I never thought I would end up in an open relationship. I never dreamed that this is the way my life would unfold. But then, as a young clergywoman, I followed God’s call to a small town in northwest Pennsylvania.
The town is a typical small town. There’s a downtown committed to keeping chain stores out and so there are mom and pop diners, antique shops, and a pizza parlor/movie rental combo. But with only one stoplight in town, I was in for some major culture shock, having just graduated from a seminary within minutes of Atlanta. Yet as I settled into a new place, a new home, I began to love the small town feel and charm.
Just as those bumps were over, I was in for another shock. Serving a smaller church in a town of 1,600 while living in the manse threw this fish into a giant fishbowl. While the manse is (thankfully) a few blocks from the church, congregation members live two doors down and across the street. Expand my neighborhood by just a few blocks in any direction and there are a dozen more members who are my neighbors. I soon found out that not only was my life endlessly fascinating to others, but some considered it an open book. Especially my relationship status: single.
I had been at the church a few months when it really started – offers to set me up with grandsons, nephews, neighbors, and sons. I had decided ahead of time I would turn down any and all such offers. And I did. I was also committed to not dating anyone in the congregation – not that there were many young adults around.
The congregation wanted to see me date someone local, someone from town, because in their mind that would surely keep me firmly planted here as their pastor. In fact, a few congregation members formed a secret committee (so Presbyterian) to find me a boyfriend. I eventually found out about the committee, and it only furthered my concern that dating anyone in town would be like dating half the town.
Not having many other ways to meet people, I finally decided to give the whole online dating thing a go. After many months of an on-again-off-again relationship with eHarmony, I met someone. I met someone who seemed like a great guy and he only lived about an hour away from me. It was close enough that meeting up would be easy, but far enough away that we could get to know each other away from prying eyes. Plus, it was near enough that I could actually see this person, even though I worked weekends. It seemed just right. And it was!
We met for dates in towns other than our own and got to know each other. We learned about one another and laughed with one another. We discovered shared interests and revealed hopes and dreams. As he heard more about my career and call, the question I most feared was posed: “Can I come to worship some Sunday and hear you preach?”
The question stemmed from a desire to see me “do my thing,” to learn more about my life and me. But my fear stemmed from a knowledge of my congregation. Without any other young adult men in the congregation, his presence would be very obvious. Meeting them would be like a step above meeting my family (who live in another state and he hadn’t met yet).
Luckily, there was an ideal solution. The town’s annual festival was coming up in a few weeks. On that weekend, the six churches in town join together for one worship service in the town square. Worship leadership and preaching rotates among the churches and that summer was my summer to preach. So, he attended the worship service as part of the festival crowd.
Shortly thereafter we began dating exclusively and seriously. He was going to be meeting my parents the next time they were in town. This was no summer fling. And rushing out the door as soon as he pulled into my driveway to pick me up for a date wouldn’t keep the secret forever in this small town. I knew I had to introduce him to the congregation.
A wise seminary friend and fellow young clergywoman encouraged me to trust myself – I would know when and how to introduce him to the congregation. Vacation Bible School Celebration Sunday seemed the perfect day. With neighborhood kids joining together with congregational kids for a program during worship, the church would be full of visitors – young adult visitors. He wouldn’t completely stand out.
He attended the service and when someone questioned which kid he was there for, he simply stated that he was there for the pastor (awww). Though people saw me interact with him both before and after worship, most assumed he was one of my two brothers.
But by the next Sunday, the cat was out of the bag. I had slipped into conversation during the week that I was looking for a fun place to go to dinner in the next big town when my parents were visiting and we went out with my boyfriend. A couple people knew. And soon the town got to talking. The next Sunday my parents were in worship and my boyfriend sat with them. There were still a few folks who thought that he was my brother. But good news travels fast and by the end of the worship service, he was surrounded by congregation members who wanted to meet him … and give him the third degree.
He took it all in stride. We opened up our relationship to the congregation, each feeling free to share details about it – how we met, where he worked, that we had met each other’s families. In return, the congregation opened up to me. I heard stories about dating high school sweethearts, finding “the one,” and marriage proposals.
Though our relationship wasn’t open from its first flirty moments, sharing milestones with the congregation is natural now. They have embraced us as individuals and as a couple. It’s worked out well. It worked for us. In fact, he’s going to be the pastor’s husband come next June.