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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.

Submit? I’d Rather Not

When my husband made the decision to become partner at the ranch, a part of me felt betrayed.

As a pastor who leads day in and day out, I feel comfortable when I am the primary authority, giving vision and guidance to others on how things need to be done. But as a woman in an egalitarian relationship with a man, I feel less comfortable—all right, I admit it: I feel very angry—when I hear the word “submit.” The very word makes me feel gross. Gross, for the million ways abuse has transpired under the guise of religious teaching. Gross, for the countless opportunities this word has allowed self-avowed Christian men to ridicule, demean, and belittle the women in their lives. Gross, for all the reasons submission seems like such a backward notion after you have experienced the freedom of life in Christ.

Nevertheless, I have learned that I need to reclaim the essential idea of submission, using language appropriate for a 21st century covenantal relationship, for the sake of a healthier and more life-giving relationship with my spouse. My husband and I struggled for several years early in our marriage. One of the biggest tension points is how we made decisions. I’m stubborn, and my husband arguably moreso.

A few years into our marriage, our therapist gave us tools to discern that we both have ENFP personality profiles, according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Knowing one’s personality type alone can’t determine a relationship’s health, but we did learn plenty about how we make choices together. When we’re on the same page, life is grand. And when we disagree, well…heaven and hell can’t sway either one of us. Being willing to submit is not a strength we possess.

I know, I know. I used the seemingly forbidden word: submit. It still rubs me the wrong way when I hear it, but in my quest to strengthen my own marriage (and, providentially, as part of the required reading for my graduate school courses), I happened upon the work of John Gottman. Ever heard of him? He’s not Jesus, and his narrative is hetero-normative, but he does offer some pretty excellent insights in his book called The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work.

The first time I read this book, I began to see patterns of conflict within my own relationship more clearly. Specifically, I saw the ways I resisted my husband’s influence in my life (a no-no, according to principle #4). Yes, I loved him. Of course, I wanted to support him. But let him influence the way I make decisions? Now that’s a bit too far! It sounds an awful lot like submission. My response to John Gottman was the same as to the Apostle Paul: “Submit? I’d rather not; thanks anyway!”

At that point I had been married for three years. This week my husband and I celebrate nine years of hard-earned marriage. One thing I’ve gradually come to terms with, thanks to John Gottman and Jesus the Christ, is the need to let my husband influence me. I still don’t easily do this. It’s a discipline I cultivate day after day, and only because I’ve seen the real value it offers my marriage. It’s also something I expect of my spouse, because this principle only works when it’s given and received. Oh, but what a gift it can be! Read more

silhouette profile of a woman with long hair

She Is Someone

silhouette profile of a woman with long hair

“How’s your hubby?”

“Where is your husband?”

“What’s your fella up to?”

“You should have brought your husband today!”

I am new clergy, recently graduated from seminary, and four months into my first call as an associate pastor. The questions above are what I am asked every single Sunday and frequently when I encounter congregants through the week. Often, they ask this question without even saying hello to me first or asking how I am doing. In fact, one Sunday I had a woman physically grab my arm as I was walking by in the fellowship hall to stop me and ask, “Where is your husband?” I pointed to him at the food table where he was filling a plate. “Oh! I didn’t see him!” she replied and then walked away from me without another word. She didn’t even approach him to say hello. Why was it so important that she knew where he was, where she could physically lay eyes on him? He doesn’t come every Sunday, and he doesn’t have to. He has his own business to tend to on Sunday mornings.

As independent people, he and I have separate plans. I tried to gently explain this in our monthly newsletter saying, “My husband and I are pretty independent people, so don’t be worried or surprised if you don’t see him in worship all the time!” (With an exclamation mark added so that it didn’t come off as threatening.)  But I am not sure the message has gotten across.

