woman sitting alone in coffee shop

Narrative Envy

woman sitting alone in coffee shopNot long ago, I was making small talk with a new acquaintance before a board meeting began, and we were sharing about our recent respective vacations. I said, “I went to Chicago with my parents, and we had a lot of fun exploring the many museums, restaurants, and Frank Lloyd Wright houses.” She made some affirming listening noises, but then she paused. “So …you don’t have a family?”

I felt trapped by the limitations of her question. I had said that I had been traveling with my parents, but obviously they didn’t constitute a family in this woman’s mind. I could say that I’m a thoroughly invested aunt to my sister’s children, but that seemed to circumvent the intent of her question. So, resignedly, I gave her the answer she sought, “No, I do not have children; I’m not married.”

This happens to me more often than I’d like in my Midwestern context. I’ll meet a new female acquaintance and one of the first questions she’ll ask is, “Do you have children?” When I reply in the negative, I sense that she pulls back emotionally. Since we don’t have that common point of connection, I assume, she decides I am not someone with whom she can relate. One woman persevered and questioned, “Do you have a dog?” I do not. I am not a dog person. At that point, she gave up. I felt deemed to have a boring and pitiable existence.

It is difficult for me because this place of greatest scrutiny is also the place of my current greatest pain. I would love to be married and to have children. But that has not been my narrative up to this point.

The tenth commandment is, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” More often than not, I do not covet my neighbor’s house but rather my neighbor’s narrative. I covet the common narrative of adulthood, which is that you grow up, get married, and have kids. Read more

Candles lit for Advent

Lighting the Candles without Fitting the Mold

Candles lit for Advent

Candles lit for Advent

A few years ago, I inherited the task of assigning Advent candle lighters for our church. For as long as anyone could remember, nuclear family units had been assigned each week’s readings and scriptures. Parents would help children to light the matches and teenagers would read the apocalyptic texts with gusto.

But there had been a pastoral transition, and the Advent wreath liturgy suddenly fell to me. I remembered my own small hurt the year before when I realized with a certain start that I, a single woman in my thirties, wouldn’t qualify for this particular liturgical responsibility in our community. Then I started thinking about all the other people in our congregation who might be feeling that particular sting of being left out.

I thought about the handful of elderly widowers, so desperate for human touch that they doled out bone-crushing hugs to anyone who’d let them. I thought about the divorced man with partial custody of his young son, a schedule that made committing to anything at church together nearly impossible. I thought of the recently retired school teacher, never married, and the ways her depths of wit and wisdom filled a dozen important roles and relationships but who was never asked to light a candle in anticipation of Christ’s coming.

And then, after I thought about these particular people who might be sharing the twinges of alienation like I was, I started thinking about all the people in scripture that we’d be leaving out of our Advent liturgy if they happened to show up here in church some twenty-first-century Sunday morning.

The list of single people who get enlisted for world-shaking roles in scripture is long and fascinating: Read more

Single Sabbath

I’m sure it’s not what our church leadership intends, but I have developed a reflexive twitch of annoyance whenever I hear the words “Sabbath rest” or “self-care.” I’m not a martyr pastor who thinks the church can’t exist without me – my ego isn’t healthy enough for that. I just believe we need to reframe the conversation so that our conversations about Sabbath and self-care reflect the spiritual diversity of our clergy siblings.

Early in my ministry at my first church, my senior pastor suggested that my Sabbath day should be spent in silence and reflection because I spend the rest of my week being a talkative extrovert. I took the kind hint and stopped chatting with him as often, but it also made me think about how we talk about the practice of Sabbath. When I attend clergy gatherings, conferences, or annual conferences, they often talk about ways to deepen our spiritual practices. We hear stories of silent retreats, days spent hiking alone listening to God, setting aside time for prayer and meditation in silence and solitude. All beautiful, important parts of a well-rounded spiritual life, all assuming that I am drained by the time I spend around other people.

