Somewhere in the midst of my insane Advent busyness, their various work and relational situations, and all of our winter hibernation modes, several of my friends and I managed to find an evening to hit the town for Girls’ Night. Dressed to the nines and well into our third bottle of wine, we were exhibiting enough holiday cheer to attract a fair amount of attention from the male patrons. I was soon engaged in lively small talk with one man who seemed to have potential for fun conversation if nothing else. That is, until we hit The Question that is always asked by young professionals in social situations, The Question dreaded by married and single clergy alike, The Question that does not merit capitalization for the vast majority of the population:
“So, what do you do for a living?”
The truth is, I’m only tempted to lie in hindsight, when I wish I’d said something vague like, “I’m in social work/education/the entertainment industry.” If I said one of those things, he could give the obligatory nod and move on to another topic. Perhaps I should know better by now, but I simply tell the truth. I’m a minister. Poof! The entire conversation is immediately focused on my vocation. This is not how I wished to spend Girls’ Night. Nonetheless, this guy didn’t respond with the anxiety, standoffishness, or outright fear I’ve sometimes encountered. No, he went an entirely different direction: “Wow, that’s kinda hot.”
Flattering as it is meant to be, and amused as I always am to hear it (this was not a first), there is something a little wacky about this reaction. What is “hot” about being a minister? I think it’s hot to be in a job you love, and to be good at it, but that’s not something he knows about me at this early stage of conversation. Playing out someone’s fantasy of the naughty nice girl is not my cup of tea, and that fantasy is, I suspect, the source of the sudden increase of attraction.
I’ve had my share of the colder responses as well: the guy who falls off his bar stool before dashing out the door (yes, literally), the puzzled nod followed by a lengthy lull in conversation, or the blank stare. I’ve also encountered instant theological debates and guys long overdue for counseling. I used to think that these reactions were opposites – that the ones who ran away were afraid, the ones who wanted to talk were seeking something else entirely, and the ones who thought it was hot were turned on by the challenge. However, I’ve come to believe that they are different faces of the same basic problem. Sexuality – particularly female sexuality – and religious authority just don't mesh in the minds of many people. Just call it Flirtus Interruptus.
Whether they bolt or sidle up a little closer, they've just been confronted with the fact that their potential conquest is also a spiritual figure. The woman they've been hitting on has just mingled with their childhood memories of priests, or with the fundamentalist college roommate who threatened them with the fires of hell. Since the media tends to portray young, single women as sexually available, confusion is somewhat understandable. They expected a Cosmo girl, and now wonder if they're getting a nun.
Some of them will run; reconciling the perceived incompatibility is not on their radar. Then there are the "That's hot" people. Honestly, that response can be flattering. Sometimes, after feeling like the pariah who scares everyone away, it's even a relief. Unfortunately, they're not usually thinking of the integrated person either. On par with the sexy librarian fantasy, they're often convinced that an unbridled sexual side is tightly repressed beneath the vocation – and no evidence that you're not particularly repressed will dissuade them!
Being young, single, female clergy combines the two strongly held and disparate stereotypes of religious authorities and young, single women, and that brings up all manner of issues in some people. Even if they're not flirting, our mere existence can cause a conundrum. People often don't know how to view us as integrated beings who have both work and personal life, and both spiritual and sexual aspects to our personalities. Of course, everyone has these things, but they may not even know how to deal with their own internal divisions, let alone those they perceive in us. Frankly, we often don't know how to deal with it either, as we try to combat both the culture's hyper-sexualization of women and the prevalent view that clergy are either asexual or sexually deviant. Models of integrated, healthy, single clergy seem in short supply.
Like so many things in ministry, and in life, there is no map to help us navigate this territory. We can only move through it, being as honest and true as we can to our vocation, our faith, and ourselves. One reaction at a time, we learn to be the whole people we yearn to be – and perhaps even help others to become a little less internally divided as we do so. And maybe we even pick up a few really good come-back lines along the way.
Do you have stories about your own experiences as a young, single minister, or thoughts about relevant issues to the single Rev's life? The Single Rev's Guide to Life welcomes submissions at [email protected]