Seeing God in Sequins, Eyeshadow, and Ice Cream

Mama and Daughter enjoying dinner, dancing, and ice cream

Being a minister in a small town is complicated. Being the local tattooed, lesbian, single mama pastor – one whom you might see out in a low-cut leopard print dress, and from whom you might hear a few curse words now and then – in a small town is . . . complicated. I’m a mama, a public figure, and a person who loves time with friends. I’m known.

My congregation is an important part of the community, and when I was called here, it was a clear expectation that I become involved in this community. I’m on the library board. Everybody at the cafe knows my name. Options for friends are more limited, but that has also been a blessing for me. I make connections that I might not necessarily seek out. Take, for example, my friend Jason.

Jason is the dad of one of my daughter’s former preschool friends. He owns a property management company, and does everything from snow plowing to landscaping to building incredible gardens. He’s a pillar of our community, and he’s also a kind and thoughtful man. He once seriously considered seminary, and we often talk theology (though I’ve yet to convince him to come to church). I might not have been surprised to receive a call from Jason, but his invitation was definitely unexpected.

Jason called to invite me to attend the Daddy/Daughter Dance at the school, and to join in a larger group of dads and daughters for a fancy dinner before the dance. Honestly, I’ve got major issues with the whole concept for many reasons—many kids don’t have a daddy, many kids live with grandparents or foster parents, and, frankly, the whole heteronormative daddy dating daughter thing seems a bit sketchy. But, with many other places where I push the envelope, this hasn’t been a hill on which I’m ready to die, so I had resigned myself to ignoring the event for the next few years.

Jason’s invitation was sincere and warm. He and his daughter, now 11, had cherished this tradition since she was my daughter’s age. My daughter was near me while we were talking on the phone, and she asked me what it was about. I told her there was going to be a daddy daughter dance. Her face fell. She said, “I don’t have a daddy.” (That’s the first time she’s ever expressed distress about this fact.) I said, “No, but you do have a Mama, and I will take you to the dance.” She responded with joy. I knew we needed to go. Read more

The Reverends Rachel Mastin, Allison Unroe, and Sara Anne Berger during their recent friendcation in Natchitoches, LA.

“Find Yourself a Group of Friends…”

The Reverends Rachel Mastin, Allison Unroe, and Sara Anne Berger during their recent friendcation in Natchitoches, LA.

The Reverends Rachel Mastin, Allison Unroe, and Sara Anne Berger during their recent friendcation in Natchitoches, LA.

Find yourself a group of friends…


…who will remind you to take care of yourself.

Just last night I went to set my home alarm before going to bed, like I always do. It was late, and the alarm wouldn’t set. It kept notifying me that the basement exterior door was open. There was no reason why the basement door should be open, so that freaked me out. I went out into my backyard, mace in one hand, phone in the other, two dogs by my side, and peered over the fence at my basement door. It looked closed to me. So I started thinking about calling the non-emergency police number to have someone come out and help me check my basement, since I live alone and basements are scary and it was late at night. Immediately, I wanted to know what my friends would do. Then I thought, “You know what they would say! They’d tell you to ask for the help you need!” So I called the non-emergency number and two deputies came out and checked on everything for me, and then I was able to sleep soundly.

I knew that’s the advice they’d give because it’s the advice they give me all the time. They remind me to eat and to sleep when I’m cranky. They remind me it’s ok to eat reheated Panera soup when I’m sick and just need something easy. They don’t flat out tell me to go to therapy, but when I say I think I probably need to, they encourage and support me in that. Over and over and over again these women have helped me remember to take care of myself, and that is a gift at midnight on Sunday when the alarm won’t turn on because the basement exterior door is open when it shouldn’t be and you don’t want to ask for help.

…who will sacrifice for/with you.

October is friendcation month for me. Each year two of my dear friends and I set aside a week in early October to be together. Sometimes we pick a destination and rent a house there. Other times we go to someone’s home—usually when that friend has recently moved—and spend a week seeing their town. This week almost always involves more compromise than any other area of my life. I’m single and childless, so, ordinarily, my time is my time, my money is my money, and my space is my space. My friends are also single and childless, so it’s possible that they, too, compromise more on friendcation week than at other times.

