Eric Miller (director of ministry operations at CE National) and his wife Bethany (development and marketing director at Habitat for Humanity-Frederick County, Maryland) hosted a conversation with Eric and Vanessa Smith on the topic of singleness and dating while in ministry. Eric Smith is the youth and discipleship pastor at Grace Church in Lanham, Maryland, and his wife Vanessa is the principal at Lanham Christian school. The two couples shared not only how they met and began dating, but also how their ministry roles made the process unique. This conversation was not only encouraging to singles in ministry, but provided helpful insight to churches and other ministries on how to support and encourage the singles on their staff.
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How did you meet?
Eric Smith said at the time he met Vanessa, he was working part-time at the church and was planning to teach classes at the Christian school where Vanessa served as principal. He said Vanessa interviewed him for a job of teaching P.E. Vanessa jokingly added “I honestly don’t remember that.” The two of them worked professionally for about a year as they got to know each other. After a dinner out with a group of friends, things started to change and they began to take a special interest in each other. Immediately after, they were separated for a month and texting became their main form of communication until they were reunited to have an official first date.
Eric and Bethany Miller met through an online dating site. While Eric was away at a youth camp, his roommate set him up on a Christian dating site without his knowledge. When he discovered it, Eric agreed to stick with the free 10-day trial but then didn’t want to discuss it again. However, low-and-behold, in those 10 days he was matched and introduced to Bethany. As a youth pastor, he had mixed feelings on how much to communicate to those in his church about the process, especially the fact he met Bethany online. At the time, Bethany was living in New York so their relationship was long distance for a while.
How long were you in your ministry roles before getting married?
Vanessa said she had been at the Christian school about ten years before they started dating and Eric was serving in his current position at the church for about 18 months prior.
Eric Miller said he had been a youth pastor for about ten years in Frederick, Maryland, before meeting and dating his wife, Bethany, which he said was “a good chunk of time to be single and in ministry…as well as dating in a ‘fishbowl.’” Bethany, while not vocationally in ministry, was very active in a church plant prior to meeting Eric.
What are some of the unique challenges of dating while in ministry?
Bethany Miller shared that since their relationship was long distance in the beginning, whenever they would spend time together in person, those visits required travel and would extend over a few days at a time. This forced them to stay at the homes of friends in the area and didn’t allow them much privacy in their relationship status. Bethany said whenever she would visit Eric (typically on weekends), Eric would still have church responsibilities that she would tag along for, but this quickly put their relationship on display to those in his church even though the relationship was still very new. Again, they described it as “dating in a fishbowl.”
Were there any guidelines or boundaries in dating in place with the church when you were first hired?
Eric Smith said he couldn’t recall any specific boundaries put in place by his church. He said he feels confident that he and Vanessa handled their dating relationship very well. However, on the flip-side, he could see if they had not handled things well that guidelines would have been very helpful to prevent disaster. Vanessa jokingly added as a teacher/administrator it’s a rule to “not date the dads.” She said working in education there are always some professional guidelines that should be addressed, but there wasn’t a restriction in dating a fellow coworker as in the case with Eric and her. The important thing was to maintain a level of professionalism.
Eric Miller pointed out that churches often hire youth pastors directly out of college, and many may be single. He said it’s something for churches to consider, “how can we help this person be successful?” There is an added layer of complication for the single person in ministry. He clarified this isn’t to put additional obstacles in their way, but really to help them be successful and to protect them. Eric admitted some of his early dating scenarios didn’t go well and no one walked alongside him to have those conversations and process in a healthy way. Rather it caused him to hide things that he shouldn’t have and created a culture where he needed to be secretive because he was ashamed. Bethany added written rules aren’t necessarily helpful, but rather finding a space for open and honest conversations about expectations. A suggestion would be to seek out an older, godly couple in the church to have a mentor relationship with and who could walk alongside the individual or couple dating.
Vanessa echoed Bethany’s observation. She added people in ministry already have a level of rules that people expect them to have. And if you wait a while to date, you know these rules. Having a couple to partner with who could help keep you accountable is even more helpful than simply a set of rules or standards.
