June 17, 2008

Being a pastor and a single at the same time...

Here's an article that the Charlotte Observer ran Saturday on Single Pastors...which I just happen to be! :)
Pastors without partners
Unmarried ministers face the same struggles as other singles – but theirs are more public
By Katharine Dale

Pastor Brad Saab enjoys rock climbing as a way to unwind from his job as student ministry pastor at Charlotte South Fellowship.

GARY O'BRIEN/Observer staff photo
They're young, they're single, they're pastors - and their lives might surprise you.

While they might not be found throwing back shots at the bar or canoodling uptown until 2 a.m., don't assume they're just sitting at home reading the Bible.

They go rock climbing and cycling. They're artists. They're musicians. They date. And their title doesn't exempt them from issues everyone else faces, including temptation, sex, loneliness - and losing a loved one.

We talked to five single ministry leaders in Charlotte, and here are their stories.

Tamara Park

A seminary professor once told Tamara Park she'd enjoy studying Hebrew. So she moved to Jerusalem for a year.

“The reality is that my time does look differently, not having a husband or children,” she said. “I think ‘How do I steward that, and take risks and move into opportunities that I couldn't do if I were married?'”

While backpacking through the Middle East a few years ago, she interviewed Muslims, Catholics and people of other faiths, asking their perceptions of God. Now she's writing a book.

“I don't know how I could have written that book if I were married with children,” she said. “Sacred Encounters from Rome to Jerusalem" will be released in November.”

Whether writing, combating injustice, running or salsa dancing, Park, 37, longs to minister out of her complete life experiences. That means not, she said, as a “perfect” person, just an unmarried clergy member or just a woman. The south Charlotte resident is pastor of community at Warehouse 242 near uptown Charlotte, part of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

“We often have unconscious perceptions of what a leader, especially a church leader, should look like - which oftentimes is a married man,” said Park.

“I grew up in a church where a woman couldn't be pastor…I know people have unspoken assumptions, (but) I've really studied the scriptures and realized women do have a role. There's a mutual respect, and a real appreciation and value, of having men and women's voices together.”

Alan Porter

It's not every day a man of God says his favorite movie is a chick flick about a prostitute who falls in love with Richard Gere. But if you ask Alan Porter, “Pretty Woman” is his answer.

“It really speaks to me a strong message of how difficult it can be to find people who are interested in you, who appreciate you beyond what you can give them,” he said. “It demonstrates to me how there are people out there like that, but it shows the walls that people of notoriety put up, and have to put up.”

Porter, executive pastor at Greater Salem Church in northwest Charlotte, said one of the most difficult aspects of his job - and his life - has been developing relationships.

In some cases, he said, women he might be interested in dating see him only as a pastor. “They relate very clearly to the role, but not always to a person,” he said.

Porter, 45, recently moved to Huntersville from Maryland. To escape the daily grind, he jogs and goes to the movies – where he sits up in a corner, alone, with nachos and a Coke.

“I like the solitude, just being able to go and get lost in there,” he said. “I'm around people, but I feel like I'm by myself.”

At the end of the day, Porter said his “keeper” is not his secular relationships, vocation or “Pretty Woman,” but his commitment to God. “That's what's made me successful,” he said.

His advice to others: “What I encourage single pastors to do is to live,” he said. “Find out what your dreams are, where your passion is, and pursue that...Don't make pursuing a partner your whole life passion. Spend your time pursing the person you long to become.”

Brad Saab

Brad Saab endures loss like everyone else – except it's his job to bear his pain in public.

After his girlfriend of six months, Janet Devaty, was struck and killed by a truck's trailer last October while she jogged in Myers Park, all eyes were on him.

Would he fall apart? Would he curse God? Does he genuinely embrace his faith in all circumstances, as he teaches?

“I mean, I was destroyed at that point,” he said. “I loved her. But I trusted God and wanted to use my life to encourage people. I talked with my students about it, and the church – trying to use it for other people's benefit.”

Saab, 27, embraces being a student ministry pastor at Charlotte South Fellowship, saying it encourages him to set a Christ-like example. “People look to me to either find encouragement to do the right thing, or an excuse to do the wrong thing.”

The University of Florida graduate, who lives in Union County, wants to marry someday. He looks forward to romance – dancing in the kitchen while cooking dinner.

Until he finds “the one,” Saab feels at peace with single life and spends his free time rock climbing and hiking.

“A lot of people spend their single years in a state of desperation,” he said. “It's got its disadvantages, but it has a bright side. I'm using this time and these resources to help people and to love God, so it's a cool thing.”

James-Michael Smith

Being single didn't stop James-Michael Smith, pastor of discipleship at Good Shepherd United Methodist in Steele Creek, from giving a sermon entitled “Let's Talk about Sex.”

