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Joining the Divorced Pastors’ Club

On a Sunday morning in early 2016, I sat with a half a dozen kids in front of our altar for a children’s time, teaching them how to say my “new” last name. This would be my first week officially as “Pastor Posselt” instead of “Pastor [Married Name,]” after successfully changing it the week before in the appropriate city hall offices, divorce decree in hand.

Just a few months earlier, I sat across the desk in the office of the senior pastor – my colleague, friend, and mentor – to share with him about my upcoming divorce. Jim leaned back in his chair, almost as distraught as I was, looked me straight in the eye and said, “You are a part of a club that you never would ask to sign up for. But you’re strong – you’ll get through this, and you’ll become a better pastor for it.”

I could not have heard those words from anyone else. I knew he has walked a hard road himself as a member of a Club Nobody Wants to Join (as a widower). Because of that, my colleague and his words became one of the many sources of hope I clung to in those months, as my private and my public life collided. Not long after this conversation, I sent a letter to my congregation, breaking the news of my upcoming divorce, which brought me a mixture of relief and terror. So much of our lives as ministers of the church are unfairly on display: our salaries, our health, our clothing choices, how we spend our time, and too often our family lives. The business of the church means the church is in our business. It’s unfair, especially in our most vulnerable and painful moments.

I dreaded the judgment I imagined I would face, not only as a divorced person but also a divorced religious leader. As a pastor, I’m supposed to embody such holy ideas as forgiveness, reconciliation, love, patience, perseverance, and long-suffering. A pastor getting a divorce would be tantamount to a dentist needing a root canal or a heart surgeon needing a quintuple bypass.

I couldn’t quiet my own judgment. “I should have known better. I should have been a better model for my people.” After all, I know all the tricks in the “premarital counseling” bag. I should have been able to fix it. I felt like a kind of pariah – a woman pastor who is also divorced. I did not want to join this club. But I was – I am – strong. I did get through it, and I did become a better pastor for it.

We are all parts of various Clubs We Don’t Want to Join. I would never try to console you personally with the promise that your struggles will at some point make you a better person. But speaking for myself, my Divorce Club Membership gave me access to avenues of ministry I had not known before. My own congregation opened up to me in a new way and ministered to me in my need. And in turn, once the shock and grief started to heal, I did some hard work on myself so that I could be able to do the same for others.

Whatever the Club You Don’t Want to Join, it won’t define you, but it will change you. Somehow, I transformed from a newbie first-call pastor to a minister people trusted with their deepest secrets and truest selves. I was able to dig into some of those hard passages of Jesus that talk about divorce, and to remind my people that he was not talking about the no-fault variety. Marriage may be a promise, but it is not the beginning and end of everything in the church. In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America it is not a sacrament, like Holy Communion and baptism.

Likewise, divorce itself is not a sin. Divorce is naming what is, and it is never a sin to tell the truth. Divorce does not break vows – it simply states that vows have already been broken, whether by egregious behavior or “irreconcilable differences.” In fact, staying in a relationship that is unsustainable can only add to everyone’s pain and suffering. Staying can sometimes mean breaking faith with yourself, in not loving and honoring yourself enough to leave. Divorce is the most loving option when it is the only way that the sacredness of human life – YOUR LIFE – can be affirmed and defended.

Pastors get divorced. And when we do so, instead of losing our credibility because of some outdated or harmful theology of Clergy Perfection, we get to call this notion what it is – hurtful garbage. As pastors we get to model healthy boundaries and abundant lives in whatever we go through, including how we get divorced. We can own our pain and push through because we know that ultimately our strength to persevere does not come from our own white-knuckling through the day, but from our Savior Jesus. We can dare to let ourselves be seen, because when we do, our members witness our boldness, and take courage from our example.