Eric Miller advised that as churches and ministries look to hire someone who is single, a great practice would be to genuinely ask them, “Is it your desire to get married or are you actively dating someone, and how can we help support and protect you in that?”
When you were single, did you receive comments that were not helpful from those in your church?
Eric Smith shared the story of a family that relentlessly tried to push him into a relationship with someone they knew, even when he made it clear he was not interested. He said it was very frustrating at the time. Vanessa added that sometimes people assume the single person is “incomplete” until they find a mate. Even if it comes from a good place of wanting to see someone happy, it can be discouraging to a single person to be constantly set-up and them having to say “no”. She said, “It can cause your self-esteem to take a hit. Unless the person asks for their help in meeting someone, don’t push that on them.”
Bethany said someone once gave her the wise advice that people are always going to say unhelpful things to you so it’s important to learn to put up a wall to protect you from that. She added the questions will continue to escalate. “Are you dating? When are you getting engaged?” And after you are married, “When are you having a baby?” She added she never wants to make people feel bad for their interest, but we need to understand that what we proclaim is that God has a perfect plan for each of us and now might not be His timing. Looking back, she can see where God was working in their lives and had she met Eric when she thought she was ready to be married, they would not have been right for each other.
Was there anything helpful or encouraging that others did for you when you were single or dating?
Vanessa said there was a couple at her previous church that let her be a “third wheel” in their relationship and welcomed them into their lives. She said they never pressured her to date anyone, they just allowed her to spend quality time with them. Bethany added she was in a similar situation at her church in New York. There were several couples who became family to her by allowing them to be a part of their lives–even sharing holidays. They invested in her life and were available for conversations about dating without giving her unsolicited advice or pushing their own agenda.
Eric Smith said when he and Vanessa were dating, they spent time with groups of friends who were married. He said it was helpful to be surrounded by strong Christians with healthy marriages to ground their own relationship. It gave them boundaries and made it safer. He said on the comparison, when he was younger and dating, the single and more immature friends he would have spent time with did not provide a very good environment to learn and grow from.
How would you encourage singles in ministry that are either dating or have a desire to date?
Eric Smith said the key is to keep your heart and focus on God. When you start dating it’s easy to let relationships pull you away from your walk with the Lord. Also, having the desire to date but not finding the right person can hinder your relationship with God. He added that he and Vanessa dated for a while because they wanted to be extra cautious that their relationship wouldn’t hinder their work for the Lord. Vanessa advised it’s important to be upfront with church/ministry leadership and keep them in the loop so they are not surprised when they learn of your relationship. It also provides an extra layer or protection and accountability. Eric and Vanessa described a situation where someone falsely accused them of impropriety, but because they had been upfront with their church leadership they were not caught off guard and were supported.
Eric added that having boundaries were very important for his and Vanessa’s relationship. They made every effort to not put themselves in compromising situations or even be alone together in each other’s homes. They also set a curfew. Vanessa added that boundaries help protect your ministry as well in case the relationship implodes. “the more you can safeguard that the better it is”, said Vanessa.
Bethany said when you date someone in a ministry leadership role, there is an element of being on display to those in your church. She said it’s important to make sure the other person understands that comes with the territory. She continued with a challenge to church staff and members, that if someone on your staff begins to date someone, it’s important to try to get to know the other person for who they are and not associate them always with the person they are dating. Provide a safe place for that person to wrestle with their unique situation and provide a stable base for that couple to feel secure.
What encouragement would you give to a church staff who hires someone that is single?
Eric Smith said it’s important to communicate and encourage them that’s it’s OK and even good to be single. There are unique ways a single person can serve others in a church that a married person may not be able to do as well. He also reiterated the importance of having boundaries for protection for both the individuals and the church. Vanessa added be open to building relationships with your single staff to create a safe place where honest and open discussions can take place if dating were to become part of the picture. Conversations like this can’t take place without the relationships.