The town was all a-twitter. The gossip network was running full force. The new pastor, they said, had a man staying in the parsonage.
He had been there over a week, visited the church, and met many of my parishioners before the rumors got back to me, of course. I had only been ministering there a couple of months, and no one wanted to actually ask me about my "mysterious" guest. I probably should’ve expected that there would be talk, but it just didn’t occur to me that my life was considered so scandal-worthy! I’m a member of the coed dorm generation. I also forgot that certain key factors wouldn’t be as obvious to everyone as they were to me. “I don’t know if this will make it any better,” I sighed, when I finally caught wind of the gossip, “but he’s gay.”
I was telling the truth about that, and I think it assuaged some fears (although it may well have heightened others). One might wonder, however: what if he hadn’t been gay? Would that have negated my freedom to host a friend in my home? Would a female guest have been less suspect? Probably, but since no one has ever asked about my orientation, why would that be so? It’s been suggested to me many times, in a variety of ways, that I ought to get married. How on earth would I ever get to that point if I’m not supposed to have prospective partners (or those assumed to be such) in my house?
The conundrum is not lessened by the fact that most people simply have no idea how awkward and difficult the fish bowl syndrome makes life for their single clergy. I’ve heard it said that pandas rarely mate in captivity, and similarly, we’re not as fruitful (ahem) personally or professionally when we’re constantly dealing with invasion of our privacy and resulting attacks on our character.
The average person doesn’t think of it as an attack, though. Some people think of it as concern for the integrity of the pastoral office. Others think of it as genuine care for their minister. Many of them don’t really think of it at all; maybe they were just bored that day and needed something to discuss to occupy their time. Most people aren’t actually trying to be malicious or suspicious; the human thing to do, it seems, is to talk about other humans.
I know, that doesn’t make it easier if you’re the one who can’t have an unidentified car in your driveway for two hours without hearing about it for the next two weeks. If you’re anything like me, you still want to post a parsonage-sized “MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS” sign in your front yard. That approach being not entirely practical, there are a few alternative possibilities that can ease some of the frustration of finding your life subject to so much scrutiny.
A wise friend, experienced pastor, and fellow blogger who goes by the name of St. Casserole has said more than once that ministers need to grow thicker skins. I repeat this advice to myself and my peers frequently, often followed by my own addition: get used to it. Ministers are public figures. Unless you decide to become extremely boring, you will not stop people from talking about you, especially if you’re living in a small town. So, you can get irritated about it, or you can embrace the fabulousness that makes you such scintillating grist for the rumor mill, and move on.
When the inevitable comments come, it can be difficult to be gracious but honest about the inappropriateness. Plain old honesty usually works: “Yes, that was my friend so-and-so.” A flat tone, with perhaps just a hint of puzzlement about why this would be interesting, often deflates the scandal. A little lighthearted humor can also make the point as effectively as getting defensive, without the potential fallout. A couple of personal favorites: “If I’d known you were all watching, I’d have opened the curtains!” “It’s great to know I’ll never have to worry about burglary around here!”
That said, there will be times when you’ll just want to be out of the public eye. Clergy are notoriously bad at maintaining a social life, but I’m convinced it’s one of the most necessary factors in remaining sane. If you’re looking to escape the privacy issues, the best friends will be near enough that it’s not an ordeal to get to them, but far enough away that you won’t run into parishioners when you meet them for drinks. This distance depends on your geographic situation and the culture of your community; for me it’s about a half hour drive. It takes time and effort to develop these connections, but you need a place where the only people who know you are the ones you’d spill your juicy news to anyway.
Most of all, don’t give up your life to avoid gossip. Having friends, hosting them in your home, and going places are all parts of being a whole, real person. You and your congregation will both suffer if you only live a one-dimensional life. Besides, as far as I can tell, rumors only cease when you’re boring, and who wants to be that?
Rev. Stacey Midge, a graduate of Drake University and Western Theological Seminary, currently serves under the lovingly watchful eyes of a small church in New York, where she is often seen being dragged through the yard by her overly energetic dog, Laila.
The Single Rev’s Guide to Life welcomes submissions. If you have advice or anecdotes to share with your single sisters of the cloth, please see our submissions page for guidelines, and email them to [email protected] for consideration.