Preachers and ministers are allowed to date and marry ― something that many of their dating app matches find a bit bewildering. (It’s Catholic priests who practice celibacy and are not allowed to marry ― with some exceptions.)
“Most ministers are normal people. We take off our collar at the end of the day and go home and live life just like most other human beings,” said Brandan Robertson, a gay pastor at a progressive Christian church in San Diego. “Dating us isn’t special or unique at all, though we tend to be pretty empathic, gentle, patient and caring people, which is a plus, I think.”
We talked to three ministers of progressive congregations around the country, including Robertson. Below, they tell us more about dating as a man or woman of the cloth.
Responses have been edited for clarity and style; one last name has been withheld for privacy.
In a nutshell, what is your dating life like?
Brandan Robertson, a 26-year-old gay pastor and the author of True Inclusion: Creating Communities of Radical Embrace: My dating life is ... funny. In the initial conversations with someone, I have had a few people who are very anti-religious and therefore very skeptical of my intentions. I am very quick to let people know I am not out to convert them, nor am I doing something scandalous by being on dating apps (most people assume I can’t be gay and should be celibate as a Christian pastor), but once we get past that, they typically turn into normal dates.
As a spiritual leader, there are so many cultural expectations on me and how I should interact with others. People need to realize that my job is a job like everyone else’s. When I am not “on the clock,” so to speak, I am just a normal human being. I am not Pastor Brandan 24/7, I have flaws, and I also like to have a good time.
One negative? When a date doesn’t go well and I break things off, some people will throw the pastor thing back in my face: “That’s not very Christian of you.” That’s super annoying and usually results in me blocking their number.
Chalice Overy, a 37-year-old associate pastor at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina: I think my vocation is the biggest reason why I’m single. Up until the last couple of years, I was looking for a committed Christian man, but in Christian circles, my status as a clergy person was always evident, and I think that is intimidating for many men. For one, the profession is still viewed as masculine, and that can be a turnoff.
Beyond that, church people can treat clergy as these mystical, otherworldly figures that don’t have the same interests and desires as the general population. My last boyfriend said that he was interested but never intended to ask me out because, “I didn’t know what to do with a reverend.” We had a mutual friend who would tell me of his interest, but we only connected because I found him on social media and messaged him. It hurts sometimes to know that my vocation contributes to my loneliness.
Michael, a pastor in his late 50s who is currently working as a clergy person at a church in San Antonio: I consider myself polyamorous and use that term because, for me, it is about love, not simply multiple sexual partners. I am dating three women that I am deeply in love with and see regularly. There’s a fourth woman I’m in “heavy like” with that’s a long-distance relationship, so we have some difficulty finding time, and I’m beginning to date a man I just met. The quality of love I have for each varies, just as it does for friends or family I love. As the depth of connection grows with one, it deepens with all.
What’s your dating history been like?
Brandan: I’ve had a pretty active dating life. I’ve dated a couple dozen guys, and the longest relationship was about two years. When I first became a pastor, I was in a long-term relationship and I think people were really comfortable with that. When I became single, I noticed some people in my congregation were a bit uncomfortable knowing their pastor was dating, especially if they ran into me on a date or saw me on an app. But I quickly and confidently addressed that, letting them know I am a normal human being, I am not ashamed to be dating, and my dating life is my business. So that worked out well for me.
Chalice: I only know the life of dating as a spiritual leader. I’ve been a preacher since I was 17, was ordained straight out of college, and was the pastor of a church by age 26. In college, dating was pretty much nonexistent. I was such a little fundamentalist. I would only date other “serious” Christians, and the pool was just super small. Grad school was also pretty slow, to be honest.
Afterward, I dated mostly other minister types out of the small number of those who weren’t already married. Young male ministers have a lot of pressure on them to marry ASAP. Still, I was in my 30s before I had my first real relationship, which lasted about a year. In the three years after that relationship ended and the next one began, I probably went on 10 dates with two guys.
