Valentine’s Day can be hard for single folks. This year, since it happens to fall on the first Sunday of Lent, it may be a particular challenge for single clergywomen. I asked some single members of The Young Clergy Women Project how they deal with the mushy romance of Valentine’s Day as single women. None of these strategies can prevent the ever-so-awkward comments or questions that a Single Rev. sometimes gets from well-meaning church folks, but here are a few clergywomen’s tips for getting through February 14th. Read more
I’ve never been much good at the whole New Year’s Resolution thing. It seems that for most of my adult life, every January I’ve made a half-hearted pledge to lose a bajillion pounds and clean up my house so it looks like the cover of a Better Homes and Gardens magazine. And every December, I have the same pudgy thighs and a home that could be featured in Clutter and Dog Hair Quarterly.
A year ago, as 2015 began, I decided to try something a little different. I decided to make myself a budget.
I’d never had a lot of interest in budgeting. I didn’t have a particular problem with money—no credit card debt or out-of-control spending. I tend toward miserly frugality more than reckless spending—certain threadbare clothes in my closet can testify to that—so I assumed I didn’t really need a budget. Budgets are for people who overdraw their checking accounts. That wasn’t me. Or budgets are for married couples figuring out how to integrate their finances. That wasn’t me either. As a single person, all my money is mine. A budget would just restrict my freedom to do what I want with it. Or so I thought. Read more
Like most folks in ministry, I don’t get a lot of holidays off. I’m a hospital chaplain, and the hospital never closes. Someone has to be there to minister to those in crisis even when the crisis happens on Christmas Day. And since my family of origin is several states away, I can’t just pop in for a few hours on Christmas Eve then come back for work. As a single clergywoman, I have had to learn how to do Christmas on my own.
When I first realized that big, “traditional” family holiday celebrations were no longer an option for me, I grieved that loss. But instead of dreading Christmas as a sad, lonely time, I chose to develop my own traditions to prepare for the celebration of Christ’s birth. Some of them were carryovers from my childhood. My parents are now retired, and they no longer buy a real tree every year like they did when my brother and I were little. The smell of a Fraser fir is one of the signals for me that Christmas is approaching, so I decided to invest in one every year as part of my holiday celebration. I couldn’t get a tree from the lot to my living room without help, so several of my friends have comical memories of helping me wrestle the tree onto my car and into my home to decorate. I love that we share those stories.
I thought it was a shame that I would be the only one to see my tree in all its final tinseled and lighted glory, so I began the tradition of my annual Christmas party. Read more
It’s no secret that dating is hard. As women, we’re still trying to achieve equal pay in the workforce, so dating can often take a back burner to work. For clergywomen, dating seems to be especially difficult.
A few years ago, I began to notice the same dating advice coming up again and again in conversations with friends: “Have you tried online dating?” At first, I was a bit put off by this. Perhaps I read too much into the suggestion. My thought was this: clearly my friends think I cannot possibly meet anyone wearing my Geneva Robes and clerical collar, so an online profile where a man can read all about me and then find out I’m clergy might be the best route. While wearing my collar, I was once told by a congregation member, “You’ll never catch a man in that.” I assumed my friends were thinking the same thing.
With the question of “why online dating?” looming over me, I finally polled the audience, my group of Facebook friends, to see what I could find out. I asked anyone I knew to simply answer a question – why would you suggest online dating to a single person?
One distinct, clear, and concise answer appeared over and over – people meet people online. It’s a thing. It happens. It’s real. The statistics are out there, today over 25% of relationships begin online. Everyone, and I mean everyone, knows someone or is someone who met their special someone online. My assumptions about my friends’ advice were squashed, their suggestion had nothing to do with me being clergy, it was a real, honest, heartfelt suggestion. Try online dating.
For years I’ve thought that being clergy meant I needed to have more faith than the average person. In the dating realm, I needed to have faith that God would bring me the right man. I wasn’t supposed to have doubts or fears about my future as a wife and mother, I must have faith. More than one person has actually said to me that my career is all about faith, so I should have faith, it should be easy. But faith is actually hard, for clergy and laity alike.
