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The Search

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“It’s pretty much like internet dating.”

This has become my standard answer when people ask me how the Presbyterian call system works. For most folks who are single or have been single in the last decade or so, the comparison always gets a laugh. For those who have been married since before the wonders and horrors of Match.com and OKCupid existed, it can cause a bit of confusion, so I explain, “There’s a website, and pastors put up their profiles, and churches put up their profiles, and then the system matches them up.”

That’s the simple version, of course. In reality, as a single pastor who recently went through this process to find my second call, I found that the similarities were so strong that I couldn’t do both at once. As I told a friend, “I have a limited amount of energy for self-promotion.”

It’s not just the basic structure of the thing. I discovered many more similarities:

Spelling counts. Call me shallow or judgmental, but whether it’s a guy who says “U seem prety cool” or a church committee who can’t spell my name, I mentally subtract a lot of points for inattention to detail.

-First conversations are awkward. There’s just no getting around it. Whether it’s a phone or skype interview with a committee or a first date at a coffee shop, it’s just going to be awkward. There will be sweaty palms and nervousness and wondering whether what you just said sounded completely idiotic. Just accept the awkward.

The waiting. Oh, the waiting. Sitting by the phone and refreshing your e-mail every 30 seconds will not make either a second date or a second interview appear, unfortunately.

-Don’t jump the gun. I talked to a few committees whose very first question in the first phone interview was “Why are you the right pastor for our church?” I generally said something like, “I’m not sure that I am. Why don’t you tell me a little bit more about the ministry your church is doing?” I don’t think any of those churches called me back, and truthfully I was okay with that. To me, this is like asking on a first date, “Why should I want to marry you?” It’s our first conversation! In our ecclesiology, the relationship between a church and a pastor should be one of mutuality, of working together in the body of Christ. That means we both need to get to know one another, to see if God is calling us to do ministry together.

-A sense of humor is vital. Amidst the awkwardness and nervousness on both sides, whether it’s a date or an interview or a candidating weekend, laughter is always a good sign in my book. When I did accept a call to a new church, it was partly because I honestly just had a ton of fun with them when I came to visit.

-Pastors are people, too. Among single clergy, deciding whether or not to name our profession on a dating profile can be a fraught question. Many people have trouble seeing a pastor as a regular human who has a life outside of the church. In the dating world, most of us single clergy have heard, “I’m sorry, I just can’t date a pastor. It’s too weird.” Search committees also sometimes forget that pastors are people, that a call to a new church can mean uprooting a life and starting over from scratch. I knew my new call would be a good fit when they not only asked me about my life, but made sure that on my tour of the town they pointed out things they knew would matter to me as a person. When the committee members say, “Here’s a great vet for your dog,” or “Let me take you to the park with the running trail because I know you like to run,” it shows that they are looking for a person, not a set of impressive credentials.

-When you know, you know. When I found the right church, it just clicked. I’ve heard that something similar happens when you find the right person. Whether in dating or in searching for a new call, the process is different for everyone. For some it takes a long time, and the waiting can be incredibly frustrating. In the meantime, find some trusted friends who can help share the journey with all its many ups and downs.

Perhaps now that I’ve settled into my new call, it’s time to give online dating another try. Then again, maybe not. The break from the “U R hott” messages has been pretty nice.

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The Break-Up Flowers

They got delivered on Sunday by mistake. The florist had a backlog of funeral arrangements to deliver and the bouquet to commemorate my loss got pushed back until Sunday. I told the florist to deliver them to the parsonage “first thing” but the florist version of “first thing” Sunday morning deviated by at least an hour from the pastor version.

A zealous usher saw the florist knocking at the parsonage next door and waved her over to the church. So there they were, on my desk, a half hour before game time, a beautiful reminder of what I was trying to forget.

A week earlier –

before the church retreat

and before the excessive sermon preparation that doubled as pain killers

(who doesn’t drown their sorrows in Greek conjugations?)

and before the pastoral visits I made with the shards of a broken heart

clattering around inside me

before I could marvel at my ability to soldier through

before I could despair that no one could tell any difference…

…A week earlier, my boyfriend and I broke up. And, let me tell you, this was not one of those amicable and mature unicorns of a break-up. I called my friends and cried, then I picked myself up and carried on. The heartbreak felt so personal. It was mine to carry so I did the thing I was never sure I’d be able to do in the midst of a break up. I did my job. Not well. Not completely, but enough, and the Holy Spirit filled in the gaps, as she always and so graciously does.

But now there were flowers on my desk. And a note that read “You are not alone,” which–despite the whirring copier in the office and the deacons counting a special collection next door and the tech team setting up nearby and my colleague standing in my study running through our last minute preparations – was exactly how I felt.

A well-meaning church member stopped in the doorway, complimented my flowers and politely inquired, “May I ask the occasion?”

“They’re from friends.”

“Do you think we could use them on the altar this morning?”

“No.” I said.

