Coming out of the Clergy Closet

Post Author: Kathy Wolf Reed

small girl covering her eyes

Hiding in plain sight

Last year our oldest child started at a new child development center. Unlike the commercial daycare setting we’d ended up at during the first year of our new call, the school is small and intimate, priding itself on a very deep sense of community. It’s the kind of preschool where we receive regular invitations from teachers to be involved in the life of the classroom and regular invitations from fellow parents to birthday parties galore.

Like most young clergy couples entering a new church, town, and phase of life, I was hungry for relationships outside of our congregation and thrilled with the prospect of meeting other parents. There is a known camaraderie among parents of similarly aged children, right? Knowing that nearly all the attendees of our preschool hold a connection to the large university that is the foundation of our lovely little college town, surely it wouldn’t be too hard to find some common ground?

But there it was. The question we clergy find ourselves staring in the face as we try to go about our daily lives. The question that traps us when we are young and single and are set up on a first date. The question we find ways to dodge when it comes from the person sitting next to us on the three-hour flight to a church conference. The question that confronts my husband and I when we are approached by a stranger at a cocktail party:

“What do you do?”

I hadn’t cringed at that question in awhile, but at our first preschool social (a dinosaur-themed birthday party) when it inevitably came up it was like I was twenty-two and out at a bar in Midtown Atlanta all over again, quickly muttering “I’m a pastor at the Presbyterian church” and moving the conversation right along. Driving home that day I engaged in a little self-confrontation…

“What was that all about?” I asked myself. It’s not as though I’m a seminarian or even a newly ordained minister. I’ve been at this awhile now and am comfortable in my pastoral identity. Call me to an emergency at the hospital? I’m there. Calm, cool, collected. Need to preach a sermon following a tragic event in the world? By the grace of God, I will. Yet for some reason this prayerfully forged identity becomes something I want to hide when I’m standing on the sidelines of the soccer field or the waiting room of the dance studio.

Eventually, I was able to identify at least a few reasons for this inclination to minimize my professional identity in social settings. The first is that there are very few places in my life where “pastor” is not my primary role. In the life of my own congregation the lines are beautifully blurred. The church I co-pastor with my husband has embraced our dual identities as pastors and parents as well as any clergy couple could ever hope or imagine. They understand when we have to reschedule meetings due to ear infections or trips to the pumpkin patch. They graciously smile when our children throw tantrums and green beans during the midweek fellowship supper. Yet our primary identity within our congregation is and will always be pastor, just as it should be. I love being their pastor, and simultaneously I long for a few small protected places in my life where I don’t have to be consciously in that role as I go about my business.

The second is that I don’t want “pastors’ kids”(PKS) to be my children’s primary identity. Or secondary. Or even tertiary (Yes, I had to look that up.). I often think our three little ones must be the most fortunate pastors’ kids in the world. My husband and I have now served two churches that take delight in them almost as much as we do. Yet, just like my own personal struggle, they are and always will be “the pastors’ kids”. Though they are blissfully unaware of this unique role at this point in their lives, I know the day is coming when they will put two-and-two together and realize that no one else’s parents are standing in the pulpit delivering the sermon each Sunday.

And so I want preschool, and later school, to be a place where they are just like every other kid. Where adults don’t feel the need to speak or act differently around them and where they aren’t expected to have an above-average knowledge of the Bible or be held to a higher standard of behavior. Perhaps these worries are all the result of my overly analytical imagination. However, generations of PKs who have gone before them might argue otherwise.

But back to preschool. I finally realized that, given that we live in as small of a town as we do, there is no escaping the reality of my identity. Wherever I am and wherever I go, I will always be both mom and pastor. So it was time to embrace this dual identity and stop glossing over it in conversation. And wouldn’t you know it, as soon as I came to this realization, something both wonderful and humbling happened.

Whether it was the princess-fashion-show-themed birthday party, the Thanksgiving feast, or simply walking through the school to figure out whether the class was on the playground or in the activities building, I can’t remember. But once again the question came up: “What do you do?” This time, it was from a mom I knew to be a professor at the university.

“My husband and I are the pastors at the Presbyterian church.” I said, this time without hesitation.

“We know lots of people in your church!” she said. “We go to the Episcopal church. Our priest is awesome. He came to our tailgate last week.

And just like that, it was over. No awkward silence. No “I didn’t-know-ministers-could-get-married.” or “Here are some reasons why my family hasn’t attended church in awhile.”

I’ve come out of the clergy-closet since then. In our preschool community it’s known that our kids have two preachers for parents. And guess what? I’m not sure anyone really cares. Teachers tell us when it hasn’t been a great day for the two year old. Or when we forgot to sign in the baby. Or when the four year old and her “best friend” had a dramatic falling out on the playground. Just like us, other parents understand that when we cross the threshold of the Child Development Center we all need a chance to shed our professional identities for a moment and tend to the little lives we, with the help of our extended childcare and extended families (including church families) are doing our best to nurture and grow.

Rev. Kathy Wolf Reed serves as Co-Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Auburn, AL. When not serving the church she is most often serving peanut butter and jelly (or puréed sweet potatoes) to her three beautiful children.

Image by: Caleb Woods
Used with permission
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