Coming over to tell my story (and I think answer some of the questions as I go along). I'll start in seminary. I had the required Pastoral Care class that, for a number of reasons not all related to this topic, left a lot to be desired. That part that was related to this topic, however, was very lengthy and very discouraging. We were WELL TAUGHT to not even think about dating someone in our churches. And it made sense as I learned it. It was cut and dry and JUST SAY NO rule.
Well, life isn't cut and dry and there are very few issues, I believe, that can be handled with a one size fits all rule. I understand that sometimes we are stuck teaching in one size fits all lessons, but the reality is each situation (in this and other settings and topics) is unique. I left that class (at the end of my second of three years of seminary) with the requisite FEAR OF GOD over falling for someone I met at church and a whole lot of my own fear that I would never find a spouse.
Fast forward to second semester of my last year. I found my first call rather quickly. I visited the church in Lincoln, NE in February to meet the committee, they offered me the position at the end of the weekend, and I accepted their offer when I got back to seminary. We set up my weekend to travel back for meeting the congregation and my candidating Sunday for April, two weeks after Easter. That's the weekend I met my now husband.
He is my age, was finishing up graduate school, and worked for the state. He attended the church all through college, but had only joined officially about 8 months before. He was active as an usher and in the young adult group that started as a college Bible study. We met first when he came to the Open House that was provided on Saturday for people to meet me before I led worship on Sunday. He was one of the only people under the age of 35 who came to that, but that was his "norm." He grew up in a medium-size rural church, and you go to stuff like that. You meet the new pastor. No matter what jokes we all tell now he didn't go trying to make the new pastor his girlfriend, and I certainly had no expectation of that myself.
Before this weekend I spent plenty of time on the internet trying to find a young adult group at any other church in town which I planned to join and attend when I moved. It seemed to be the perfect way to meet a group of people of faith where I would not be the pastor, so I could develop some sort of social life outside of the church. My husband stayed at the Open House quite a while, and by the end he and I, the pastor, and another young (married) man were talking for quite a while after it all ended. The next night, after the congregation had voted to call me, I was taken to the meeting of the young adults to meet them all a little more. My husband gave me his business card in order to have me contact him to organize the group when it was time to move my boxes into my apartment 6 weeks later.
I went home to seminary the next morning with a huge dilemma on my heart. I was pretty certain we both were interested in dating. The joke at school was that if I could get him to propose before I was ordained and installed, then it wouldn't be like I was dating and marrying and parishioner. In reality, it happened almost that fast.
We fell into our first date the weekend after I moved to town. All the other young adults were no-shows to a planned group outing. We saw the movie anyway and went to a little party at his bosses house afterwards. Within 2 weeks I told him we needed to meet for lunch to talk. I don't know where the courage came from, but I laid out that I enjoyed dating him and being with him, but it was not necessarily good for me to do this at the church. I said we didn't need to agree to get married on the spot, but at the same time I couldn't just play around because of our situation. He understood and offered to attend another church for a while so that we could see how this went.
I returned to the church and talked to the HoS whose first response was, "Well, what took so long?" He was very wise and compassionate and saw no need for my husband to leave. He knew neither of us would be happy in our church or spiritual lives if we did it that way. He advised me to fill the Personnel Committee in immediately, which I did, and said that the three of us (me, my husband, and the HoS) could help guide the congregation's reaction by being calm, not secretive, but not celebratory. It worked beautifully.
Within a few more week's my husband and I were talking about marriage, and by Labor Day weekend we had a date reserved on the church calendar under fake names; only the HoS and we knew. We went public with our families and the church in October. There was never a negative word or spirit in the congregation or anywhere else.
I think it went so well because of a few things:
1. Who we were and where we were in our lives.
2. The HoS, his wisdom, his demeanor, and his style of leadership in the congregation.
3. The fact that this was NOT a rural (and also solo) call.
4. My husband's respect for the pastoral issues at hand.
5. God. I truly believe that God called us to one another in the same sort of way God called me to that congregation.
It has, in retrospect, made me question the content of my Pastoral Care class in seminary. I get why it was taught the way it was taught. There are certainly abusive situations and there are potentially a whole host of landmines in this landscape. It could have gone poorly if it weren't for any one of those 5 things above and maybe others I've never identified. Things were just right for us and for the church. So is there a better way to teach navigating these water instead of putting the fear of God in our future pastors? Would we risk important lessons and information if the message was more "maybe" or "if all things are proper and appropriate"? I don't know. We might, and I get that that is why it's taught the way it is. I just don't know if it's helpful to deny that every case is unique and give some advice on how to date well instead of leaving our ministers scared of dating at all.
When I moved to my new presbytery I was required to take a boundaries class. It took me a while to get signed up and find a convenient time, so I finally did it after I had been here about 2 1/2 years. It left me FURIOUS. I spend 6 hours being told there was no way a relationship between pastor and parishioner could EVER work out. Even if you THINK it's going well when you are 85 and retired and trying to live happily ever after you will find that your spouse resents you for ruining his or her chance to ever be a "real" church member or a "normal" spouse. There were two of us in the class that had married parishioners, and we were less than satisfied with the training, to put it mildly. I was furious. I left my name, contact information, and a clear comment about this on the evaluation form, but surprise, surprise, I didn't hear anything about it afterward.
I think it was unnecessary, unfair, and out of line. There are important boundaries for developing relationships (both romantic and platonic), but there are also ways to work within boundaries in ways that don't deny the humanity of a pastor. I think it might be an important discussion for our denominations, seminaries, and congregations to have to spend some time exploring how those relationships can be explored in healthy ways.