Post Author: Elizabeth Lerohl Hiller
Our congregational meeting in mid-January was congenial. Praise God, the church has a strong sense of mission and the books are in the black. Despite this, throughout the meeting I was unsettled. There was one significant announcement to make. Before the closing prayer, I looked the congregation in the eye and said, “One last thing. I’m pregnant. We’re going to have a baby in June.”
The congregation received this newswith its customary warmth and grace. I value privacy but my nerves before and during the meeting were not simply the result of anticipating sharing very personal information. I was not simply nervous about the changes this will necessitate in the ministry I love. As my beloved put it after the congratulations and coffee hour ended, “Now the congregation knows we had sex.” True. And this implicit acknowledgement in front of our church of being a sexual being makes me squirm.
Before labeling me as anti-embodied or someone who is afraid to talk about sex in public, know that one of my core convictions in ministry, particularly ministry with youth and young adults, is that sex matters and that as Christians we need to talk about it. With young people, we talk about applying the Sixth Commandment to life, their sexual values, and how to live as people of God in a hyper-sexualizing society.
Even with honest explorations of questions in these Christian contexts, the majority of my conversations on sex have remained abstractions or confined to the world (ghetto?) of youth ministry. Counseling sessions with individuals, marital preparation, and adult Sunday school sessions on homosexuality in the Bible are the only times I have talked explicitly about sex with adults. Our baby announcement was the first time in nearly four years of ordained ministry that I explicitly acknowledged that I am a sexual being.
Speaking with colleagues over the last week, I heard that the absence of talking about sex with adults, apart from the questions surrounding homosexuality, is common in many churches. We might say that this is a good thing, as sex is a private, intimate and holy thing between two people. The problem? Our culture, particularly dominant young adult culture, does not treat sex as a particularly private or intimate act, let alone a holy act.
Over the last two weeks, the blogosphere and Methosphere (Methodists, not meth users, I learned) have commented galore on a February 2011 Marie Claire article in which a young female United Methodist minister speaks on the intersection of ministry, dating and sex. The article, although written in the first person, is actually an article “as told to Deborah Jian Lee,” meaning that the words did not come from the pastor’s mouth.
The article includes some unfortunate language regarding the minister’s sex drive while suffering from an ovarian condition. It recounts, perhaps distastefully, a possibly privileged episode of a congregation member’s attempt at setting the minister up with her drug laden son. These two issues are significant, but this article is nevertheless an important, useful and even helpful piece for young clergy and young people in general.
This Alabama minister has done a great service to all of us. As a bright and beautiful young woman (full disclosure: my husband attended divinity school with her), she brought the concerns and unique challenges of a young clergy person to nearly a million people. Echo Media, a marketing organization that tracks magazine circulation, estimates that just short of a million people subscribe to Marie Claire every month. That’s a significant number of people who may have considered Christianity and ministers, perhaps for the first time. Regardless of the article’s faults, many pastors would file it under, “Any press is good press.”
Substantively, in this short article, readers encounter a pastor who is a sexual being. This in itself causes some people offense. Yet she witnesses integrity in her vows to God and her faith community as she dates and chooses the difficult path of celibacy. In a very human human-interest story, she models what it can look like to be a normal adult and keep her pants on in dating relationships. People flipping through the magazine while getting their nails done witness a pastor who loves ministry and lives into sacrifices mandated by her denomination and position. In a culture where too many promises are disposable, she is a model of keeping promises, even promises that are difficult or inconvenient to keep.
Importantly, she addresses sexuality head-on. For too long, the church has functioned in a reactive state in our public witness regarding sex and sexuality. This pastor is not reacting to this week’s sex scandal. She is stating what it means for her to follow God as a Christian, as a pastor, and as a woman. Her story is not exclusionary but invites readers to imagine how she approaches both sex and dating.
In addition to her personal witness, this mainstream media piece covers Christianity in a positive light. Refreshingly, the minister shows an expression of Christianity in contrast to the dominant voice of the religious right. This pastor did not make the news as a homophobe, protesting dead soldiers. She includes no anti-intellectual or anti-scientific vitriol as she describes her work, dating, and sex. She includes the challenges of living as a young pastor and certainly broadcasts a joy and commitment to her ministry.
Sex is a private, intimate and holy act. It is also magnified in our culture in ways that are out of our control, unhelpful and often times contrary to the basic dignity of people. It is time for Christians, not just conservative Christians, to be a part of public conversations on sex that are not addressing the latest public scandal, law or sex tape. Three cheers to a brave clergywoman who modeled integrity in her witness and may have begun a new conversation for thousands of people. For me, it encourages less squirming and more conversation on how Christians, even ministers, can live as sexual beings.
The image by Paul Gaugin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, is in the public domain.