Michael: I have been poly my entire sexual life; one of my loves now is someone I have known since I was 15 and I was poly then, although we didn’t have the language for it. I only became part of the church in my late 30s. I was married for 28 years, but since getting divorced, I have reaffirmed my basic poly nature.
Do you use dating apps? Which ones?
Brandan: Like most millennials, I primarily date using apps. Currently, I am on Tinder, OkCupid, Chappy and occasionally on Grindr. The apps are actually pretty helpful because I get to write my occupation and my philosophy of life so people can know what they’re getting into before they swipe or message me. I also like to emphasize the “normal-ness” of my life: I like craft beer, going clubbing, traveling. Most of my time on pre-date messaging is spent just dispelling people’s myths that I’m some kind of monk or something.
Chalice: I would never put my job title on a dating profile. I don’t even tell people the first time I talk to them, and maybe not even on the first date, though I realize that can appear a bit suspicious. The bottom line is that I want people to get to know me. My title comes with a slew of assumptions that may or may not be true about me: how I spend my time, how I dress, what kind of music I listen to, what I think about certain social issues. I don’t want to be put in a box or on a pedestal.
Michael: I have met a number of my loves online. The very first woman I met after my divorce I met through Craigslist “Casual Encounters,” which is now offline. I put in an ad for “Nostalgia: Do you remember what it was like to make out in high school?” and she answered.
I have met the other people I date on OkCupid; the man I have begun dating I met on Tinder. My profile on OKC is detailed and makes it clear I work for a church, that I am not interested in hookups, and that I am poly and already in multiple relationships.
“I think in our day and age, the idea of having a partner be actively involved in my work sounds absolutely ridiculous and unhealthy, at least for me.”
Do people in your congregation ever try to set you up?
Brandan: All. The. Time. I have people, including fellow ministerial staff members, suggesting people for me to date a few times a month at least. It’s also one of the primary questions I get asked when I have coffee meetings with church members: “How’s your dating life?” For me, it’s a hard line to walk with how much I share, after all, this is my professional job, so I try to be reserved with my dating life. However, because the pastoral relationship lends itself to a bit more openness, I don’t shy away from giving general answers to people’s questions. However, I can say that I have never taken the advice from someone in my congregation on who I should date.
Chalice: People in my congregation have tried to set me up, but my rule is generally to decline. They want to set you up with their son or nephew because, “He could use a good woman in his life” or “You could straighten him out,” to which I respond, “That sounds like work. I’m not interested in another project.” In previous congregations I was a part of, I avoided being set up because I’m a private person and didn’t want everyone in my business. The person I was involved with would come to know personal details about me. If the relationship didn’t work out, would they share those details with their mother or auntie? Would the senior usher board know all my business?
But not only that, I think there is an expectation, especially for black women, that if you find a man who is respectful, has a good head on his shoulders and a decent job, you latch on to him. It doesn’t matter if he’s corny or has bad breath or a poor sense of fashion (sorry, that got a little personal), we should just be grateful to find a good man. But I simply don’t have the capacity to entertain relationships with people I’m not attracted to or feel a deep connection with, and I don’t think we need to encourage black women to settle.
Michael: The congregation I work for knows I “date” multiple women. I don’t call my loves “lovers,” just “friends.” The church respects my boundaries and has not tried to introduce me to women ― were I their pastor, I think this would be different.
Do you feel pressure to find someone who will fit in with your congregation and take an active role in the church?
Brandan: Actually, no. I think in our day and age, the idea of having a partner be actively involved in my work sounds absolutely ridiculous and unhealthy, at least for me. I want to be with someone who is fulfilling their dreams and callings in their own, different world, and be able to cheer them on in their world while they cheer me on in mine.
What I am looking for is a partner who respects my work, who is spiritually inclined and agrees on my general values and worldview, but is happy to support me in my profession from a distance in the same way that I support them in their profession. If they did want to be actively involved in the church, we’d have to have a serious conversation about boundaries and their level of involvement so that our personal life doesn’t become enmeshed with my professional life.
