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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

picture of author

When the Professional is Personal

The author sporting the hip, professional look cultivated by her hair stylist.

The author sporting the hip, professional look cultivated by her hair stylist.

When the pastor’s phone rings, you never know who or what is on the other end of the line. It could be good news—the birth of a baby, an invitation to collaborate on a community initiative, or a good medical report. Often, though, answering the phone as a pastor can be a bit more fraught. We are called when accidents happen, when assistance is needed, and when problems arise. I often find that I brace myself when the phone rings, without even realizing it.

A few months ago, I answered to hear an unfamiliar voice. It was my hair salon. “Your stylist has moved away. Could we schedule you with someone else?” I was silent on the other end of the phone, taking in the information. My mind reeled: “How could this be? I knew nothing about this! She never even told me she was thinking of moving. How could she just up and leave?”

I was entirely surprised by my reaction – why was I being so overdramatic? Yet, in a very real way, her move felt like a real loss. A friend gone. A relationship just plucked out of my life. I couldn’t bear the thought of scheduling with someone else, so I canceled the appointment.

I had been with my hair stylist over 7 years – the same amount of time I’ve served in my second call as a solo pastor. Although my call has been the same, my personal life has drastically changed. I’ve gone from a 30-year-old, single, young clergy woman to a late-30s, married with child, not-so-young clergy woman. My hair stylist had been with me through all the changes.

She knew me before I established a community here, and offered an open heart and listening ear. She helped me find the right professional yet hip looking hairdo. She helped me refine my look as I met, dated, and got engaged to my now husband. She made me look simply beautiful on my wedding day. When I became a mom, but couldn’t find a sitter, she and her colleagues entertained my newborn so I could have the much needed self-care of a good haircut.

Every time I went in, she hugged me tight, intimately washed and massaged my head, and skillfully cut my thick frizzy hair into something beautiful. Every time I went in, her first question was: “Is everyone behaving at church?” My stylist was one of the people in my life who always accepted me just as I am. She was one of those rare people who not only respected my vocation, but reveled in it.

I only realized how much she meant to me as the months went by and my usually well-groomed hair grew into a long unmanageable mop atop my head. Not only did I miss the way I looked, but I missed her. I felt sad that I’d never hear more about her family or her travels or hear her contagious laugh. So I decided to seek her out and send a goodbye message via Facebook Messenger. Then, as I typed her first name into the search, I realized something: I didn’t even know her last name. She knew me intimately, but how well did I really know her? Of course she didn’t tell me she was moving. We weren’t friends. She was my stylist. Read more

When Love Blurs

Helms and her husband, Greg, lead weekly “devos” from their home for neighborhood youth at QC Family Tree.

I know we’re not supposed to have favorites, but let me tell you about my favorite. I met her ten years ago. Her brother was an active member of our neighborhood youth group. He’d walk a few blocks from his house to ours to hang out or participate in an activity. Then, he moved. Their new house was only a mile away and it was important to us that we kept our connection, so one of us would volunteer regularly to go and pick him up for activities. I hadn’t before spent much time at his house, but now I was making several trips a week to his front door.

I wasn’t sure who’d answer the door when I knocked. There were six siblings, a parent, and often a friend of the family staying there. After a few visits, I learned to expect that she and her little sister would be the ones to greet me. I took this front door opportunity to introduce myself and strike up a conversation. Then, I simply asked, “Would you like to go with us?” The girls looked sheepishly back at their mother. Once they got the nod to go ahead, they bounded out the door with excitement and a tad bit of nervousness.

After a short time living away from the neighborhood, the family moved back. Ten years later and these girls have become family. Some seasons in our relationship, we have gone only a few hours between visits. They’ve gone on just about every youth trip, babysat my children, taken care of our dog and house when we were away, listened intently as I’ve preached sermons, gone with us on family vacations, and have nurtured me in some of my most tender moments.

You know the blurry line of being in ministry and being in relationship? Nature or nurture – we’re taught to set boundaries. We’re not supposed to fall in love with the ones to whom we minister. Some might advise refraining even from friendships with congregants. Yet, we’re called to a ministry of love and authenticity. Plus, we are humans who have a deep capacity and desire to love and be loved. This makes boundaries tricky to set and keep. 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

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.

