Like almost everyone I know I have a complicated relationship with my family of origin. Some seasons are easier than others and sometimes blood thickens, but most often it is every bit as fluid as water. Long before my coming out, family was complicated and at times I envied my out-lesbian friends for the ‘families of choice’ that seemed so appealing from afar. As I moved through the gut wrenching process of naming my own truth and the messiness of a public outing and divorce, I too discovered an emerging family of choice, my church family.
To be sure my church family had been a family of choice for many years, but in the process of setting aside all that I had cherished, the precious nature of these relationships grew in powerful ways. These were the women and men who knew and loved me through thick and thin, who loved the mirage of the straight me and dared to embrace the more authentic lesbian me. I felt grateful that my church family had bucked expectations and stood beside me each step of the way. Moved by my personal experience of embrace, my preaching and outreach had renewed passion. All women and men need and deserve the kind of family that I experienced with my church family.
All of this is true, except that it is only a partial truth.
The harder part is that as a pastor I am not one among many but literally the hired help. While the love and relationships are real and authentic, the relationship is also a professional and contractual one. One immutable part of the contract is that if/when I cease to be the hired professional, I must immediately and absolutely relinquish all engagement with the community. In other words, given the embrace of my church community as family, leaving the employment means losing my family.
On days that my frustration with the community is great, I take this bitter pill without even much of a chaser. But I confess that on most days, I have trouble getting this one down.
As I sit with the grief of losing not only my employment and my social life but also deep friendships with people that I love, I find myself eye to eye with a fatal institutional flaw. The pastor who labors at the center of the community building is definitionally not a member of the community. The health and growth of the community depends upon the pastor appearing to be at one with the community but in actuality the pastor must always remaining apart.
Clergy are advised, of course, to find friends (and families of choice) outside their local congregations, with colleagues or other community circles. Good advice, to be sure, but difficult to juggle with a profession that taps one’s social energy in the effort of community building. Except for the most extroverted of souls, there is scant social energy to be had outside of the demands of local church. As I’ve listened to colleagues, I don’t gather that I am any more or less attached to my church community than the average clergy person. Given the length of my years in this one place (more than 15) and the tremendous life changes I’d weathered in the context, the bonds may be particularly strong but such is the nature of the occupation.
The pain of this departure for me is in part my hubris in believing that I was the exception. I am not.
Facing this shadow of the clergy profession, I am loath to join another church even as a not-clergy person. Although as a not-clergy person, I could (finally) have family of choice that is not employment dependent, my membership would be supporting an institution that asks for the hearts of its professional leaders while not accepting them as equal members at the table. Recently I considered attending a local church whose mission I appreciate and for whose pastor I have deep respect. But as I considered visiting this church, I realized that were the pastor to become family for me, when she retires I would lose yet another family member. And worse, I would be asking her to stand alongside my family but by definition I can never do the same for her. Our relative roles keep us apart.
As I grieve the loss of my church family, it is my heartfelt wish that they will continue to find new and vibrant life together. But I am keenly aware that as they gather to sing, I move in a different direction. Painful though this parting is proving to be, I am grateful, oh so very grateful, that one dear (former) member of this church is now my wife. Together we begin our new family of choice.