Partners in life and call to ministry: Couple completes ordination process at the same time

6/13/2006

By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor

Part of being married is sharing those special moments, personal and professional, with the one person closest to you.

Tonight during the Service of Ordination, Cliff and Leanne Burris will do just that. The husband and wife will be ordained elders in full connection in the Mississippi Conference at the same time.

The couple, which has been serving Morton First UMC as co-pastors, admits that what they’re doing is not for everybody. However, they see mostly positives from the experience. 

“I don’t know that every couple is equipped to be in class together, to go to meetings together and we serve an appointment together,” said Leanne Burris. “We’re pretty much together all the time.”

Cliff Burris said the key to making the situation work is placing the marriage first.

“You have to be intentional about making sure your relationship with one another doesn’t get put aside for the work,” he said. “With school and major responsibilities, it’s easy to allow the relationship to take a back seat. The greatest caution would be that school or ministry can get in the way of the marriage. You have to make sure relationship with one another and with God are primary.”

The Burrises attended William Carey College in Hattiesburg and Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. Leanne actually finished seminary a year ahead of Cliff because he also served appointments while in school. However, she remained in Kentucky while he finished, and they moved back to Mississippi and began the ordination process.

“Being in seminary together was a great thing,” Cliff said. “We were commuters, and we got to spend a lot of time together, more than most couples do. We got to think theologically together. That means our relationship with each other and God deepened in that way."

Clergy couples aren’t uncommon. The Mississippi Conference has 18 couples where both are elders, another eight where one partner is an elder and the other a deacon and another five couples who are both local pastors, said Sheila Cumbest, coordinator of Ministerial Services for the conference.

Cumbest is also part of a clergy couple. A deacon in full connection, Sheila is married to the Rev. Chris Cumbest, who is an elder. They both attended Duke Divinity School, but Sheila didn’t enter the ordination process for several years after graduation.

“Personally, I think it’s easier when you have an elder-deacon situation than elder-elder,” Sheila Cumbest said. “Itineracy and appointments are harder for two elders.”

Leanne and Cliff Burris said one reason they work well together is because their gifts are complementary. “We know we’re not carbon copies of each other,” Leanne said. “He tends to be strong where I am weak and visa versa. I’m a big-picture person, while Cliff is good at details.”

Cliff said while they work together, they have interests of their own.

“We don’t share desk space well, and we each have our own ways of going about doing things,” Cliff said with a laugh. “Our commitment and respect for each other is what enables us to work together. It helps that we have different focuses, but it also helps that we trust each other with tasks that we do together. I have no reservations about allowing Leanne to take the lead in certain areas.”

The Burrises have benefited from having an understanding and supportive congregation at Morton First UMC, especially as they rear three children.

“We’ve been blessed with a great day care,” Leanne said. “Evenings are more difficult. We’re appointed as co-pastors, and that’s a challenge because we need to both be present for some meetings. Someone has to be home with the kids. Our church has stepped up with individuals offering to watch the kids and being very gracious.”

Cliff Burris said learning to work with a spouse takes effort.

“It has proven difficult but not anymore difficult than getting married and learning how different you are,” he said. “You begin to appreciate the differences and recognize you need those areas in your life, and you’re grateful for what your spouse offers.”

Leanne Burris said now that she’s served with her husband, she would like for the work relationship to continue.

“Without each other, the big things couldn’t get done,” she said. “They would fall apart at one end or the other. I just enjoy Cliff’s company. I would be lonely in ministry without him.”