People meeting up

Sometimes You Just Need to See the Love

People meeting upMany of our members have excitedly jumped on board for our very first Meet-Up Week, scheduled for February 16-21, 2014.  (If you’re still looking for one to attend, the link to the map is here.)

But maybe you’re hanging back, waiting to see how it goes first before jumping in.  Or maybe you’re thinking “I am way too busy to add anything else to my schedule,” or “there is nobody anywhere close to me.”  Maybe gathering with other clergy women of any age is considered suspect, or at least odd, in your denomination.  If you’re not currently a member of the project but fit within our audience, maybe you’re still testing the waters of The Young Clergy Women Project.

Meet-Up Week is a way to dip your toes in before deciding whether to take the plunge and get involved in the Project.  But more importantly, it’s a way to carry out the Project’s mission: to remind young clergy women everywhere that they are not the only ones.  What better way to do that than by actually gathering together in person?

Several metropolitan areas have standing YCW gatherings that meet on a regular basis.  They are already reaping the benefits of gathering in person.  And not all of them are in large cities, as you might assume.  (Portland, Oregon?  Oklahoma City?  Albany, New York?  All have their own regularly meeting young clergy women group.)

What happens at these gatherings?  Here’s a sampling:

  • Close friendships, beyond mere acquaintance
  • Colleague relationships that are actually supportive
  • Accountability—but also a safe place to vent and brainstorm how to deal with tough situations
  • Resource and idea sharing (Can you all help me with our wedding policy and fees?  What commentary/curriculum did you use again?  What did you say when you negotiated your maternity leave?  How am I supposed to deal with my senior pastor/council president/deacon/elder/clerk of session/trustees/rector/secretary?  You get the idea.)
  • People who just “get it”–no explanation required
  • Common ground that transcends denominations
  • Shopping buddies for buying clericals and vestments
  • A safe place to discern and ponder transitions and moves (many groups are ecumenical…so don’t worry, these women aren’t from your presbytery/conference/synod/classis/cluster/etc.)
  • Connections made for the sake of young clergy women everywhere, not to mention future young clergy women

Chalk it up to the Incarnation—technology is great, but there’s just nothing like being together in the same room.  As one YCW put it, “Sometimes you just need to see the love and support you have.  Gathering once or twice a month is a life-giving thing for me.  We’ve been meeting for 1.5 years now and I eagerly look forward to it each and every month.”  Another YCW in the same group shared, “It [this group] is one of the few places I can be wholly me—clergy, mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend.  These women know all about my life, all the parts, and we support one another fully.”

Our annual Young Clergy Women conferences are another place to find this support, but even if everyone had access to the time, money, and childcare needed to attend, let’s get real: the conference only happens once a year!  It takes time to develop the trust and safety necessary.  Meet-ups have the ability to provide the deeper support we need, when we need it, where we need it.

So if you’ve been on the side of the pool, wondering if this is the party for you, kick off your flip-flops and dip your toes in.  You never know, you might just find the very thing that will keep you afloat for years to come.

Telling the Old, Old Story

“Preparations were carefully made. All the people who expected to participate were very sure that their feet were already clean and had nice new hose.  White sheets were hung up separating the men from the women. A pan of water was provided for each group and two long towels.  Then one after another looped the towel about his waist, washed another’s feet and dried them with the towel until all had been washed.  It was a very solemn occasion, one felt very humble and I have seen the tears streaming down their faces as their feet were being washed.  They were thinking of the time the Savior washed his disciples’ feet. “~ From Big Sunday at Friendship Baptist Church, Ola Shields Deckard

 I have a binder; an old black one I pack away carefully in a crate filled with my journals as well as folders of papers I read only when I need a shot of self-confidence.  Every so often I pull the black binder out and leaf through it carefully as though turning pages might cause the papers to crumble.  The pages, type-written years ago on a word processor before computers were prevalent or affordable and rough with perforations from the dot matrix printer, carry the memories in story and poems of my maternal great-grandmother, Ola Shields Deckard.  A school teacher and farmer’s wife, Ola raised 6 children, the second-youngest of which was my grandmother.

