Living and Loving in Limbo

Post Author: Phoebe Jones

Seminary did a very good job at teaching me that it would be really hard—nay, impossible—to date anybody as a young clergywoman. “Don’t even get your hopes up,” should have been printed on my diploma. I, like many others, saw the flood of seminary classmates rushing down the aisle before heading off on internship or to their first church. It was not difficult to conclude that my chances of finding a rewarding relationship would plummet with the laying on of hands at ordination.

Now, fortunately I wasn’t very good at the dating thing and didn’t mind living alone, so it didn’t seem like a huge deal. I’d just experienced the ending of a relationship gone sour, so was feeling particularly
inept at that kind of partnership. I also happen not to be a person who has always craved children or a husband. So, it was kind of a bum deal, but I had accepted and come to terms with the likelihood that I
would be a lifelong singleton.

Two years later, attending my first regional conference as an ordained minister, I met someone who changed everything. I won’t say he’s my soul mate, because this isn’t an eHarmony commercial. But we (more or less) instantly connected, and suddenly we had to figure out how to date as pastors living 300 miles away from each other. How do you navigate those murky waters of being not-quite-single but definitely not being married? How do you draw the line between keeping your private life private and being open and honest with your people? How do you balance your need to be with this person with your call to be with your congregation?

It’s hard to find others in our position with these questions. We went to a denominational young clergy conference and found there was a “married clergy couple” group and a “single clergy” group but nothing in the middle. Our generation has extended the time period between when a relationship becomes “serious” and when it moves to engagement and marriage, but the church hasn’t made that same adjustment. It’s either “get out there and meet a nice boy,” or you’re expected to be hearing wedding bells and choosing china patterns.

This is only one part of the church’s massive disconnect with young adults. Generally speaking, the church just doesn’t know what to do with people who are in committed, loving relationships but aren’t necessarily rushing to the altar. The urge to “make it official” is less prevalent in many people our age—after all, we grew up during the years when divorce became commonplace. Today we have a greater awareness that not every relationship thrives with marriage. As a pastor in a church that doesn’t know what to do with that more cautious aspect of me, I find myself hiding my relationship, even when I want to celebrate it.

Finally I decided that I had to tell somebody at church, and so before the next regional conference, I explained the situation to the congregants who would be attending the conference. I figured they had the right to hear it from me before hearing it through the grapevine or putting two and two together themselves. Their reaction was fascinating. It was clear that at first they expected me to announce within a matter of months that I was leaving to get married. They asked me to not reveal this “boyfriend” to anyone else in the congregation, because then they too would fear that I was on the verge of leaving.

I have tried to reassure them that, at this point, leaving is not on the table.  But because they are having trouble wrapping their minds around the concept of being in a serious relationship without marriage being imminent, my ability to reassure them is limited.  So to avoid a mass onset of congregational fear of abandonment, I have kept this relationship quiet.  I don’t like that.  I don’t like keeping this kind of a secret, but it almost feels like I don’t have a choice.

There is a deep longing in every community of faith to be loved the way God would love, loved unconditionally. I can see that longing in my congregation: the longing to be #1 on my list of priorities, not having to share me with family, the longing for me to love them while they are alive and give them a good funeral when they die. But I cannot satisfy that longing for them. No one can love as unconditionally and eternally as God can. Someday there will come a day when I need to leave so I can discover what this relationship holds.

I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to explain our generation’s approach to singleness, serious relationships, and marriage to these people. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to convince them that they are worth loving too, even if I leave to love someone else more fully. But churches that ask a single person to be their pastor need an extra measure of flexibility and understanding while that person seeks the care and the intimacy that all of us need to find somewhere. All of us single clergy are trying to figure this out in a responsible, appropriate, and loving manner. Will our churches let us?

The two of us are still trying to figure out when the time is right to make a change in our living situations and the churches we are serving. But until then, we are doing our best to nurture our relationship with frequent phone conversations, trips to see each other on our day off, taking vacations together, and limiting the amount of church talk we share. I just hope we’ll be able to decide together when the time is right for both of us.

Phoebe Jones (a pseudonym) is a young clergywoman ministering somewhere in the United States.

Image by: GregoryBurgesss
Used with permission
11 replies
  1. Bromleigh
    Bromleigh says:

    I am amazed, too, at the faithfulness this author — and a number of my friends — have shown in growing long distance relationships with a real future. But the church, oh the church!
    My beef with my own denomination is “celibacy in singleness…,” a difficulty for many in our generation who live in a committed, non-married state.

  2. Laura S-R
    Laura S-R says:

    Well said, well said. I was extremely fortunate to find a first call that was flexible and understanding about my long-distance, serious-but-not-yet-engaged relationship. I always felt, though, that the people were waiting on me to announce my marriage and departure. Of course, I eventually did make that announcement, so maybe their anxiety was warranted.

