By Holland Prior
The church service ended and I rushed to the parking lot in a desperate quest to reach the safety of solitude before I burst. Once home, I watched my favorite comfort movie (You’ve Got Mail), took a self-pity power nap, anger-baked two dozen strawberry basil cupcakes, wept until my nasal cavity buzzed from the strain, wrapped a quilt around myself when I couldn’t find my coat and walked around the block in the crisp November air, and finally emailed a friend to confess I was feeling a bit “topsy-turvy.”
A few years prior, I had left my job as a pastor and packed up my life in Southern California and moved to a bucolic (well, bucolic to me, anyway) town in New England in pursuit of a graduate degree. I visited all of the nearby churches hoping to find a community that could offer me a tether as I adjusted to life 3000+ miles away from everyone and everywhere that had been familiar. There weren’t many churches to choose from, but I did manage to find a beautiful community of people who made me feel welcome at a church the next town over.
On that particular Sunday, however, things took a turn. The pastor had made it almost completely through a sermon on 1 Corinthians 14, which contains a few of the most infamously debated verses about women in the Bible, when he stopped roaming the stage and sat down on the bar stool next to the music stand where he kept his notes. “Allow me to pause here and speak briefly about the role of women,” he offered, taking off his glasses and laying them on the music stand. My stomach clenched.
He went on to give a brief and clumsy overview of complementarianism, and I watched as his neck and cheeks reddened, betraying his anxiety. From my vantage point, he seemed embarrassed by his own words, and so he stumbled through them as quickly as he could. None of it surprised me—I’d heard it all before—until the pastor gave a final exhortation to the women present: “Talk to your spouse—and if you’re not married, then talk to your imaginary spouse.” I’ve attended church services regularly for my entire life, but that moment was the closest I’ve ever come to standing up and shouting, “Excuse me?!” Had he really just insinuated that I should invent an imaginary husband so as to navigate life? I almost couldn’t believe it, but he had.
I wondered if he knew there was a female pastor in the congregation—a single female pastor at that, one who would indeed like to be married someday but who also refuses to give in to the reigning mentality among many Christians that being spouse-less makes me less complete or less capable of discerning God’s will for my life. I wondered if that knowledge would have motivated him to alter his words. I doubted it.
Once I’d calmed down back at home and indulged in a few of my anger-baked cupcakes, I told myself I shouldn’t have allowed his words to wound me so deeply, that I shouldn’t give his assertions any power over my life, but the truth was they had. His words were a fresh iteration of the reality that the church often doesn’t know what to do with women or single people, and offhanded comments like the one I’d just faced set all of my insecurities dancing.
I know that church cultures everywhere won’t change overnight, but I can hope. I hope that people will consider the implications of their words before they speak them aloud, I hope that no woman will be made to feel insecure again, and I hope that everyone will read Christena Cleveland’s excellent article on how the church can embrace single adults. But until my hopes are realized, I’ll continue to draw upon the strength of my God-given calling to carry me through moments when I’m made to feel fragile.
NOTE: This story originally appeared on the Annesley Writers’ Forum on June 19, 2017. We republish it here with their kind permission.
Rev. Holland Prior is the editor of the Sacred Alliance Story Collective. Holland is a pastor, writer, teacher, speaker, and French fry devotee who is on a mission to help the church tell better stories. She is an ordained minister with the Wesleyan Church and received her M.Div. from Azusa Pacific Seminary. Holland also has an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from the University of New Hampshire and is currently working on her Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition at the University of Tennessee.