She passed before I was born of course, but the binder is filled with her recollections of childhood, of raising her family, of travel and of church.  I’m not sure how old I was when I first read these pages, but I have carried them through four states and six different residences and they never fail to make me a bit teary.  They communicate not merely a sense of family history, but also a sense of scripture, as though somehow infused with holiness and speaking revelation.  The stories aren’t great masterpieces but they are vivid nonetheless, relating image and smell and texture and feeling in ways that ring true and broaden understanding.  Ola’s writings invite me into her world and, in turn, to see mine with her eyes.

At extended family gatherings, one only has to bring up her name to spend the next few hours listening to her grand and great-grand children share their own memories and contest each others’ versions of events or portrayals of her character.  For many she was harsh and intimidating, living in the second half of the 20th century but adhering to traditions and attitudes of the first.  My aunt, everyone agrees, was the favorite, somehow turning the strict schoolmarm into an indulgent granny.

 

It is here, in the midst of these stories that I learned to see the world in story form.

 

For better or worse I’m a story-teller, interpreting the world around me with a very particular type of structure, looking always for the narrator’s biases, for how the tale builds and falls. From sitting quietly listening to family stories, I understood before I could really articulate it that no one narrative is ever complete, that each narrator has a perspective and a purpose.  Ola writes about her father attending church regularly but deciding year after year to resist affirming his faith.  Eventually, he admits that while “the church can get along without me, I can’t do without the church any longer” and Ola believes that “no doubt there was rejoicing among the angels in heaven over one sinner coming home.”

It makes me wonder how the story would change if told by her father. Is it stage fright that keeps him from publicly declaring his faith that way? Did he simply believe that his faith did not need testimonial, that his life spoke his commitment? Or did he harbor questions and doubts that made him feel somehow unfit to call himself a Christian?  I read Ola’s description of a creek-side baptism service and wonder what it looks like through the eyes of the newly baptized or those waiting on the shore to go next.  How does the preacher feel, out there in the center with his arm around the man’s back, his hands clasped to his chest, guiding him below the waters and raising him to new life?

Through this I know the questions and fears many people harbor, the uncertainty and suspicion with which the church can be viewed.  I know that all of those things lie within me as well.  And because I know that my grandmother began attending First Christian Church because she wanted to be married in the biggest (and most beautiful, she thought) church in town, I know that it is not only community and security that motivates people to join churches, but also sometimes a self-serving agenda.

In the end, Ola’s stories strike me as scriptural because they reflect and bear witness to the true nature of the Biblical text as well.  The scope of scripture reveals the myriad narratives of humanity’s relationship to the Divine, to that which feels bigger than ourselves and manifests differently in different times and to different people.  This is how, and why, I fell in love with God’s grand story and why I keep trying to tell it again and again with a multitude of voices — one of which I know is Ola’s.

“Make up a story…
For our sake and yours forget your name in the street;
tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light.
Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear.
Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”
– Toni Morrison

Job Hunting for the Two Career Couple: When the Right Call Is Not the Church

fargoneI sat on the bed, listening to the shower. At my feet there was a massive pile of laundry, mostly my husband’s clothes. He was packing a large suitcase and moving to the East coast for a job. For the second time in 12 months, we were going to be separated.

When we first met, we were graduate students. In our blind optimism, we assumed that we would work hard, get good grades, and find work anywhere. We had no idea that the Great Recession was months away from crashing down upon us, and we had no inkling that a prestigious, demanding school which is well-recognized in the East would carry zero weight in the West. He graduated with distinction in Connecticut. Two years later, his job hunt has been fruitless in Oregon. In desperation, he accepted a position in Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park, and we separated for the first time a little over a year ago.

A two career couple has been a very difficult thing in ministry. I find it has been a constant dance of discernment, opportunity, and choice. On one hand, I love that he has different, non-church work. He keeps me real. Sometimes I wish that he was a nurse or a dentist or some other highly transportable profession, but the reality is that he is gifted with artifacts. But one of us (me) believes that God is in charge of my career path. And it was dawning on me that Oregon, the beautiful breezy place where I thought we had found our dream, left him with a choice between living  here and taking a job cleaning out dog kennels, or living apart and having a professional job. I couldn’t ask my spouse to make that sacrifice. But I also couldn’t believe that God would bring two people together, only to split them up. How could God ask that, even of a priest?

