My stomach rolls a little every time I think about writing about being a single pastor. My gut reaction is always, first, that it’s none of your business. I get defensive because in the church, there’s almost always a degree of judgment about being single. When you’re a pastor, that judgment is compounded with concern, benevolence, and confusion. For me, it comes down to this: being single does not define nor limit my ministry and it’s not relevant to the quality of the work that I do. I don’t define myself as a “single person pastoring,” and it’s offensive and reductive when you do.
For the most part, my congregation is supportive and understands that. But every once in a while, someone makes a comment that hints at how this is a “problem” they can help me “fix.” They don’t say it that way, but that’s what they mean. Someone will comment about my future-husband’s participation in the church or express concern that I’ll date the wrong person. (Did you never date the wrong person? Do you realize you’re speaking to me like I’m 16? You trust me to make decisions about the basic functioning of the church but think I’m incompetent to make intelligent decisions about who I spend time with?)
As much as that makes my blood flame, for so many reasons, as a pastor, I get to approach singleness as a work issue, not a big-C Church issue that defines my relationship to the little-c church I attend. But in the aftermath of Valentine’s Day, I’ve had several conversations with single Christians (all women) who do experience it that way. They all noted how… unhelpful the church is. Church is still, largely, a place for married people. My own congregation has upwards of 30 young adults, but I can list the number of single people between 22-35 on one hand (maybe one and a half hands). The church has this fear of single people, like they’re a liability or concern, and single people feel it.
Being single does have its own anxieties. But often, congregations compound those anxieties–and that makes both sides feel worse. Church anxieties are usually based in two discrete and equally flawed logics. (I’m not counting the third one, which is not logic, but pure fear that we had all best get paired up before our passions carry us away, because God forbid there are grown adults running around trying to discern appropriate ways to relate with other grown adults. There’s so much there, let’s save it for another day.)
Anxiety 1. If there are single people in church, they might not get married, and if they don’t get married, they’ll never have babies, and if they don’t have babies, the church is going to DIE. (A corollary anxiety is the church’s treatment of unmarried couples.)
Anxiety 2. If there are single people in church, they might not get married and if they don’t get married how will they ever live a meaningful life with joy and contentment?
I don’t even have time to unpack all the problems with these two derailed trains of thought, but let me point out a few things.
Most obvious, the church is already dying, for complex and interrelated reasons. One of those reasons is that the church hasn’t figured out “what to do about single people.” The number of never-married people in the U.S. has almost doubled in the last 50 years. And the church still clings to this distorted notion that marriage is a manifestation of the salvation of God in your life. If the church can’t figure out how to treat single people like (what’s the word I’m looking for)–people, the church is screwed.
Single people feel the judgment and–we’ve been through this before–people who feel judged don’t go to the locus of the judgement. They don’t go to church. Even single people who are looking are not interested in the older women of church setting them up. I know a lot of single Christians; never once have I heard one say “My parent/aunt/church mentor set me up and it was such a good date.” Thanks for your interest, but kindly redirect your energies somewhere else. It’s not your business to change people’s marital status–it’s your business to support them, where they are, and affirm the goodness you see in them (not in their potential to partner with someone).
As for the fear that comes from normative-social-narrative-of-marriage: I get it. Marriage was the best thing that happened to you and you want everyone to experience the same joy and delight you do. Could it be, however, that the best thing that happened to me is not getting married? Could it be that, in fact, the reason I’m not married is because I have made all the best decisions I could with the hand life dealt me, and none of those involved getting married?
Singleness is not something we need to change, like alcoholism or racism or narcissism. It’s not a character flaw. Singleness, like marriage, is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. Churches can say that–have said it–for years. But until they believe it and act like it, we’ll keep on hemorrhaging single people of all ages.