February 21, 2011

The Proper Distance?

A few weeks after my husband proposed, we shared dinner with his great-aunt and uncle, who is a United Methodist minister.

They offered us various pieces of advice about marriage and life in ministry. Then the great-aunt turned to me: “Make friends with the Presbyterians.”

I’ve thought about her advice over the years. She was trying to prepare me for the impossible tension of being in community with a congregation without becoming friends.

I admit: I suck at this part of being a priest’s spouse. I don’t know how to be in community without being personally involved, without caring and sharing parts of people’s lives. I’m a former reporter who chose that profession not only because I loved to write but also because of an insatiable curiosity about others. I’m an extrovert who processes out loud and lists entertaining as a hobby.

Separation was easier at a large suburban church, when I could safely go to the grocery store or a restaurant with nary a parishioner in sight. But in a small town, relationships are blurred all the time. I’m Facebook friends with the school principal and my hairdresser. The handyman is the son of a woman who grew up in the church. I’m godmother to a darling 2-year-old whose mother is on vestry and whose grandfather is treasurer.

I know my husband struggles too – but he has a clear sense of his call and vocation as a priest. I’m simply someone who fell in love with a priest. No seminary lecture prepared me for how to properly distance myself.

And so time and again, I fall into deep friendships with wonderful people, sharing their lives, the disappointments and heartbreaks, the great joys and triumphs. Then I realize I need to pull back, to create space for their spiritual development, guided at times by the teaching of my husband, their priest.

This yo-yo of relationships breaks my heart every time. And yet I’m unwilling (and maybe unable) to live and worship with such detachment.

So I’m asking this body, the wise readers of Vital Posts, for advice. How do you navigate these types of relationships? What do you expect in your clergy spouse or partner? Is it OK for the clergy and spouse/partners to be friends with parishioners?

I look forward to your help.