On their first date, the woman he met through the dating service grabbed him, threw him down on the floor and “wanted to get right down to business.”
Brent Little politely disentangled himself and left. But it wasn’t easy, even for a conservative Baptist pastor.
“I’m a very sexual person myself, and it’s a tough row to hoe to maintain celibacy, especially when you have women in some cases who are very willing,” Little says from Calvary Baptist Church in Monrovia, Calif.
For anyone who thinks it’s difficult being single in the ‘90s, just consider the plight of the unattached minister.
Going back to the nation’s founding and continuing through the 1950s, single clergy - almost always men - had it pretty good.
In a highly respected profession, a single minister would be one of the community’s most eligible bachelors. Mothers would linger with their daughters at the church door after services, and well-meaning parishioners would seek to move marital matters along with suggestions of relatives and friends.
Today, greater awareness of sexual harassment issues and the unequal power in a relationship between someone viewed as God’s representative and a member of the flock prevent many clergy from seeking potential mates inside the churches where they spend most of their time. And while a cultural revolution has forced many pastors to accept premarital sex among church members, their congregations still expect them to adhere to a higher moral standard.
To make matters worse, the pedestal they once were on has been kicked away, too. In today’s singles scene, clergy are likely to be stereotyped as straight-laced dweebs out of touch with real life.
“Women, whether consciously or subconsciously, carry lists of people they want to meet,” says the Rev. Mark Rasbach, pastor of Hope Lutheran Church in Hollywood. “Ministers are not on that list in L.A.”
With more pressing issues - from declining memberships to sexual abuse - to worry about, the dating problems of single ministers are not a priority for any religious group. Most denominations, for example, are still far behind in dealing with the pressures the ministry puts on families.
Yet the special issues faced by single clergy searching for intimate relationships pose substantial burdens for many and have even forced some to look for other lines of work.
In a 1993-94 study of single ministers, the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut found that most single clergy viewed their profession as an obstacle to a romantic relationship.
In the seminary’s national survey of 710 women and 142 men, only 9 percent of female clergy and 22 percent of male clergy said being a minister had a positive effect on their love life. Sixty-one percent of the women and 46 percent of the men said it hurt their chances of finding love.
The universal concern of singles seeking romance - finding the right partner - can be much greater for the typical minister, who not only is on call seven days a week at the office but is discouraged from forming romantic alliances within the church.
Breakups can be messy for the whole congregation. And as with psychologists and other counselors, many consider it inappropriate for pastors, given their position of authority, to become romantically involved with members of their churches.
“The power dynamics and the sexual harassment questions have made people more and more careful,” says Barbara Brown Zikmund, president of Hartford Seminary and an author of the ministry study. “I think there is an emerging consensus you cannot be both the pastor of someone and their intimate.”
The Rev. Robin Lyn Valdez of First Presbyterian Church in Lewisville, Texas, says although opportunities have been there, she decided not to date men within the church.
“The fact remains, you’re still their pastor,” she says.
Getting away from the office, however, is particularly difficult for single clergy. Congregations may understand married ministers need to spend time with their families but do not often view single ministers as needing the same amount of personal time.
And because of their clerical status, some options for other singles are closed to them.
“Where do you go to date?” Little asks. “Do you go to the bars, the nightclubs, to hang out? Personally, I don’t enjoy that kind of scene.”
While they think about sex, it, too, is off-limits in most churches.
In choosing not to engage in premarital sex, Valdez says she also is thinking of the youth in her churches.
“If I’m to be a role model to them and be an example, I’ve got to be an example,” she says. “I’d better live that.”
Away from the larger cities, the problems can be even greater. With typical congregations looking for a married minister with children to immediately fill up church schools, single ministers - again, especially women - often find themselves in smaller rural congregations where they are less likely to meet other professional people who share their interests.
“I have made friends with women in the parish, which is nice, but I want more than a celibate life and all my social life within the congregation,” says one clergywoman interviewed in the Hartford study.
Men they do meet often are intimidated by the idea of a woman pastor, clergywomen report.
“Men usually have one or two responses: It’s either they run for the hills or they want you to be their counselor,” Valdez says.
It may not be much consolation, but it’s not a lot easier for clergymen in the Los Angeles area.
“I’ve ended up in counseling sessions right off the bat with many,” Rasbach says of the women he’s dated. “What happens in many instances is they share too much. And you don’t see them again.”
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