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Monday, August 29, 2011

Monday Extra -- Dating in the Parish

In a Twitter discussion of clergy sexual misconduct, the conversation took a turn toward the question of a single clergyperson forming a relationship with a single parishioner. This is probably one of the most complicated boundary issues we have. It wasn't all that long ago that we hoped our unmarried (usually young and male) pastor would find a spouse among the unmarried (usually young and female) church members. It formed a tie between the pastor and the church; maybe he (usually) would never leave!

But as we began to tell the truth about clergy sexual misconduct and hold pastors accountable for their actions in the congregation, the "rules" for social contact with parishioners tightened, at least in theory. We can probably all agree that the pastor who introduced a new love to the congregation while the pastor's current spouse was sitting there, too, crossed a line.

Yet many of us know pastors, and we have ring members, who came single to a church and met a future spouse in the congregation. And where else do unmarried pastors, whether male or female, have the opportunity to meet people?

What does your denomination expect? Do new pastors receive clear guidance regarding social boundaries? And what did you learn in seminary? Please share your thoughts in the comments, and if you decide to write your own blog post, be sure to link to it.


  1. And where else do unmarried pastors, whether male or female, have the opportunity to meet people?

    It's not an ideal world out there of course, but I would hope there are plenty of other places. After all we've all seen the problems of pastors (female or male) being isolated because they have no friends outside of the congregation.

    Calling is vitally important, but so is the mantra get a life! Cultivate friendships outside of the church as well as inside. It's missional, but more than that it's healthy too!

  2. Sounds good anonymous... on paper.
    Have you ever served a rural parish? Even a small town/suburban setting can offer it's 'outside-of-church' meet n' greet challenges.

    No matter where the pastor is, they are still the pastor which puts them in a position unlike most others.

    Your hope that there are plenty of places to meet other people outside of the parish is a good one, unfortunately all too often it is not a realistic one.

  3. Serving a rural parish complicates dating for a single pastor. The congregation I served was located in a town of 147 and the closest town of 5k was 36 miles away. The largest city was 86 miles away and in total there were only about 2 million people in the entire state because it was out west. After going three years without a date I filled out a profile on Eventually I met my husband, who is a fraud examiner and a wonderful person. When we finally did marry the pastor who married us was literally SHOCKED that we met online. He thought that was the wrong place to meet a future spouse but then he wasn't a rural pastor.

    My husband and I have been happily married for over three years and have a one year old daughter. I will be returning to rural ministry with my family. I believe it is important to maintain clear boundaries in ministry and I would not have felt right about dating anyone in my parish.

  4. Let me be clear, I agree 100% that it is important to maintain clear boundaries in ministry.

    My denomination in my context has clear rules about dating a member of the congregation - you don't. I agree with that.

  5. Here's my story, which I think will show that I raised some of these points for discussion as opposed to stating them as my opinion.

    I was still in seminary when I turned to online dating. I was divorced with three kids and working toward being a parish minister, and I "knew" I would be single forever if I didn't meet someone before I finished school. During the in many ways unhappy (and now concluded) marriage that followed, my spouse frequently said, "I think you would have been happier with one of those nice churchgoers."

    And while that may have been right, the boundary training I received in the United Church of Christ (both as a lay member of a Church and Ministry committee and later as a seminarian) set down very strict guidelines about personal relationships in the parish, discouraging even friendships with church members. My situation is different from that of a single person without children. Outside of the church, they were my life: their activities and their needs and our family time together. The only other people I saw were colleagues. This would not have been different if I had been single. I had my hands full. I still don't think that's a good reason to have social relationships in the congregation. In my case the way I understood the rules made me hurry to solemnize a relationship that never should have become a marriage, out of fear of being alone. I don't blame the system for that; it was my bad. But it's also the case that ministry is demanding and public, and it makes being single complicated.

  6. I would add that despite all those firm boundaries I learned, the same Church and Ministry committee looked the other way when an older, divorced pastor married a widowed, retired pastor who was a member of her congregation. That's a complex case study!

  7. Sometimes, I think there is a double standard regarding age and gender regarding clergy dating.

  8. I'm one of those who married someone I met at church. I was 27 and had been in my 1st call only a few weeks when we started spending time together. I, too, figured if I didn't get married before I got in the church I was out of luck. I even got my 2 cats to seal the deal!

    Now-DH started to come to young adult events that I was leading. Eventually folks would leave and it would just be the 2 of us talking at the bar/restaurant. I was fairly certain he was interested in another young woman who had been a part of my search committee. She insisted I was wrong.

