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two gold rings on top of a Bible

Sacramental Presence

two gold rings on top of a Bible

As a single person, I need to remember that–while officiating weddings–I am a billboard for the unexpected and unearned favor of our Lord and Maker.

There are a number of things that I like about being single. I like changing into my sweatpants as soon as I get home from work. I like eating spaghetti and not worrying about how inelegantly or noisily I slurp up the noodles. I like having my own bathroom; I’m not grossed out by the hair in the shower in the same way as I would be by the sight of someone else’s hair. I like having complete autonomy over what entertainment to consume. I was on a date once, and after dinner the man asked if I wanted to get coffee and continue to talk. I politely and swiftly declined – I realized that I would rather go home and watch a DVD by myself than have the date continue. It was clarifying to realize that I preferred my own company than his. I watched the DVD and went to bed, enjoying a full night’s rest under the warmth of all the covers. Solitude has its perks.

Nevertheless, when it comes to officiating weddings, I feel very much at the disadvantage. Who am I to counsel couples as they make this serious and binding commitment, one that I have never made? Recently, I did pre-marital counseling with a couple who were planning to get married in my church’s historic chapel. They seemed appreciative of our counseling sessions. I created space for them to reflect, I asked questions, and I closed each session with prayer. I did not try to pretend that I was drawing from vast personal experience in dating and relationships during the counseling sessions.

But, as I considered what to say during my wedding homily, I felt my singleness acutely. I felt like an imposter. I feared my advice would be of little worth. Mercifully, I saw my friend Peter a few days before the wedding. Peter was a Catholic priest for many years and he officiated hundreds of weddings as a single, celibate priest. I asked him what weddings were like for him and what kind of advice I could give to a couple about to be married when I was single myself. He replied, “Emily, you are a sacrament. It is not so much important what you say. They aren’t going to remember much of that. But they will remember that you were there with them, that you loved and gave yourself to them that day. That’s what’s important: the sacramental nature of your presence.” Read more

Single at 28 (and 82)

Sometimes being a single woman in ministry is awkward. When a very hospitable mother-of-the-bride stuck by my side for the entire wedding reception because she knew I was there alone, it was a little awkward. When kind parishioners asked what I was doing after Christmas Eve services were over and I had to confess that I was going home to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas alone in my pajamas while making a dinner out of the Christmas cookies they baked for me, it was awkward. When my denomination’s Search and Call paperwork used to include a “Describe Your Present Family” section and I ended up writing a whole paragraph about my cat, it was definitely awkward. When I received an invitation to a community event for “pastors and their wives,” it was super awkward (and super sexist).

Most days I am perfectly happy with my single-rev life. Never have I thought being single made me a less-competent minister than my partnered peers. But occasionally, when I have fumbled my way through one of these moments, I’ve wondered if a spouse would make some of this ministry stuff just a little less…awkward.

One day after a church clean-up event, when all of the flowerbeds had been mulched and all of the pews polished, I was invited out to lunch. As I grabbed my purse from my office, I heard an elderly widow of the congregation ask in the next room, “Is the pastor going?” “I think so,” someone replied. “Okay,” she said, “Then I’ll go, too.”

At first I didn’t think anything of this exchange. I assumed this woman just wanted a few minutes to privately update me on a friend who was in the hospital or ask me a question about Sunday’s sermon. But when we got to the restaurant, she didn’t mention either of those things. In fact, she barely spoke directly to me at all. Read more

woman sitting alone in coffee shop

Narrative Envy

woman sitting alone in coffee shopNot long ago, I was making small talk with a new acquaintance before a board meeting began, and we were sharing about our recent respective vacations. I said, “I went to Chicago with my parents, and we had a lot of fun exploring the many museums, restaurants, and Frank Lloyd Wright houses.” She made some affirming listening noises, but then she paused. “So …you don’t have a family?”

I felt trapped by the limitations of her question. I had said that I had been traveling with my parents, but obviously they didn’t constitute a family in this woman’s mind. I could say that I’m a thoroughly invested aunt to my sister’s children, but that seemed to circumvent the intent of her question. So, resignedly, I gave her the answer she sought, “No, I do not have children; I’m not married.”

This happens to me more often than I’d like in my Midwestern context. I’ll meet a new female acquaintance and one of the first questions she’ll ask is, “Do you have children?” When I reply in the negative, I sense that she pulls back emotionally. Since we don’t have that common point of connection, I assume, she decides I am not someone with whom she can relate. One woman persevered and questioned, “Do you have a dog?” I do not. I am not a dog person. At that point, she gave up. I felt deemed to have a boring and pitiable existence.

It is difficult for me because this place of greatest scrutiny is also the place of my current greatest pain. I would love to be married and to have children. But that has not been my narrative up to this point.

The tenth commandment is, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” More often than not, I do not covet my neighbor’s house but rather my neighbor’s narrative. I covet the common narrative of adulthood, which is that you grow up, get married, and have kids. Read more

Single Sabbath

I’m sure it’s not what our church leadership intends, but I have developed a reflexive twitch of annoyance whenever I hear the words “Sabbath rest” or “self-care.” I’m not a martyr pastor who thinks the church can’t exist without me – my ego isn’t healthy enough for that. I just believe we need to reframe the conversation so that our conversations about Sabbath and self-care reflect the spiritual diversity of our clergy siblings.

