Before I plunge into a tongue-in-cheek reflection after having just completed seven years of ministry with a congregation I loved almost twice as long as I’ve dated any particular person, I want to lift up two quick qualifiers:
1) Most retired clergy and of a fair number of current-day clergy serving in different environments than my own have had a much different experience of life in the church. I think context, gender, race, congregational culture, regional culture and expectations all play into this. I find that pastors working with “fourth-quadrant churches” tend to resonate a bit more with my experience, but even then, I want to say that my own experience of ministry will be different than that of others.
2) There’s a really big difference between individuals within a congregation and the culture of the congregation as a whole. This makes sense if you study family systems theory or if you’ve been in any organization where the will of the individuals and the will of the collective weren’t always the same. So when I make gross generalizations about a congregation, I hope it’s clear that I got to work with a beautiful and diverse group of individuals. This is just a flippant way of reflecting on how challenging it can be to be an idealistic change-the-world-by force girl who enters into an institution that is designed to change slowly.
3) (I was never good at math.) This is shaped by my experience denomination-wide, so be careful not to read this as being exclusively about a particular parish.
So, with that out of the way, I spent the last month in my parish and regional ministry with all sorts of dating advice popping into my head—things I wished I had been aware of in my dating life that my congregation taught me. I also found myself thinking about a few things dating had taught me that I wished I had translated to my congregation. And I definitely found myself thinking about dating advice I wished I could give to some of my clergy colleagues around the country who weren’t following some really basic dating rules with their congregations. I decided to collect a few of them together.
And now, without further ado, What the Church Taught Me So I Could Be a Better Dater (or vice versa)
1) Don’t try to make them something they’re not. One of my favorite moments in “The Simpsons” is when Lisa is dating the neighborhood bully and talks to her mom about wanting to help him be nicer. Marge says something along the lines of, “Some people will tell you you shouldn’t date someone with the expectation that you can change them. But when I married your father he was a lazy slob with no thoughts for anyone but himself. Now he’s a completely different person.” When Lisa looks doubtfully at her father drunk and passed out in the hammock, Marge reiterates to her forcefully, “I said, NOW HE’S A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT PERSON!” I think the call of ministry has a lot to do with helping a congregation be their best selves, but it’s important to be clear on who their collective best self is first. My biggest mistakes in my ministry were the times I tried to push and cajole the congregation into something I felt very passionately was God’s call but they just weren’t as a whole really feeling. There were times they worked hard at those visions and goals, and there were times they didn’t, but either way it wasn’t ultimately about God, it was about me. If I try that in a relationship, it’s only a matter of time before the other person resents me for not loving them for who they are. The opposite is also true:
2) If you try to be what you think they want you to be, you’ll just resent it. Part of the ending of my seven years of ministry was going through over 4,000 emails so that the ministry team taking over for me would have a record of the work we did. I came across emails where I created a traditional worship service once a month to try to meet the needs of long-term members and attended events that I would never have attended as a member of a church because I didn’t find it spiritually meaningful and even organized programs that people said were how it used to be, even though I didn’t really enjoy them. I bet I wasn’t much fun to be around in those settings, and it just made me not like being at church. I also took on all sorts of additional tasks and responsibilities to try to re-create what people had once liked about church, and things still weren’t as good as they used to be, so people didn’t notice the effort to appreciate it, and I felt fatigued and…well, unappreciated. I’m a girl, so guess what—I’ve done the same thing in a relationship or two. And I hope that for the sake of the church and the next man and myself that I have learned to do better on this front. Honestly, whether it’s in church or in the dating world, I honor God better when I’m who God made me to be–in my case that’s more out in the street and less at the Christian women’s fellowship luncheon; even though I think God is in both places, God made me for the former rather than the latter. (There’s a dating equivalent to that, but this is a family blog.) The flip side of both numbers one and two, however, is the Sex and the City dating truism:
3) Take the hint if they’re just not that into you. In a lot of the work I’ve done around congregational transformation, we really treasure the fierce, bold, tenacious leader who will do anything necessary to help the congregation actually be what he (usually it’s a he) has decided God is calling them to be and do in the world. One of my colleagues pointed out that in a lot of public venues I have embodied that exact model of ministry—he said after a presentation where I spoke, people went home ready to transform their churches even if it killed them and their churches in the process. But if a pastor has that level of passion and a congregation just doesn’t and doesn’t really want to be kindled, perhaps that’s not a great match. I find myself thinking of the ancient wisdom of the Kama Sutra (it’s not just a book of positions, you cultural mis-appropriators), which notes that people have differing levels of passion, and it’s a bad idea to match a person of high passion and a person of low passion. In denominations all across the country, highly passionate pastors are matched with fatigued and exhausted congregations, and sometimes the combination turns brutal, but often it just depletes both parties, which is equally heartbreaking. In my own dating life, I’ve held onto a couple of relationships tenaciously well past the point that it was a good idea, determined that just trying really hard and giving them lots of breaks would make the relationship work—it turned out it just postponed an ending and wound up with me getting (perhaps unintentionally) mistreated in the process. I really hate the advice from helpful friends that if he didn’t love me that much then I’m better off, but it’s true. And I’ve watched several clergy colleagues get badly burned because they believed their tenacity of will could salvage their whole congregation, but all it did was burn out the pastor and entrench the congregation. Shake the dust off your sandals, brother. Find instead the person who will welcome you in and treasure what you have to offer, sister.
