A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with a woman while at a social gathering. In the course of our conversation she asked me what I do and I told her I was a pastor at a local church. She responded that she was surprised that a church would hire me.
She had noticed my empty left ring finger and prompted, “But aren’t you single? Don’t you feel unqualified?”
I gave her an explanation, but there is only so much defense that can be given in a minute while in a crowded room. As I reflected on our interaction, I recognized that her question was sincere. So, I decided to look deeper into some of the experiences you gain through marriage and respond to the 5 main reasons people say singles are unqualified for ministry.
I am committed to lots of things and very committed to many people. I have five brothers and sisters and some days it is a choice to love them. It is choice to not be selfish in my friendships. It is a choice to put others first. I’ve learned that in order to be fully committed, sometimes you need to say “no” to good things. You need to prioritize relationships and you need to be willing to compromise.
A couple years ago, I went through a really difficult time in a friendship. Tears, fights, and many journal entries took place during this season, and at moments I wanted to walk away. I was sure we had mutually destroyed our future. It would be so easy to give up and call it quits. But I knew that years ago we had solidified our friendship; we had committed to each other that we were going to be friends no matter what, and we had meant it. It took a while but eventually that friendship healed and we remain friends today. That is what it looks like to be committed, married or not.
As a pastor, I am committed to the Church. Sometimes people are hard to love and ministry is hard work (and a small paycheck is hard on my ego). But I’ve learned what it is to be committed.
Running a Household
I live in a tiny apartment with two other women. Three adults are sharing the responsibility for this household, and we don’t have the benefit of “what’s yours is mine.” You don’t necessarily get to lean on someone else for things like groceries, food prep, laundry, chores, errands, and the myriad of other things that make up life. Remaining single well after college has not granted me an exception from cultivating essential life skills. I know how to run a household on a budget and I know what it is like to spend a day texting two other people so we can coordinate a time for dinner together at home.
These skills comes in handy at the church when I’m tracking down people to remind them about the team meeting or balancing a ministry budget!
Knowing how to live with a man/understanding men
This was a major concern for the lady I spoke with. I have racked up about 18 years of living with brothers. I experienced their hygiene habits, standards of cleanliness, and humor. Beyond that, I have friendships with men spanning lots of ages and stages of life. I have conversations with these friends and am not afraid to ask them questions. We’ve had conversations about sex, love, careers, and God. They are honest and I’ve gleaned a lot of knowledge about the ways men think and operate, and some of the ways in which I am different. An important thing I’ve learned is that you can’t box in a gender. One person, spouse or not, cannot and should not be the sole spokesperson for half the population of the world.
Marriage is a relationship in which you are called to love the other person more than yourself. But this phenomenon happens in other spheres of life as well. For me, there are a few people I love deeply, and a couple whom I can honestly say I love more than my own life.
More than that, I’ve experienced a love that is deeper than human love. Many years ago, there was a special moment in which I knew, supernaturally, without a doubt, that Jesus loved me. Even if no one else ever loved me, he would. In that moment, I knew I wanted to love him too. I have often failed in that regard, but I have never doubted that I was loved by my God. That is love and that is the love I share in ministry.
I have been told that single people present a greater temptation to sexual immorality in a ministry setting. In all graciousness, I realize this is a legitimate concern for some people. I’d simply like to point out that many occurrences of leader failings due to sexual immorality have happened with pastors and church leaders who are married. Being single is not a gateway status to sexual immorality and being married is not a safeguard.
This is by no means an exhaustive list
I know that being married changes things and is different than being single. I desire to one day be married. It is not my intention to elevate singleness or devalue marriage. Please hear me – I am not saying that marriage is useless or pointless. I am not saying that marriage does not teach you many valuable lessons. I am not saying I am an expert on what marriage is in my current single state.
What I am saying is that marital status should not be on a list of ministerial or leader qualifications. I believe the Bible does lay out some ethical guidelines for leaders and that some of those guidelines pertain to those who are married, but nowhere in the Bible do I find “must be married” on any list of universal qualifications for a pastor or leader.
In one of the letters of Paul, quite the opposite is found. Paul states he would prefer that people stay single (1 Corinthians 7:7-8). The most important qualification for a life of ministry is that you are called by God. When God calls someone, he has a spotless track record of equipping them.
One last note
As a single person in ministry, it is often lonely. No one person is an island, nor do I think God intends for people to do ministry or life alone. In marriage you have a special partner to weather the storms and celebrate the victories of life with, in the form of a covenantal relationship. Marriage is special, but it is not the only way to partner in life. Jesus was unmarried but he did not do ministry alone. Paul was unmarried but he did not do ministry alone. Heroes of our faith like St. Augustine, Mother Theresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and numerous men and women, both past and present, were and are single pastors and ministers. None of them did or do ministry alone.
