Counseling and the Single Girl

I still remember the first crisis I faced as a pastor, when I was really just a seminary intern.  I can still feel the terror that swept over me as I thought of all the ways I could fail.  I can still taste the bile of inadequacy that came as I realized that, for all my education in Hebrew, ecclesiology, and other assorted things with long names, I had no idea how to be a pastor under those circumstances.

Thanks be to God, I got through it without causing myself or anyone else any significant emotional damage, and have made it through much worse since.  In my five years of ordination, I have learned to preach a sermon on little sleep and less preparation, hold the hand of someone who is dying, bail someone out of jail, check someone into a rehabilitation or mental treatment facility, whip a liturgy out of nothing in seconds, navigate ritzy fundraising dinners and seamy street corners, soothe panicking grooms and silence overbearing mothers, and receive what seems to be the worst news or the rudest comment on earth with relative calm.  While I do sometimes think, “Wow, my life is a little crazy,” and I rather enjoy dramatizing some of my stories for the entertainment of my friends, the varied tasks of pastoral life don’t faze me the way they once did.  Ministry has calmed me, made me less flappable.  That is, except for one thing which still never fails to shoot me through with anxiety:

Premarital counseling.

I don’t take advice very well to begin with, but when I do, I prefer to take it from someone who has been through what I’m facing.  So, I can understand the looks of skepticism as the happy couple realizes that I’m not married.  My credibility has just flown out the window - and they don’t even realize the extent to which I am the Queen of Unsustainable Relationships.  I push through this by being very up front about it.  “I don’t know how to be married.  But I do know some things about communication and conflict, and I can help you prepare for some of the challenges you might face.” 


Usually, their doubts are somewhat eased, but mine still rage.  Do I really know anything about relationships?  If I did, wouldn’t I be in one?  What do I know about sharing a life with someone?  Accommodating my dog is about all the space I can make for another being in my life on most days.  What business do I have counseling people about commitment?  In seconds, I am back in that same hopelessly inadequate frame of mind, terrified that nothing in either my education or my life experience has prepared me to be a pastor in this situation.

In one particular session, inevitably, we’re talking about unrealistic expectations; I jokingly mention the list I’d made in my early 20s of the characteristics I absolutely required in a partner.  Let’s just say I was an academic snob who expected some combination between an adoring audience, a mind reader, and a professional hockey player - with a PhD.  “Oh, that’s
why you’re still not married at your age,” says the shining young groom.  Apparently I missed the memo that thirty is still considered old maid material.  I have to bite back a snarky response about my hesitance to marry perhaps being related to the amount of time I spend listening to couples gripe at each other in front of a perfect stranger.  I won’t say it, no matter how much I want to.  I’m a professional.

However, being a professional doesn't protect me from the perceptions of my competence or lack thereof based on my singleness.  It certainly doesn't guard me from my own emotional baggage, all of which seems to float to the surface when I'm faced with optimistic pairs of faces and clasped hands sitting on the loveseat in my office.  (Is it a coincidence that I never sit there?  I think not.)  I'm just trying to help this couple talk to each other, but inside my head is a boiling stew of mixed feelings.  My ambivalence about the institution of marriage as it is popularly conceived and regulated, frustration at government benefits given to married couples, rampant terror of commitment, wonderings about whether I'll still be happy if I'm still single in twenty years, and resultant fear that I might not be... What I say is, "What might be a good way for you to deal with your anger rather than blowing up?" but what I'm thinking is that it's my brain that is feeling volcanic.

So much energy is required to hold all this in that, at the end of the sessions, I am utterly drained.  I think I've done an acceptable job with the counseling, but it takes its toll.  I need my friends, a moment to breathe, and a glass of good wine.   I know now that premarital counseling does this to me, and I prepare accordingly in advance.  I will love the wedding; I always do.  However, I will probably always dread the counseling.