A Pastor’s divorce can also shine light on a subject that is still often taboo in the church, where divorce has often been cast only as sin, and rarely understood through a lens of redemption. Marriage can be holy and promote the abundant life that God desires for us. It can be a vehicle through which we experience something of the redemption and reconciliation promised by God in Jesus Christ. As we celebrate those gifts of marriage – whether in the church or in anniversary posts on Facebook – we can unintentionally cast a shadow of sorrow and shame for those whose marriages have ended, and even for those who are experiencing difficulty. We leave very little room to be real and authentic.

We need to reframe separation and divorce in the church. Sometimes abundance, redemption, and reconciliation come not through marriage, but through divorce. It, too, can be a holy thing. That doesn’t make it easy. Because I have joined this Club You Don’t Want to Join, I know that Jesus sees the pain of separation and divorce. Rather than condemning the path leading to it, Jesus’s love persists. Because I have joined this Club, I can assure members, friends, and others who are headed for separation and divorce that nothing will separate them from God’s love, that Jesus sees their pain, and can bring healing and wholeness. Take it from Pastor Posselt.

rumpled, unmade bed in shadow

Faith in the Flesh

rumpled, unmade bed in shadowThe first time I had sex outside of marriage, I was 35.

I’m honestly not sure how I managed to grow up thinking that I had to save myself for my future husband. My progressive, Episcopalian, east coast upbringing certainly didn’t push any such agenda. But in my teens and early twenties, I clung to the romantic fantasy of the Perfect Wedding Night, and insisted on marrying my college boyfriend when we were both 23 and had never seen each other (or any other unrelated adults of the opposite sex) naked.

There were many reasons for our divorce a decade later, but the fact that our sexual relationship was never more than mediocre was certainly one of them. As I was wrestling, personally and theologically, with the death of my marriage, I realized that my refusal to explore this aspect of our relationship before marriage had actually contributed to its failure. No matter what the nuances of one’s approach to the subject, I think most Christians can agree that divorce is a greater evil than premarital sex.

That was the beginning of a deeply unsettling, but ultimately freeing, revision of my personal sexual ethic. Read more

log cross on log cabin wall

Even the Sparrow

log cross on log cabin wall

“Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.”
Psalm 84:3

Sometimes we puzzle over the strangers who enter a church we’re serving. Some visitors are outgoing and eager to open up. But others? Even after seeing them a few times, we wonder: Who are they and where do they come from? What are they seeking? Are they church shopping? Just visiting the area? Or stopping for respite in the midst of a crisis? They may leave suddenly before we learn their stories.

In 2012, I was the stranger entering a church. I was living in Philadelphia with my husband and our 15-month-old son. We had just moved from our home in Alabama for my husband’s job, leaving behind our family, friends, and my career as a minister. I was starting to enjoy life as a stay-at-home mom, and loved living in a big city. But one day without warning, my husband told me that he wanted a divorce, and suddenly I found myself single and jobless with a baby, in a city 800 miles from home, with no family or friends nearby.

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The Liturgy of the Mandarin Orange: A Divorce Ceremony

71064921_1402685c56_zThe mandarin was Aurelia’s idea. The rest of the rituals had been pre-planned by me, but her spontaneity with the fruit helped. Let me explain. We were throwing a funeral for my marriage.

It seemed to me that my grief needed somewhere to go. My grief needed a container, a sacred space, a ritual embrace. This is what funerals do for the loved ones of the deceased, but no one throws you a wake when your marriage dies. So this was one of those instances where I decided to be a minister to myself and give my marriage a proper burial. I asked Aurelia to bear witness, that is, to preside as priest.

I started the day alone in the woods, writing a letter to my younger self, which said,

Dear Kyndall,

Looking at your favorite wedding gown photo, you almost seem like a different person, like I am looking at someone else. I guess if I could tell you anything, I would say, “Baby, it is going to be okay. You are going to get hurt again, keep getting hurt, but you cannot be faulted for loving. You are passionate and you are all in, and honey, that wasn’t wrong. I don’t think you made a mistake by getting married. You made a choice, just like you’re making a different choice now. You took a risk, and now you are facing the heartache that came from risking, but to take the risk wasn’t wrong or stupid. It was full of heart and yes, some youthful naïveté, some loving blindness, and even some desperate willing ignorance at times, but baby, you were doing your damn best at love and forgiveness and mended trust, and that is nothing you ever need to be ashamed of.

