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Thursday, December 02, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - Dating and the Single Minister

Any of us who have been single while in parish ministry know how complicated dating can be. As servant-leaders in such a public role, what might ordinarily be private decisions can turn into very public choices, and can be subject to a kind of scrutiny that might not feel comfortable. Additionally, being a single minister can be an especially lonely role, and it can be very difficult to even find anyone appropriate to date. Our question this week comes from a colleague who is struggling with some very particular issues around her desire to date. While her circumstances are unusual, perhaps some of you might have some experience or insight to share. (I have edited her question for the sake of space, but I believe I have preserved the core of her situation and question).

I am a single 28 year old woman in my first pastorate, I have been here for 18 months.  I have not dated much since arriving here, and have certainly not made any of my dating public.  Honestly, there has not been anyone I was interested in bringing to church, as bringing the "BF" to church is such a big deal for a single pastor - I have only done it once with my ex-fiance (at my student pastorate).  

I recently met a man who has been pursuing me - but the manner in which we met is a little ridiculous to say the least.  I performed a wedding in October.  He is the ex-husband of the woman who's wedding I performed, the father of her child who was also in the wedding. He and his ex-wife have a very cordial relationship and remain friends. They have one child together who is 10, and remain friends so that they can both be a part of his life as much as possible. After the wedding weekend, he sought me out, found my email address, and we started an email exchange.

The man and his ex-wife joined the church 13 years ago, when they were married and when the previous senior minister was leading. They got a divorce nine years ago and stopped coming to the church; neither of them have come to the church since the current senior pastor has started serving, and they have no relationship with him. But since the wedding I performed, the woman and her new husband have decided they DO want to start coming to church. So has her ex-husband (the man pursuing me). Now their status in our church database has gone from "Inactive Members" to "Active Members."

I've touched on the issue with him that I cannot date church members. I expressed that if our conversations were to turn from more than just enjoying each other's company and having dinner that he would need to find another church to attend. We've talked about this a little bit, I've given examples of colleagues I've known who have become involved with church members. This is not a conversation I would dare have over email - but I feel as if we're getting to the point we need to have the "real" conversation.

The woman in me hopes he would say, "Yes - I'll attend another church so we can date," as I have no idea where to meet people in this new city anyway and really enjoy the friendship that has formed. But the pastor in me hopes he would say, "We need to end this, because I would love to be a part of my son's spiritual journey and want to continue being an active part of this congregation."

I'm appreciative of any help you can send my way....

Jennifer responds:
I’m not sure what you’re asking, but I want to affirm your good judgment and instincts. I think you’re doing all you can to set good personal/professional boundaries. You’re honest about your conflicting feelings. If your relationship continues and deepens, I think you’ll want to have good conversations about the interesting intersection of your lives with the rest of the family involved (the son and his mom, who are church members, yes?)

Grace and peace to you as you seek to have great personal and professional relationships!

And Mompriest writes:
This is a complicated situation with two “goods” in conflict with each other: leave the parish in order to date OR stay in the parish, don’t date, and be part of the son’s worship life. On the one hand the father can still be part of the son’s spiritual life whether or not they worship in the same church, so that’s one piece to sort out. On the other hand if he leaves and the relationship doesn’t work out and he decides to worship there again, that too would be awkward.  I think in a perfect world the boundaries would be clear and easy. But this is not a perfect world and sometimes life gets muddy. The important piece is to have the conversation with him and talk it through from ALL the angles and see what decisions you come up with together. But be clear, you cannot date a parishioner. That is non-negotiable. I wish I had more substantial thoughts. I hope this works out for all involved.

What about the rest of you? Do you have experience with this sort of situation? How might you counsel our friend who is struggling? Please offer your thoughts in the comment section. And, as always, if you have a question you would like the matriarchs to discuss, please send us an email at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. It's not clear whether the questioner has talked with her colleague about this; I would advise doing so, in a spirit of collegiality and also because this is a fantastic contemporary case study of "new" boundaries. It's great for children when former spouses are cooperative, but it is not what we expect to see in church! How do we relate to families in different forms, making them feel welcome? How do we tell the difference between an unfamiliar system working well for a post-divorce family and a dysfunctional situation? (Not saying this one is, necessarily.)

    And to be clear, because we sometimes have discussions here about the hierarchical nature of multi-staff churches, I would advise the Sr. Pastor the same way about sharing information.

  2. It sounds as if you are not the only pastor in this congregation--is that right? If it is, then I think the boundaries RE dating a parishioner are different. Your colleague would have to be involved in this kind of decision, obviously, but I have known situations in which it has worked to be clear that the church member now has access to only one pastor--your colleague--and one significant other--you. (or, in a more-than-2-pastors situation, he's have one LESS pastor.) So you cannot be his pastor (obviously) but if there's more than one pastor on staff, then you could set up different boundaries. It requires being very clear, and enforcing some boundaries (no talking about church, etc), but it's, in theory, possible.
    If I've misread and you're the only pastor there...yeah...sorry. Rock and a hard place, but dating a parishioner in that context is definitely out.

  3. Thanks for the thoughts so far, y'all!

    I edited out part of the question that included this:
    The senior minister has some control issues - so I'm hesitant to ask him for much advice (I have informed him) because I fear he would want to make this all his decision as most things tend to be...

    So the questioner is the Associate Pastor, and whereas she has informed the Senior Pastor of the situation, it sounds like they have not had much conversation about it.

