Dating can be difficult.
Unfortunately, it can be even more challenging when you’re in vocational ministry. As professional clergy, navigating the space between public and private isn’t always easy. Often times, parishioners feel they have a right to access you at any time. Unlike typical eight hour jobs, our professional lives can span from administrative oversight during the day to leading bible study in the evening to weekend leadership retreats or church fairs. Seemingly every minute of each day is accounted for and we haven’t even sat down to prepare for Sunday’s sermon. Unexpected phone calls in the middle of the night detailing emergencies and the overwhelming feeling that no matter how you lend yourself to your staff and congregation there will still be a disgruntled member is enough to make anyone want to escape God’s call altogether.
I’m certain, like me, many have wondered how marriage fits into this already full and exhausting schedule. In fact, I’ve often pondered if it’s fair to bring someone into my life knowing the nature of my work and the strain it can place on relationships. But, it wasn’t until my second year of pastoring that I became aware of my loneliness. I was serving a large and active congregation. While sitting in the second chair shielded me from the full burden of the weight of ministry, I still shouldered a great share of the responsibility. I functioned in strategic planning, curriculum and ministry development and filled-in as the youth pastor. I loved the work I was engaged in and did it great pride. However, when I’d close my office door at the end of each day, I knew I’d be opening another door to an empty home. Initially, I filled my free time with a variety of activities – exercise, museums, and local events. Nevertheless, I quickly grew exhausted of enjoying these things alone. I had to make some decisions about my dating life and I had to do it quickly. There were three things I immediately considered with respect to dating as a single pastor:
Recognize my power
From prior experiences, I recalled how people gravitated to me because of assumed privileges and perks of being in relationship with a pastor. Sadly, some people are drawn to men in power and seek to use us as the means of their affirmation. On the other hand, possible interests avoid us because of the lack of privacy and scrutiny we receive. I had to learn that there were still people afraid to be in the church spotlight; and the idea of being in relationship with someone whose line of work straddled the fence of public and private was overwhelming for them. I was reminded that we’re public figures like elected officials and celebrities which means our lives – though private as we may wish – are actually lived out in front of our congregations and communities.
In my experience, when I’ve disclosed my line of work, the person I dated became uncomfortable with the idea of dyeing in relationship with a pastor or used me as a sounding board for theological query. Yes, I’m a pastor but my conversation extends far beyond faith, theology, and spiritual matters. I became so exhausted that when asked what line of work I was in, I’d refer to my prior professional work in architecture and urban planning. These experiences helped me to see how vocational ministry still carries with it certain privileges, power and respect. If I were going to date I’d better understand power dynamics and my influence.
Make a decision
When I understood those two things, I made a conscious decision to exclude my parishioners from the dating pool. Even if a respected senior member lovingly introduced me to their educated, professional, sweet granddaughter, I’d make her acquaintance but move on. I learned that, for some, being able to say they made a love connection for the pastor was an ego boost and a way to indirectly influence pastoral decisions.
Congregational triangles like these are a detriment to non-biased decision-making and impact the work of ministry overall. To avoid that, I chose to entertain dating relationships with people who were not within the worship community I served and had little ties to it. Single pastors must consider their dating pool and make a decision that is true to their beliefs. For me, that meant limiting congregational influence on my dating life. Furthermore, dating from within your congregation exposes your companion to undo pressure. Accosted with questions, stares or ill-treatment the added unpleasantness could dismantle a cordial relationship the two of you shared prior. To avoid losing some potentially life-long and beneficial friendships, making the decision to date outside the church you serve is an opportunity to limit unnecessary anxiety.
Keep good boundaries
Following an inspiring sermon, congregants lined to greet me after service. In truth, I was exhausted from expending so much energy but wanted to hear how the sermon resonated with others as it had with me. As is my custom, I greeted each member with a handshake and a warm smile and actively listened as they shared their sentiments. As I made my way to my office to collect myself and gather my belongings a young lady cornered me and began to share her thoughts on the sermon. When she invited a private conversation in my office that she may further detail why the message was so timely, admittedly, I was hesitant. I moved the conversation back to a public area where parishioners were still gathered and there we conversed.
As a single, male, pastor, I remain cognizant of the “closed door” conversations I entertain with others. On the occasions that I have private conversations I’m mindful to keep my door and blinds open. In fact, I’ve even invited my assistant as a silent witness into some meetings. Keeping good boundaries mean that I’m mindful to limit body-to-body contact, opening my office door during private meetings or not being alone with parishioners in dimly lit hallways. Maintaining good boundaries not only protects you as a single pastor but your congregation. Indeed, we must be conscious to create safe environments for clergy, pastors and parishioners and this only happens as we keep good boundaries.
As a single, male, pastor I had to recognize my power. While being single engenders certain misperceptions it also affords undeniable privileges. Even more, in a society that still extends more power to men than women I had to choose to engage with women and children responsibly. Navigating pastoral vocation as a single person must be done with both prayer and much intentionality.
Recognize your power, make a decision that’s in line with your beliefs and ethics and keep good boundaries.
Dawrell Rich is an author, pastor and public speaker. He is also the founder of Joshua’s House—a youth and young adult leadership organization that focuses on mentoring, community service, health & wellness and education. WWW.DAWRELLRICH.COM Twitter: @DAWRELLRICH FB: DAWRELLGRICH