Chalice: I think people assume that a minister’s partner will take an active role in church life. This one guy said to me, “You’re going to get agitated looking at me laying in bed every Sunday when you head off to church.” But that’s just not true. My man doesn’t have to be engaged in the life of my church or any church. Now, because we share our lives, I might expect him to accompany me if a member invited me over for dinner, or for a fundraiser or special event, but he doesn’t have to have an active role at all. I mean, I won’t show up at his job every week just because he works there, but I will come to the holiday party and the company picnic.
Michael: Everyone I date is mostly atheist or agnostic, actually. When I was married, my wife was not involved in the congregations where I served as pastor. Clergy spouses are not expected, except in very fundamentalist denominations, to necessarily participate in their spouse’s ministry.
“I honestly think it’s unreasonable to expect people to wait until they are married to have sex if we expect people to make thoughtful decisions about who they marry.”
What’s your stance on premarital sex?
Brandan: I am pretty open with this question in front of my congregation: I think the evangelical church world that I come from has taught some really unhealthy ideas about sex and sexuality, and I spend a lot of my time trying to deconstruct “purity culture” in favor of a healthier, more holistic view of sexuality. I believe for some people, waiting for marriage before having sex can be a very healthy path. I also believe that for most people, sex before marriage is a healthy expression of the gift of sexuality and is not “sinful” or morally wrong.
In general, I try to push back against “hookup” culture in my own life, just because I don’t find having a lot of random sex very fulfilling (but I don’t judge others who do).
Chalice: My current view on premarital sex represents a tremendous evolution from my fundamentalist beginnings. I honestly think it’s unreasonable to expect people to wait until they are married to have sex if we expect people to make thoughtful decisions about who they marry.
This will be my first time dating without an intentional commitment to abstinence, so I have to see how it goes. I think a lot of people lead with sex and never do the hard work of intimacy. While sex can create attachment, it doesn’t necessarily create intimacy. I’m certain I won’t be leading with sex, and for some men, that will be a problem. I don’t mind these men going on their way. I want someone who wants to get to know me, not just my body; someone who is willing to invest in me because he recognizes my value beyond sex. But if we are willing to do the spiritual and emotional work of intimacy, should we deny ourselves the joy of physical intimacy? I don’t think so.
Michael: I believe sex is a gift from the Divine for our sustenance and continued thriving as human beings. One of the worst things the Church has done is take God and the Divine out of the bedroom and shame people for their desires and practices. I have always believed that contractual arrangements (including marriage) are not the boundary on sex ― our own personal ethics are. I have lived monogamously, and that was no different ethically for me than living with multiple lovers; it was what the agreed-to and defined boundaries were at the time.
Most of the single clergy I know have sex, even when the rules of their denomination prohibit it. It simply is an outdated and silly expectation, in my opinion. Like anything else, sex can be manipulative, unhealthy or used as a power differential. Sex, or even dating without sex with a congregant is never OK because of the power differential. Within relationships of equals or with agreed-upon boundaries, though, it is healthy and beautiful.
And now for the big question: Would you ever date someone who was a nonbeliever or someone who identifies as an atheist?
Brandan: I actually prefer to date someone who doesn’t share the same identical religious convictions as me, or at least expresses their faith differently. I spend most hours of my day thinking, writing and teaching about religion. I truly love it, think it’s valuable and have given my life to it. When I go out on a date or home to a boyfriend, I do generally want a break from that world, though. So having someone who expresses spirituality differently or not at all has actually been generally refreshing. And I am really open-minded and agnostic about a lot of big questions that so many religions try to answer.
Chalice: I would definitely date someone of another faith. A lot of Christian men are really conservative and would expect me to conform to gender roles, or view me as a heretic because I hold a more open belief system. I think I would prefer a believer, but I’m OK with someone who doesn’t believe because I think that nonbelief is reasonable. Lots of things make me question my belief in God, so I can see how someone can be an atheist. But for all of the things that make me question God’s existence, I remain convinced that God is real and that I’m pursuing my God-given destiny. If a man cannot respect that, and even support me in that, I find it hard to see how we could be in relationship.
Michael: I would, in fact, only date people who use their brains, who at the very minimum question the historic faith, and who have their own opinions and beliefs.