    I apologize if I over-edited the question. It was quite lengthy and I was trying to keep it as clear as possible.

  4. I don't have any words of wisdom to offer, but perhaps another wrinkle. No matter what happens with this man and what congregation he attends, the questioner will still be his son's pastor. And it seems a lot more difficult to have boundaries about '1 less pastor' with the son. For the son, she'll potentially be pastor and dad's girlfriend.

    Like I said, no wisdom, but hopes and prayers that the questioner finds a path that works well for everyone involved.

  5. I am unconvinced that the potential partner HAS to find a new church home. A different pastoral care person yes--either within the existing staff team or preferably with a different congregation. But there is no reason he can't be active in the life of the congregation AND be involved with a staff member. What would we say to a single person serving in a small community where that either the only church within a reasonable drive or at least the only church within the particular denomination?

    Relationships with congregants happen all the time. And have happened for generations (many single [men at the time] have married someone from their congregations over the decades). We just need to be careful and intentional about how they happen and how they are perceived.

  6. It's fascinating that a movement to better understand pastoral boundaries in response to sexual misconduct, mostly by men in local churches, has led to a situation where young women pastors don't have the same freedom to find a spouse in their churches that men historically could expect. We've talked about this here before. In a multiple-staff church, there are ways to work through it, perhaps, but for the solo pastor, it's both uncomplicated (You can't date members.) and very complicated (Is solo pastoring the same thing as being sentenced to a single life? Fine if you want that or feel called to it, not so much if you don't.).

  7. actually SB that lack of freedom extends to single males now too. But I maintain that the pendulum has overswung in response to sexual misconduct (because that is what pendula do). As a single person going into ministry I had this sort of discussion with several other young(ish) single folks (male and female) in my last year at seminary -- knowing that we were all going to be in solo ministry and mainly in smaller communities with less options for a social life.

    I do think that gender plays a role, but more because there are different expectations about dating behaviour for men and women in general.

    In the end I still think it is unrealistic and unfair to call it as simple as "don't date members". The only time it is that simple is if you have already had a counselling incident with that person.

  8. Gord, that's why I used the word "historically."

  9. Songbird, gender aside I think you touch on a great point. There is a need "to better understand pastoral boundaries in response to sexual misconduct." We've come to the point that we struggle to even give our parishioners a hug! (Seriously, when you are in need of a hug, can a "side hug" really cut it?)

    I don't think this is exclusive to the church, but the boundaries of pastoral relationships certainly compound the situation more than any other employee/client situation need to worry about. At the risk of making too generalized of a statement our societal fears of intimacy make it hard to form relationships in general, and especially as pastors with our church members, whether we are interested in dating them or not.

  10. Hi all. Great conversation going on here!

    I just found an email from one of our matriarchs that arrived late this morning, after I had already posted the column. I thought I would add her contribution here.

    This is from Muthah+
    Let me preface this with I have never married. I have never wanted to date so my ideas may not be appropriate and last week I admitted that my understanding of marriage, sexual mores, etc. are changing.

    With that said, I DO understand what parish dynamics are. The reason pastors do not date members of the their own parish is because it changes the normal pastor/parishioner relationship. In other words it creates havoc in the parish. One person has more access to the pastor than the others. And there is so much possibility of jealousy in this situation that it is bound to raise its head.

    Why you are having dinner with this man is beyond me. In my book that would constitute dating. It is not a pastoral meeting in which you are providing care for a parishioner, it is a way of trying to establish a private rather than a communal relationship. The role of pastor is to be equitable to all in the congregation. A dating relationship has a whole different set of dynamics. It is one of exclusivity so that marital love can develop..

    That you have neither talked with your pastor nor your juridical superintendent, bishop or the like, tells me that YOU know that too. The future of a relationship with someone who is attending because his children go there is one so fraught with the possibilities of disaster. All kinds of red flags are raised for me. The disaster includes your position and future career. But it doesn't end there. Sides will be taken in the parish, in the families involved and the senior pastor will get it in the neck if the relationship goes wrong. You may be able to get another job, but the parish dynamic will remain and you will not be the one that gets hurt.

    You are playing with a fire that is way beyond what you can control. Say no to dinner.

    At the same time, I think I might make regular visits back home or where I went to seminary in order to meet people with whom I could develop a relationship. I know that clocks are ticking and loneliness is a major issue and that is no small part of our emotional health. It is a tough issue, Sistah. I will keep you in my prayer.

  11. I hugely agree with Muthah+
    (a) you are young;
    (b) in a city you don't know
    (c) haven't found a way to connect outside the parish yet...

    which leads to (d) you. are. vulernable... and unfortunately, when we are vulnerable, lonely, yearing for emotional support sometimes we get taken for a ride emotionally by others...

    not to say that you aren't savvy or smart... but vulnerability in the heart department leads to blind spots.

    i would concentrate on building up for yourself a non-romantic support system, friends, colleagues, go-to people outside the parish BEFORE entering into romance with anyone... parish member or otherwise.

  12. I arrived home too late to post anyt6hing this time, but though it makes me sad to say it, I agree with Muthah as well. Too many potential pitfalls that could have enormous reprecussions. As I said, it makes me sad to say it, but I see LOTS of stress ahead of the relationship continues.

    I admitk, If you were middle-aged my advice might be slighty different.


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