We blinked at each other, both a little uncomprehending. Her offer was innocent enough but it met, in me, a feisty conviction that there was already enough of me on that altar.

So much of our lives, as pastors, belongs to the church: our prayers, our contemplations of Scripture, our time, our compassion. They belong to the church. And we are blessed that, in our giving, we often land in the right place to receive.

But what I learned that Sunday morning from the accidental flowers on my desk is that, sometimes, the grace gets to be just for you.

“No,” I told her. My break up flowers don’t belong to the church. This break-up will never be a sermon illustration. It won’t make me a better chair-person. I won’t discover a secret love of nursing home visitation once the pain has worn off. This break up won’t make me a better pastor. And maybe that’s okay because it wasn’t meant to. There’s already enough of me on that altar.

If the heartbreak is mine to carry then the break-up flowers are mine too. Because I’m human and I took a risk and, at least for now, it didn’t pay off. Because I get to be vulnerable and courageous as a person, not just as your pastor. Because I have friends in my corner. And because, sometimes, the grace gets to be just for me.

 

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As A Mother

The sweetest part of my day is the sound of little voices calling “Mother, mother.” I have never given birth, nor have I adopted children. But most mornings, as I open the door to my church, I am greeted by the tiny denizens of my church’s preschool, and their chipper little hellos. They call me Mother; that’s the title I prefer as a parish priest. They say it with such confidence that it makes me want to be a better pastor, one worthy of the title “Mother.”

As a woman who has not had children, I have limited (mostly second-hand) knowledge of the work of mothering children. I have worked at a nursery school, assisted with younger siblings, and have done a great deal of babysitting. But I have never walked the floor with a colicky baby. I have never had to play the tooth fairy for a child too excited to sleep. I have never had a teenager sit at my kitchen table, her head hung in shame as I question her about blatantly violating her curfew.

I have, however, listened to the weekly frustrations of a parishioner with big dreams for the church. I have helped plan big surprises for parishioners in need of real cheering. I have spoken with community members about respecting our church and its values. I have even had to let someone know he was not welcome to participate in non-worship activities as long as his disruptive behavior continued.

In Christ, I am becoming a spiritual mother. That has more to do with the way I am called to love my parishioners than the ways in which they are called to treat me. That is the fundamental truth of parenting—it is a one-way street. You love for the sake of loving, not because of the love you hope to get at the end. And in doing so, however imperfectly, you hope to draw people more fully into relationship with the God who loves them endlessly and perfectly.

Our primary work as pastors is love. Everything we do: teaching, preaching, administrating, caring–all of it is the work of love. We shepherd people toward a deeper relationship with God, to preach and teach in a way that instructs, strengthens, and transforms. We help people grow (and grow up) into the fullness of Christ. We stand with people when they are heartbroken, we cheer them on when they feel discouraged. We love folks whether or not they are loving or loveable. We are called to love them whether they are A+ Jesus followers or D- community disrupters, and (mostly) we are called to love people who are both. We are called to remember that love isn’t always hugs, affirmations, and encouragements. Sometimes loving someone means asking a person to step back from leadership, or to stop behaving in a disrespectful or hurtful manner. Sometimes love means saying “no” or “not now.”

During Holy Week when the computer breaks, I have a frustrated parishioner on the phone, and my sermon feels like a wash, I still can’t think of anything I want to do more (except sleep). Doesn’t that sound like motherhood? Pastoring is day after day of nurture and patience, in a life that is by turns hope-filled and exasperating. Priesthood is the everyday ordinariness of serving others. And yes, it is also joy. Yeah. I’ll admit it. I love the people of God. Even when things are completely off kilter, I get up most mornings and can hardly believe God called me to this wacky, amazing, and wondrous work. Loving the people I serve is giving me (I hope) a mother’s heart.

 

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The Single Rev by Choice, for a Season

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You know the poem about how people come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime?

Singleness sometimes feels like it has come into my life (unbidden) for a lifetime, but I’m choosing it for this season.

God and I have had words about this singleness business on more than one occasion. The arguments were particularly intense when I was in seminary in my late twenties and still remembered the comforts of a stable, long-term relationship. The conversation generally went like this:

Me: You know, you didn’t have to wrestle me to get me to follow my calling. I came to this faithfully. I gave up a high powered political path with no complaint. I was glad to accept a life of poverty since you called me to urban ministry and congregational transformation. But I never thought you would make me do it ALONE. It never crossed my mind that you wouldn’t supply me with a partner.

God: <crickets>

And because I was raised not to call God a dick, that was usually where it ended.

The last of those one-sided fights was probably ten years ago, but for about ten years I’ve tried to take matters into my own hands with hundreds of Internet dates and even a few dates with people I met in person. I’ve even dated a few guys for as long as six months (although usually just about two).

But the resentment has lingered. It’s flared up when I think about how many men I’ve let treat me badly in the hopes that they were who would be a companion, or just because I wanted the company or the intimacy. And it has smoldered when I chose casual flings because I had given up on finding someone who could actually meet me as an equal in relationship.

