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Sex and the Single Pastor: Dating Can be Hell for Unmarried Clergy

3 years ago
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Valentine's Day can be heaven for lovers, and hell for lonely hearts whose solitude is only deepened by the sight of all the hoopla dedicated to the celebration (and commercialization) of coupledom.

Now imagine what this romantic holiday -- and much of the rest of the year -- is like for single pastors who are looking for love and, yes, maybe even a passionate kiss good night if not a roll in the hay.

In fact, most congregants probably don't want to think about the sex lives of the clergy, and if they do they may prefer to envision their intimate lives as reflections of the chaste virtues and biblical ideals that pastors preach from the pulpit.

But the Rev. Wren Miller, a twenty-something female pastor in Alabama, has helped put an end to those illusions with a frank column in the February edition of the women's magazine Marie Claire in which she talks about balancing carnal urges and romantic desires with her rather elevated public role -- and the issues it can raise for guys who can get spooked at inopportune moments.

"What if people see us?" one of Miller's dates said in a slight panic as he moved in for an open-mouthed kiss after a recent date. And that was the end of that.

"I love my career, but it has plagued my love life since I decided to pursue ministry during my senior year of college," writes Miller, who is an assistant pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Huntsville, a 3,000-member congregation.

While Miller's confession has scandalized some clergy and probably made a few congregants shift uncomfortably in their pews -- she discusses masturbation and oral sex, for example -- the truth is that as far as her dating woes go, she is not alone.

Single pastors of all denominations and both genders often find themselves in a bind when it comes to romance. They may disappoint well-intentioned members of the flock who insist on setting them up with their son or daughter, and of course dating anyone in the congregation is an ethical minefield. But where do you find a suitable prospect? And how will a prospective partner react to dating a man or woman of God? And what if, as can happen, you get a little carried away and have actual, well, sex? Or if you date someone outside the denomination? Or -- God forbid -- outside your religion?

Serene Jones, president of New York's Union Theological Seminary, a flagship divinity school in mainline Protestantism, says these are serious challenges and ones that seminaries have to prepare future pastors to face -- especially female pastors who make up at least half of all seminarians in mainline denominations today.

"If you're dating and they hear you're a pastor they either want to run in the opposite direction or they want to turn you into a confessional," Jones said. "They get fascinated by you in ways that aren't normal. It's harder to find people for whom it's not an immediately complicating factor."

Being a cleric and a single woman is a "double whammy," says Jones, an ordained minister who is the divorced mother of a 14-year-old daughter. "Add 'seminary president' to 'reverend' and it's like a death blow to any dating life!" she notes with a laugh.

But she says that the heart of the problem for single pastors comes down to perceptions and preconceptions among believers about their clergy -- questions about sex and sexuality, of course, about a church's expectations for their pastors, and the proper role of congregational leaders and the role of clergywomen in particular.

"You scratch the surface of this question and you're right in the midst of everything, all of these controversial issues," Jones said. "For me it's fascinating because it completely unnerves people, and people aren't even aware of all the prejudices they have around this one."

Evidence of these inner conflicts has proliferated since word of Wren Miller's column started bouncing around the Internet. A post on the article at the website Hacking Christianity generated dozens of comments both critical and supportive, and at her blog "Beauty Tips for Ministers," which encourages clergy to take care of their public appearance, the Rev. Victoria Weinstein was not at all impressed with Miller's openness.

"I am slack-jawed in amazement, and not in a good way," Weinstein writes. "[O]ver-sharing to this extent is not the way to achieve our shared goal of humanizing the clergy. What you are doing by providing salacious details on your sex life to the media is not empowering yourself or making clergy or Christian life more hip and relevant."

The Rev. Chris Roberts, a pastor at Meridian Street United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, was even more forceful.

"The article is embarrassing for me as a clergyperson and a Christian," Roberts wrote on his blog. "It is embarrassing for the church."

He added: "Should Rev. Miller desire to discuss her love life, perhaps it would be better expressed and processed with a mental health professional. This is not the right venue to discuss these matters. Again it is inappropriate for a clergyperson to express her 'turn-ons' in a national publication."

While Serene Jones welcomed the conversation that Wren Miller's column has sparked, she also expressed reservations about the way Miller presented herself, and wondered if she didn't wind up making herself the very object of sexual fascination that she was lamenting.

To be sure, Miller reveals a lot about the details and complications of her romantic life.

She notes that some conservative Christian guys who she might otherwise find attractive have problems with female pastors; she broke up with her college fiancé because he didn't think she should go off to Yale Divinity School. And now that she does have a collar some "ultraconservative guys" find it a turn-on "but always ask if I'm willing to marry and stay at home with the kids." (No, is her short answer.)

Miller also admits that she's not a virgin, but she has now vowed to abstain from sex until marriage.

"Since I'm so committed to my career, this decision isn't that difficult for me," Miller writes. "But it's a detail that makes guys wary about groping a woman of the cloth, and most simply bolt."

Other potential romantic partners look for loopholes. "[A]re you saving yourself until marriage? Does oral sex count? (Yes and yes.) But while I'm game for hooking up, I can't have sex now, and for guys, that's often a deal-breaker."

Oh, and she's attractive -- a 27-year-old "with my fitted jeans, hobo handbag, and sweeping blonde hair." That's by night. By day, on the other hand, and especially on weekends, she is "mounting the pulpit in a collar and cassock," a "not-so-sexy image" that turns off some men just as they get interested.

She also confesses to not having had an orgasm in seven years, and yet says she's "not comfortable" with masturbation. To top it off, when she started her full-time ministerial job she was afflicted by polycystic ovarian disease, a condition that left her "itching for sex, day and night." She overindulged in Krispy Kreme doughnuts to compensate, and gained 15 pounds.

Miller has that medical condition and her weight under control now, and she says she is "starting to relax about dating" and recognizes that being up front about her job "is a fast, fabulous filter to weed out the jerks."

Still, her Marie Claire exposure isn't likely to make life easier for Miller, and the dating issue isn't going away for thousands of other single clergy around the country who are eager for advice on such issues.

They can find some counsel in the February issue of Fidelia's Sisters, an online publication from The Young Women Clergy Project, which features (anonymous) interviews with single women about their struggles as unmarried clergy. And the March issue will focus specifically on "Sex and the Single Rev."

The Rev. Bromleigh McCleneghan, an associate pastor and director of Christian education at Baker Memorial United Methodist Church in St. Charles, Illinois, thinks this is all healthy, and she praised Miller's honesty in a column at The Christian Century, the premier magazine of mainline Protestantism.

"I think articles like this could be considered evangelistic: a pastor shares that the road of discipleship is difficult but rewarding, complex and deeply embodied," McCleneghan wrote. "She's giving a testimony here -- it's just not in a forum that we in the church are particularly used to. It's a perhaps unintentionally vivid testimony, but the details make it that much more compelling."

She added: "Pastors should be talking with people about how God is present in all facets of our lives. If we're not talking frankly and authentically about sex, we're failing those in our care."
Filed Under: Religion, Disputations

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