    Eventually we went to a college football game together, just the 2 of us, as part of my initiation into the state. On the drive back he said he didn't know what to do about where he thought we were heading.

    Being the rule-follower that I am I made him read chapters from "Sex in the Parish" by Lebacqz & Barton that I had read in seminary about just such things. He called his pastor from childhood, with whom he is still close, to talk about this.

    DH said- I get it. These boundaries can be abused. Pastors can mix up God's love with infatuation with a church member. But I really don't think God put us in each other's lives to teach us about appropriate pastoral boundaries.
    So we went and talked with two of my colleagues- our head of staff and one of the other associate pastors. Both thought it was great and were thrilled for us. We did talk about boundaries and potential pitfalls. We also talked about how to let the congregation know. When we got engaged most folks figured we must have known each other before I came to town.

    It might have helped that this is a congregation that 20 years ago called an AP when she was "great with child." They watched a beloved pastor share his experience of cancer and eventually die from it while serving the church 15 years ago. When I came along they also had just been through having our long time DCE marry a long time church member (who I think was on session at the time). So they have experience dealing with the humanity of pastors and church staff. They have navigated those waters and seen how boundaries can be permeable and rules like that are not one-size-fits-all.

    The truth is, though, that DH never really considered me his pastor. I was new on the scene and he had already established a relationship with our Head of Staff.
    I joke and say it wasn't like he came to me in a spiritual crisis asking "does God love me?" and my response was "God loves you and so do I!"

    We been married now for 7 1/2 years and now have 2 kids. I never would have dreamed this is how it would turn out. I thought by now I'd be in my 2nd call and perhaps acquired some more cats to keep me company. But I know my case is not the case for everyone. There is so much potential for abuse. But a blanket prohibition seems unwise.
    So there's my story. Apparently I have a lot more to say about this than fit in 140 characters.

  9. I don't have time to write fully about this right now, and I'm in a place where there aren't any single men my age inside or outside the church (so the point is moot), but I do think the dynamic is different if you are in a multi-staff congregation than if you are a solo pastor....

  10. OK. I said I'd come over and leave my own story, but, well, it got too long because I realized that I never typed the whole story out on my blog. So, I've put it over there.

    Here's the short version:
    I met my husband at the VERY start (slightly before) of my ministry in my first call. We began dating pretty much immediately (thoughtfully and intentionally because of my role). It was a call as an associate pastor in a pretty progressive (despite what most "Coasters" would think based on its midwestern location) town and congregation. The HoS and my Personnel Committee liaison knew the day we decided to "give it a go." We were engaged within a few months of meeting, and married 13 months after I started at the church.

    Ours was so smooth and clear cut (gee doesn't that sound romantic?) that we avoided what I think could have been really different and difficult situations. I dated a member of the church, sure, but I never had to break up with one. Know what I mean? I have no idea what that is like. I also have no idea what it is like to date someone outside of the church while being a pastor. I have no idea what it is like to have a spouse who is not a fully engaged, extremely active member of my church. My experience is limited, but it has been extremely positive.

    I am always grateful that the HoS with whom I worked had a clear head and calmness about him which helped this work out well. I don't THINK I ever told the presbytery's Committee on Ministry, but in retrospect that possibly could have been another step we took to keep everything on the up and up.

    Misconduct is a tough word, because the way I met, dated, and married my husband, the father of my 3 children, and my partner in just about everything is labeled as misconduct. I'm glad I was willing to wear that label, I guess, because I wouldn't change anything for where we are now.

  11. Oh my goodness, anotherrev, our stories are even more similar that I originally thought. I even notice that we both used the description of a pastor's "humanity." Blessings on you and your family!

  12. anotherrev and Stephanie, thanks for sharing your stories. I know at least one of you is in the same denomination as Kathrynzj, so I'm curious about how standards are communicated and applied. What have people been told in seminary or during the ordination process? Are we communicating about these potential situations?

  13. Teri and Karla, I would love to hear more of your thoughts. I also wonder if there is a different standard or expectation for LGBT clergy.

  14. There has been a different standard for LGB clergy in most of our denominations as we are expected not to be in relationship with anybody, not just parishioners. Up until last month same gender relationships were considered misconduct, regardless of consent or other boundary issues in the PCUSA. If that stigma/prejudice is removed, then I am not sure why there would be different standards or expectations for LGB clergy. Trans folk may identify as LGB or straight and may face additional stigma/prejudice w/in the church.