And then this summer I did what a good feminist or a woman who doesn’t want to appear pathetic should never do: I admitted, out loud, that I’m lonely. And I’ve been lonely on and off for thirteen years. And the friend I told said, “See, you’re my cautionary tale. I don’t want that to be me.”

Fortunately, I had other friends, one of whom encouraged me to engage in a season of singleness to mourn the fact that I may never have that type of partnership in my life, to actually confront it and ritualize it and pray on it.

So September 1 (two months after my last boyfriend disappeared when I suggested that maybe we both had baggage and that wasn’t a sign that a relationship couldn’t work), I started to do just that. I started a season of singleness that would go through Thanksgiving (although I recently extended it to the new year because it feels so good).

My Day 30 breakthrough was huge: trying to hide from lonely doesn’t make it go away. I need to find a way to co-exist with lonely. (A book I read later noted that part of what makes loneliness so terrifying isn’t just the loneliness but the fact that it’s layered with shame and judgment. Letting go of those other things and letting myself just feel lonely has made me realize it’s a feeling I can live with when it shows up.)

The next thirty days made me aware that part of what was hard about not having a partner was how little control I felt about my situation. And that led me to put up with treatment that I didn’t deserve from guys who probably didn’t deserve me. Part of what’s fun about my season of singleness has been that even if my situation is exactly the same as it would have been if I were unintentionally single, I feel less helpless. Plus, the single life is monumentally less bad than the awful stuff God put Jeremiah through with his wife. That guy gets to complain about his relationship status to the divine. (Note: Days 30-60 were aided monumentally by the podcast series Strangers by Lea Thau, who did a four-parter on her struggles with singleness and also the book It’s Not You about the 27 lousy things people say to singles about what we should fix in order to be partnered and how those things are all wrong.)

As I approach Day 90, I’m getting honest about the fact that there are things about living alone I really don’t like and recognizing there might be things I actually have some power over, like considering community living. Extroversion and living alone aren’t always a fun combination.

But what’s probably most important is that I’m taking a little more ownership and am finally at a place of considering other options instead of remaining in a resentful stalemate with the All Powerful.

I still wish I could find someone to be a source of support, someone to share my joy-filled moments as well as my struggles. But I’m less afraid of feeling lonely and more open to other ways of getting my companionship needs met.

And I haven’t wanted to call God a dick in a couple of months, so the most serious relationship in my life is showing definite signs of improvement.

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The Risky Thing About Risk

4373711411_ef063a334f_zI spent my first two years of ministry scared to death.

Now, preaching and teaching do contain some measure of risk, and running a committee meeting can be a risky endeavor. These things were part of what I knew I was signing up for when I was ordained. They were part of the job. Likewise, so were sitting with families while a loved one died, listening while a young student confessed his fear that God can’t love him, praying with people in hospital rooms, and moderating arguments between warring volunteer organizations. These were sacred moments, and I quickly learned it was part of my job to be present in them. However, fast on the heels of that revelation came my deep fear that I would handle a situation poorly and manage to break the church. Or at least greatly disappoint them.

Somehow in my preparation for ministry, I missed the enormously important part about how I would be changed as I began to live into my calling.  And even though I knew I was (and am) in desperate need of healing of my sinful self on a daily basis, I didn’t count my fear as part of what needed to be changed. Instead, through trying to control my fear, I developed an obnoxious and overbearing attitude that I was convinced made me seem to have it all together all the time. In reality it made me obnoxious, overbearing, and terrified that the church would find out how scared I really was.

When Jesus is healing someone in the gospels, the healing happens after the person in need moves toward Jesus. For each one, there had to have been some kind of recognition that things were not okay, and something had to give. They could not suffer the present reality much longer and now was the time to seize the day—or the hem of a traveling teacher’s garment. It was risky to reach out like that, but God was there on the other side. For a long time, I wasn’t ready for that.

Then, in my second year of ministry, my mother began dying from cancer and as what was normal turned from family dinners to hospice care, I took what felt like a huge risk. I let go of my attitude, filled the congregation in, and asked them to hold my family in prayer. And as my mother’s health failed, I gave up my fear of disappointing my church for the hard truth: I was not okay and I needed them to know.

Somehow I had been convinced I would be letting the church down if I asked for their help. That’s not what happened at all. Instead the church prayed, the choir figured out who would take care of my dog while I went home, and members even came to my mother’s funeral. In hindsight it seems obvious, but at the time I was not expecting grace to be present on the other side.

And then a few months later, in the way of my denomination, I was sent to a new church in a new city. The temptation to fall back on my abilities to act like I had things together to get me through the transition was strong, but this time I had learned something.

So I asked some people to hold me accountable. I was going to work on taking risks, I told them. I was sure I’d caught it in time, and would do better this time around. My new church wouldn’t have to suffer from an associate pastor consumed with fear that she wasn’t good enough to do the job. I was going to trust that there would be grace enough to get me through.