I know that what I do as a pastor is appreciated. There have been encouragement and compliments about my sermons, my teaching in Sunday school, and the prayers I write for the liturgy. I just know that with a compliment comes the questions about my husband. While I know these questions are well-meaning, as this church is trying to get to know me and be invested in my life, it can be hurtful and frustrating. Why is my husband’s well-being of more concern to some people than my own? My husband has been and continues to be an incredible support to me, but we aren’t a package deal. We’re not a two-for-one special. Why am I not enough? Read more

Wedding Season

The author’s wedding cake, 2008

It’s that time of year once again: Wedding Season! Young clergy women are here to offer some helpful advice and words of wisdom to the happy couples and their family and friends. Let the wedding bells ring!

Planning:

  • If you want to get married in a church and/or by a clergy person, contact the church and clergy person before finalizing the date! Make sure you have read and agree to comply with any policies of the church and the officiant. Make sure your vendors (photographer/videographer, wedding coordinators, etc.) have also read and agree to comply with the church and officiant policies.
  • Do not assume that you can simply rent a church and bring in your own officiant. Most churches have policies about this. If it isn’t clear in the wedding policies, ask.
  • Know that most clergy require some kind of premarital sessions with the couple, so plan accordingly.
  • Research local and state laws regarding wedding licenses. It is the COUPLE’S responsibility to secure the wedding license, and you will need to do this within a certain time period before the wedding. Don’t come to the wedding rehearsal without it! Make a clear plan for how the license will be filed. Will you or a family member be mailing it? The clergy person?
  • It’s a big day, but it’s not the only day. Be mindful of your budget. Starting off a marriage with a huge debt for wedding festivities is not advised! Also remember that just as your photographer, cake baker, and musicians are professionals paid for services they provide, so is the clergy person. For many weddings, clergy will put in 10-20 hours of additional work, often on days and at times where they would otherwise be off. If the clergy person is required to travel, all expenses should be paid, including a hotel room if overnight accommodations are needed. Clergy might have set fees, which will be communicated clearly, or they might have sliding scales or leave it to the discretion of the couple. Remember that the clergy person has at least one advanced professional degree, and is putting significant time and energy into your big day, and compensate accordingly.
  • We know, we know – online ordination is a thing, and your best friend, your cousin’s uncle, or any Joe Schmo off the street can become credentialed to officiate. That’s not really equivalent to having an ordained, trained, and experienced clergy person as an officiant. If you do choose to go that route, please don’t ask a clergy person to lend expertise.

That “religious” thing:

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An Open Letter to the “Minister” in my Facebook Feed

Dear Facebook acquaintance,

Since we haven’t actually talked or seen each other since middle school, let me just start by saying I’m aware that you’re hearing from me out of the blue. We connected several years ago through the magic of Facebook, where I learned that you’ve become a lawyer, enjoy the party scene, are friends with lots of beautiful women, and have some pretty strong political opinions. Looks like you’re enjoying life and succeeding well at it.

Speaking of Facebook, you shared a picture recently that we need to talk about. It was a picture of you officiating a wedding on a beach somewhere. It looked lovely – beautiful setting, beautiful couple, all that. But I was shocked to see you wearing a clerical collar, that little white square of plastic at the base of your neck contrasted against a black shirt, that unmistakable uniform of the clergy – one I wear every day. I didn’t know you had become a priest! How cool! However, a little bit of internet sleuthing revealed that you got ordained online, and wore the uniform to be funny (and that you were never going to let your devout Catholic mother see that picture. I think that’s wise, because I remember her, and she’d kill you if she saw it.).

In case you haven’t taken the time to scroll through my Facebook page, you should know that I actually am a priest. After leaving my first career as a teacher, I went to seminary (a three-year, full-time graduate program), got my Masters in Divinity, did several internships in churches and hospitals, went through years of meetings with committees and governing boards, medical and psychiatric evaluations, and was finally ordained in a very beautiful and moving ceremony. I have been working as a full-time pastor for the last six years.

