They teach you a lot about sex in health class in high school. Or rather, they teach you a lot about the HORRIBLE THINGS THAT WILL HAPPEN TO YOU if you have sex. STDs! Teenage Pregnancy! Betrayal by the captain of the football team! Now that I’m fifteen years on the other side of health class I’m realizing they taught me nothing about adult, married, procreative sex.
When my husband and I decided it was time to start a family, I was hugely excited. I got off the birth control pills that had regulated my menstrual cycle, moods and acne for a decade and realized my body’s natural rhythms were totally foreign to me. I began to chart my basal body temperature, and track my periods and the quality of my cervical mucous to get a sense of when I was ovulating, but it turns out I am a terrible interpreter of charts and my own body and for the first several months kept missing the prime window. My poor husband had to deal with my requests for sex every other day for ten-day windows and then deal with my meltdowns when I realized retrospectively that I had ovulated days after we had our scheduled “fun.” Babymaking was definitely NOT the joyful connubial experience for which I had hoped.
It was a standard day at Clover Bottom Developmental Center, a state-run institution for developmentally disabled adults. I was a few months into my pastoral internship at Studio 1, an art studio which encourages the adults to create visual art as a form of pastoral care. Nancy arrived at 10 am as they always do on Tuesday mornings for Studio 1.
Nancy is a woman in her 40s. She is one of the more high functioning individuals at Clover Bottom with a mentality of around a 6 year old. She is verbal (very verbal actually!), she can walk, and she understands most of what you say to her. Nancy is, probably due to her medication, a very wary person. She always seems to want assurance of what is going to happen and she frequently talks about how someone has wronged her in some way.
“Um… not with anyone else.” That was my stammered response when my now-husband asked, “Have you ever had an orgasm?” We were having THE conversation, wherein I explained that I was a virgin and intended to remain that way for a while. When he asked the question, I did not see the need to lie. I still remember his grin, “Well, at least you know you can.”
That conversation remains at the front of my mind when I talk with middle or high school students about sex. In our area, we even have a Relationship Retreat as part of the Confirmation curriculum. All other pastors yield the floor to me when it comes to the masturbation questions and/or discussion. I am not afraid of them.
We might imagine that a well crafted sermon should be able to stand alone, with no further contextualization beyond the appointed scriptural readings. And yet, sometimes that simply doesn’t hold true. Sometimes there are factors and variables that must be shared, circumstances that must be considered, lest the text remain mere words on a page. This was one of those times.
I preached this sermon in the wake of considerable tension on campus. There had been a string of incidents of hostility toward various racial and ethnic identities. There were also a number of strong arm robberies occurring, some during broad daylight. The anxiety was palpable. The lectionary texts lent themselves quite well to our current state of affairs, which worked out well. I came to the end of my preparation and I felt good about how it all turned out.
Then I started to think. How could I make an impact? How could I cause this message to stand out for students, that it might take hold and take root? As a rule, I am very wedded to the pulpit when I preach. I preach from a manuscript. I have great respect for people who are able to preach from notes, or memory. But that’s not me. Then it occurred to me – what If I step out of my comfort zone? What If I do something that is unexpected? What if I rock the boat, just a bit.
“Are you a preacher, then?” The question came from the giant, cheerful, middle-aged man in charge of lining up airport shuttles for wayward travelers. Apparently my destination, a nearby retreat center, gave me away.
“I am,” I replied with a cautious smile. In the four years since my ordination I’ve learned that conversations about ministry are a gamble. They run from gentle encouragement to arguments of why religion is flawed and, on one memorable occasion, even a long monologue on why women shouldn’t be ordained. I considered myself rescued when an elderly couple stopped to inquire about rates and schedules. When it appeared that his attention had shifted I moved away to a nearby bench to wait for my ride.
Suddenly, the man was next to me again. “What do you preach?”
For a two-part series in February and March we interviewed single revs from across the country. They serve in various denominations and settings and their answers are varied and complex. February’s questions focus on “Life as the Single Rev” and March’s questions will focus on “Sex and the Single Rev.”
1. What is your calling as a minister? What does it mean for you to live that out and be single?
Single Rev 1: I am grateful to live in a time in human history when there are people of all walks of life who are carrying out the calling of minister. To live in such a time is to be able to hear God’s message of hope through a variety of filters and lenses that makes its depth and beauty more rich and three-dimensional than it has ever been before. To have different sets of eyes, with different experiences and backgrounds, setting their hand to the plow to read and interpret and help people to apply God’s scriptures is to breathe fresh life into how we live them out. For me, this means that my voice not only as a minister, but as a single minister is vital. My voice is essential to the choir.
I believe I received a wonderful theological education at the two Baptist seminaries I attended (Eastern--now Palmer, and Central). I can decline Greek verbs (OK, I could at one time), put Paul in his historical context, explain the prophetic tradition and even address difficult biblical texts. I can do crisis counseling, pre-marital counseling, spiritual counseling, and "I think you need a real counselor" counseling. I can explain the theology behind each part of the worship service. I can write and preach a fine sermon – would you like narrative or expository?
Still, there are times in my ministry when I find myself at a loss – events and circumstances for which I am sadly unprepared. So without disparaging the good work of my many fine seminary professors, I would like to suggest a few additions to the course catalog:
Our congregational meeting in mid-January was congenial. Praise God, the church has a strong sense of mission and the books are in the black. Despite this, throughout the meeting I was unsettled. There was one significant announcement to make. Before the closing prayer, I looked the congregation in the eye and said, “One last thing. I’m pregnant. We’re going to have a baby in June.”
The congregation received this newswith its customary warmth and grace. I value privacy but my nerves before and during the meeting were not simply the result of anticipating sharing very personal information. I was not simply nervous about the changes this will necessitate in the ministry I love. As my beloved put it after the congratulations and coffee hour ended, “Now the congregation knows we had sex.” True. And this implicit acknowledgement in front of our church of being a sexual being makes me squirm.
Before labeling me as anti-embodied or someone who is afraid to talk about sex in public, know that one of my core convictions in ministry, particularly ministry with youth and young adults, is that sex matters and that as Christians we need to talk about it. With young people, we talk about applying the Sixth Commandment to life, their sexual values, and how to live as people of God in a hyper-sexualizing society.
Even with honest explorations of questions in these Christian contexts, the majority of my conversations on sex have remained abstractions or confined to the world (ghetto?) of youth ministry. Counseling sessions with individuals, marital preparation, and adult Sunday school sessions on homosexuality in the Bible are the only times I have talked explicitly about sex with adults. Our baby announcement was the first time in nearly four years of ordained ministry that I explicitly acknowledged that I am a sexual being.