Early in my ministry at my first church, my senior pastor suggested that my Sabbath day should be spent in silence and reflection because I spend the rest of my week being a talkative extrovert. I took the kind hint and stopped chatting with him as often, but it also made me think about how we talk about the practice of Sabbath. When I attend clergy gatherings, conferences, or annual conferences, they often talk about ways to deepen our spiritual practices. We hear stories of silent retreats, days spent hiking alone listening to God, setting aside time for prayer and meditation in silence and solitude. All beautiful, important parts of a well-rounded spiritual life, all assuming that I am drained by the time I spend around other people.

I think the unique solitude of singleness is sometimes lost in the larger conversations about the loneliness that clergy often face. Read more

silhouette of woman on beach on a cloudy day or evening

Not That Girl

silhouette of woman on beach on a cloudy day or eveningOne day, not too long ago, I saw this article titled “I’m 33 and Have Never Been Kissed” reposted on Huffington Post. The heading intrigued me and as I read on and on, an all-too-familiar feeling settled in my soul. See, I, too, am 33 and have never been kissed. And it’s only in the last couple of years that I have (hesitantly) shared that in very limited circles. One of those circles was the Single YCW group, a Facebook subgroup of The Young Clergy Women Project. It didn’t take too long to realize that one of the things that has made me feel so alone and isolated is not actually something I struggle with alone.

As a pastor, I often fall into the trap of holding up the ideal for a healthy, happy life as one that is partnered with 2.5 children. I often put aside my sadness and grief over a life of perpetual loneliness so that I can focus on ministry with family units who appear to have the life I want. It’s easier to do that than to try and figure out how to do this very real ministry with people like me who need to know that they are part of the community, too, as single people.

Perhaps it’s my own feelings of shame around the reality that I am not just a single 33 year old, but I have never been on a date, never kissed a romantic interest, never even had the chance to say “I’m waiting for marriage” (which, by the way, was never actually a vocalized value of my family-of-origin) and struggle with deciding about sex. Notice that I can’t even totally say the word that I really am. Yeah – I just took a big sigh to say it – I’m a virgin. In every sense. 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

road at sunset

Life in All Its Awesomeness

road at sunsetLast week, at a continuing-education event with my peers, I was invited to draw or write my life map. The facilitator held up hers as an example, talking the group through it. She spoke of being born in a particular year, a bit about her childhood, her university days, and then went on to marriage and motherhood punctuated with high points of professional achievement.

Now writing or drawing a life map is far from uncharted territory for me. This was at least the fourth or fifth time I had done this exercise, so I might quip that I have an exceptionally well-mapped life.

The thing is, though, that my life map doesn’t fit the cookie cutter pattern of birth-childhood-school-university-job-relationship(s)-commitment/marriage-children (and still doing well at work, thank you very much). You see, at the age of 37, I still haven’t got around to the relationship-marriage-children bit of the curve, and I’m far from convinced that my future will be so conventional. Read more

Tiny plate with tiny heart and tiny fork

Valentine’s Survival for the Single Rev

Tiny plate with tiny heart and tiny forkValentine’s Day can be hard for single folks. This year, since it happens to fall on the first Sunday of Lent, it may be a particular challenge for single clergywomen. I asked some single members of The Young Clergy Women Project how they deal with the mushy romance of Valentine’s Day as single women. None of these strategies can prevent the ever-so-awkward comments or questions that a Single Rev. sometimes gets from well-meaning church folks, but here are a few clergywomen’s tips for getting through February 14th. Read more

Counseling and the Single Girl

Did You Really Just Say That?

We walk a fine line between appropriate and inappropriate attention as female pastors.

Despite having encountered a variety of bizarre advances while performing my ministerial duties, I still have no idea of the best way to respond to them (I occasionally offer people the opportunity to rewind and begin again, but not everyone finds that as amusing as I do). The most frustrating thing about it for me is my sense of helplessness in those situations – the feeling that I can’t defend myself without compromising something else about my ministerial identity.

When I was a bartender, there was no question in my mind about whether or how I could let people know when they’d overstepped the boundary. Likewise, when I’m just a woman out in the world, I don’t hesitate to be direct in fending off unwanted advances. Get me in my preaching suit and put me in front of a congregation, however, and suddenly I feel like I have to just suck it up and take it. As a result, I deeply resent comments that would just make me roll my eyes and toss off a snappy comeback in any other context.

Now, I realize that married clergywomen also deal with unwanted advances, but it’s different when you’re single. “I’m married” draws a firmer line and sounds less snippy than, “Thanks, but that was an inappropriate remark.” Most of the people who say these sorts of things don’t actually intend to be lecherous. They think they’re being nice. They think we ought to be flattered. They think that because we’re single, we have no reason not to be flattered. Singleness makes us likelier targets and reduces our defenses. Lucky us. Read more