There have been ways to cope. We prioritized face-to-face communication. We Skype every night and have “happy hour dates”. (We each make a drink and call each other.) We text constantly – his early morning messages arrive while I sleep.  But we spent Thanksgiving apart, he eating oysters with his brother in Maryland, me sharing stuffing with a coworker in Eugene. Every night, we sleep alone. I snuggle his pillow and negotiate space with his cats, who spent last week sulking in his closet, buried under the clothes he left behind. We used an app called Couple to share secrets.

Unbidden, negative emotions have roiled. I became jealous that he could spend Sundays watching football on his best friend’s couch, knowing I would come home to a dirty cat box and a cold kitchen after a grueling day. I panicked when I couldn’t reach him, so we decided to install “Find My Friends” app which we call “iPhone Stalker” so we can tell if the non-answering person is on the road. He gets frustrated when I email a dozen articles overnight during my frequent insomnia bouts. Trash talking via text message leads to fast misunderstandings when he threatens to pick up Tom Brady as his fantasy quarterback against my strident objections. Sometimes, it feels like we spend most of our time apologizing to each other.

Good friends saved my bacon. Time after time, friends talked me off my ledge when I had convinced myself it was the end.  They shared so many stories of breakups, separations, reconciliations. They told me of the bruises in their own loves, and reminded me to see the best in my spouse. Friends convinced me to see a counselor at my lowest point.

Deciding whether love or career won out was agony. As a priest, my life is so public. Parishioners worried, knowing he was gone. Why had such a happy couple split up? One person suggested that, since we had no children, a divorce would be easy. What kind of couple would choose to live apart? I can point to Gabrielle Giffords and her astronaut husband Mark Kelly, or to military couples, but the reality is that those couples have resources and innate support systems than I did.  We honestly questioned: was this really the end? Did God call me here to show me that my calling as a priest was more important than any relationship out there – spouse, family, friends? For one horrible week, we talked about divorce.

I loved my job, my people, my town. I thought this was my dream. Yet the dream hadn’t accounted for distance from family and friends. I missed major East Coast milestones. My dream was killing my spouse’s spirit. I couldn’t bear to disappoint or hurt anyone – I imagined waves of anger and disappointment flooding towards me no matter what.

The reality is that church work is tight. The reality is that it’s difficult for women. Changing jobs can be a political dance. Was it the right time to leave? Would it be a bad career move?  Would a future church look down on my moving? Could I take the time to seek a job I truly felt called to, or should I just choose the first option that would bring me back? Logically, I knew we weren’t alone. During this year, at least five other couples in my circle of friends moved away from our small town. Who was being the selfish one in our little twosome – him for taking fellowship offers, or me for sitting on our deck looking out over the rolling hills and not wanting to move? Was I just paralyzed by fear of disappointing people?

Finally, the financial stress was unbelievable. We have always been a fairly frugal couple. But after years of grad school, then a major car repair, then a year of unemployment, followed by another car crisis, my once-healthy emergency fund was screaming for relief. We needed more money, money that wasn’t going to be found in my paralysis.

Making the choice to leave the parish has been the hardest one I have ever made. How could I get so involved in people’s lives, only to leave when my own got tough? People were in love; I wanted to watch them get married. People were pregnant with babies or waiting for adoption matches; I wanted to be there when the babies were baptized. We were getting ready to remodel our kitchen and parish hall; I wanted to walk the new labyrinth and sit in the center.

At the end of the day, I hadn’t actually taken vows to the parish, yet I was treating it as though it had more claim on my love and care than the actual husband. We had always said that the place that was right for one of us was the place that was right for both of us. My heart broke as I finally admitted my parish wasn’t it.

After I dropped him off at the airport and returned home, I opened up the Transition Ministry Newsletters and began emailing my information to open churches. For the sake of love, it was time to leave.

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.