You were willing to love every inch of a broken man, and that was an okay thing to do, even if it didn’t work. Even though your love didn’t win him over or heal him or fix him in the end. Now it is time to give up your hope that he will change, hand it to God or to whoever, but it isn’t your burden anymore, to try and make him okay. You are released.

Love,
Your Slightly Wiser Self

 

Next I wrote the goodbye letter to the marriage. This letter was tougher to write: “I’ve never had anything this close to me die…when I die, I’d prefer one of those biodegradable caskets so that eventually my body returns to the dust, where it can one day provide nourishment to the trees.” And so as I thought about my deceased marriage, I said to it, “I want to plant you into the soil of my becoming. I want to bury you with the fallen leaves and the rotting wood and the smelly manure, and I want to trust that you have nutrients to provide me, even in your painful stench. I want to integrate my past into my future. I want to make you sacred ground with my reverence and my intentional watering. I want to learn all your lessons.”

After the letter writing, Aurelia joined me. We sat by the river and I read her some of my darkest poems and journal entries. That way someone could bear witness to the pain. She said some words appropriate to the pain, but also hopeful, like a good minister would. I had gathered a pile of sticks beside me, and then I hurled them, one-by-one, into the water and named what I needed to let go of. Again, she listened.

We needed some comic relief, so Aurelia spontaneously turned our snack into a liturgy too (like a good minister might), such that as we peeled off the skin of the mandarin, we were praying too. It was lighthearted but genuine.

Next we moved to hope. This was symbolized by our hiking up to the top of a hill. Once we reached the top, Aurelia pulled out a candle and lit it as a tiny, nonverbal way to say, “God is here.”

I wrote new vows to myself.

We prayed some faltering prayers. Aurelia read out loud to me letter after letter from my friends and family, all of them saying exactly why they felt hope for me. I think in the New Testament, they call this the laying on of hands, though it was just me and Aurelia up there on the mountain top.

After that we began the descent. We headed back down to regular life with all its challenges where we discovered my car battery had died in the parking lot. A helpful transgender stranger gave my car a jump, and then Aurelia and I headed for a gluttonous lunch to wrap it all up, which I believe the Bible calls feasting.

And now here I am, more than a year past divorce, past the day of ritual goodbye, and while it didn’t fix my sadness to hold a funeral, it widened my capacity to heal. It provided a place for my grief to go. It helped me move in the direction of hope, which is what a ceremony is meant to do.

To my minister friends, I would say this, no matter how tough it gets, never stop being a minister to yourself, and don’t forget to tell your friends when you need a priest.

 

 

 

 

 

Dwell with Me in Darkness

8550914119_d98462ebf7_z
I just want to know, God.
When you spoke about binding up the broken-hearted,
right there between good news for the poor
and release for the captives,
who did you have in mind?

 

Is there space for those who,
long past the point that it’s socially acceptable
to drown one’s sorrows in ice cream,
still find cheeks wet with tears?

 

Amidst all the brokenness of this world–
boundary lines breached as nation rises up against nation,
tears in the fabric of society as the rich distance themselves from the poor,
fractures in the inner being, splits in the psyche,
relationships ruptured by a hastily spoken word,
cracks in the climate of a planet gone hot–
amidst all this,
can you be attentive also to a broken heart?

Bring out the best binding cloths, God.
The ones that can bear the strain of a spirit torn in two directions.
Stitch together the divided halves of my heart.
See all that is raw,
Behold the places where life-blood pulses behind the woundedness,
Touch tenderly.

