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Moving . . . again? Ways to help your family during a move
By Karen Holford, MA, MSc
Anna was in the kitchen when the phone rang. She heard her husband, a pastor, pick it up and speak to their conference president. “Well, we hadn’t expected a move so soon. . . . We’ve only been here three years. . . . But if you want us to move to the Silver Hills district, I’m sure God will work it out.”
Anna slumped into a chair and put her head in her hands. Another move. So soon! They had just finished decorating their bedroom, she had been promoted at work, and they had finally found a tutor to help their son with his dyslexia. Not again, thought Anna. Moving takes so much time, money, and work.
Linda was in the kitchen when the phone rang. She heard her husband pick it up and speak to their conference president. “Well, we hadn’t expected a move so soon. . . . We’ve only been here three years. . . . But if you want us to move to the Sandy River district, I’m sure God will work it out.”
Linda smiled. Yes! she thought. I can’t wait to move! Linda was tired of the family feuding in their local church. Her husband had done his best, and they had both prayed for the church, but Linda knew he was more stressed than ever before. Besides, Sandy River was only 50 miles from her parents. It would be so good to live near them again.
The extra challenge of a ministerial move
Nothing produces mixed feelings quite like moving. And whether you are disappointed or delighted at the thought of a new home, one fact remains constant: moving is stressful. Thankfully, the Bible overflows with encouragement for anyone who yearns for a place to call home. “Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9, NKJV).
Moving is not unique to pastors, but many non-ministerial couples have a chance to discuss the idea of moving for several months. Then they decide together on where and when to move. Usually this is a shared choice that comes from within the relationship. It is still stressful at times but usually easier because the couple has made the choice together, to suit their needs and life plans.
But when a ministerial family is asked to move, they usually experience a different dynamic. Ministerial moves can be sudden, unexpected, and non-negotiable. The move often benefits one spouse while seriously disadvantaging the other. The understanding that a “call” is from God can make it more difficult for spouses of pastors to express concerns and powerful emotions. They might think that talking about negative feelings will be considered a lack of faith, and feel isolated with their difficult feelings, not having anyone with whom to talk or find comfort.
Sadness and loss
Moving involves painful and hidden losses. Friends are separated. Important support networks are broken. Children are uprooted from schools. Familiar routines are disrupted and lost. Plans and projects have to be abandoned. Hundreds of decisions must be made about what needs to be thrown away, sold, or sent to a thrift store. Jobs are lost, income may be reduced, career plans are interrupted, and, for some, hopes are shattered. Homes that have been lovingly decorated and filled with happy memories are sold to complete strangers. For many months leisure and relaxation time is lost because the time is spent looking for a new home, sorting, packing, moving, unpacking, and redecorating again.
If you add up each of the losses, both large and small, it is easy to see why moving can elicit plenty of sadness that is not often acknowledged.
Complex relational stresses
The experience of a ministerial move can easily drive a wedge between spouses and between parents and children. The pastor might feel excited about the new challenges and relieved to let go of the challenges and headaches of the previous congregation. Being “called” by God to a fresh area of ministry can be inspiring and affirming. A “call” offers a sense of security: “This is where I’m meant to be.”
On the other hand, the spouse could be struggling with the loss of their own job and the difficult prospect of trying to find a new one. The children, especially teenagers, may be gripped with fears about fitting into a new school and making new friends. The spouse and children might feel discouraged and uncertain about their future path. They may not yet feel “called” to the new district and have to take a much greater leap of trust that the move is also God’s will for them, because they cannot see where they are going to “land.”
Even when the spouse freely accepts a move, they often carry the greatest share of the work and stresses involved in relocating and can feel tired, overwhelmed, and even resentful. The pastor might be working long hours to make sure everything is ready for the incoming pastor and also attending meetings with the new church district. Meanwhile, the spouse comes home from a busy day at work to spend the evening packing boxes alone, and not know how to talk about their feelings because it might seem like a lack of faith to question anything about the call.
The pastor might be unsure on how to comfort the spouse; after all, it’s his or her “call” that has caused the partner such distress. It may also be hard for both partners to ask for help from other people and each other. They may be so used to helping others that they find it difficult to ask for the help they need.
Ways for pastors to help their families
- Pray for your spouse daily during the move experience. Ask God to help you see your family members through His loving eyes each day, so you can be channels of His love into their lives at this difficult time.
- Find time to listen to the family’s experience of sadness, fear, frustration, and even anger about the move. Acknowledge their feelings as normal and valid. “I am so sorry that our move is causing you so much pain. Your feelings are a normal and understandable response to everything you are dealing with. I love you and I am here for you. What’s the best thing I can do to support you and comfort you right now?”
- Avoid critical or judgmental comments about the family’s feelings, which are just natural responses to a very challenging situation.
- Talk about your own complex feelings and ask for the help you need too.
- Accept that it may take longer for the spouse and children to adapt to a move. In the meantime, find ways to be considerate, comforting, and supportive.