4) It’s not just about the initial chemistry. South Asian Americans love to go on at length about how arranged marriage is actually the wiser path than love marriages. Now, almost none of us has any interest in actually HAVING an arranged marriage, but tell me it’s a backward practice and I’ll give you a list of reasons it’s potentially better than love matches, and one of those reasons is that arranged marriage isn’t based in the chemistry that has been proven to be a very poor indicator of the potential success of a relationship. Pastors and congregations often joke about the honeymoon period in a congregation, but if you’re not committed to really being in relationship with each other through thick and thin, that initial chemistry isn’t enough. And if there’s not a commitment to staying in relationship with each other (holding each other accountable and letting each other know what you need as well as reminding each other that you love each other), that chemistry can go sour very quickly. This leads into…
5) If you really love each other, consider counseling BEFORE things get bad. So often in congregations things get really bad before someone’s called in to help a congregation and pastor figure out what went wrong. (This is akin to how many couples go to counseling once there’s not much left to salvage.) One of my best friends in seminary said he saw therapy a lot like dental visits—he didn’t think it was a great idea to wait until a tooth was hurting; he went for regular check-ups instead. Something I’m kinda proud of in my congregation is that we did a lot of this check up stuff; we just didn’t collectively realize what the results of those regular checkups actually meant so we could move forward together. That counseling (by which I mean congregational surveys and visioning and reflections led by people outside the congregation) helped me get clarity about our relationship that took me a long time to really claim: it helped me realize when the deepest desires of the congregation and my deepest desires were no longer in alignment, so I could let go rather than inhibit them from being who they needed to be or inhibit myself from doing what I know God has called me to do. (And I hope that I never again end up holding myself back from doing what God has called me to do for the sake of a dating relationship–women far too often do exactly that. If I can respect my congregation enough to honor us both by not compromising who I am, may I respect any person I date just as much.)
6) Don’t be afraid to show emotions; just be kind in how you do so. This is one that I have to keep working on as a pastor and as a girlfriend, for REAL yo. One of my most embarrassing moments ever, about two years ago, involved me yelling at an ex-boyfriend in the middle of Broadway in downtown Oakland on a Friday night: “I don’t understand why you tell me things as if you didn’t think I had any feelings!” I shouted when he shared details of his current relationship that would have been a VERY smart way to hurt my feelings, except he had no idea that they would hurt my feelings. A week later I came across an email I had sent to a previous ex-boyfriend at least a year or two earlier saying, “I appreciate that you want to unburden every aspect of your soul to me, but it makes me really sad that you share things with me without thinking about the fact that they are very likely to hurt my feelings—it almost feels like you’re not aware that I have feelings.” Suddenly I realized this wasn’t just about those two guys; I withheld my feelings and took care of theirs, and I set up a really painful relationship structure for myself. Then in my exit interview from my parish last month (which was really beautiful and named some really important things and provided healing), I was told that something I need to pay attention to in my next ministry is sharing my emotions, because the congregation might have been better served if I had been able to convey my frustrations and disappointments more openly. The truth is, I was afraid of overwhelming them. I was afraid of hurting them. And I believed that as a pastor, I wasn’t allowed to express emotions for fear of manipulating outcomes. I believed as pastor, expressing emotions would disrupt my ability to provide pastoral care. I believed as pastor, the most important thing for me to offer was a non-anxious presence. And I set up a situation where, when I felt mistreated, misunderstood or isolated, I didn’t think I was allowed to share that–and I was told in subtle ways by a few congregants that they didn’t really want me to share that either. Just like in my dating life. Now, I’ve seen pastors display awful, manipulative, passive-aggressive shows of emotion, and that seems even worse, but maybe there’s a new way of pastoring that allows for more equality of relationship and equal exchange of felt needs to make that relationship better…and maybe there’s a way of dating like that, too!
7) Sometimes it’s not you and it’s not them. A ministry colleague came to my going away party at church. We talked about how ending a ministry is like ending a relationship, and there are endings where you know you can stay friends, and there are endings that involve restraining orders and police. There’s a much loathed break-up line: “It’s not you, it’s me.” But SOMETIMES in a relationship, it’s not you OR them. Realizing this was what allowed me to step away from the congregation at what I believe was the right time. At one point in my relationship to the church, I had a sense that me leaving was akin to failure or abandonment; as I evolved, however, I realized that sometimes people’s paths divide, and that’s not a judgment on anyone. When I broke up with my college love, my former college chaplain sent me the old poem about “Some people are in our lives for a reason, a season or a lifetime.” That long ago relationship was a valuable season in my life that shaped me in vital ways. And at my last worship service at my church, the regional minister talked about how my handprint was on the heart of everyone in the congregation as their handprints were on my heart. That’s something to treasure when our paths split.
I suspect this is a post I will continue to rewrite and add to in my head, and it is a very imperfect analogy in many ways. But I will say this much: Disciples of Christ, my next boyfriend thanks you for the great training you’ve given me.