When there's a sermon on why singles should practice abstinence, he said, “it's always by someone who gets to go home and have (sex), because they're married,” he said. “The single people who typically dismiss it go home and think, ‘Oh, that's easy for you to say.' But I can say, ‘It's not easy.'”

Added Smith, 29: “My title doesn't make me inhuman. I'm still a guy who has needs and desires.”

When it comes to dating, the Savannah native disagrees with one evangelical subculture that sometimes looks down on dating as inappropriate or unbiblical. “It's a way to get to know someone with clear intentions, to know someone better in order to find out if they could possibly be who you end up with.”

Smith, of the Steele Creek area, is passionate about his convictions, but he's accepting of different views. Much of his time is spent reading, leading Bible study, drawing (he has a bachelor of fine arts) and doing martial arts.

“Most people are kind of surprised that a pastor can be passionate about martial arts, which is fun 'cause I get to break that stereotype,” he said.

Rob Kelly

Rob Kelly is known as the perpetual kid - the “famous” single guy on staff at Carmel Baptist Church in Matthews.

There seems to be an unwritten rule, he said: Pastors should have a family, or at least be married, before they're seen as “grown up.”

Kelly, 30, a college and young adult pastor, feels that having a wife would alter the dynamics of his job in a positive way.

“It's...the way I interact and minister to girls,” said the Seattle native. “I have a lot more freedom to interact with guys. With women, I have to really watch my interaction and guard myself....

“Pastors have to be cognizant of every thing they do and every word they speak.”

Still, people both inside and outside the church are sometimes surprised what they find when they get to know him.

“I am very much just a regular guy who likes hanging out with his friends, traveling, playing guitar and watching ‘Lost,'” he said.

“I've heard on a number of occasions, ‘For a pastor, you're pretty regular.' I think it even goes that way for Christians: people saying, ‘Wow, you're a Christian, but you're normal.'”

One perspective

Alan Porter of Greater Salem Church summed up the reasons navigating his ministry as a single pastor can be tricky:

Politics. “I was 23 when I started,” he said. “I was the youngest pastor in the church, and everyone was always telling me if I was gonna be successful I had to be married. So I found myself almost giving into that. I thought, if I wanted to stay on the right path I had to be married.”

Pressure. Women sometimes assume that if he enjoys their company, the altar is next, he said.

Perception. “When people meet you and discover you're single, the next words out of their mouth are, “We've got to find you a wife!' What is it on my face that says I'm suffering because I'm single? That bothers me, because it implies I'm not a whole person because I'm not married, like my clothes are wrinkled. There's more to me than my singleness.”

Interviews with some of the faith leaders generated common themes about the challenges they face when they're unmarried.

Emotional support. “You don't have that support, that anchor, that a good spouse provides,” said James-Michael Smith of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church. “It's kind of hard when you're getting fired at and spiritually drained to not have that person who ‘takes away the day.'”

The microscope factor. Every move they make feels scrutinized, which can make doing “normal” things, such as dating, difficult. “If you don't pay attention or talk to girls, then you're standoffish,” said Smith. “Then if you do, you get labeled as going after someone. People are ambivalent in ministry; they want you to be married but they don't want you to date.” Added Rob Kelly of Carmel Baptist: “I can say with confidence that it was much easier to date before I was a pastor.”

Credibility. Said Smith: “People look at you like, ‘You don't have the experience. You don't have children so you don't understand.' It's not conscious, it's a perception thing. Someone my exact age who's married doesn't have to earn that credibility.”

Insight. Single faith leaders sometimes lack perspective on the opposite gender. “One of the great mysteries to me is that every teenage girl seems predisposed to drama,” said Brad Saab, of Charlotte South Fellowship. If he were married, Saab said, a wife could help him understand the world from a female perspective.

But the unmarried leaders cite advantages, too. “There's a growing older singles population,” said Tamara Park of Warehouse 242. “I have the gift of understanding those who are single, and especially those who are single longer than they thought they'd be.”


Kristin said...

What a great article! Funny that I know you and Tamara Park and you were both featured in the article. :)

There are a lot of us out there - whether officially on full time staff or serving in leadership or just volunteering and living for God as we can - and I think we're lucky that there's SUCH a big group of us in Charlotte who can encourage each other. Not to mention giving us something to do on the weekends! ;)

JMS said...

Yeah, we're truly blessed with some great community here in Charlotte. 99% of that is due to charlotteONE: and it's ability to connect 20s-30s with one another in this big city. I remember just 4 years ago when it seemed like there was NOTHING in this city for young adults. It's been pretty fun to watch that situation do a 180!

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