  15. I married in college before Seminary, before I even knew I wanted to be a pastor... so I am not sure I even "get" a point of view... I will say that I have been bitten when I got too close to a parishoner in friendship... She told many people that I was a horrible pastor, wife, mom, etc... horribly painful. I think it is easier for us to "forget" we are their pastor than it is for them to remember we are human. I struggle with making friend in a small rural community as everyone knows I'm "the presbyterian minister" .... so if that is the case for friends I imagine it is horrible to find love...

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  17. I'll "out" myself as the one in the same denomination as Kathrynzj. I understood her to be saying that the denominational standard in her context (her region) was that this was more than a big no-no, but actually forbidden. That a "rule" that's a local decision. It was CERTAINLY communicated that way in seminary (denominational), but the reality is that there is no national rule against it. There are misconduct policies, but at least what I remember from the presbytery where I served, "nice, normal" dating wasn't misconduct, or if it was it was ignored. I know of one other minister in the presbytery who ended up marrying a parishioner while I was serving there. It was a young man, also an associate, although he had been in his church several years before they began dating and eventually marrying. Being on the outside of the situation that time, I never really heard any murmurings.

    While I was in that presbytery we had two other situations that were quite public of ministers (middle to upper aged men) involved in what I think everyone would consider clear misconduct - - illegal and immoral activities. If what I did was technically misconduct, because of the way it was carried out and the way it has "resolved" it was never mentioned no matter what the rule book says.

    The Book of Order (national "rule book") defines sexual abuse in this way:

    "Sexual abuse of another person is any offense involving sexual conduct in relation to
    1. any person under the age of eighteen years or anyone over the age of eighteen years without the mental capacity to consent; or
    2. any person when the conduct includes force, threat, coercion, intimidation, or misuse of ordered ministry or position." (D-10.0401c)

    Our Pastoral Care professors would have insisted that any relationship was automatically an abuse of power or "misuse of ordered ministry or position." I simply don't agree.

    I think (I know, I have experienced) that it is possible for it to happen well. Do I encourage people to go find a mate in their churches? Heck no! Would I say every situation needs to be shut down immediately because it is categorically abuse, misuse, or misconduct? Heck no again.

    I don't know how we communicate a fuzzy line, so I get that's why a strong, dark line is drawn, but I wish there were another way. I just don't know what it is.

  18. Since I'm a married seminarian, this doesn't super affect me, but I thought I'd give the perspective I've learned from boundaries training in seminary.
    Yes, the power differential is something you should be aware of, and as pastor it is YOUR job to bring it up and make sure that you, your HoS (if applicable), Committee on Ministry, Executive Presbyter (if necessary), and definitely other person in relationship are in the words of my girls Salt 'n Pepa, "Let's talk about sex, baby. Let's talk about you and me/Let's talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be..."
    Is it possible? Depends on your context, region, restrictions in that area...etc. I know there is a right way to do this, but being open and honest about what is going on, what your feelings are and encouraging the other person to share their feelings openly and honestly as well are major issues at stake.

  19. Dh (of almost 20 years) and I joke that it's a good thing he came from another congregation, because otherwise either the bishop or senior warden would've had to come on our dates; nice as both those men were, we didn't want a chaperone! In other words, I managed to duck the bullet by the sheer luck of meeting someone from a congregation other than my own, since the rules in our diocese were quite clear about no one from your own congregation.

    It's such a murky subject, and I don't think there's any one right answer. However, I do think that reflection with trusted others (like SheRev and anotherrev mentioned, not one's best friend), caution, and a lot of clarity between the two individuals are absolute essentials.

  20. I am glad to see this discussion here. It is very complicated to sort out the variety of boundary, power and vulnerability issues when a single clergy person develops a dating relationship with a parishioner. In my previous work in the field of clergy misconduct I have seen many lives damaged when this has happened and only seen one situation in which it worked. In that case there were two pastors at the church, so the woman still had a pastor in her church she could go to for pastoral needs and the two persons were both equal in terms of their professional and financial status. There were many other components that were looked at and worked through.

    My denomination (Episcopalian) has prohibitions against this kind of dating, but others do not. The Northern California Conference United Church of Christ came out with a guide for Amorous Relationships in 1991. It recognized that the church had not achieved consensus about it, but it helped provide guidelines for single clergy developing dating relationships. I don't know the current status of their guidelines.

