If the minister of a Protestant church falls in love with a consenting adult from his congregation, professional ethics dictate the minister offer his resignation to pursue the relationship. It may sound strange. But it happened this way at a Disciples of Christ church in Lafayette, just 10 miles east of Berkeley, where a minister and associate minister fell in love.
This story has a s happy ending for the lovers: When they offered their resignations, the church refused to accept them. But that was unusual, said Bill McKinney, president of the Pacific School of Religion, the largest, Protestant seminary in Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union. “That really broke all the rules,” he said.
Though ministers of Protestant churches are allowed to marry, the scrutiny to which they must submit their romantic life — even in the most progressive denominations – is the hidden cost. “Whether you’re a pastor or a priest you live in a fishbowl,” said Jim Latimer, a 44-year-old single student at the Pacific School of Religion. “If you can’t stand that get out of the profession.”
Protestants attending the Graduate Theological Union, which consists of two Protestant seminaries and three Catholic ones, are willing to undergo this scrutiny and believe much of it is well-intentioned. But as the American bishops confront the sex abuse scandal and contemplate stiffer punishment, some of the students of the Pacific School of Religion talked recently about the unique pressure and conflicts they face.
Since the sex abuse scandal broke, the students said, public scrutiny of their romantic lives has intensified and become more perverse because the scandal has tainted them too. “When I tell people I meet on the street I’m in seminary, they assume I’m going to be a priest,” said Latimer, who is also in a romantic relationship.
Though marriage is optional, the students said unmarried ministers are often pressured to marry, even in progressive denominations like the United Church of Christ.
“People think single people shouldn’t be sexually active,” said Erin Gilmore, a 28-year-old student in a romantic relationship who is studying to be a Church of Christ minister. “There’s never been a policy. It just sort of sticks in people like they don’t approve.”
When Gilmore was interviewing with churches in South Dakota for internships she was hesitant to mention her boyfriend. “I felt like I had to keep that much more undercover,” she said.
Marriage is considered a sign of maturity, said Elizabeth Dilley, a 25-year-old engaged student, who is also studying to be a Church of Christ minister. Before Dilley got engaged, she felt too ashamed to tell the churches where she was interviewing for her internship that she had a boyfriend. “I felt very junior high,” the 25-year-old said, adding that they might not have taken her seriously if she said she had a boyfriend.
McKinney, the seminary’s president, agreed churches are biased toward marriage. He said he knew a minister in a remote area near Hartford, Connecticut who was told he was had been put there to keep a low profile to deflect rumors he was gay. “You’re 35-years-old and not married,” the church said, according to McKinney. “Go find yourself a young woman and marry her.”
At the Graduate Theological Union, the students said, the bias toward marriage is reinforced. The only way domestic partners registered with the county can live in married student housing is if they are gay. “People think relationships ought to be consecrated” and straight people do that through marriage, McKinney said.
In addition to the pressure to marry, ministers must also accept restrictions on their choice of mates. The rule of thumb is “you don’t date anyone who is under your pastoral care,” Latimer said. But often, members of the congregation want to make special exceptions to that rule, he said. “Congregation people are wanting to set you up with their son or daughter,” he said.
Ministers who strictly avoid dating their parishioners find their congregation feels rejected, the students said. “People have a way of sensing whether a minister would be a part of a church if they weren’t paid to be,” McKinney said. If you’re not willing to date them, McKinney said, “they think you don’t love them.”
That pressure creates problems for single ministers who may already be spending most of their waking hours with their members, Dilley said. “You meet someone,” she said. “You spend 60-70 hours per week with these people.”
When a minister ends a marriage, the congregation’s scrutiny of him does not, the students said. For that reason some divorced ministers feel they must avoid the topic entirely. Latimer, who is himself divorced, said he is watching his minister at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church go through this.
The best way to handle it is to be forthcoming, he said. He’s finishing seminary this semester and looking for jobs as a Church of Christ minister. “I want them to know that about me because it’s an important part of who I am,” he said.