Maybe someday it will become just another part of my job, like late-night emergency phone calls, unexpected funerals, and spontaneous requests to pray in public...but maybe not.  Maybe it will always bring up feelings of fear and inadequacy.  Regardless, I can't escape this task entirely, and so I remind myself of something that I remember much more easily in any other situation: I can't tell them what to do anyway.  Advice is overrated, being generally unappreciated and almost as generally just unhelpful.  I don't have to have been where they are, because I don't have to tell them what to do.  My call is to listen, and to help them listen and talk to each other.  Married or single, that is something I can do.      

Rev. Stacey Midge is Minister for Mission, Outreach, and Youth at the First Reformed Church of Schenectady, New York.

Comments

Oh, you're singing my song.
Great article.

Thank you for your expression of doubt (and dread). I find that even though I am married, the doubts still run rampant. Some of the couples I have married have been older than me, living together longer than my husband and I have know each other, have children together or separately, previous marriages etc. What is my experience compared to that? I am full to the brim with doubts about whether my few counseling sessions with couples will mean anything. But the Holy Spirit works even if I don't and for that I am always thankful!

Also, I have a spiritual director who is divorced and yet I find her to be one of the wisest people to talk to about my marriage gripes and grumbles. She readily admits that she is not a model for success but she is the best conversation partner I have in the matter of marriage - and in large part because she always explicitly invites Spirit to be integral to our conversations.

Before I became a single young clergywoman, I was a single young attorney who mostly did family law work at a domestic violence law clinic. My views on marriage were certainly widened by that experience (!) but not in ways that help me counsel the smitten young people who come through my office seeking to wed.

I was very much encouraged by a how-to-counsel-the-engaged book I read by a wise old Lutheran pastor who proclaimed that lovestruck couples weren't much good at preparing for the difficult and ugly sides of marriage. That pastor focused almost entirely on making the service meaningful, helping the couple practice talking to a pastor about themselves--and getting them to promise that they'll come back and talk to him or another clergyperson once the shine wears off and they can talk about conflict and communication (and money and sex and children and work, etc.) with real-life problems of their own.

I've tried to follow suit, and it's working well. In the course of telling me their story, the couples reveal a lot to me and each other about what's going on, the service remains the focus rather than the precursor to the party, and I actually have had folks come back to talk.

All to say, thanks for your honesty about the mix of feelings that run through the single pastor's mind when faced with the betrothed.

With time will come a little more confidence in that area. I used to feel the same way you do, and would very happily send my couples to a pre-marriage weekend at Lutheran Social Services in lieu of me doing the pre-marriage work. However, I did get some training in Prepare & Enrich, and have found that after 15 years of this I'm actually very good at discerning who's going to make it and who's going to struggle. I've also become less afraid to do the difficult work to help those who do struggle. They know I've not been married, but that I've seen enough with others to know something about relationships.

And just remember, who really does know all there is to know anyway?

Wonderful timing for this article! I have been having a rush of weddings and I require several sessions so that I know the couple on the day of the ceremony (none of the young couples are actually part of the church now) and it is pretty good outreach opportunity too. I would also admit that it is some of my only contact with people my age.

However, I leave the sessions feeling 1) frustrated that these immature people are getting married without a concept of it and I am nowhere near it 2) like I don't want to have a traditional ceremony or read the 'love is patient' passage ever again 3) like I will never get married. And am not sure I want to at that moment. 4) like the sessions are more for me and my conscience than their benefit

With every wedding I do I get closer to getting married in jeans, in a field, with my hair down.

As a single pastor I'm pretty intimidated by the counseling as well, but its getting easier with time. Stomaching the idolatry around weddings is getting harder though. People look at me like I'm crazy when I suggest that as a worship service, a wedding demands some respect.

Its so tiring to fight over and over again the same battle against the focus being on the hair/dress/DJ and getting it onto the marriage.

I had some of the same doubts as you when I started (before I got married - now the doubts are different!), but I figured that if Catholic priests can do it, so can I! And so can you!
I could still use a little more training though. I tend to be all over the place, even though I supposedly have a plan for our six sessions.
I think you're right that the key thing is that you know how to help people talk and make plans and commitments about how they communicate.

Meredith, what is the name of the book that has been helpful for you?

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