    I personally think it is crucial for clergy to develop friendships outside of the church. I recognize this is easier said than done, but clergy need people in their lives that do not see them (us) as the pastor. I know it is easier to develop friendships in the congregation since we are so much a part of the fabric of the community. However, no matter how much we strive to create a congregational community based on mutuality and consensus we will always be the pastor. Also, we aren't necessarily aware of the pre-exisitng psychological components that our parishioners bring with them and transfer to clergy just because of our pastoral role.

    Those are just a few of my thoughts - I could talk about this for days, so I best stop here.

    I didn't know people were talking about this on twitter. I better get a little more technological advanced and begin to tweet I guess.

  21. I am also in the same denomination as Stephanie and Kathrynzj. What Stephanie said pretty much sums it up.
    My denominational seminary in pastoral care class showed us hokey videos and we talked a lot about appropriate boundaries. When it came to romantic relationships we were told they were forbidden. The other lessons on boundaries and abuse of power were great and absolutely necessary.
    We also had some special events for final level students- panels of experienced and new pastors who talked about such things. But still, what I got out of it was that I needed to find someone outside my congregation. And even then there were all sorts of issues as to what was appropriate and "keeping up appearances."

    For the record I was also taught in seminary that you are NEVER supposed to talk about yourself in a sermon. Now who hasn't done that? Perhaps in seminary they give us absolutes like that so that we are careful in navigating when we need to "break the rules".

  22. As I young, single clergy person serving on as a Christian Educator in a rural area, I certainly have yet to figure out the dating thing!
    But, I did want to offer some perspective for those who suggest finding a wider social circle outside of the congregation. I find that I do have a great support network, but most of these people are not in my geographic area.

    Think for a moment about how most people meet new people: the workplace, a spouse's workplace, or church. Other options, at least in my area, might be the bar or the smoke-filled bowling alley. Clearly, most of these options present challenges for clergy! Combine that with the fact that in a small community, clergy are rarely away from a "professional" role even when socializing out in the community, or with members of other congregations. I don't point this out to complain, but merely to suggest the challenge that is truly present.

  23. It's been awhile since I've had to think about this from a personal perspective, but I very much resonate with the perspectives articulated by those in rural parishes. I served a tiny church in a small town (1100)for the first 4+ years of my ministry. When I started my call, I was dating someone from my seminary (he was still in seminary at the time and our relationship was long-distance). I thought we would marry, but he thought otherwise! Our breakup was terribly painful for me because of what a lonely place I found myself in - both geographically and vocationally.

    The issue of dating a parishioner was moot, as there were no single males in my congregation and no one anywhere near my age. But I know for certain that had any single man in his 20s or 30s darkened the door of that church, my parishioners would have been on the case immediately trying to match us up! They would have had no problem whatsoever with my dating a parishioner, had one been available, and there are no hard rules in my denomination against it (and, even if there were, there is no one but the congregation to enforce them).

    I do understand and believe in the need for boundaries, but I'm pretty flexible about how that gets sorted out from context to context.

    Being a single clergyperson (esp. female) is tough no matter where you are. I would like to think that the internet has made connecting with like-minded folks easier, and maybe in some ways it has, but I guess it brings its own challenges with it.

  24. I'll pipe up to respond to Songbird's specific query re:LGB pastors (leaving out the T as that's gender identity, not orientation and a whole other topic). In my denomination, it's recognized that it may be very difficult to meet out Christian (or Christian-comforable) LGB people who are NOT part of your congregation. In my case, River City is small enough that many LGB people consider me their pastor even though they are not members and rarely (if ever) attend. Therefore, I haven't dated in River City--when I have, it has been in near-by cities, which means long commutes, which impacts negatively on the relationship (I can rarely spend a whole weekend elsewhere). Because of this small community issue, it is permitted to date within the congregation you serve, but there is a lot of emphasis (and should be) on boundaries and appropriate behavior--sexual harassment is sexual harassment.
    That said, most (but not all) single pastors I know in my denomination do not date within the congregation. A friend stated this explicitly to the search committee and then the governing board when she was called--when a member began pressing her for dates, she had the understanding and back-up of the board when she refused and explained her boundaries.
    It can be very difficult for single pastors of any orientation. I personally am not dating or intending to date--it just feels too complicated and difficult. Of course if I meet the right person, that could change, but right now it feels like too much work to even be in the "scene."

  25. Rainbow Pastor, thank you so much for adding a different perspective.


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