In American religious life today there is an upsurge of “church-hopping”—laity moving their membership from one denomination to another. Married couples do not always make this move together, however. A couple who began their marriage within the same denomination may find themselves in an ecumenical marriage some years into married life.
This was the journey my husband and I faced recently, in our ninth year of marriage, and I am convinced that the pastors and congregations of both churches have been critical partners in that journey. Both the congregation in which I remain and the congregation my husband has joined, and their pastors, have been examples of God’s grace and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Even the occasional comment of bewilderment (“It’s been three weeks since I’ve seen you at church with your husband”) or disappointment (“We’re so sorry to hear that you’ve decided to leave our congregation”) acknowledged that the congregations cared. However, we know of two other couples in a similar circumstance for whom the experience has not been so positive. In those cases, the parishes and ministers involved ignored the unfolding situation. If they had been willing to pay attention, these clergy and congregations could have played key roles in helping the couples transition into their changed church lives.
There are many reasons why one spouse might feel impelled to change congregational membership: a mid-life faith awakening, a tragedy that leads to soul-searching, a desire for a change in the routine of faith life, a moral conflict with a denomination’s chosen ethical stance, a theological dispute, or a desire for better programs for one’s children. In these and other situations, one spouse may want to change churches, while the other wishes to remain in the original congregation or denominational tradition. Sometimes a move to a new city precipitates such a change; the couple cannot find a congregation in which both are comfortable, so they join different congregations.
This freedom to change denomination reflects the successes of the ecumenical movement of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In feeling free to make denominational switches, laity are affirming the true koinonia of the church by embracing other denominations as faithful representatives of another part of the Body of Christ, recognizing the marks of the Church (“one, holy, catholic, and apostolic”) in the other.
When the spouses are both committed Christian people, they need to negotiate whether to go to church separately all the time or whether they will sometimes attend church together. Rene Beaupere suggests that a dual-church couple can live out a “re-doubled faithfulness: not to become fifty-fifty Christians but to achieve 200 percent faithfulness.”1 This suggestion is clearly intended to be affirming to couples who seek to participate actively in the life of two congregations, what Beaupere and others have called “double belonging.” The reality, however, is more complex. How can one be involved in church leadership, Sunday school teaching, or choir (to cite only a few examples) when one is away once or twice per month attending one’s spouse’s congregation? The alternative is for the couple always to worship apart, which has its own issues, or for only one to be involved at this level while the other splits his/her attendance between the two congregations so that the couple can worship together part of the time. But this is a one-sided solution that raises issues for the marriage relationship. Of the two individuals in an interdenominational marriage, John Pobee contends, “neither may individually ‘unchurch’ the other.”2
The stakes are even higher for a family with children. Decisions must be made about the children’s participation in the life of the church, especially Sunday school and youth group. In which congregation will the children be baptized and confirmed, and who decides? Will the children attend each church part of the time or one church exclusively? What will the family do about major religious festivals; for example, will they attend one church together on Christmas Eve? These decisions must be made by each family. Whenever age appropriate, the children should be encouraged to be part of the decision-making process so that they feel ownership over the outcome.
Most of the literature on ecumenical marriage assumes that the couple’s denominational difference was a stable factor during their engagement and throughout the marriage, or that the change that was made was toward homogeneity. A 1999 Creighton University study, for example, analyzed marriages in three categories: interchurch couples, same-church couples, and couples who moved from the interchurch to same-church category during the marriage. The study did not address the opposite scenario: couples moving from being members of the same church to an ecumenical marriage.
The good news for clergy is that the 92 percent of the interchurch couples in the Creighton study reported that clergy are either “very committed” (43 percent) or “somewhat committed” (49 percent) to helping a couple of mixed denominational commitment.3 But what is it that clergy and congregations can do to provide support and ministry to those couples who find themselves in a mid-marriage change of denominational affiliation? The answer depends, in part, on the relationship of the church to the couple.
The Receiving Church
For the church receiving one member of a couple, there are a number of things that can be done to support the couple and their faith lives.
When one member of a couple indicates a desire to join the church without the other, inquire about what is going on in the relationship. Listen and seek to discern what is going on with the couple’s faith life. How is the Holy Spirit guiding the faith journey of the couple or family and each of the individuals involved?
If possible, invite the non-joining spouse to be present at the worship service during which the other spouse joins the congregation. Ask whether the non-joining spouse wishes to come forward with the joining spouse. Also ask whether he/she wants his/her membership in the other congregation acknowledged and supported as part of the spouse being received into this congregation.
Usually the congregation automatically embraces the new member into the fellowship. Encourage the congregation to embrace non-member spouses as well, and to welcome them when they visit the church (without trying to force them into membership). Lay leaders may want to inquire as to the church the non-member spouse belongs to and to affirm that person’s faith life. The goal is to find the right balance between inviting non-member spouses to attend this church and honoring where they are in their faith journeys—to “welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you, to the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).
If your polity allows an associate membership status, offer that opportunity to the non-member spouse, but always with the sensitivity that even that status might not be possible or desired.