I’m surprised by how many people have asked why I went through this long and crazy process when I could have just gotten ordained online. That question has never been anything less than a stab in the heart: it tells me that people have no idea what clergy actually do. Being ordained isn’t about getting a piece of paper certifying my credentials. It’s about a calling by God, a life commitment, and work that is more difficult and holy than you could ever imagine. Read more

Book cover for Very Married

Very Married

Book cover for Very MarriedThe other day I had a mortifying experience at the local breakfast cafe. A friend and I had met to go over plans for the party she’s planning to celebrate the release of my forthcoming book, Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity. On our way out, we passed a table of teachers from the elementary school. As we chatted, the purpose of our lunch date came up. Of course one of the women asked about my book. I froze and frantically glanced at my friend for help, but she’s on board to help with party favors, not elevator speeches. She laughed, nervously, “We’re still working on that.”

When I’m not paralyzed by fleeting waves of social anxiety, I could tell you that Very Married is an apologia for marriage, one that is candid about the agony, ecstasy, and tedium of wedlock. I could tell you that it’s a blend of cultural commentary, theological reflection, and personal narrative. I could even mention that I received the invitation to write the book after I wrote an article for the Christian Century that became the magazine’s most-read article online in 2015.

But that confident description of the book is laced with subtext – subtext which is largely responsible for my persistent unease. That tidy phrase, “personal narrative?” It means what you think it means: my book about marriage is largely rooted in stories about my marriage. It’s not quite a memoir, but it is decidedly memoir-ish. I experienced searing vulnerability when I published my first memoir-ish book a few years ago. That one was mostly about motherhood, but it was my few forays into the territory of our marriage that made me feel truly exposed. Read more

You Are My Beloved

OnesWeLoveJuneImage“My beloved speaks and says to me: Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

I’ve been involved in planning quite a few weddings over the years, including my own, and I can tell you that one of the trickiest parts is choosing music. I’m a big fan of our Episcopal hymnal, but it really falls short when it comes to wedding hymns. There are precisely four hymns in the section titled “Marriage.” They are numbers 350 to 353, and I can pretty much guarantee that even if you are Episcopalian, you’ve never heard of any of them, because they’re never used. There are plenty of other fabulous hymns that people use at weddings, and of course, there are many songs for choirs or soloists. But there are hardly any actual wedding hymns.

So a few years ago, when my wife and I agreed to make each other Christmas presents instead of buying things, I decided to write her a wedding hymn. I drew on the image of the beloved in Song of Songs, which is often read at weddings, and I set it to the tune of her favorite Christmas carol: “In The Bleak Midwinter.” Read more

The Not-So-Single-Anymore Rev.

3039180812_bd138dc155_zI never set out to become an independent woman, but throughout my adult life, that’s what I have been. Looking back, I ended up where I am as much by chance as much as choice. I’ve lived in many places in the last several years: Tennessee where I finished up college, and Kentucky where I moved home for a year to figure out what on earth was next. I moved to Atlanta for seminary, then Kansas City for my first full-time job, and Phoenix for my second full-time job. Except for home, I didn’t know anyone before I moved there. I met people by joining MeetUp groups, fitness classes, and talking to strangers in bars.

I guess as a pastor, I should give credit to God instead of chance, but the many steps along the way added up mostly to necessity. Still, at 31, I’ve never had a cell phone that someone else paid for. The name on the apartment leases and the utility bills have been mine for going on ten years. The student loans taken out and repaid in full were in my name, too. I bought my car on my own; after the dealership ran my credit, they no longer cared that I couldn’t provide all those addresses I’d called “home” in the previous seven years.

In the midst of it all, I became a woman who was ever more independent. Read more

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

The author and her husband

Spiritual Safety

The author and her husband

The author and her husband

Wardrobe choices. That’s what my husband and I were fighting about that evening. It was like an episode of “What Not To Wear” was playing in front of our closet.

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