  3. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    This was very well written. I, too, went through this challenge. I was single when I was ordained, and had every reason to think that I was going to stay that way.
    I dealt with matchmakers who tried to pair me off, and prying questions.
    And yet, behind the nosy and sometimes inappropriate remarks, I discovered that people in my congregations wanted the best for me – they wanted me to be happy and nurtured, even if that meant that I wouldn’t have as much time for them if I ended up getting married (which eventually, we did).
    Being single in the manse was hard. Being single and dating while living in the manse was harder – life under a microscope. Hence I left town often (as the writer does) to nurture my relationship.
    We talked ‘shop’ from the very beginning, but it has always been more a sense of sharing where God is in our own lives and congregations. We still enjoy bouncing ideas off of one another, but we will likely never work together (short of one of us ‘jumping ship’ for the other’s denomination). And that’s okay – our calling as ministers and our respective congregations remain separate, and that’s the way we like it and want it.
    Best wishes for you and your ‘boyfriend’ as you discern what is right for you.

  4. Teri
    Teri says:

    I was in a committed, serious-but-not-engaged relationship when I came here. That relationship ended about 8 months into my call here (over a year ago) and I’m still explaining to people that no, we’re not still together, yes, when I interviewed here we were talking about getting married, no, I’m not seeing anyone new…crazy. I relate to this article! thanks “phoebe.”

  5. L H
    L H says:

    Thank you for this article. As I begin interviewing at churches as the “not-married”, “not-single” minister that I am, it is helpful to hear the tension named so well. God bless.

  6. Single and Fabulous
    Single and Fabulous says:

    Thank you for such as an interesting point about specialized groups for “single” clergy vs. “married” clergy!
    I admit there are times when I’m at young clergy events and have my interest piqued – only to find that he is engaged…why can’t men wear engagement rings too? That would clarify things from the get-go!
    As for “celibacy in singleness” I am a firm believer in that standard being equally and fairly applied in my denomination – the UMC. I am extremely angry that gay men and women are the only ones I see being called out on breaking the celibacy in singleness vow (since our denomination doesn’t yet recognize gay marriage) while I know numerous couples who have lived together before marriage and their DCOMs haven’t blinked an eye?

  7. Emily M
    Emily M says:

    I think about this often, having just accepted a call as a solo pastor, which seems to change the dynamics of both privacy and congregational anxiety…
    but I’m thinking even more about the dynamic of long-term relationship discernment in our generation, and how vitally important it is to the church to figure it out – one of the major statistical determinants of church attendance/involvement in our generation is marriage (married people come to church much more than single people, across a lot of other variables – this is from Robert Wuthnow, but I can’t remember the title of his GenX church stats book right now.)
    The church really doesn’t seem to have cultural support for that long term transition between our parents homes and our married homes (and what about those of us who stay single longer and longer and longer…)
    Anyone have experience of good church culture for the long pre-marriage culture?

  8. Heather H.
    Heather H. says:

    Reading through this was great to know that I am not alone. AMEN to it all. If anyone has any other revelations about this, I would love to hear them. Eventually the parish is going to figure out that “my friend in Colorado” is a lot more.

  9. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Ditto to all the comments. Another (equally single) friend of mine shared a statistic with me that says that only 10% of women who were not married before ordination will marry after ordination. That doesn’t sound like very good odds, and was initially pretty depressing. But it made me wonder: what about clergy women in non-traditional relationships? Women who are partnered with women and can’t marry in their churches or states, women who choose not to marry but be in committed relationships for a myriad of reasons (been there done that and don’t want to do it again, value a balance between companionship and solitude, love their partner but don’t want to live with them 24/7, have issues with the patriarchal history of marriage, etc). More and more people in society are making those kinds of choices, and increasingly, clergy women I know are making them too. Without in any way devaluing marriage, is there room in the church for these kinds of relationships? In my denomination, we’re pretty non-judgemental about the choices people in the pews make, but we’re still pretty unclear about the standards we’ll hold our clergy too. Hmmm.

  10. fringegirl
    fringegirl says:

    i’m single and a pastor. i spent a good chunk of my life as a minister in a small town with pretty slim pickins when it came to date-able men. on my 39th birthday i looked around and thought, ‘oh my god! where is my husband and 3 kids? what happened to the life i thought i would have, in addition to being a pastor?’ in a conference where pastors are encouraged to put their ministry over family- well, i bought it. so i took a leave, tried artificial insemination (after several failed adoption attempts), and am now a mom! YAHOO! (ok, it’s not the most exciting way to get pregnant, but it keeps me from getting my ordination papers yanked… so far). single people have a lot more options today- i’m not sure the church can keep up. i might get married someday, but don’t feel like i have to. still, it takes a lot of explaining to people who like to color inside the lines….

  11. Kris
    Kris says:

    I am no longer in the “young” clergywoman category, as I’m now in the later half of my 40’s. However I was ordained at 32, with the reluctant acceptance that I may never be married, because who would really want to date a pastor? While there have been times that I struggled to reach that acceptance over and over, I’ve come to realize how happy I am with my single status now. I am fortunate enough to live in a rather large metropolitan area, so I’ve been able to keep my dating status and personal life just that – personal. And while I’ve been able to maintain a semi-regular dating life, the long-term relationship still eludes me. Now however, it’s my choice and not just from lack of opportunity. I value my independence and ability to “paddle my own canoe” as Louisa Mae Alcott stated it so well. My options are so much more open than if I was in a relationship or had children. So hang in there, single clergywomen! You may find yourself surprisingly reaching that same level of not-just-acceptance, but celebration of your life!


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