Communicate your theology clearly. Is your Communion table open to church members’ non-member relatives when they attend? Do you consider their baptisms to be valid? If so, say so! If not, explain why not. This suggests that clergy need to be conversant with various churches’ theologies and polities, and that seminaries need to teach future clergy to be knowledgeable about other denominations. It also means that all those involved—clergy and laity—must honor and respect those boundaries until the day of ecumenical rapprochement between the two traditions involved. Ignoring the denomination’s theology and polity is a misguided attempt at being pastoral. Instead, it demonstrates that one does not respect one’s own tradition nor the other’s, and it indicates a lack of awareness of the real differences that can be bridged through attentive ecumenical work.
Invite the non-member who attends with the member spouse to play a minor role now and again. There are many church roles rightfully reserved for members, such as serving on the governing council, but other roles do not need to be reserved in this way. For instance, a non-member could be invited to lead an adult discussion class on his own tradition.
The Relinquishing Congregation
Hospitality is more difficult for the pastor of a church where one member of a couple is leaving and one is staying. If the person who is leaving is joining another Christian community, inquire as to what has brought the individual to this decision, listen to the answer, and support the faith journey that has led the person there. Even if the conversation includes criticism of one’s ministry or one’s denomination, it is important to hear what is impelling the person to this decision. One does not have to agree in order to listen pastorally.
Offer to write a letter of transfer to the receiving congregation, indicating that the departing member is a baptized member in good standing, if that is the case. This demonstrates to the departing parishioner that you honor his or her decision.
Notify the appropriate lay leaders of the congregation of the transfer. It can be embarrassing to the remaining member to field well-meaning but frequent inquiries about the circumstances surrounding his or her spouse’s absence from church.
Communicate clearly that the now solo member continues to be as welcome as he or she has always been, and reiterate whenever appropriate that the former member is always welcome to come back and worship without pressure to rejoin. Returning for a worship service can feel awkward for former members, so welcome them warmly. Realize, too, that the attendance of children in church programs and events—even if it was once regular—may become intermittent, and provide these children with a hospitable reception when they do come.
Offer support for the marriage and family. This couple has reached a point of individuation in their marriage. It may be a healthy step or it may be a crisis point. Help them to explore the implications of their decisions.
A Dual Effort
Each congregation needs to speak of other denominational traditions with respect and sensitivity—whether in casual conversations, in sermons, in Sunday school, or at church suppers. Ecumenism begins with respect for the other. The church should be a welcoming, open environment for all, including non-member spouses and children.
Both congregations should be available as supports to the family and children in the decision-making process concerning their church affiliation and attendance. Congregations may go out of their way to meet the special needs of children of divorced parents who are sharing custody, yet not realize that in terms of children’s participation and sense of belonging there are similar issues in ecumenical marriages. Each congregation should be flexible in its efforts to meet the needs of the children and should include them in activities whenever possible. For example, in preschool or early grade school, stars are often given to children for perfect attendance. Children who can attend only every other week could instead be given a star for perfect attendance on all of their scheduled attendance dates.
Affirm that this circumstance can be an opportunity for spiritual growth. My husband’s decision to join a tradition that practices adult baptism sparked a deepened theology and spirituality in relation to my own baptism at the age of five weeks, followed by confirmation as a teenager.
Regularly include prayer for other churches and other denominations in the prayers of the church. This is spiritual ecumenism, praying for the unity of the church as Jesus prayed for us to have a unity that reflects the interior life of the Trinity (John 17:21).
Celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and invite the ecumenical couples to be involved in the planning and leadership. Consider inviting the congregations of non-member spouses to join your congregation in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity celebration.
When appropriate, include some hymns or liturgical settings from other traditions, particularly those denominations with whom your church is in ecumenical dialogue or full communion and those denominations represented in ecumenical marriages within your congregation. A Moravian love feast, for example, is a wonderful Christmas or Easter season tradition.
The bottom line for congregations—both those receiving a member of a couple and those keeping one—is to be pastorally sensitive to the dynamics of ecumenical marriages and families and to take the time to find out what is going on spiritually for the couple and for each of the individuals involved. This situation presents a key opportunity for pastoral support and ministry with a couple, as well as with their children.
It is easy in parish life for our congregational identity to be the first identifier and the broader Christian commitment to be secondary. But we are Christians first. Our congregations will be more welcoming to visitors, more open to potential members, and more hospitable to ecumenical marriages and families if we can foster an attitude that all Christians belong within any part of the Body of Christ’s church. Talk of “members” and “non-members” or “church family” and “guests” can readily become insider-outsider talk. We are all guests, Christ’s guests, at the eucharistic table, led by the Spirit to worship God in spirit and in truth.
NOTES1. Rene Beaupere, “‘Double Belonging’: Some Reflections,” One in Christ, No. 18 (1982), 42.
2. John Pobee, “Perspectives for Ecumenical Formation Tomorrow,” Ecumenical Review, No. 48 (October 1996), 485.
3. Center for Marriage and Family, Creighton University, Ministry to Inter-church Marriages: A Summary Report (Omaha: Center for Marriage and Family, 1999), 7.