- Think about the relational needs of the spouse. For example, accept them and their feelings, show affection, be appreciative of all the work they are doing to facilitate the move, cherish the couple relationship, give them focused attention, comfort their sadness, encourage them when it is hard to reach their goals, and support them when they are tired and struggling.
- Commit to regular and protected amounts of time to help your spouse with the practicalities of the move. Leaving a spouse to struggle alone, or letting them down when another need arises in the congregation, really hurts him or her and adds even more pain and resentment to the pile of emotions.
- Invest in your marriage and protect it. Stay connected to your spouse in warm and positive ways throughout each day: text messages, phone calls, e-mails, notes, flowers, a surprise treat, a dinner out, a love note written on the base of a packing box where the spouse will find it, and so on. Although this can take a little time, it’s worth the effort. Other family members may need special attention too.
- Give your spouse the opportunity to take a break from regular church responsibilities for a year after a move, unless they want to be involved.
- Be willing to attend counseling sessions or therapy in order to talk about the effect the move is having on your relationship.
Ways for ministry spouses to help themselves and their families
- Imagine you are sitting in God’s lap when you pray and that He is holding and comforting you through the challenges.
- Write down your feelings and thoughts. Use these headings: What am I sad about losing? What are my concerns about the move? What do I feel frustrated or discouraged about? What are the potential benefits of the move?
- Make a list of the practical things your spouse can do to help.
- Think of your relational needs and ask for them to be met. Examples of items to ask for are complex emotions to be accepted, a hug or comfort when upset, a listening ear, or some encouragement.
- Make clear and specific requests for the practical help you need instead of struggling alone, complaining, or feeling guilty about asking for help.
- Turn negative thoughts into positive ones. “I don't have a job to go to” can become, “I will have time to fulfill some of my other dreams while I am looking for a new job.”
- Find trustworthy friends to talk to.
- Tune into the feelings of your children through attentive listening and helping them identify their own emotions.
- Assist the family in the process of saying goodbye. For example, celebrate the positive relationships and experiences you enjoyed in your old home. Say a proper goodbye to those whom you have grown to love. Recognize times when you are experiencing normal emotions of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, sadness or depression, and acceptance). And keep your heart open to the adventure of a new chapter in your family’s life.
Moving reluctant teens
Moving a reluctant teenager can be an especially stressful experience. The teenager may have very little say over the move. Their sense of security and trust in a semi-predictable future are torn apart. Many hopes are dashed, close friendships are challenged, and they have to reconstruct their lives and relationships in a new place.
- If you are moving with teens, pray for them as often as you can. And pray for all the wisdom, love, and patience you will need to support them.
- They may not have any choice about the move, but you can help by giving them as many other choices as possible: which school to go to, which bedroom to have in the new home, how to decorate the room, which new clubs to join, and so on.
- When they are upset, they need you to comfort them, listen to their distress, and soothe their anger and frustration. Let them know it’s OK to talk to you about their complicated and negative feelings. Make the time to listen. Take them on parent-teen dates to a favorite restaurant to talk and show how important their concerns are to you. Avoid being defensive. Listen, reflect their ideas back to them, ask questions to show you are interested in understanding, and comfort their pain in ways they appreciate.
- Find something special to help them look forward to their new location: a new opportunity, their own car, a fun project, an adventure.
- Help them make friends with local teens. Ask for their ideas about how to do this. Try to help find at least one teen, in an unobtrusive way, who can help them settle in and make friends. Encourage them to connect before the move, perhaps by visiting or using Skype or Facebook.
- Talk about the move in positive terms. A teenager will soon have to leave home for college. Moving as a teen will help them develop the useful skills they will need to reestablish themselves in a new community. It’s a practice run, with parents around to support them, so they will be a step ahead when they leave for college.
Make new memories
Positive experiences help everyone feel better after the challenge of a move. Families should create opportunities for peaceful relaxation, laughter, and moments of wonder.
Some ideas for pastoral families to try:
- Plan a treat or vacation soon after the move so that everyone can have a refreshing break after all the work.
- Plan regular family fun days, or couple dates, that will help them discover their new area and create happy memories together. This will help everyone to think of the new home as an interesting and enjoyable place to be.
- Find beautiful and inspiring places to go for hikes and picnics.
- Do something special that they could not do in their previous location, such as white-water rafting or climbing a mountain.
- Gather flyers of fun places and events to visit in the new district. Restaurants, farms, zoos, parks, art galleries, tourist sites, fun sports activities, farmers markets, forest walks—whatever anyone in the family would like to do. Take turns choosing where to go for an outing.
Moving is stressful for everyone involved. Take the time to help make it a positive and smooth experience for your family, with God’s help. Click here for additional information and activities to help in this process.
Karen Holford, MA, MSc, is a family therapist and freelance writer residing in Perthshire, Scotland with her husband, Pastor Bernie Holford.
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