At first, I took small steps: asking my senior pastor for help prioritizing my workload because projects were falling through the cracks, agreeing to share personal testimony about grieving my mother during the sermon one Sunday, and seeking out the people who rubbed me the wrong way and working to get to know them better. Then I found myself visiting some small groups and preaching sermons while asking the church to heed God’s call to transformation.

It was a start. But as challenging and rewarding as those moves were, I knew I was still holding back. I was preaching a call to transformation, but I was not willing to seek it for myself. I might have given over my professional life, but it was becoming frighteningly apparent that I needed to put my emotions and feelings on the line. I couldn’t pray that God would open up my understanding if I was not willing to open myself up as well.

You see, I still had massive Do Not Enter signs up around my personal life. And it was remarkably hypocritical to walk alongside these new people in their vulnerable moments knowing that I was still holding on to my old protective shell of fear.

So, what changed? I met someone. And our relationship has helped me to change.

This is not a fairytale, where meeting the Right One means all fades to black with a shimmer of magical escapism. But it is true that in this instance in my life, this conviction to take risks and let go of some fears coincided with meeting someone I sincerely like (like, a lot).

And since then, I’ve been thanking God for this someone on a daily basis. Not just because he is fun to be around, lovely to behold, and interested in the particulars of what makes a life of faith a good life, but because—call it Providence or whatever you will—he came into my life and I knew if I wanted to build a relationship with him, I couldn’t stay the same. And thanks be to God that I haven’t.

The rest of the truth is this: I am writing from the midst of a struggle that is ongoing. I’ve already disappointed myself and deflected some questions and avoided some topics because I’m still scared. But this time I hope that being scared means I’m making progress. I am finally leaning out past my fear to catch a glimpse of what good things might be in store down the road. This person I’ve met is definitely willing to offer me grace. And I know that in order to get there, scared or not, I’ll need to keep taking risks.

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A New Home for a Wedding Dress

6259478065_c844a23a6e_zWhat to do with a wedding dress after a divorce?

I love my dress. I remember the way it felt, when I first put it on. I knew it was my dress. I loved the way I looked in it. I loved the way I felt in it. I have kept it since I got married 8 years ago. It is safely preserved, wrapped in hopes that one day, my daughter or one of the young women I have pastored might wear it. But, I am the mother of one son, and I don’t think young girls grow up dreaming of wearing their youth pastor’s wedding dress.

So what do you do with your wedding dress after a divorce? I love my dress and would happily get married in it again, though I suspect that is in very poor taste. A new marriage deserves a new dress. And even if I remarry and have more children, both of which I hope to do, would my daughter want to wear my dress from my first marriage?

Well-meaning friends suggested I donate my dress to a community theater or a high school for a costume. I didn’t want my dress to sit in some closet, gathering dust. Others suggested that I donate it to a charity, but none of those suggestions felt right to me.

I wanted my dress to go to a good cause, to help another bride feel as beautiful as I felt when I wore it. But since multiple offers to pass my dress along to engaged friends came to naught, I listed my dress for sale at a pre-owned wedding dress website, filled with mixed emotions. After one month, no one had expressed interest, so I lowered the price, which was harder than I thought it would be.

While checking Facebook one evening, I saw a post from a friend of mine about her recent donation of her wedding dress to Angel Gowns, an organization that uses wedding dresses to make baptismal and burial gowns for babies in the NICU of Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth, TX. As a former hospice chaplain and as a mother, my heart broke for those families whose babies might not make it, for those families whose babies did not make it.

I remember my son’s difficult birth circumstances and the short window when his health was uncertain. I remember the moments turned to hours turned to days of praying for God’s healing hand. I remember how deeply touched I was by the blessing of our friends and family holding us in prayer.

A wave of peace came over me as I thought about the possibility of donating my dress. I would know that my dress had gone to a good cause that was very personal to me, for an organization in the area where I was raised.

Not an hour after I had become excited about this possibility, I received notification that someone wanted to buy my dress. I did not care about the money, but I did feel a sense of responsibility to hold up my agreement to sell since the dress was still listed on the website. But Angel Gowns felt like the right thing. Should I sell or donate my dress? Fellow young clergywomen gave me their opinions, but basically told me it was up to me.

I decided to donate. I read more about Angel Gowns and learned that not only could you support them by donating your dress, you could also support them by being a seamstress. The website offered patterns you could print at home with detailed instructions for how to convert wedding dresses into beautiful, unique baptismal and burial gowns for NICU babies.

I love to sew. My grandmother and I have made countless quilts together, from t-shirt quilts to quilts made from my son’s baby clothes to quilts to comfort those who are sick. Concerned she might object to cutting up my wedding dress, I told her about the organization and my hope that she and I could make the gowns together. She loved the idea, and so did my mother.