Jesus tells us to ask and the question will be answered. He never said the question would be answered right now or that we were even asking the right question, he simply said that God will answer. Because of this I recently posed this question to a group of singles from The Young Clergy Women Project, “Would you like me to pray for you to find a partner and would you pray for me?” The response was wonderful. Dozens of women asked to be prayed for and offered to pray for me.
So after I polled my friends on “Why try online dating?” I prayed about it. It may sound like a silly thing to ask God, or it might seem silly that I didn’t ask God in the first place, but I finally asked. Unfortunately, God isn’t a genie who answers at my beck and call, so I haven’t gotten a clear answer. I’ll let you know if I figure it out. But until then, I’m willing to give it a shot.
I was 25 when I graduated from seminary and was ordained. My first position was as a chaplain at a small college, where I was routinely mistaken for a student. To me, the four years between my own undergraduate studies and my chaplaincy work represented an enormous gap in both age and experience. But to the students, staff, and faculty around me, the difference was invisible. It rankled when students hit on me, and even more when faculty dismissed me. Realistically, I realize now, the age difference between the students and me was practically non-existent; one of the students in the introductory theology course I taught was older than I was.
During the first several years of my full-time ministry, it seemed like someone was always telling me I was young. Read more
“So, when did you decide you wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail?” she asked.
I stumbled over my answer. The truth is I’m not sure when I decided I was going to hike part of the AT. Perhaps I decided to go for it because I finally had the time.
I had just finished my residency and first call. I had one month to move across the country and get ready for my next call. But in the meantime… I wanted to do something for me. I didn’t need a beach vacation, or a cabin retreat. I needed to leave my world for a little bit and get out of my head. From what I had read, the trail was the place to do this. It’s a totally different world, a secluded transient community of people who hike miles upon miles each day.
Many people in my life were anxious for me. They wanted to talk to me about all of the concerns they had about my hiking alone. Yet my conversation partners were never able to talk me out of this venture by coming up with things for me to fear. Most of their suggestions (being alone, getting sick or hurt, the threat of wild animals) were easily met by factual information about the AT. So finally they would ask, “Well, what are you scared of?”
The truth is, I was scared that I couldn’t physically do the hike. I’m not in terrible shape, but I’m not super fit either. I like hiking, but I hate running and have very little endurance. I’m strong, so I wasn’t so worried about the weight of my pack, but I was very concerned that my knees would give me trouble or my asthma would act up. I was right to be scared about this. My little 40 mile hike was the hardest physical act I’ve done in 15 years.
The first day I only hiked five miles but I gained a lot of elevation; it was tough hiking, and it took me six hours. I wanted to die. I turned around to go back and quit at least 28 times. I berated myself for being an idiot and thinking I could do such a thing as hike part of the AT. But I told myself I would get to my campsite and if I wanted to, I could turn around and go home in the morning. It seemed like a fair compromise. When I arrived at the campsite a group of older men who had passed me earlier that day cheered when I finally hiked in. They helped me light my stove to cook my dinner, showed me how to hang my food pack from the cables overnight, double-checked my tent (which I naively had never set up before). They were kind, encouraging, and helpful without being condescending. A little later that night, a mother/daughter pair arrived to camp with us and I was encouraged by the female companionship around the campfire.
When I woke up in the morning, I felt refreshed and encouraged by my camping company the night before. I decided to keep hiking. I also decided to take my hike slower than I had originally planned. Instead of doing 72 miles in eight days, I chose to do only 40 miles in six days. I had a friend who was willing to pick me up at any time and I knew I’d be able to get her a text at some point to ask her to pick me up at Clingmans Dome on day six.
Over the course of the next few days, I slowly gained some strength, met some incredible people, meditated on scripture, prayed, and observed my fellow hikers. This was a healing experience for me. Though at different times in my life I’ve longed for a partner with whom to do outdoorsy things, I felt completely safe and content to be hiking solo. Going solo actually gave me the freedom to go as slow as I wanted and stop when and where I wanted. It was a relief not to feel embarrassed about my turtle-like pace.