This year during friendcation I found myself thinking a lot about this. Single, childless people often get the message that we can never understand what it is to be partnered or to be a parent until you’ve lived it. Frequently, that message comes with the implication that somehow a person’s capacities for love and self-sacrifice are stunted due to their lack of partner or children. I acknowledge that it is hard to relate to others’ lives until we’ve experienced something similar ourselves, but I know about love and sacrifice. Read more

My Friend, the Mortician

cross in graveyard small

I met Rob Pecht, owner of Bordentown Home for Funerals, in a hearse. At least that’s how I remember it. Our first conversation on a long drive to a cemetery centered around my being relatively new to the area and our mutual love of the HBO show Six Feet Under. I vaguely remembering asking him, “Is it really like that?” We have been friends ever since. I have celebrated with him and his wife the birth of their children, and I’ve even attended birthday parties in the funeral home, which is much cooler than it sounds. Rob is more than a friend, though; he is also a cherished colleague. Through Rob, I learned a lot about what happens behind the scenes for a funeral to come together. I recognized that a funeral director’s calling is similar to ours – always on duty, always connected to a phone. They too have to leave family dinners and plan the long weekend trips around needing to be back for a service. He understood the life of a pastor, and I understood his life as a funeral director. Read more

Gathering a Tribe

hands linkedIt didn’t start out as an intentional project.  I didn’t sit down one day and say, “I need a tribe”, and then set out to collect various individuals to gather around me as I moved through life.  It just sort of happened.  I read the book, Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation by Carol Howard Merritt, and saw myself in it.  Not as pastor, but as person.  She defines tribe as, “a term for subculture, a network of relationships, or a group of people who care for each other in the most basic ways” (8).  I am in my 30’s and friends and family are as close as next door and as far away as halfway around the world.

I have learned over the years that when you are far from biological family, you tend to create another kind of family – the group I call my tribe.  I am “aunt” to some children in our church, and have been invited to school plays and sports events.  There are others who will come at a moment’s notice to help fix whatever I’ve broken or help me hang plants.  My local friends and I share hobbies, good food, and a love of Doctor Who.  I have folks who cheer me on from far away states when I run yet another 5K.

And I reciprocate.  Having a tribe is not “what can they do for me”, but how do we support each other?  This year I ordered Girl Scout cookies from Virginia and bought some from down the street.  Prayers are lifted daily for folks I have not seen in years, and a phone call closes the mileage gaps quickly.  Being part of a tribe means pet sitting and errand running, and walking on the beach and traveling to one another, even if it takes longer to get there than it does for the visit.

The winter of 2012 brought a series of deaths to the congregation I serve.  It seemed that every week between mid-November and New Year’s we had a death and a funeral.  The news just kept coming.  One Monday our staff came into the office having received the word of a sudden death and we were numb.  It soon came to be lunchtime and we ordered pizza and sat in an office and ate and were just there for one another.  I still remember sitting on the floor, a greasy slice of pepperoni in my hand, looking around those faces of people I had only known for a year and seeing a group that was, in that moment, family.  We still are like family – and all that comes with that, good and bad.  We are a tribe.

I did not intend to gather a tribe that has doctors and pastors and teachers and trainers.  I did not intend to gather a tribe that swaps pet sitting duties, passes the Kleenex when a good cry is in order, celebrates the successes and joys of life, or speaks the truth in love.  Rather, I looked up one day and saw the richness of the relationships I have with others, and I give thanks for them.

Pastor and Possible Friend: A Perspective of a Clergyperson and Clergy Spouse

friends stoneThe new president of Princeton Seminary wrote an article last December, titled “Pastor, not friend.”  In that article, he reflects on his relationship with a devoted elder of the parish who was shocked—and saddened—when Craig Barnes announced his leaving the parish.  He said “friends don’t treat each other like that.”  Craig responds, “He was right, but I was not his friend, I was his pastor.”

Craig goes on to argue that pastors can not truly be friends with parishioners. And yet, he argues when you do the math, there is little time leftover for other relationships because parishes are such “demanding lovers.”  And, on the one hand, as an Episcopal priest (who happens to be married to an Episcopal priest) I completely understand where the author is coming from. It is difficult to be aware of parish issues, like an on-going fight with one person or another on a committee, and not engage in any discussion about that topic.  Or even something as regular as our stewardship campaign.  Does this parishioner, who is my friend, understand that we have a deficit right now?  Should I mention it or not?  Should I assume they know about the deficit and talk about my anxiety with regard to the budget this year?  These are indeed delicate topics and each one must be discerned from moment to moment.  But, I can’t embrace not having parishioners as friends.