In all honesty, I am nervous about cutting up my dress. I know I made the right decision to divorce, but that does not mean the absence of grief or sorrow. My hope is that transforming my dress into baby gowns will redeem it somehow, let the best parts of its beauty and my memories of it live on for other families. Maybe my labor in sewing will help me to heal.

I give thanks for my healthy son. I know that not all mothers’ prayers are answered with healthy babies, but for some reason, mine was. Every time I look at my son, I see God’s answered prayers and the miracle of life.

As my dress is cut into pieces, may it be made new, broken to be transformed from one into many, from remnants to new life. May our sewing labor infuse each stitch with love and faith. May the mothers who dress their babies in our gowns feel our prayers surrounding them. May they feel the power and strength of other mothers around the world standing in solidarity with them as they love and care for their children.

And may we remember that in both death and life, God our Mother is with us, and she is always faithful.

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Waiting for Cupid

2161693094_9bf2e3179c_z“Sign up for Match!” your friends said. “My friend Beth met someone on there and they’re getting married in June!” your friends said. So you did. You shelled out for the six month period, trusting you’d never need that free additional six months because you’d meet someone special right away.

When the six month subscription ran out, you were still optimistic. That’s why they give another six months free, right? A whole year on Match with hundreds, maybe even thousands of people to meet? Yes, you’d meet someone special for sure.

After the second six months is over, still with no one special, you find yourself on OkCupid. Your single-pastor’s budget doesn’t have room for another subscription service. Your friends have assured you the free one is just fine. “Sign up for OkCupid!” your friends say. “My friend Sarah met someone on there and they’re getting married in July!” your friends say.  So you copy and paste from your Match account into your OkCupid account and wait.

Surely the perfect person is out there, waiting for you. It’s just a matter of time until a message from The One is in your inbox. But what should you do while you wait?

1.  Play Candy Crush Saga. This is the solution during your optimistic stage. If you open one browser window to OKC and play Candy Crush for a bit in another browser window, someone will message you. Five lives. You have five wholes lives. If you take the level slowly, you might even have two messages when you click back over to OKC!

2.  Clean. The optimism is waning, but you’re still certain that if you keep the OKC website open on your computer, someone will message you. Open up OKC. Open up Pandora. Clean! Come back to your computer. Yes! Three messages!

“hey sexy”

“wanna hook up”

“what u up 2”

You’re going to have to wait a while longer.

3.  Be SuperPastor. You’ve been sucked deeper into the OKC vortex, but you’re still hopeful that a message is coming. A real message. A message with correct spelling and grammar. You’re not going to think about it. You’re going to be SuperPastor instead. You call the grouchy lady and pray with her; through the power of the Holy Spirit, she’s happy for a solid ten minutes. You wrangle the youth group. You write a sermon that will make them laugh, make them cry…really, it’s better than Cats. The church calendar for the next three years is all sketched out. Take that, OkCupid message silence! You cannot defeat SuperPastor!

4.  Start the Master Cleanse. You know you need to take better care of yourself. You’ve been saying that for a while. Instead of waiting for someone else to message you, you’re going to take charge so that when that person finally messages you, you will be a strong, independent woman in awesome shape. Google “master cleanse.” Realize this involves several days of drinking only water laced with maple syrup, cayenne pepper, and lemon juice. Decide to take a trip to Whole Foods* instead. Crack almonds it is. And some other healthy stuff while you’re there.

*Realize you’re a pastor in a small, rural town, perhaps thousands of miles away from Whole Foods. Collapse in despair.

5.  Decide to take things into your own hands. You will ferret out and message The One all on your own. Put on Orange is the New Black in the background. Plug in your laptop. You’ve got this. Start scrolling through your matches. Cute. Cute. No way. Kids? Hmmm. Click. What does that even mean. Google it. Click on another profile as quickly as possible. See another single pastor, one you know in real life, in your matches. Internally freak out. Can you click on their profile? Of course you want to know what they wrote. But what if OkCupid sends them a “She’s an exceptionally good match” email? Or “She’s checking you out right now!” Ignore the urge to click. Consider signing up for A-list so you can browse anonymously. Curse your budget limitations. Keep clicking.

6.  Reconsider your expectations. How long ago did you sign up for OkCupid? Take a long walk while pondering your list of requirements. Is the correct use of you’re/your really that important? Is a college degree necessary? You could totally get involved with a Tea Partier since opposites attract, right? Is it really about the gender or just the person? That person in Mozambique actually seemed nice; long-distance isn’t that big a problem, is it?

7.  Find single girlfriends. Yes, all your BFFs are happily partnered, but that’s why Meetup exists. Single girlfriends mean alcohol and group bemoaning of singleness. Their OkCupid horror stories will surely soothe your pain. The internet is once again your friend as you use it to locate other single ladies.

8.  Ponder scripture. Paul wrote about the gift of celibacy for a reason, right? Did God give you that gift and you’ve just missed it until now? Surely there’s a reason Roman Catholic clergy are celibate… maybe a call to ministry and a call to celibacy go hand in hand. Tear up a little at that possibility.