It was also healing to be around women who could not care less what they looked like. No one had mirrors. Everyone was smelly and hairy. Everyone wore clothing based on function and feel, not visual appeal. Best of all, these women wanted to eat as many calories as possible. After about a week on the trail, your metabolism spikes and you experience “hiker hunger.” These women were hungry all the time, snacking on full-size Snickers bars like it was no big deal, and eating cheesy salmon instant potatoes wrapped in a tortilla for dinner. Sounds gross. Smells gross. Lots of calories. They ate for the energy and didn’t worry about weight loss or even nutrition. While I overheard their conversations about gear and food, I reflected on the fact that hiking solo also freed me from caring whether or not I was attractive. Though I was single, I did not want to flirt with anyone on this trail. I didn’t feel obligated to speak to anyone. I didn’t care if anyone judged me for my pack weight or pathetic number of miles per day. I was doing what I wanted on my own time. It was a revelation.
This freedom also led me to feel a great deal of pride in what I did accomplish. Originally I was afraid I couldn’t do it, but I did. I didn’t give up. I hiked five to six hard miles each day. The voices of negativity and doubt did not win over my mind, and I discovered I was stronger than I thought. I experienced what it felt like to push my body and instead of fearing my limits, I learned I could do more than I had ever dreamed. For someone who has struggled with loving her body, this was the greatest gift I could receive from this trip.
While I had fielded a number of questions about fear while preparing for the trip, I received a whole different set from fellow hikers on the trail. Conversations always began with, “Are you going through or section hiking?” Almost everyone I met was attempting to do the whole 2,200 miles, so when I said I was only doing a section, they would ask me how long I was going and what section I was hoping to complete. Then they’d ask me why I wasn’t doing the whole thing. The first time I was asked that question, it caught me off guard. Down in the real world off the trail, we think of thru-hikers as crazy people! But on the trail, thru-hikers think of us real-world folks as the crazy ones. My response, after a moment of thought, was this: “I love my job. I can’t do the whole thing because I want to get back to my job.” For many on the trail, loving your job is a foreign concept. Many thru-hikers work jobs they dislike to save enough money to do the whole thing, and then quit and go hiking for nine months.
I undertook this hike to get away, and I’m glad I did. I was in-between, transitional, and stressed out of my mind. I understand the allure of the trail community and do not fault the folks who seek respite from the world by engaging the peculiar and endearing trail culture. I loved my first little adventure into life on the trail. It was refreshing and challenging and beautiful and painful.
The final gift I received from this hike was a desire to return to my work and a joy in doing so. While I enjoyed the trail and learned much from it, the peculiar and endearing culture that I love most is the church. I am called to serve God’s people through my ministry inside and outside the church, and after six days on the trail I was eager to get back to it. On days when I do not love or even like my job, I will remember the trail and perhaps I will yearn for it. But the trail will always be there, I only need to carve out the time to go. And with the space to remember the depth of God’s call on my life and my heart, I pray I will always return with joy and gratitude for the gift of this odd and wondrous calling.
It seemed to me that my grief needed somewhere to go. My grief needed a container, a sacred space, a ritual embrace. This is what funerals do for the loved ones of the deceased, but no one throws you a wake when your marriage dies. So this was one of those instances where I decided to be a minister to myself and give my marriage a proper burial. I asked Aurelia to bear witness, that is, to preside as priest.
I started the day alone in the woods, writing a letter to my younger self, which said,
Looking at your favorite wedding gown photo, you almost seem like a different person, like I am looking at someone else. I guess if I could tell you anything, I would say, “Baby, it is going to be okay. You are going to get hurt again, keep getting hurt, but you cannot be faulted for loving. You are passionate and you are all in, and honey, that wasn’t wrong. I don’t think you made a mistake by getting married. You made a choice, just like you’re making a different choice now. You took a risk, and now you are facing the heartache that came from risking, but to take the risk wasn’t wrong or stupid. It was full of heart and yes, some youthful naïveté, some loving blindness, and even some desperate willing ignorance at times, but baby, you were doing your damn best at love and forgiveness and mended trust, and that is nothing you ever need to be ashamed of.