As a mother of two young children who moved across the country to have my husband serve as a rector to a parish in a Philadelphia suburb, the first people to bring us lasagna and take my kids to the playground were parishioners.  The first people who threw me a baby shower for the birth of my third child was the parish’s Moms’ Group.  And, over time we have developed close relationships with some members of the parish.  Of course, there are times when I am deeply aware that I need to be careful about what I say or do, but where would I be without these people?  Where would I find Christian friends who are willing to brainstorm ways that we can observe Lent in our home? Where would I find comfort when I needed people with whom I could pray and not feel weird asking them to do so?

There is something deeply resonant about the incarnational nature of our God.  And, as a priest, I know I have been set-aside to live a life that can be terribly lonely. You live with people’s joy and pain very close to your heart.  But, with that knowledge, I refuse to divorce myself prematurely from relationships because of the belief that I should “not” cross a line and make friends with parishioners. Even our ordination service from the Book of Common Prayer, asks us to pattern our life in holiness, but not alone. After all, in what other aspect of life are you expected to participate fully in the life of your husband’s faith community (which is his work), and your own, and yet not make a single friend?  I don’t believe it’s possible.

Yes, there are times when I wish I could say more to my “church” friends about my life, but with time I have come to understand that I have to reserve these conversations for my husband, a dear friend who lives out of town, or my spiritual director.  It has taken me almost three years to finally feel comfortable as a clergy spouse fully knowing that, at times, people will not like my husband’s decisions—or even him.  And yet, my children will continue to worship in that parish every week, sing in the primary choir, and run around like crazy at the parish pancake suppers.  Indeed, the Christian life is full of paradoxes.  If my husband were a doctor, I would not have to live next door to his medical practice, send my kids to him for weekly medical check-ups, and have chili cook-offs at his office.

In all my time as a seminarian, I never fully thought about what it would be like to be a clergy spouse.  And, now I know that it can be odd to be fully educated and formed as a priest, and be married to a priest.  The dinner table conversations can be interesting when we begin to compare newcomer programs and debate the use of Eucharistic Prayer C.  But, with regard to friends, we both recognize our need to have them—both within and without the parish.  And, because we are merely human we make friends.  And, of course, as mere humans do, we hurt our friends sometimes and they will hurt us, too.  But forgiveness and reconciliation seem a better path than distance and loneliness.

So, I say to the faith communities of which we are a part I will always be your pastor (or your pastor’s wife.). I may also come to be your friend.  Just as in any trusting and mature relationship, together we will discern what is best to share with each other—and when.  But, please don’t write me off as some pie-in-the-sky priest or pastor who doesn’t feel, think, and desire relationship just as much as you do. After all, in John’s gospel, Jesus even goes as far as to say that he will lay down his life for his friends.  And, he’s not talking about Facebook friends.  He’s not talking about pastoral boundaries. Instead, he is offering us a relationship with him of deep intimacy—a holy offer for sure.   A friend is a holy and beautiful gift, parishioner or not. A friend is someone with whom we share the integrity of our lives and live out the incarnational nature of our Christian faith.

Finding Church

There was silence on our phone connection, which granted me enough time to put on my pastor hat, even if I was reluctant to adorn this accessory with my family members. It didn’t matter though. I was going to wear the hat anyhow. It went so damn well with my shoes, even if my stepmother couldn’t see this fashion miracle through telecommunication.

“Have you told people at the church?” I asked. Without giving her adequate time to answer I added, “Have you told the minister?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m not sure I can share this.”

“Maybe not,” I agreed. “And that’s OK. But, I know the church is important to you and you might want to consider that as a support network with all that is happening in the family.”

I heard these words echo in my head only a few days ago, when I was having coffee with a member of the church I serve. I had told my stepmother to seek what I cannot have, because I have been called to serve the church family. I have been called to be the support network. That’s what this church member didn’t understand. She sipped her coffee and searched my face for some explanation of how I could survive without that kind of support – that support that is hard to characterize unless you have found its sacred wonder. It was that support that saved me, and I am called to create it for others, but it is the one thing that I don’t get to experience in my ministry in the church I serve. Read more

Love Thy Neighbor

I moved in two months later. By then I felt like myself again, and had even met a man in the new town, but I was still nervous about not having friends in this new community. As I moved in, I noticed several people about my age around the neighborhood. Not knowing what else to do, I threw a “Welcome myself to the neighborhood” dessert party, and invited all my neighbors.

That was one of the best decisions I have ever made. What was scheduled to be a three-hour, mid-afternoon open house, turned into an eight-hour party, replete with food, festive beverages and board games. I came to realize that my neighbors on either side of me were both named Sarah, and we assigned ourselves the titles Sarah1, Sarah2 (that’s me) and Sarah3. While the woman in the fourth house is named Mandy, she too became part of our circle of friends. Read more