the very legitimate theological foundations of both practices leads to mutual understanding and respect; using this as a topic for disagreement leads to a pointless argument.

This is the hardest of all of these essentials to articulate. It might be described as getting so caught up in the how that we never look to the why. To step briefly from this ecumenical theme to an inter-religious one, it is like people asking me endless questions about my own brother's daily life as a Buddhist monk - what he wears, eats and does - while never once asking me about the Buddhist faith that is at the foundation of these particular practices.

8. Be willing to learn about and become familiar with your partner's tradition. I always like to say that I have it very easy because when I met my husband he had already spent two years as a Mennonite at a Presbyterian seminary. Not only did this give him time to work out issues before we ever met, but he also has an educated understanding of my tradition. It is important to come to value your partner's tradition especially when it comes to supporting their faith practices and describing their tradition to others outside of your family. Even though I have a fairly good grasp of my husband's tradition, I still find there are things to ask about and come to understand better. It is also important if you are raising children in this way that BOTH of you be able to teach the respective traditions to them. I always try to answer questions about Mennonites and their faith to my son when they come up, and not put him off until his father could talk to him. This models for our children how to be informed about and show respect to other faiths. It also shows that you are not trying to compete for your child's favor between the traditions.

If you are part of an ecumenical family, I would love to hear how you are living this out and what struggles you have come up against. We are still feeling our way together as a family, and as our son grows I am sure there will be many more questions and hurdles that we had never anticipated.


  1. Thanks for this (found through a link from a more recent post). I am a United Methodist pastor and my husband is Roman Catholic. We are involved with a group of two-church families, and I will share this article with them.

  2. We raised our, now adult, children in both the Roman Catholic and the Episcopal Church. Before we got married, I don 't think that there was much thought in the greater community that surrounded us other than that we would become a single church family. I have found that this is a journey of discovery. Our faith beliefs are actually very similar. It was really helpful to find other interchurch/ecumenical couples and families. The suggestions you have given above are excellent. Learning more about our spouse's church has also given me a greater insight into my own religious beliefs. In our home we are able to pray together easily. Please feel welcomed by our interchurch families group

    Oops!!! I am not so computer savvy. Perhaps this link will work. I couldn't get the other one to work. mjg