9.  Give real life a shot. Hang out in coffee shops. Google singles bars then hastily click away in terror. Go the places you love because The One will surely be there, too. Every single romcom says that’s true. Go to Meetups. Go to professional networking events. Yes! Forget OkCupid. You will encounter the perfect partner by a pre-digital age method. Millennia of humanity can’t be wrong! Stay out late and see who you meet!

10.  Just live. The truth is, you have an awesome life. You are an intelligent, gifted, beautiful woman. God called you to ministry and gave you people with whom to live out that call. It’s amazing and wonderful and life-giving and a rollercoaster ride. Yes, you want a partner, but the truth is, you’re fabulous all by yourself. OKCupid’s message silence be damned.

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“Old Maid” Revisited

ccg116bI owe my changed perspective to Mabel, the woman who, during a shared car-ride on a Senior Adult outing, proudly proclaimed that she had been an old maid in her younger years. Even putting aside the incongruity of being an old maid in younger years, Mabel’s statement struck me as odd. I thought back to the illustrated card game my friends and I had played as children. I remembered the dour-faced, homely “old maid” playing card that no one had wanted. Why would anyone be proud to be an old maid?

Mabel explained:

“I’m married now, but I didn’t meet Bill until my late-thirties, and that was very old to be single back then. I was proud to be single though, and proud to be called an old maid. You have to realize, that was the 1950’s—women couldn’t get jobs the way men could. And even if you got a job, you made only half the wages men made for the same work. But I found a job, and took care of my money, and I was able to live all by myself with no one else’s help. What’s not to be proud of there? They could call me an old maid but what it meant to me was that I could succeed without the help of a husband. That’s an accomplishment.”

I had never thought about singlehood from the perspective that Mabel articulated. The sour, wrinkled woman on the playing cards had early on built up, in my mind, our culture’s view of old maids and singlehood. In that view, to be single in her thirties meant that a woman was probably broken, defective, or unwanted. Even at its very best, singlehood was understood as a life stage to be passed through as quickly as possible. As I grew older, the card game’s understanding of older single women had been deepened through the years as I watched single women around me. I saw that they were frequently quizzed about their personal lives. “Any prospects on the horizon?” an acquaintance would ask, clearly anxious. “I’m sure you’ll be snatched up before you know it,” they’d say, as if the single woman were a product—a lonely, leftover product—on a shelf.

Apart from the culture, I put my own negative spin on singlehood as well. Divorced and living on my own for the first time as an adult, I had a tendency to interpret my single status as a failure; I had failed to cultivate a successful relationship. With every passing year, I grew more critical of myself, blaming singlehood for so many things. The bills were difficult to pay on my minimal salary. My son spent more time in the care of other people because, as a single parent, I had no backup to watch him should work require my attention. I struggled to maintain emotional health as I grappled with the demands of ministry without a partner who could be a sounding board and to whom I could unburden myself after a long day. I blamed singlehood for the hardship of these challenges, and I blamed myself for failing to find and secure a partner.

But Mabel gave me the gift of a new perspective. In Mabel’s statement about the pride she felt to be able to do life on her own, I heard an alternative voice for myself. Yes, some things are more difficult because I am a single, female pastor. But those difficulties are not a sign of my failure; instead, they are a sign of my strength. Furthermore, I began to understand that I had taken for granted the blessing that is my ability to stay single. I am fortunate that I can live a comfortable life without the pressure of having to find a husband for financial reasons; I can make ends meet on my own and there is a great deal of freedom in that knowledge.

Today, I would still bristle if someone called me (or anyone else) an old maid. But Mabel helped me to understand that the status implied by that label is not a sad or regrettable status. Instead, living as a single woman is proof that I possess the maturity and confidence to support myself and run my own life. The additional challenges I face as a single woman may cause me some hardship, but I am a more resilient person because I have prevailed against them. “Old Maid” is not a term I prefer, but if it’s referring to my status as an autonomous woman and someone capable of meeting the challenges of singlehood with success, then I am indeed proud of what it signifies. I am proud to be one of a group of independent, intelligent clergy women who meet the demands of life and ministry solo and who continue to redefine singlehood and challenge cultural stereotypes every day.

I have long since lost or thrown away that set of “Old Maid” playing cards. But I suspect that if I still had them today, the old maid would look different to me now than she did back then. No longer would I see her as a tired, sour-faced woman. Now I think I would understand her to be a wise and determined sister. And I’d be proud of her, for standing firm against the cultural pressure to marry someone (anyone) and for showing the world the beauty of an independent spirit. Bless her, and bless all of you, my fellow single revs, for your remarkable lives and inspiring examples.

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My Birthday Wish

640px-Blue_candles_on_birthday_cakeIt’s my birthday. I will celebrate with friends today, and tomorrow as well. But to be honest, I’ve had mixed feelings about birthdays the last few years. I know it has something to do with not being where I am “supposed to be” at this point in my life, as I was reminded by a list a friend posted to Facebook the other day about differences between your 20s and 30s. At least half the things on the list assumed that everyone in their 30s has a spouse and children. And I always thought I would. But now I’m nearing the end of my 30s, and the likelihood that I will be a wife and mother before I’m forty, if ever, seems smaller all the time.