You were willing to love every inch of a broken man, and that was an okay thing to do, even if it didn’t work. Even though your love didn’t win him over or heal him or fix him in the end. Now it is time to give up your hope that he will change, hand it to God or to whoever, but it isn’t your burden anymore, to try and make him okay. You are released.
Your Slightly Wiser Self
Next I wrote the goodbye letter to the marriage. This letter was tougher to write: “I’ve never had anything this close to me die…when I die, I’d prefer one of those biodegradable caskets so that eventually my body returns to the dust, where it can one day provide nourishment to the trees.” And so as I thought about my deceased marriage, I said to it, “I want to plant you into the soil of my becoming. I want to bury you with the fallen leaves and the rotting wood and the smelly manure, and I want to trust that you have nutrients to provide me, even in your painful stench. I want to integrate my past into my future. I want to make you sacred ground with my reverence and my intentional watering. I want to learn all your lessons.”
After the letter writing, Aurelia joined me. We sat by the river and I read her some of my darkest poems and journal entries. That way someone could bear witness to the pain. She said some words appropriate to the pain, but also hopeful, like a good minister would. I had gathered a pile of sticks beside me, and then I hurled them, one-by-one, into the water and named what I needed to let go of. Again, she listened.
We needed some comic relief, so Aurelia spontaneously turned our snack into a liturgy too (like a good minister might), such that as we peeled off the skin of the mandarin, we were praying too. It was lighthearted but genuine.
Next we moved to hope. This was symbolized by our hiking up to the top of a hill. Once we reached the top, Aurelia pulled out a candle and lit it as a tiny, nonverbal way to say, “God is here.”
I wrote new vows to myself.
We prayed some faltering prayers. Aurelia read out loud to me letter after letter from my friends and family, all of them saying exactly why they felt hope for me. I think in the New Testament, they call this the laying on of hands, though it was just me and Aurelia up there on the mountain top.
After that we began the descent. We headed back down to regular life with all its challenges where we discovered my car battery had died in the parking lot. A helpful transgender stranger gave my car a jump, and then Aurelia and I headed for a gluttonous lunch to wrap it all up, which I believe the Bible calls feasting.
And now here I am, more than a year past divorce, past the day of ritual goodbye, and while it didn’t fix my sadness to hold a funeral, it widened my capacity to heal. It provided a place for my grief to go. It helped me move in the direction of hope, which is what a ceremony is meant to do.
To my minister friends, I would say this, no matter how tough it gets, never stop being a minister to yourself, and don’t forget to tell your friends when you need a priest.
Is there space for those who,
long past the point that it’s socially acceptable
to drown one’s sorrows in ice cream,
still find cheeks wet with tears?
Amidst all the brokenness of this world–
boundary lines breached as nation rises up against nation,
tears in the fabric of society as the rich distance themselves from the poor,
fractures in the inner being, splits in the psyche,
relationships ruptured by a hastily spoken word,
cracks in the climate of a planet gone hot–
amidst all this,
can you be attentive also to a broken heart?
Bring out the best binding cloths, God.
The ones that can bear the strain of a spirit torn in two directions.
Stitch together the divided halves of my heart.
See all that is raw,
Behold the places where life-blood pulses behind the woundedness,
For all your humanity, the scriptures give us no indication
that you ever wept when waking up to emptiness on the other side of the bed,
or had to summon words to tell mutual friends that two had become one,
but not in the way you’d hoped.
But surely you know something about broken-heartedness, don’t you, God?
You who were one-time sorry you made humankind;
You who cried over Jerusalem
and wept real tears when they told you Lazarus was dead;
You who know the betrayal of friend,
the anger of crowds,
the abandonment of the cross;
you know how the heart can break
Three days of darkness, and you broke through those graveclothes meant to bind.
Let it be the same with me, O God.
Bind me up, dwell with me in darkness,
and then let there be life.