I think the unique solitude of singleness is sometimes lost in the larger conversations about the loneliness that clergy often face. Read more

three young girls with arms around each other

Everything Is Fine

three young girls with arms around each otherI was driving a golf cart through the woods at camp when I came upon three girls sitting on a bench with their counselor. I hadn’t heard them at first because of the noise of the golf cart, but as I parked it was clear: the girls were wailing. Loud, grievous, gasping, sobbing, wailing. Camp is a place entirely devoted to these children’s safety, fun, and happiness, so I couldn’t imagine what had provoked this noise. The wailing was so over-the-top I was more inclined to laugh than to be concerned. What on earth could be this bad?

I asked the counselor just that. She whispered back, “They’re homesick.”

I would have burst out laughing if it wasn’t so inappropriate. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face as I said, “You’re kidding.”

“I’m not,” she said, first smiling, then stifling her own laughter, “I wish I was.”

So I knelt down in front of the girls, still huddled together—still wailing, still gasping—almost as if they are one organism tied together in the unity of despair. I started with the very pastoral, “What’s up?”

I knew they were trying to form words, but the words were not even remotely intelligible.  So I try again, “Girls, I want to help you, but we can’t have a conversation until you can talk, so try breathing for me.” Surprisingly this works. “That’s good,“ I say, “long, deep breaths.  Now, do you think you can tell me what’s going on?” Read more

Sarah Ross, the author, and her grandmother, laughing as they take a selfie

Pastoral Care for the Pastor

Sarah Ross, the author, and her grandmother, laughing as they take a selfie

The author, teaching her grandma about selfies

A few weeks ago, one of my church members, Dee, approached me after worship. Dee is one of our adults with special needs, and she is kind-hearted but often quite blunt. “Pastor Sarah, someone said your grandpa died,” she said. “But that’s not right. It was your grandma, right?”

I sighed. “Well, actually it was both,” I told her. This summer, my paternal grandmother and my maternal grandfather passed away just two months apart.

“Whoa.” She paused, looking stricken. “That’s really bad.”

It was indeed.

All spring, my congregation had been stressing out about hosting the May presbytery meeting. They’d touched up the paint, picked out centerpieces, prepared an elaborate menu, and arranged worship for the regional pastors and elder commissioners who would be coming to our building for a meeting. It was one of those long-awaited, much-discussed, all-hands-on-deck kind of church events.

So I was a bit caught up in all the nervous preparation and had just gone home for lunch when my mother called to tell me that my grandmother had not woken up that morning. She had died sometime during the night, unexpectedly. Read more

Flying Solo

single rev august (1)

The author on one of her solo adventures

During my mid- to late-twenties, I went through a phase: Everywhere I went, I met Scottish people. I even found some in Mexico at an all-inclusive resort where my mom and I were vacationing. Every time I met Scots, I thought, “These are my people.” And they all assured me that I was right, and that I really should come over and see the place that produced all these fantastic folk. I absolutely believed them.

But whenever I tried to plan a trip, none of my friends had the money to travel internationally, or no one could get the time off work. I had done my fair share of solo domestic travel, including lots of long-haul driving across broad swaths of the U.S., but my international travel had always been a group thing.

At the end of my twenties, however, I had become restless. On my thirtieth birthday, I decided to do a bunch of things that would just make me really happy, so I got a new tattoo, played a gig with my band, and sat in with some musician friends at their later show. Then I came home, summoned up the horrible dial-up internet in my parsonage, and booked a flight to Glasgow. That trip ended up being a transition for me in more ways than one, as I soon accepted a new call and used my journey as the break between the old church and the new. Read more

silhouette of woman on beach on a cloudy day or evening

Not That Girl

silhouette of woman on beach on a cloudy day or eveningOne day, not too long ago, I saw this article titled “I’m 33 and Have Never Been Kissed” reposted on Huffington Post. The heading intrigued me and as I read on and on, an all-too-familiar feeling settled in my soul. See, I, too, am 33 and have never been kissed. And it’s only in the last couple of years that I have (hesitantly) shared that in very limited circles. One of those circles was the Single YCW group, a Facebook subgroup of The Young Clergy Women Project. It didn’t take too long to realize that one of the things that has made me feel so alone and isolated is not actually something I struggle with alone.