As a child, I never imagined myself any older than twenty-three. The only reason I even thought that far ahead was because that’s how old I would be in the year 2000. That was the future, some faintly magical point in time that felt so far away I may never really get there. By the year 2000, my grade-school self was sure that I would have gotten tall and thin, graduated from Harvard, and married Michael J. Fox. But I decided I wanted to focus on my career as an actress/scientist/rock star for a while before any babies came along. I had spent enough time around babies to know that they take a lot of work. I thought I would hold off on having kids until I was twenty-five, which seemed revolutionary to someone growing up in a small town where women married and started families usually long before that.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the wedding of one of my “surrogate children,” a girl I started babysitting when she was a preschooler and I was a recent high school graduate. Back then, when I took her and her brother to their little league games, school events, or on outings to the local Walmart, adults would tell me how good I was with them, what great practice this was for raising my own children someday. I believed them, and made mental notes of everything I learned from this trial run of parenting. Nearly two decades later, I’ve probably forgotten most of it. At the wedding of this child-who-is-now-unbelievably-a-grown-woman, some of the other guests were people I had not seen since those babysitting years, since I was in my 20s or even younger. They caught me up on their lives – marriages, births of children and even grandchildren – and asked what was new with me. I told them things are pretty much the same.

That felt true in the moment, but it isn’t, of course. I don’t have any marriage or baby news to report, but a hell of a lot has changed in my life since I was twenty-five, now that I think about it.  I spent four years in seminary and earned a Master’s degree. I traveled to the Middle East, where I swam in the Red Sea, floated in the Dead Sea, went inside one of the Great Pyramids of Giza, rode a camel, and walked in the footsteps of some of the heroes and heroines of my faith, even prayed where Jesus prayed. I completed five grueling units of Clinical Pastoral Education, training as a hospital chaplain. I won a coveted position as a staff chaplain at a large and busy level 1 trauma center in one of the most beautiful cities in America. And for over five years I worked the overnight shift, when some of the worst and most tragic events in a hospital take place. I preached my first sermon, my first funeral, and my first wedding, all of which I’ve done a few more times since then and hope to keep doing, because I discovered that I love doing them and I’m pretty good at them. I made wonderful friends, adopted my first dog, bought my first car and my first house, wrote my first book, rode my first zip line and did my first free fall, went on some fun dates and some awful ones, made stupid mistakes and wise decisions, and learned, and learned, and learned.

Part of what I learned and am still learning is to let go. I have to finally let go of some of the dreams I had as a little girl. I’m never going to graduate from Harvard or marry Michael J. Fox. Those are pretty easy to let go (although MJF and I would have made an adorable couple – I’m the perfect height for him). I’m also never going to be a mother at twenty-five, or thirty, or thirty-five. I can’t be a bride at any of those ages either. These dreams are much harder to let go. As I enter a new year of life, I’m trying to give myself space to grieve those things, even as I celebrate the new possibilities that each year brings. I’m doing my best not to so narrowly define those possibilities as well. I think thirty-seven is going to be the first birthday I haven’t told myself, “This is the year I finally get skinny!” or “This is the year I finally find love!” Not to be bitter about it, but the body type I have always wanted is not within the realm of possibility for me; it’s best I make my peace with the body I have, use it to its fullest potential, and stop hiding anytime someone pulls out a camera because I’m afraid I’ll look fat in the pictures. And love? I had my heart broken badly enough at thirty-six that I’m not in any rush to go out and find love again anytime soon. I’ll let it find me. Or not.

All of this might sound pessimistic, but I’m actually hopeful. It’s not easy to be hopeful when you’re walking through depression, but I am. Not hopeful that I’ll get all the things I want or that this will be the year things finally go my way; that would just be naive. What I’m really hoping for is that this year I can shed some of what has been weighing me down for years. Losing physical pounds would be nice (and I’m still going to try), though mainly what I need to take off is the burden of comparing myself to other people. That is a crushing weight. I don’t know what thirty-seven will look like for me, but I’m damn sure it won’t look like thirty-seven for my mother or the woman who sits next to me at church or my high school best friend or the hundreds of people posting perfect family photos to my Facebook newsfeed. When I blow out the candles, I won’t be wishing for a life like theirs anymore. I’ll be wishing simply to live the life of Stacy Sergent a little better, a little lighter and braver and wiser and happier than I was at thirty-six. That would be enough.