 

For all your humanity, the scriptures give us no indication
that you ever wept when waking up to emptiness on the other side of the bed,
or had to summon words to tell mutual friends that two had become one,
but not in the way you’d hoped.

 

But surely you know something about broken-heartedness, don’t you, God?
You who were one-time sorry you made humankind;
You who cried over Jerusalem
and wept real tears when they told you Lazarus was dead;
You who know the betrayal of friend,
the anger of crowds,
the abandonment of the cross;
you know how the heart can break
and ache
and bleed.

 

Three days of darkness, and you broke through those graveclothes meant to bind.
Let it be the same with me, O God.
Bind me up, dwell with me in darkness,
and then let there be life.

My Marriage Isn’t Biblical, Thank God

One of my namesakes is a woman who spent decades trapped in a miserable marriage.  Her story is one of the reasons I often refer to the 1950’s as “the decade of lies.”  Society forced her to lie, pretending that her husband was a good father, that he would never hurt anyone, that they were happy together.  She had nowhere she could go, and no resources to enable her to leave, and of course divorce was nearly unheard of at the time.

After her first husband died, my namesake had a brilliantly happy, but very brief, second marriage, which was tragically cut short with her second husband’s death from cancer. And yet she never gave up hope, and she shared that hope with others.  Specifically she shared it with my mother, who was mourning the end to her own first marriage. My namesake’s perseverance when all seemed dark shone like a beacon, and I was named for her in the hopes that I would share her perseverance, but not her history.

Mom also spent my childhood (as her mother had done for her) drumming into me that I needed to be able to be independent.  She learned early that disasters do not arrive on schedule. I grew up on stories (not just from my mother) of women who suffered because they lacked the tools to be independent, whether those tools were money, connections, education or simply the right to own property in their own name. Having been named after one of those women, to say that my view of “traditional marriage” (when that phrase implies a lack of equality between partners) is negative, is a stunning understatement. I know too many stories of those battered and abused (physically and otherwise) by this system to view it as a cultural value or a folksy tradition.

And when people refer to “Biblical marriage” as something to be aspired to, my reaction is stronger. When I read the Bible I do not find it filled with marriages that function as good examples to the modern-day world. The majority of marriages in the Bible were not anything like what we experience in first-world countries today. The women did not choose their own husbands and many had no ability to own property, decide their own futures, or leave abusive situations. Polygamy and concubinage were rampant in Biblical times, and women were married off very young. Judges chapter 19 is only one Biblical example of how little women were valued in that culture. If you ever wondered what would have happened to Lot’s daughters if the angels hadn’t stopped him…. (Go ahead, read it, I’ll wait.)

But that’s not the only terrible example. Abraham pretended that Sarah was his sister so she could flirt with his customers to improve his business deals, at least twice. King David’s life is filled with troubling marriage narratives, Bathsheba’s being the most memorable, and Abigail perhaps the most positive (though she clearly had no choice in her husbands). Ruth married Boaz quite openly as the best option to avoid starving to death. Dinah, Joseph’s little sister, was married off to her rapist and then her wedding feast became a massacre. Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law, had to resort to seducing Judah under false pretenses in order to receive her economic rights as a widow. The heroes of the Bible, the people we look up to as spiritual examples, are very often flawed and broken in the more earthly aspects of their lives.

There are vanishingly few marriages of the Bible which, if we met them today, we would still call good examples. Mary and Joseph had a relationship built on trust (after a little angelic intervention). Hannah’s husband Elkanah loved her dearly, despite her barrenness. Zipporah saved Moses’ life, and he had a good relationship with his father-in-law, though we know little else about their marriage. Many other marriages we know very little about; though the people in them may be good people (Aquilla and Priscilla) we know little or nothing about their unions.