As someone who does ministry amid the Harry Potter generation, I had originally started reading about fan culture a few years ago as a way to feel productive while distracting myself from the pain of my divorce. Somewhere along the way, I became convinced that people who create community around loving a particular narrative property were engaging in an inherently spiritual enterprise. I know the characters and story arcs of far too many of these properties, even without fully viewing or reading a good many of them. I speak the language, know all the abbreviations, and even the best fics. I can identify D.C and Marvel heroes, several varieties of anime, as well as the Hogwart’s House to which the last four actors to star in Dr. Who belong. Don’t even try to play mis-name Benedict Cumberbatch with me because I can go all day.
Clearly, this particular fascination is what makes me worthy to be sitting here. Eating BBQ. Nodding politely as my date slides into minute 17 of a lecture on the superiority of World of Warcraft. It’s my fault, really. He mentioned that he’d been a professional gamer for awhile and I absolutely needed to know how that worked. How was I to know that this involved intricately detailing every version of the game for the past 10 years?
Apparently, I know just enough about superhero movies, comic books, and video games to be dangerous…if by dangerous you mean sitting in a BBQ joint across from a man who is so excited that I can speak his language, he “doesn’t even care that you’re a pastor.”
And that’s the rub, isn’t it? Being single is hard enough sometimes. Dating – online or in person – can be frustrating. But dating as a pastor makes us a tad special snowflake-y. We expend a great deal of energy worrying about finding someone who will not only get us, but also understand the Call. Someone who, if they can’t speak the language, is at least willing to learn enough to get by.
“S/he doesn’t care that I’m a pastor! Cue the trumpets!”
Except that we’re actually not looking for someone for whom our profession doesn’t matter, but rather for someone for whom it matters positively. Someone who likes that we’re a minister. Someone who sees the value in loving a person with a deep sense of purpose, even when that purpose appears insane to the outside world.
In my mid-twenties I thought I’d achieved that, marrying my ex-husband because he seemed to speak flawless Heather-ese. He knew all the right words for all of my worlds and I believed a shared vocabulary was enough. But like any language student can tell you, speaking the words only gets you so far. To really become fluent, you need to immerse yourself in the culture by learning the history and celebrating the holidays. You need to read the famous novels and sing the folk songs. Above all, you need to be willing to be vulnerable, to love the people enough that the hard work becomes both compelling and rewarding. If you can’t, or won’t, all the pocket dictionaries in the world won’t help. You’ll soon find yourself back home, a touch sad to have left perhaps, but ultimately relieved to be making space for something else.
In the end, I politely declined to see WoW boy again. He is, as far as I know, a good person with honorable intentions. He just wasn’t interested in learning my language on any substantive level; though he did make vague attempts to speak religion-ese, comparing video game dragons to real world evil.
I could have gone out with him a few more times, attempted to become more fluent and therefore more involved, but I’ve done that once and know it doesn’t end well. Besides, I’m getting pretty good at this being single thing; emphasizing the positive aspects while acknowledging the drawbacks. Jesus isn’t my boyfriend, but his call affirms me in my search for someone who wants to be a part of my world enough to turn off Google translate.
The call came on an otherwise normal Thursday morning. I was on my way to church for our weekly worship and staff meetings, running late because I had hit the snooze button one too many times. I’d skipped a shower, and was looking forward to my day off on Friday so I could tackle the pile of laundry and housework that I’d been neglecting. And then, the phone call: “There’s a baby girl at the hospital. Would you like to meet her?”
In the space of a short phone call, my life was changed. The next few hours were a whirlwind. Arriving at church and explaining that I would be leaving for the hospital shortly; waiting in the lobby for my social worker to arrive so we could go into the NICU together; finding out that the nurses wanted this baby to go home right away, despite the fact that she still only weighed 3lbs, 11oz; running to Target to buy preemie diapers and wipes and a new car seat while the hospital finished the paperwork. As I rocked the baby in the NICU, I kept telling the nurses, “but I didn’t shower today! But my house is a mess!” And the nurses just said, “She doesn’t care,” as I nuzzled her tiny face and stroked her miniature hands. The initial call had come just before 9 am, and by 3:30 in the afternoon, I was driving home from the hospital with an impossibly tiny baby in the backseat, terrified, exhilarated, unbelieving, and incredibly grateful. Thus began my life as a mother. A single mother. A single mother by choice.
It took about a year to go through the process to be licensed to adopt through the foster care system. I took many hours of classes, had several home studies for safety and preparedness, and multiple interviews full of invasive questions. Lots of paperwork, fingerprints, and even a blood test all led up to the final interview where I told my social worker what kind of child I wanted, and she finalized my license. The process might sound intimidating, but it was really just jumping through hoops, one after another, with lots of help and support from my social workers along the way. It didn’t cost me anything, besides the cost of baby-proofing hardware and the time for classes. The fact that I was a lesbian was a non-issue, and the fact that I was single was also fine. I rented my apartment (no problem), and didn’t make a lot of money (hello, I’m a minister!), but I had a daycare lined up, and lots of experience with children (former nanny). Most importantly, I knew I was called to be a mother. I knew that I wasn’t willing to wait any longer for the “right” partner to come along to start my journey towards motherhood, and I knew that it might take quite a while to have a child placed with me, given my preference for a newborn girl with a good chance of being adoptable. So, I entered into the process with my county, and once I was licensed, I sat back and waited.
I was licensed in May, and I brought my daughter home in November. Everyone agreed that I won the baby lottery. There were court dates and waiting periods, but they were formalities. It was clear from early on that she would be staying with me and I would be able to adopt her. To be frank, this is rare with an infant in foster care. There are often visitation rights for birth parents, and lots of chances for them to change their situations in order to get their children back. I have friends who have cared for infants and hoped to adopt them, only to have them reunited with their birth parents. When you sign up to bring a child into your life in this way, you must prepare yourself for these possibilities. It’s a risk, yes, but adopting privately or internationally or being pregnant all include very similar risks of loss and heartbreak. What is important to remember is that any amount of time you spend nurturing a child and bonding with them is beneficial, even if they don’t end up staying with you forever.
As I said, I won the baby lottery. I took my daughter home when she was ten days old, and we haven’t spent a night apart in almost two and a half years. Our adoption was finalized when she was ten months old, and soon after, we were able to meet her eldest sister and that sister’s adoptive parents. We are family, and speak often, getting together whenever we can so that the sisters have a chance to know and love each other.
One of the benefits for doing fost-adopt for a single parent is that there is financial help to offset the costs of raising your child. Free health insurance, WIC, childcare reimbursement, and a monthly stipend to help with expenses were all essential parts of making it work for us. The myth of shady foster parents who “do it for the money” is laughable when you calculate the cost of raising a child versus what the county gives you, but it certainly helps, especially for a single Rev.
It would be an understatement to say that my daughter had a rough start in life: a toxic experience in the womb, a traumatic birth, and her first ten days spent in the hospital connected to tubes and wires with no one to love her but the (amazing, but very busy) nurses. She was so small that many people couldn’t believe they had allowed me to take her home, and she required many hours of occupational therapy and exercises, as well as intense bonding to heal her brain. She didn’t roll over until she was eight months old. But by the time she was eighteen months old, she was tested as advanced in every area of development. Many people were nervous for me, worried that I would have to give her back, or that she would be “damaged” in some way. But I had faith that she was my daughter, and she would be fine, and she is both.
Being a single mother by choice is not what I’d call easy, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I don’t have a partner to help watch the baby while I’m at meetings or in the shower, and that’s hard. However, I also don’t have to make compromises about my parenting style or choices with another parent. There have been many times that I’ve witnessed disagreements between friends about their children that I’ve quietly thanked God I am single. I’m the Mama. Period. And it may not be easy, but it is wonderful.
Discerning whether or not you are called to be a mother is difficult for some people. For me, it was a call I was sure of long before I felt a call to ministry, and when I was ready to begin the process, I was single. We’ve all been sold the fairytale of marriage, house, career, and baby, but it doesn’t always come in that order, and it doesn’t have to. There are children who need homes, and a structure in place to help you parent them, if that is your calling. As for me, I’ve found the Love of My Life, and her name is Beatrix.