Pastoral pair share job at Lansdowne church

CLERGY COUPLE

April 30, 1991|By Patrick Ercolano | Patrick Ercolano,Evening Sun Staff

Count Michael and Peggy Johnson among the growing number of married couples who share a job.

But, unlike job-sharing spouses who don blue or white collars, the Johnsons wear the clerical kind seen on church ministers. The pair share duties as co-pastors of Lansdowne United Methodist Church.

By the couple's own figuring, the Rev. Michael Johnson handles 75 percent of church business. His wife, the Rev. Peggy Johnson, works at both the 450-member Lansdowne parish and Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf near Arbutus, where she has been the pastor since 1988. They have two sons -- Peter, 9, and Gabriel, 7.

"Sharing a pulpit has its advantages," says Michael, 36. "We have the flexibility to split duties. I can be off doing a funeral while Peggy visits someone in a hospital. Neither of us is as stretched as most pastors."

Another advantage, says Peggy, is the way she and her husband "can always relate to what the other is going through on the job."

Still, she adds, there can be a down side: "With most couples, one spouse can forget about work worries for a bit by asking the other spouse about his or her day on the job. Michael and I can't do that. The church is our entire life. That's tough at times."

Clergy couples have become more numerous in recent decades, as seminaries have grown increasingly co-ed. The local offices of the United Methodist, Southern Baptist, Episcopal and Presbyterian U.S.A. denominations report that clergy couples are not uncommon in the area, but they rarely co-pastor churches, as do the Johnsons.

Instead, one spouse might pastor while the other serves as a denominational administrator. Or the spouses might pastor two different churches. The assignment depends on what the couple requests, or where their bishop -- or other denominational leader -- decides to place them.

The Johnsons asked for, and got, the Lansdowne post in 1985. This followed an exhausting five years in which they served as "circuit rider" preachers at seven Frederick County churches.

Michael and Peggy met and married while attending Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., during the late 1970s. Hanging side by side on a wall at the Lansdowne church office are the couple's diplomas from Asbury, both dated May 25, 1980. One other important date that they have in common is their birthday, Dec. 16, though Peggy was born a year before Michael.

Michael, a Virginia native, was an Army brat who lived in 16 places during one 12-year stretch in his childhood. Peggy, Lansdowne born and bred, attended the church she now serves as co-pastor.

"That's right, I'm now my mother's minister," she says with a laugh. "Sometimes it's a glorious experience, but the familiarity of it all can get sticky. Like, it's hard for me to bury a loved one, so Michael presides at those funerals. He's buried a few of my family members."

"I cry through them, too," her husband adds.

If the phenomenon of married, job-sharing ministers seemed odd to the working-class Lansdowne parishioners, they also have had to deal with the anomaly of Peggy as the first female pastor at the church since its founding in 1894.

"The pastor's wife is an institution, and so sometimes I think our congregation feels it got gypped when they got me," Peggy says. "Maybe they wanted the faithful pastor's wife who plays the organ and runs the women's auxiliary and is always standing behind her man. I think the old guard here feels gypped that the pastor's wife is a pastor, who helps run this parish and runs another one on her own."

Church lay leader Kearney Murray says a few parishioners might prefer a male minister to a female, but no one feels "gypped" with Peggy Johnson as co-pastor.

"People here seem to be very comfortable with Peggy," says Murray, a Lansdowne member for 30 years. "They've known her a long time. They can relate to her because she grew up in this church. She's like family to a lot of people here. I knew her even before she was a pastor."

When Murray and his wife, Nola, were married at the church in 1974, 20-year-old Peggy sang a popular song of the time, "You Make Me Feel Brand New," at the ceremony.

Murray praises the Johnsons for their ease in working with all factions of the congregation, male and female, young and old. He says the congregants enjoy the ways the co-pastors complement and contrast with each other.

"Peggy is the lighthearted one, more bubbly," says Murray. "Michael's more serious, quiet, more strict in religious matters. Peggy preaches quick, in about 10 or 15 minutes. We kid Michael about running the service too long. His sermons go 20 minutes or more."

Though a self-described "talker," Peggy says, "My feeling is, if you can't preach your message in 10 minutes, forget about it."

The couple's varying styles allow the church members to see that there can be more than one solution to a problem, Michael claims.

"Instead of telling people, 'This is the pastor's idea,' we can say, 'This is the pastor's idea' and 'This is the [other] pastor's idea,' " he explains. "It's healthy to show the two pastors disagreeing sometimes. It tells people it's OK for them to disagree with their own loved ones."

Asked if this approach might confuse the congregation, Michael answers no.

"Peggy's basic beliefs and theology are the same as mine," he says. "So the message isn't confused. We're just showing there are different ways to deal with the message."

"No one sex has a monopoly on perfection," says Peggy. "That's why it's good to have both sexes as pastors. By relying on a patriarchal image of the minister, churches have missed the benefits of having the feminine side of issues. Just as there are different ways for people to be, there are different ways for pastors to be, and different ways men and women can be of help."

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