Fresh out of seminary and looking for a job, Brittany Riddle expected tough questions about her age, lack of experience and gender, but she wasn’t prepared for intrusive questions about her personal life.
This time last year I anxiously awaited the moment when I would walk across the stage, receive my seminary diploma and, for the first time in my life, not be a formal student.
I had been searching, discerning and interviewing with churches for months, but suddenly the reality hit that for the first time in my life I did not know what was next. I did not have a plan. All of my energy and time shifted from completing my thesis and internship to sending out resumes, networking, interviewing and sending out more resumes.
Recently, I have been reflecting back on those seemingly long months between graduation and being called where I am today: Those months when I wasn’t sure whether my resume was even making it through cyberspace or snail mail. Those months as I interviewed with search committees never to hear from them again, and when every letter informing me that another search committee was “moving in a different direction” felt like a personal rejection.
In retrospect, those months in limbo were not nearly as long as they seemed. And, looking back, I realize this process was a crucial part of discerning my first call to full-time ministry. I learned a lot about myself and the church, and I met many ministers and lay people who were passionate about what God was doing in the lives of their churches and communities.
At the same time, the process was a painful one on a personal level. I expected to run into questions about my age and experience. After all, I was fresh out of seminary with many years of internships and part-time service in the church but no full-time experience. For obvious reasons, I was also prepared and re-prepared to run into questions about my gender.
What caught me by surprise were all of the questions about why I am single (which I know is an extension of the gender issue). Almost every church I interviewed with asked me some version of “why are you still single?”
Some simply seemed curious. Others asked it in such a way that implied that being 25 and single is a major character flaw (why are you still single?). I had direct questions about my dating life, sexuality and all sorts of other things that I had difficulty imagining would make a significant difference in how I minister.
I found myself getting defensive about these questions and had to do some exploring about my own response. I did not fit what search committees imagined their new minister to look like, and I began internalizing the insecurities of the committees as they interviewed me.
Do married ministers get asked questions about why they are married? Does being single lessen the value of my calling and all of those years of education and training? Am I not enough by myself?
After one particularly painful set of questions, I remember recalling Jesus’ seemingly simple words in Matthew 7, “So in everything do to others what you would have them do to you.” I could not imagine how a search committee representing a church would ask questions in such a condescending and hurtful way. I did not imagine that any one of those committee members would appreciate being asked the same questions in the same tone.
I quickly learned that how a search committee asked personal questions told me a lot about their fears, insecurities and ability to extend grace — individually and, presumably, as a congregation.
The process was a learning experience for me: learning to trust myself, learning to share and set appropriate boundaries with search committees and learning to carefully consider how I ask questions of other people.
Six months ago I was called to my current ministry position after a long, but encouraging, search process. The committee kept me informed as the process moved forward. They asked questions — even difficult ones — with grace (and some helpful coaching from the pastor). They compassionately responded to a family crisis that required moving my start date at the church back a month.
My time in my new church has been a whirlwind of busy-ness, blessings, meeting hundreds of new people I am learning to love and call family, finding my voice and new ways of serving God and an affirmation of my calling to ministry.
The search committee that called me took their job seriously but extended grace and compassion in the process. They have become good friends, encouragers and guides as I have made this transition. For that I am grateful.