Faith and the Single Pastor

I’ve had several friends remark to me, “I’m glad I don’t have your job.” I take it as a backhanded compliment from people who have experienced enough of church life to know the demands and expectations placed on pastors. But having worked in secular industry and having friends in all sorts of jobs, I know that stress comes in all shapes and sizes.

However, there’s a particular kind of burden placed on pastors when they’re called to shepherd God’s flock. We are called to care for people’s souls. Before being a pastor, I’ve never had to consider the deep implications of spiritual formation in the life of a community. I didn’t have to address questions like: What kind of people are we shaping with the weekly practices of prayer, fellowship, and worship? What do we say when only men serve as elders or that the communion table is fenced off from seekers? What does it mean if a child never sees a woman preaching from the pulpit or only married persons as pastors?

Prior to being a pastor, I didn’t have to consider the impact of my words or the weight of my own spiritual health. It was much easier to separate the private from the public when I was in secular work. When your main work is to embody theology, however, there’s no hiding from who you really are. My identity, or the formation of my identity, becomes the pivot point in how I do theology and in how I care for others. In order to see the belovedness of people, and to invite them into relationship with God, I need to see my own belovedness to God.

So there’s no escaping from dealing with personal issues like my sexuality and relational history. I am a heterosexual, single woman. These adjectives can mean something. To some it means I am deficient and should be barred from leadership. To others it means that I am a threat to their marriage. To me, it means a mode of life that I had little control over but one that I’m slowly learning to navigate with.

It also means that I have a rare opportunity to effect change just by being who I am. For the children in my congregation, they will grow up seeing a single woman preach, pray, and lead a community. They will become teenagers who will think nothing of gender and marital status as qualifiers for ministry. They will become adults who will value men and women working together in partnership, rather than in competition.

Yet I still struggle with the loneliness and isolation that comes from being a pastor and being single. Whether it is to hold people’s stories in confidence, or to make unpopular decisions, or to live faithfully in a sexually-saturated society, I am learning that this calling has a price. God, in His grace, didn’t fully reveal that price to me at the start of my journey. I think I might have laughed like Sarah and found a wife, er… husband. Or maybe I might have taken to the high seas like Jonah and go on the run.

Do I still choose this road? Even when it becomes harder? Even when God never answers my prayers for a partner? Do I settle in for the long haul?

The answer lies not in making one vow, but making small choices day by day. In the words of Eugene Peterson, it’s to obey in the same direction while knowing that each day we are being preserved by God. There are days when I question my abilities as a pastor, and there are days when I can’t imagine doing anything else.  The truth is, every day that I am sustained is a grace and a gift. Especially when I can say in response, “I’m glad I don’t have your job either.”

This was a contribution to Asian American Women on Leadership, a gathering of Asian American Women for leadership renewal and development.