599px-James_Jasper,_motor_brakeman,_and_his_family_eat_dinner_in_their_kitchen_in_home_in_company_housing_project._Koppers..._-_NARA_-_540913

Home Envy

599px-James_Jasper,_motor_brakeman,_and_his_family_eat_dinner_in_their_kitchen_in_home_in_company_housing_project._Koppers..._-_NARA_-_540913        It’s time to write my sermon, so of course I’m procrastinating online, scrolling past the posts and pictures of other people’s lives.  A wide spectrum of life is here: weddings, family vacations, and cute little babies.  I like this connection to my friends, and I smile at the photos.  I scroll on, but then I see it:  a picture of a newly purchased house.  The green-eyed monster rears its ugly head now.  A house.  Weddings and babies barely register, but when someone posts pictures of a house, I come undone.

Even knowing the burden of a mortgage, of constant upkeep, doesn’t quell my initial surge of jealousy.  Even knowing that an internet profile is a carefully curated perfection of a much more complex life doesn’t help.  Pictures of playrooms, updated decks, and recently rearranged furniture end with me breaking the tenth commandment. This irrational jealousy would be explainable if my living situation were sub-par, if I were crammed into a miniscule apartment or trying to survive in some dilapidated dwelling, but my intense envy doesn’t make sense because I do have a house.

Well, it’s not really mine.  I live in a manse.

I’m a proponent of the manse system, noting how it benefits smaller churches that otherwise couldn’t offer a housing allowance, how it benefits young clergy saddled with debt and poor credit who otherwise couldn’t buy a house, how it helps churches in less-attractive areas call pastors because there’s no need to buy a house there.  I remain a proponent, when practical, of manses.

I am grateful for the manse I live in, since I serve a small church in a dying town where houses go up for sale almost every day and then stay that way for years.  I am young, and in debt, unwilling to buy property which I could never sell, and committed to serving the small church.  The manse benefits me.

But this manse, in particular, is a relic of a different time, of a time when my church and this town were bustling with life, when employment was available, and, most important, when the minister was married with children.  None of this is the case now, especially that last item.  I am single, childless, and living in a manse created for family.  My house has ten rooms, some of which are basically barren.  It’s not that I’m much of a minimalist, it’s that this house is far bigger than the life I have.

To be clear, I am aware what a blessing it is to have space. I know what other people would give for this luxury.  I take full advantage of having work space and living space and sleeping space.  But to be honest, it’s also overwhelming.  There are so many empty places, so many half-finished spaces, and just one little me.  This house doesn’t fit me.  This house is made for a person with a different life, for a person with things I don’t have.

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like the house is half-filled and unfurnished, it feels like my life is half-filled and unfurnished.  Sometimes it feels like all this space is taunting me for the things I’ve failed to do, all the things I seem to lack.  You still haven’t filled these rooms! You don’t have anyone to share this space!  You don’t have any reason for a back yard and a huge kitchen!  Look at the big, empty areas of your life!  This mild paranoia makes me grateful that walls can’t actually talk.

But fear of what the walls would say also shows that the root of my house envy is something deeper than longing for wraparound porches and the Craftsman style.  What I want is what I see in those Facebook pictures—but what I see is a home.  Not the place, not the furnishings, but the people who will fill those places and live in those rooms.  My friends, posting their new digs, look like they feel at home, like they are home.  Offline, I can’t even remember what the houses look like, because the house isn’t really what matters; it’s that sense of home, of comfortable settledness, of shared life that I remember.  And no matter what I put in it, this house doesn’t feel like a home to me.  It feels too big, and too empty, and I feel lonely and unsettled in it.

In one of my bible study sessions, we looked at the passage where Jesus sends out the disciples. Folks in the group latched on to various parts of the text, but I was taken by these words: “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house.”

For me, the consolation of these extracted verses is that the disciples stayed in houses which were not their own while they did the work of the kingdom.  And I bet those houses didn’t always feel right.  I bet at times they longed for their own beds and familiar faces.  I bet that even when the peace of God fell on them, that not every house felt like home.

And though there’s little I share with those brave disciples, all the same, I am in a house that isn’t mine, and doesn’t feel like home.  I remind myself that not only did the disciples live this way, but the Lord who sent them did, too.  There’s an unsettledness to the Gospel story that comforts me as I wrestle with longing for the feeling of home.  If I feel unsettled, at least I am in good company.

In a more inspirational piece, this is where I would explain how I’ve overcome my feelings of jealousy and longing with that knowledge.  But I haven’t yet. I know I can make a good life, just as I am, where I am, but I am still in the middle, hoping for a reason for all this space.

I also know, even when I sense empty places in my life, that I carry gifts that a house, even a big, empty house, can never contain.  I’m overwhelmed with space, but also overwhelmed with grace and love.  I bear truths that walls can’t hold and am sheltered not just by a roof, but by Almighty wings.  And more important, I know my Lord didn’t call me to live a tailor-made life; he’s called me to proclaim the peace of God and the nearness of the kingdom. And, perhaps, he has called me to live “settled” in a way that looks different from many others.  As I work through envy and covetousness, I pray that peace will not only fall on the homes and people I encounter, but that peace would also fall on my own heart and my own house, and make it a home.