I feel like people often ask me this question when they find out I am a solo pastor, part of a clergy couple, a mother of two young children—and I don’t live near my family. This question immediately makes me feel terribly defensive. I start to wonder what the questioners are really saying to me. Do they think I don’t spend enough time with my kids? Do they think I’m completely nuts and I’m slowly damaging my reputations as both a mother and pastor as I try to merge parenthood and an active congregation? Am I crazy working without other pastors on staff with me? Are my children doomed? A fellow pastor, pregnant with her first child, told me recently of a friend who asked her about what her plans were after she had the baby. This fellow pastor talked of her dream to be a solo pastor and described how she hoped to manage daycare. Her friend then said, “Well, it won’t be ideal.” My heart burned for her after she told me of this comment.
In motherhood, like ministry, it’s really hard to tell when I’m doing things right. And much of the time I feel like I’m doing most things a little bit wrong. When people ask me “How do you do it?” and I overreact, I realize this reaction is birthed from my own deep insecurities. The reputation of the behaviorally-challenged, anti-religious, emotionally scarred pastor’s child is powerful. This reputation formed when most children of pastors had mothers who stayed at home. How will my children fare with two parents who are pastors? Whenever my children have challenging days, my first reaction is to blame myself. Many days I struggle with the idea that I may be a better pastor than a mother. The guilt I feel as a parent is a soul-sucking, anxiety-producing, terror-inducing emotion.
It was a beautiful weekend in late October, when the rest of the country was already slipping toward winter. Fall lingers in North Carolina, though, so on Saturday afternoon some good friends and I sat outside for hours on the patio of a nearby winery, marveling at the colors cascading down the mountains.
I should probably call them old friends, based on the age of our friendship—though I fear that says something about my own age as well, a fear confirmed by the increasing number of gray hairs appearing at the edge of my forehead. These friends live halfway across the country now, but our friendship goes back to early college. They were in town for a conference, and tagged on a couple of days to visit us.
Our children—who had never met before—played together delightfully, while we sipped wine and caught up with each other, enjoying the scenery and the company and the antics of our kids. We laughed, easily and often, about things that happened yesterday or years ago. We talked about hard things, job changes and complicated families and deep sorrow. We told stories and reminisced, teased each other lightly, and reveled in the comfortable conversation of friends who know each other well.
At a recent workshop for clergy, I got into a conversation with a colleague now 20 years into her ministry. Over coffee during one of the breaks, I was sharing some of the difficulties of being minimally employed and working from home. As an extrovert and a new priest excited about parish ministry, I’ve been frustrated and depressed at times with the situation. Before I could finish she gulped her coffee distractedly and told me, “Don’t be sad. You just need to have faith.” Her break was over, and apparently so was our conversation. I was left furious, and just as demoralized as ever.
It has now been one year since I graduated seminary and was ordained in the Episcopal Church. When I graduated, I had already been hunting for a parish job for several months. Now a year and a half since that process began, I am still without parish work. (I know I’m not alone in this. Finding parish positions for those just beginning their careers and even those later in their careers has been difficult lately.) Several of those months I spent unemployed, and for the past half-year I’ve been minimally employed coordinating grants for my diocese. I feel blessed to have work of any sort, but I continue to search for any parish options full-time or even part-time because that’s where my heart is and that’s really where I want to be.
It’s not every day that a greeting card changes the way you live your life, but several years ago I saw one that did just that. On the cover it said, “Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon.” From the first moment I read those words, I knew they were spot-on, and I have tried my best to live them out. Sometimes it means getting hurt, though, whether through splattering oil or things that seem like they should have tasted good or even the occasional broken heart (much longer lasting than the dinner that shouldn’t-have-been).
Usually I only get to cook, but for the past year or so I had the opportunity to approach love with reckless abandon—I have been more open, more real, more honest, more vulnerable in this relationship than any other I’ve been in. I’ve given myself away to another person more than I ever imagined myself doing. I allowed myself the fantasies, the idea that he might be The One, the hopes and dreams and girly chatter, the pondering of great mysteries of life, love, and God all intertwined.
But in one important way, I was neither reckless nor abandoned: I did not allow my church to know.
At worship recently the anthem was a duet titled “Why is There Such a Thin Line?” and included such questions as “Why did God make such a thin line between darkness and light, peace and war?” etc. It was a haunting piece of music with strange harmony and dissonance to complement the words—a piece of music that required some effort and some thought on the part of the listener as well as the singer.
This duet reminded me of a conversation I’d had a few days earlier, in which I was trying to convince a friend that there is something that feels qualitatively different about church members commenting on the hair/clothes/weight of a female pastor than that of a male pastor. Yes, I believe men get those comments as well, though I doubt they come as often as they do to clergy women, particularly young women. And yes, I believe that these comments are generally made when a congregant can’t think of anything else to say—the sermon has already left their brain by the time they get to the door and they need something to say while they shake the preacher’s hand. But still…as a woman, I’ll just say that it feels different when people choose to comment on my appearance rather than any aspect of a worship service or education opportunity or whatever else might be going on. It feels like a devaluation of our ministry—a way to reduce the minister to something to look at and dismiss anything substantive that she might say or do.
This morning, when I saw “BIN LADEN IS DEAD” plastered across the New York Times web page, I found myself surprised. Not that he’d been assassinated, but that the event was making headline news. Osama bin Laden has been in hiding for years and hasn’t seemed to have much real power for quite a while now. Every once in a while a scratchy video or tape of him would pop up, but that’s it.
He’s a powerful symbol, of course: terrorism, 9/11, and all-around Evil. He’s also a very convenient symbol: it’s hard to point to an identifiable Enemy in the complex, disparate movement that international terrorism has become or in the wars that the U.S. military is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. He provides a useful, unequivocal face of the Enemy for us in the United States.
And so, some Americans were celebrating Sunday night in the streets of Washington, D.C., and New York City. Facebook status updates were peppered with “God bless America!” and “Justice is done.” and probably other, more ugly, statements than my predominantly liberal friends and family would post. However, one friend of mine suggested that now Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Jerry Falwell (!) can play bridge in hell since they have gotten a fourth partner. Well. (And I thought Rob Bell had cleared all that up?)