In the gospel of Luke, we see Jesus sending out seventy-two people to do ministry in the surrounding towns, but there are only thirty-six teams. Jesus sends them out in pairs of two (Luke 10:1). I think if we looked at the roster, we would see all kinds of teams. Brothers, friends, sisters, parents and children, roommates, co-ed ministry partners, and yes, married couples. This is the beauty of what it means to co-labor with one another in the gospel. It means God uses everyone, and everyone has the opportunity to participate. Right now. Wherever they are in life. And no one has to do it alone.
“Ministry.” Such a vague word for the purposes of this discussion, because there are many ways that we can serve God. Can a 20 year-old single man serve in youth ministry? Certainly he has been a teen boy, and as such he certainly has the relevant life experience.
Put him in charge of the marrieds with children? That’s a very different question.
Amazing, thanks Leslie! I think this one is a useful bookmark to keep handy! I feel like we as the church have often been guilty of elevating marriage above singleness (much like we once elevated singleness above marriage) so I really appreciate this insightful post, especially how you considered some of the major concerns people have.
Yeah gal! It blows me away how people are incapable of seeing that singles have the same opportunities to learn and grow as marrieds do and in some ways are given more opportunities because of the flexibility we have. I think you sum it up nicely with: “Marriage is special, but it is not the only way to partner in life. ” Amen to that.
Really good post Leslie. Truly, it is as ridiculous to question a person’s capacity for ministry on their marital status as it is to question same because of their gender (chuckle)… and who questions heads of nations/corporations/charities/educational institutions on their marital status.
Really, some people’s worlds/minds are so small that they need a shoe horn to fit new ideas into them.
You nailed it! Thank you for your courage in speaking to this. I loved reading this today and was encouraged. As a single person, I frequently felt all these things but never took the time to write them or post them. As someone who is now married, I couldn’t agree more with all you have written. Be encouraged!
Thank you so much for this blog post. I said ‘AMEN’ all the way through!!!!
I have just been asked this morning to preach as part of a series on Genesis. The passage I have been given is chpt 2. It poses an interesting challenge for me to consider, as a single woman, what ‘It is not good for a man to be alone’ means? How do we discuss Genesis 2 and the pairing of man and woman, in broader terms than simply marriage. I haven’t accepted the preaching opportunity yet, but think that it would push me to examine my own identity as part of the created order. If anyone has any suggestions or thoughts to offer on how I might approach this chapter I would love to hear from you!
Congratulations on your speaking opportunity! I think one way to discuss Genesis 2 is to point out that it is isn’t good for people to be alone! However, it is possible be both not married and not alone. Likewise, it is possible for men and women to work together as partners or friends and not be married to each other. Several churches have a male and female pastors who co-lead ministries. Similarly, volunteers almost always consist of both genders. Sometimes, we take that passage and constrict it to marriage and then use that to create the incorrect belief that a spouse will complete us. This could be a great opportunity for you to be able to broaden that for people. Maybe a different way for us to interpret that passage is to recognize the need each one of us has for community.
Thanks for your reply Leslie. Yes, I think I will certainly emphasise community and our image-bearing desire for connecting with others. It seems like a daunting opportunity and will take much prayer and wisdom. I do want to broaden people’s perceptions and expose them to different perspectives, without stressing them out too much 🙂 Thanks.
Leslie, I am a pastor who is also single. I serve a church in northern California. I’ve bumped up against the same assumptions and concerns that you have in several churches in several states. (Thanks for your thoughtful reflection!) Curiously — I never once experienced those same assumptions/concerns when worked as a chaplain in hospitals, a hospice and a private school. In those settings no one ever questioned my professionalism, skills, pastoral authority, or life’s wisdom, due to my marital status. Only in churches. May we be part of this change.
In addition, I don’t think1 Timothy 3:2 is meant to limit church leadership to married individuals. As a single person heading to seminary it is always interesting to hear other peoples thoughts on this issue.
I agree with you, Will. I think a good way to interpret this verse is to see all the ways it requires that leaders be counter-cultural. Roman culture was the opposite of prudish when it came to sexual and marriage ethics. So if you are married, this is how you respond as a member of that relationship.
Not only Paul, but from what I can tell Jesus chose some single people as apostles. I’m sure he knew what he was doing. I’m glad you are offering your talents and pursuing your desire in serving God as a pastor, Leslie.
This is such a gift. As a single woman in pastoral ministry, I hear these questions a lot and I am thankful for your wisdom! It is refreshing to hear someone voice this!
Some excellent points. I can’t see us firing all of our single elders and pastors because of this. (Because, you know, we believe a man should be the husband of one wife literally, but that doesn’t exclude single men… I’m still figuring that one out.) Full disclosure, I’m married though not a minister or minister’s spouse. God calls whom God calls, and the church does not have authority to overrule that. God has a long and glorious history of calling marginalized or overlooked people.
As someone who is single and probably will be for the foreseeable next couple of years, and considering seminary and becoming a pastor it is a real encouragement to me to hear your perspective on ministry and singleness.
Thanks, Olivia! Blessings on you as you continue to discern and live out your calling!