If my marriage were Biblical, how would it be different? My husband would make all medical decisions for me, as my grandfather did for my grandmother.  We still have the paintings of shrunken heads she made, in an effort at therapy, because he wouldn’t let her see a psychiatrist.  My husband is, thank God, not a violent or abusive man, but if he were, and our marriage were Biblical, no one would ever be able to step in on my behalf, and I would not be allowed to leave.  Obviously I would not have had any choice in who or when I married, that would have been decided for me and I’d be informed when convenient.

There are certainly verses in the Bible which can tell us what a good marriage should look like. Ephesians 5:21 and following tells spouses (both spouses!) to be subject to one another. And while Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 can be applied to friendships as well as marriage, the theme of interdependence, rather than dependence, is shown again. Jesus exhorts us again and again to love one another as God has loved us- that is to say, wholly and sacrificially. Yet mutual interdependence is not a theme that appears often in conversations about “Biblical marriage.”

I was married in a Christian church, I was raised in the church and am now a pastor; my husband shares my faith and was also raised a Christian.  Yet, we both give thanks that our marriage is not “Biblical.” We are full and equal partners. I do not aspire to follow in the marital footsteps of Dinah and Abigail and Bathsheba, I don’t want to share their history. But perhaps, if greater blessings even than I have now are heaped upon me by God, I will grow to share some of their perseverance.

Sleeping to One Side

Empty BedsI sleep alone in my queen-size bed and I’ve slept alone in this bed for almost two years. You’d think that after two years, I’d sleep sprawled in the middle of this mattress, limbs stretching as far as they could reach. But two years after I last had company on this mattress, I still sleep on one side of it. I can put my iPad and iPhone, four pillows and even a tower of books on the other side of the bed and when I wake up they will all be there, unmoved. It is hard to break the habits you learn when you share a bed night after night.

I sleep alone in my queen-size bed and you’d think that would mean I’ve been single for two years. But I haven’t…or I have. It’s complicated. Everything is complicated when you’re married to a man who is in jail. I’ve been raising a son alone despite the fact that he has a living father. I’ve been filing my taxes as “married” despite the fact that I’m the sole bread winner and only adult in the house. I’ve been going to bed alone despite the fact that I have a husband. Complicated. Read more

Never a Fatherless Child

This Father’s Day will be the first on which my son’s father is no longer my husband. He left me for another woman earlier this year, and though he has so far been faithful to the custody agreement with our son, I worry constantly about Ollie not having the kind of father he will need when he reaches his emotionally difficult tweens. (He’s only 2 right now, but I’m a mom, so I can worry far, far into the future.)

 

Ollie has two wonderful godfathers, who have already assured me that they will do what they can to teach him about being a good man, and my dad and brothers have said the same. But still, I worry. When he starts to wonder about relationships, who will help him be vulnerable, yet strong, honest and respectful? When he wants to know about sex (about which his father and I have very different opinions), who will tell him that it’s manly to wait until you’re really ready? When he struggles with the pressure to be tough and hide his real feelings, who will teach him that men can cry too?

I recently voiced some of these concerns to my dad, and he reminded me that he grew up mostly without a dad too. His father was killed in a coal mine accident when he was 11, just on the cusp of puberty. He said that while it was hard for him to grow up without a dad, that there was a vacancy in his life for a long time, he discovered a role model in God. Read more

Forbidden love

I’m in love!

Oh, don’t get too excited. I’m not in love with anyone I’ve actually met. . .or am likely to meet. This love is a secret love, which is something juicy for me to savor. I’m not telling many people and definitely not telling members of my congregation. They are very kind to me, but I think they would find this love of mine polarizing.

Yes, that’s right, I’m in love with a politician. A candidate, actually. A candidate for President. And I can’t tell ANYONE! I want to shout my love from the rooftops, proclaim it in the pulpit, but I also don’t want the IRS breathing down my neck. I feel very strange being in this position. I used to love politics. As a kid, I made my own campaign buttons out of card stock and contact paper. But the last few years, politics has been so stressful, so filled with vitriol and betrayal and power grabbing that I just haven’t been able to bear participating.

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