As a pastor, I often fall into the trap of holding up the ideal for a healthy, happy life as one that is partnered with 2.5 children. I often put aside my sadness and grief over a life of perpetual loneliness so that I can focus on ministry with family units who appear to have the life I want. It’s easier to do that than to try and figure out how to do this very real ministry with people like me who need to know that they are part of the community, too, as single people.

Perhaps it’s my own feelings of shame around the reality that I am not just a single 33 year old, but I have never been on a date, never kissed a romantic interest, never even had the chance to say “I’m waiting for marriage” (which, by the way, was never actually a vocalized value of my family-of-origin) and struggle with deciding about sex. Notice that I can’t even totally say the word that I really am. Yeah – I just took a big sigh to say it – I’m a virgin. In every sense. Read more

The Not-So-Single-Anymore Rev.

3039180812_bd138dc155_zI never set out to become an independent woman, but throughout my adult life, that’s what I have been. Looking back, I ended up where I am as much by chance as much as choice. I’ve lived in many places in the last several years: Tennessee where I finished up college, and Kentucky where I moved home for a year to figure out what on earth was next. I moved to Atlanta for seminary, then Kansas City for my first full-time job, and Phoenix for my second full-time job. Except for home, I didn’t know anyone before I moved there. I met people by joining MeetUp groups, fitness classes, and talking to strangers in bars.

I guess as a pastor, I should give credit to God instead of chance, but the many steps along the way added up mostly to necessity. Still, at 31, I’ve never had a cell phone that someone else paid for. The name on the apartment leases and the utility bills have been mine for going on ten years. The student loans taken out and repaid in full were in my name, too. I bought my car on my own; after the dealership ran my credit, they no longer cared that I couldn’t provide all those addresses I’d called “home” in the previous seven years.

In the midst of it all, I became a woman who was ever more independent. Read more

rumpled, unmade bed in shadow

Faith in the Flesh

rumpled, unmade bed in shadowThe first time I had sex outside of marriage, I was 35.

I’m honestly not sure how I managed to grow up thinking that I had to save myself for my future husband. My progressive, Episcopalian, east coast upbringing certainly didn’t push any such agenda. But in my teens and early twenties, I clung to the romantic fantasy of the Perfect Wedding Night, and insisted on marrying my college boyfriend when we were both 23 and had never seen each other (or any other unrelated adults of the opposite sex) naked.

There were many reasons for our divorce a decade later, but the fact that our sexual relationship was never more than mediocre was certainly one of them. As I was wrestling, personally and theologically, with the death of my marriage, I realized that my refusal to explore this aspect of our relationship before marriage had actually contributed to its failure. No matter what the nuances of one’s approach to the subject, I think most Christians can agree that divorce is a greater evil than premarital sex.

That was the beginning of a deeply unsettling, but ultimately freeing, revision of my personal sexual ethic. Read more

road at sunset

Life in All Its Awesomeness

road at sunsetLast week, at a continuing-education event with my peers, I was invited to draw or write my life map. The facilitator held up hers as an example, talking the group through it. She spoke of being born in a particular year, a bit about her childhood, her university days, and then went on to marriage and motherhood punctuated with high points of professional achievement.

Now writing or drawing a life map is far from uncharted territory for me. This was at least the fourth or fifth time I had done this exercise, so I might quip that I have an exceptionally well-mapped life.

The thing is, though, that my life map doesn’t fit the cookie cutter pattern of birth-childhood-school-university-job-relationship(s)-commitment/marriage-children (and still doing well at work, thank you very much). You see, at the age of 37, I still haven’t got around to the relationship-marriage-children bit of the curve, and I’m far from convinced that my future will be so conventional. Read more