Sex, Ministry and Marie Claire

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.

6a00d83534c8aa69e20148c836aa9a970c-320wi 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.

10 replies
  1. a pastor
    a pastor says:

    Thank you for treating this topic with respect and not resorting to judgment or name-calling. I agree with most of what you say, but fear this pastor’s vocational path is irreparably harmed by the decision to be interviewed for Marie Claire. I think there is a fine line between showing courage and transparency and saying things that violate appropriate levels of sharing and boundary-keeping.
    Again, my biggest sadness surrounding this issue is the potential harm this may do to this pastor’s ability to live out her call. My prayers are with her that the fall-out is not too disastrous.

  2. Stacey
    Stacey says:

    Thanks for an even-handed commentary on the article. We all need to find helpful and honest ways to talk about sex and sexuality, rather than simply watching it run rampant in society and be suppressed in the church. If nothing else, the Marie Claire article certainly kick-started the conversation!

  3. Elizabeth LH
    Elizabeth LH says:

    @Pastor: I agree that talking to Marie Claire may not have been the best venue for these conversations. From hearing from others who know the pastor, it sounds that the reporter took considerable creative license with the article. A risk one takes in dealing with media? Probably, and it is a risk that needs to be calculated before talking with any reporter, especially on potentially controversial issues like sex.
    I would be interested in hearing people’s further reflection on appropriate boundaries and sharing, especially in regard to sex.
    We need to talk about it, but in what ways and how can this be appropriate?

  4. Elsa
    Elsa says:

    Thank you for this beautiful reflection. Thank you especially for pointing out the ways that you talk about sex as a leader in a faith community.
    In every conversation I’ve had about boundaries, it seems we’re still shaping the definition. There are certain rules by which some abide (such as dating a church member) that others don’t. While I might have strong opinions about how I create and shape my own boundaries, it seems that the most important thing is how I choose to communicate those boundaries.
    I haven’t read the Marie Claire article — but what strikes me is what is shared by a congregation member about her pastor. That seems like a boundary violation to me and perhaps that member should be held to more accountability than the pastor she told on.

  5. Katherine
    Katherine says:

    Actually, the pastor shared the incident about the church member trying to set her up, not the church member. It didn’t appear that any church members were interviewed. That was definitely a cringe moment for me, because it felt like a broken confidence, and was worded pretty sarcastically. Of course, who knows how much of that was the pastor and how much of that was the interviewer/editor…

  6. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    This is one of the main reasons why I refuse to presentations on “The Bible and Homosexuality”. I only do presentations on “The Bible and Human Sexuality”.

  7. Kate
    Kate says:

    Thank you for this, Elizabeth. Isn’t it interesting that as married ministers, we still have this dilemma?
    I wonder if part of the problem is that there is no happy medium in the media. Either we are celibate, or we are, you know, Britney Spears and Snooki. Either we withhold sex and are alienated from our bodies or we flaunt sex and, it could be argued, are alienated from our bodies. What will it take for a happy, respectful, sexual relationship to become one worth valuing?

  8. Jennifer C
    Jennifer C says:

    Elizabeth, this is a beautiful and much needed piece. Thanks for sharing it. And CONGRATULATIONS! I’m so happy that you’ll be a mom. Many blessings on you and your family.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *