Throughout my first few years of ministry, I have become well acquainted with both the joys and the challenges of being a single minister. However, when my boyfriend and I began dating last year, I quickly realized that I was not prepared for what to expect in this new season of life and ministry. When I asked a group of women in ministry for advice about dating while serving on church staff, I received blank stares. I scoured the Internet and my favorite blogs, but I found very little online about ministers and their dating experiences. Either I was entering into uncharted territory, or no one was brave enough to share openly about their experiences. Or maybe a little bit of both. Whatever the case, the following blog is my attempt to enter into this seemingly uncharted territory and to share a bit of my story with you.
Since there was (and is) so much overlap between my personal and professional life, I knew that I would need to explore other ways outside of the church to meet a potential partner. I was pretty skeptical about online dating, but with a dose of hopefulness, I signed up for Match.com. After a long summer of missed matches and no real possibilities, I was about to close my account when a handsome profile picture caught my attention, and I received a thoughtful message. Little did I know that he lived just minutes away from me, we had mutual friends and colleagues, we shared interests and values, and he worked right around the corner from my church.
Early on in our time of dating, I felt torn between wanting him to experience worship and church life with me at Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, where I serve, while not wanting him to feel pressured to attend Calvary. (He was attending another church at the time). Calvary was and is such a significant part of my life that I wanted to share it with him, but I also knew that, for better or for worse, once he came to Calvary, the cat would be out of the bag!
He began coming to Calvary on the Sundays that I preached (about once a month or so), and it didn’t take long for people to figure out who he was. Each Sunday, larger groups of people gathered around before or after worship to meet him. Although it was a bit overwhelming for him as an introvert to meet so many people who already knew his name, it also signaled to him that this was a church that cared about me deeply, and they were eager to meet the man who had stolen my heart.
I can’t tell you the number of people at church who asked me to go to coffee or lunch during those first few months of dating, and upon sitting down for a meeting in a coffee shop or restaurant, I quickly discovered that they really just wanted the inside scoop on my love life! Several people had even checked him out online or through mutual friends and wanted to let me know that “they approved.” I was a little caught off guard by the number of people who expressed disappointment that I hadn’t told them personally that I was dating someone, but once we started dating, word traveled so quickly. I also feared that if we broke up, people might have the same expectation that I have a personal conversation with them about that, too. While sharing parts of my dating life with the church was exciting and hopeful, it also meant opening myself up to the possibility of sharing an experience of deep hurt or sadness or embarrassment with them if things didn’t work out. I was taking a risk by sharing this part of my life with the congregation, that’s for sure. However, I also felt like it was the only way for me to be fully authentic with them, and I don’t know how to be a minister any other way.
As my boyfriend puts it, we have had many “free dates,” just based on the generous dinner invitations, concert tickets, and home-cooked meals we received in that first year of dating. One family learned that he was from Maryland and prepared a beautiful seafood dinner for us, complete with all of his favorite dishes. When it came time for him to meet my parents (who live in Kentucky), he felt well prepared because he had already been through about twenty similar scenarios (i.e. interviews) with families from church. After serving at Calvary for over five years, these people had truly become my family. Not only was this dating relationship significant for me, but I soon realized how significant it was for them, too. I was surrounded by big brothers and sisters, moms and dads, grandmothers and grandfathers who were carefully but lovingly welcoming someone not only into my life, but into their lives, too.
One Sunday, I was receiving new members in the back of the sanctuary during the response time as is our tradition at Calvary when he walked up to me. Giving him a confused look, I whispered, “What are you doing? Church isn’t over yet!” He smiled and said, “I know . . . I want to join the church.” I was speechless. I had been so focused on not wanting him to feel pressured to become part of my church, that I didn’t even consider that he might actually want to become part of our faith community.
I have loved seeing him find his unique place at Calvary, which he now calls his church and not just mine. He’s not “Mary Alice’s boyfriend,” but he has his own identity and relationships and places of ministry to which he feels called. And I love it.
Sure, we can’t go on a date without running into someone from church. It never fails. One Sunday, we had just had our first major fight the night before, and I found myself greeting people at church that next morning only to be asked, time and time again, “How are things going with him?!” Sometimes, it’s hard being in the limelight.
But to me, the gifts of dating and being on church staff have far outweighed the unique challenges. When we commit ourselves to walking alongside a community of faith, they become part of us, and we become part of them. And so when a part of us changes, or grows, or develops in some way, it only makes sense that the community of faith changes, or grows, or develops in some way, too.