For female pastors, dating brings unique challenges

Feb 16, 2013

In some Christian denominations, it’s getting more common to see women preaching from the pulpit on Sunday mornings. Still, it’s a slow cultural shift – some denominations don’t allow female pastors, and many churches that do are just getting female pastors for the first time. All that’s to say that being a clergy woman has its own set of challenges – and those challenges come into play on the dating scene. 

On a drizzly February day in Fulton, I sit in a restaurant called Bek’s, sipping coffee and talking with Emily Carroll. We’ve got a lot in commong: We’re both young women who like to laugh and have recently launched our careers. But the difference is in what we do for a living. At 28 years old, Emily is actually Pastor Emily. She pastors Court Street United Methodist Church in Fulton. She loves her church – the congregation has been welcoming and supportive.

But being a pastor makes the dating thing a little tricky.

"I mean, I live in a goldfish bowl," Carroll said. Living in a small town and being pastor of a small parish – there are about 120 people in church each Sunday – it seems like everyone knows what she does, and when she does it. 

She's dated a few people from Columbia since starting work in Fulton, but when they get together, she comes to Columbia for a sense of anonymity.

“People will notice that there’s a car in the parsonage driveway – I mean, and they’ll notice it, you know – and I’ll get asked about it,” she said.

Of course, the harder part is meeting someone. 

“I mean, there’s bars, but that’s not gonna [work]," she said. "I keep waiting for someone to walk through these doors of Bek's, because I feel like he might work really well."

Friends from outside of church have suggested that she look to her congregation for prospects. But for her, that's definitely off-limits.

"I cannot date people from my church," she said. "That’s a power thing."

Some pastors have turned to a different source for meeting potential people: Online dating.

That’s what worked for Bonnie Cassida, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Columbia. But she wasn't looking for love. 

Her husband had died of cancer, and she was looking for someone to spend time with, for companionship. A friend suggested she try, so she did. 

But she left one detail out of her profile.

"I did not put down that I was a pastor, because I just felt like that could draw all types of weird people," she said. 

Along with that, she felt like people wouldn't understand what it meant to be a Baptist minister, or they would have preconceived notions of what she would be like. 

But hiding that pastoral identity is nothing out of the ordinary. 

"There are stereotypes about Christians. There are stereogypes about Baptists. And there are stereotypes about women in leadership," Cassida said. 

Instead, she said she worked for a nonprofit organization. And when people did find out she was a pastor, they’d often give suggestions on how to better lead her church, or how she could improve her marketing – and that's not what she needed.

Then, she started exchanging messages with a man who was a professor. And the day came when he, too, asked what she did for a living.

"Are you sitting down?" she wrote back. "I’m a Baptist minister."

But this man was different – he understood, because he’d grown up on the mission field in Africa. He invited her to go bicycling, to see each other "one more time." Within a few months, they married.

Amy Gearhardt, a senior pastor at Missouri United Methodist church, also tried online dating. A divorced, single mom, she was also just looking for companionship. 

"[Online dating] was a way of me getting to know people and kind of being able to do some screening, and a lot of my career women friends who are single have found that that’s been a helpful way to meet people," she said. 

At first, she was open about being a pastor, but that didn't go over too well. 

"So then, I started saying I’m an executive, which I am," she said. "I manage people, and I manage resources, and the responses were very different then."

For her, online dating didn’t end in love. Instead, she eventually ended marrying someone from her congregation. But that’s pretty uncommon – it worked for them because they set specific, careful boundaries, and there are a few other pastors at the church.

But even with the challenges, all three women said their place in the dating world isn’t all that unique. 

"It’s not unlike, I think, a lot of women in high-profile or executive positions," Gearhardt said. 

Ultimately, Cassida and Gearhardt married people who respect what they do. And as for Carroll, she's come to see being a pastor as a good weeding out tool. It's part of who she is, and it's what she's called to do, and in the end, it’ll help her find the right man.

And what matters most, Gearhardt said, is heart. 

"The best kind of spouse is someone who shares your heart and your values," she said. 

This story was produced in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values. Tune in around 8:30 on Saturday mornings to hear our weekly updates.