It was the #1 reason why i held off on dating Jonathan as long as i did.
He was called to be a pastor. That was unmistakable – not just because of his gentleness and his ability to be present and yet unobtrusive.
Jonathan has termed it playing theological pick-up basketball: when we’re planted in our seatbelts or on the couch inevitably we end up debating Hauerwas or arguing over Pauline ethics. His otherwise hospital-bare bachelor pad had a Walmart bookshelf spilling over with theology- half of which he would just read for fun.
I knew what i was in for. My mother answered her childhood convictions at 40. Her first day at Duke Divinity School was my first day of sixth grade. I’m not sure who sported more acne that year from stress. She is a woman in a hostile man’s world, and she is a mother in a profession that has decidedly privileged congregational needs above the health of pastors and their families.
I knew the toll such a career could exact.
But in the narcissism part and parcel of my teenage years, all i really saw was the pressure on me. Old ladies in their Belk dresses scolding me for not attending church every Sunday (when i’d switched to the evening service instead of their preferred 11 am). Cutting comments about the audacity i had to wear a strapless dress. I’ve written about my frustrations with the homophobic and sexist sexual ethics taught in my youth group, but that was only the half of it. When my parents split, men who hardly knew my name took it upon themselves to tell me my mother worked too much – the implication being womyn shouldn’t have careers at all whilst also expecting my family to be the picture of piety.
College had afforded me the luxury of selfish time. I hid in the pews of an Episcopal church where no one knew my name and no one, out of New England propriety or Episcopalian aloofness, really bothered to find out more. I was relieved.
And then, stubbornly, there was Jonathan. He worked for my mother – hell, we met at church standing by the baptismal font. I was burying myself in a Sociology major, picking apart the social structures that upheld the oppression in the church that i so abhorred.
But as i began to fall for Jonathan, so too i began to fall back in love with God.
We’d been on a terse break, one where i went to Uganda to meet my Great Perhaps and came home still reeling from a bacterial infection. Where i’d hid in the pews of my Episcopal church, thinking that i was just going out of a need for community and finding a longing to be in the pulpit. What really snared me was Jane, my feminist theologies professor and Mount Holyoke mother.
On the first day of class, she’d asked us to define religion. Newly re-declared as a religion major, sociology minor, i was eager to break out my Clifford Geetz. But our fumbling as a class was met with Jane’s hand sweeping for silence.
“Religion,” Jane said, “is trying to answer the question: why the fuck are we here?“
And i was home.
There’s no turning back when you find freedom. My mother gave me a Gloria Steinhem magnet for Christmas this year with this quote: “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” The blend of holy and hellion, Gospel of Matthew and a prophet of feminism, is where i meet Jesus.
I told Jonathan in the first weeks of dating that i would probably not attend his church. At the time, it was mostly because of the scars being the pastor’s kid had left. But as the Methodist church has failed, again, to even begin addressing the homophobia that plagues the church - as i start to learn the even thicker sexist expectations placed on being a pastor’s wife – i don’t want to try and worship in a place that leaves me spiritually dehydrated instead of full. He has to willpower to stand up for the LGBTQIA Methodists whose voices are being silenced by a white cis-male perceived majority. He can navigate those microaggressions against queer people by using his male privilege.
He is called to work with patience, and he is called to call me out when i fail to see the dignity and worth of people i don’t agree with.
But i fight enough to assert my own imago dei as a woman in this world. I don’t need to do so at church.
People in the churches where he works – even some of our own family – find our mutual decision to attend and work at separate congregations baffling. They wonder what we’ll do with our kids (i answer: what makes you assume we want children?) they worry about our impending marriage being faith-less (hello, we both go to Divinity school), they fret that we can’t coexist practicing “different” religions (what happened to One Body?).
We began a friendship over theological pick-up basketball - we’re hardly putting on the brakes now. It’s not that i feel the need to explain our tender inner life to the world. It’s that i see these “concerns” are laced with unrealistic expectations of me as a woman, him as a pastor, and the church as the ultimate and end-all center of a Christian world.
Like so many prejudices, like breaking most all taboos, the concern people pose about our “difference” is actually related, i think, to the fear that what is normal to them is not adequate. I’m totally guilty of this, too. I’m one of the most unfairly judgmental people i know, and it’s a flaw i am constantly working on. Hauerwas might argue that it is rooted in our human tendency toward insecurity, and the desire to control others so that we might feel (a false, but believable) sense of security in ourselves.
Challenging the idea that the church – its potlucks and its steeple – are the end-all be-all of a spiritual life asks the question of what we do to meet God the other 167 hours in the week.
No church can answer all your questions about why the fuck you are here.
No church can grapple theologically with tough scriptures so that you do not have to.
No church should be the exclusive center of a Christian community.
No church should be given the power to ratify socially constructed norms about intimacy, marriage, and sex as God-ordained.
Being apart on Sunday morning doesn’t prevent my partner and i from sharing a spiritual life. And besides, if he was a mechanic or a teacher or a CEO, i don’t think his coworkers would expect me to tag along for every board meeting.
Part of this double-standard comes from the unique expectations that pastors be super-human, and super-pious. And these expectations leads to a constant sense of failure among so many clergy.
Clergy are twice as likely to be Depressed than the average person, a struggle that crosses denominations.* This microscope on pastors – which is both internally and externally generated – is part of why i don’t want to attend the same church as my (almost) husband.
Relationships are hard enough as is. Add in a congregational dose of nosiness and entitlement to your personal life, and you’ve put that messy work under a hundred microscopes.
To me, the connection between sexism and the pressures placed on pastors that drive up the rates of Depression are linked. While men struggle with Depression too – and i’m not writing that off – womyn must constantly assert our right to be in the pulpit, our right to be ordained. (This isn’t just a Christian issue). Coupling this with all the very human struggles of maintaining a relationship with God when pouring yourself out to the people of your congregation makes for a toxic mess of self-doubt.
I wrote in Talking Taboo that intimacy – sex, yes, but also emotional fragility and friendship and all those messy things that come with being vulnerable – is more complicated than following a list of rules. Intimacy is a dance of sharing and taking space, of loving deeply and holding accountable and breathing in and out of sync.
And one of the rules J and i break is the pastor-pastor’s wife trope.
The way that i know to support and love my almost-husband and pastor-to-be is to take a step back from his workplace. To cultivate community beyond the fishbowl, to allow breathing space for both of us, and to remind ourselves daily that while attending a potluck can of course be an act of Christian community and worship, it is also important to find those sacred spaces outside the church walls.
* I’d also like to note that Depression is an immeasurably complex thing (having dealt with it for many years) and no “one” reason is going to clarify an intensely personal struggle. But gender is so often neglected in these studies that focus on anxiety in clergypeople, and i would like to see more discourse that is intersectional when discussion mental and physical health.