Ever since I accepted the call to ministry I have had this creeping suspicion. I only mentioned it a few times while I was attending school, and it never came up in classroom discussions that I know of, but I have always had this nagging sense about ministry. My time spent travelling across the Midwest (and East Africa) served to make my suspicions grow. In fact, it wasn’t until this last year, while I have been searching and waiting for a pastoral position, that my suspicions were confirmed.
I was on the phone with one of my mentors talking about life. In the midst of him offering insight into what I should do with my time now that I’m in a waiting period, he began to talk about my finding a good woman to marry. This isn’t the first time this topic has come up. I’m a single minister, so marriage comes up fairly often. This time was different, however, because he segued the conversation into an informational talk about how church leaders and even church members are not comfortable with single pastors.
And with that, my suspicions were confirmed: being a single minister has a negative effect on one’s qualifications for ministry. At least, in the eyes of others… who you depend on for getting into a ministry position.
At first I had a feeling that it may be just this one mentor of mine, and he was sharing some personal angst with how he perceived single ministers had been treated in his eyes. But, not too long ago, I met with another mentor of mine who said the same thing: most church leaders and church boards aren’t comfortable with single pastors leading congregations. Even though this is mostly true of a senior/lead pastor position (staff pastors who are single are generally treated very differently), there is still a negative stigma attached to ministers who are single.
I have had several people explain to me their thoughts on single vs. married pastors. Some people don’t mind a single pastor, citing the more flexible personal schedule, more time to spend caring for the local church, an acute ability to relate to younger people, and a smaller financial need. Some of them point to how being married shows a sense of maturity, wisdom, and stability that most churches want in their leaders. Others get more specific and say that married men are better at counseling, work better with church boards, are better preachers, etc. In fact, I was interviewed for a pastoral position earlier this year and one of the two main reasons the interviewers were not very confident in me and my ability to lead was because I am single.
Now, I could make all kinds of arguments against that mentality while gleaning from my years of visiting both married and single pastors and saying that marriage doesn’t inherently make someone more mature, wise, stable, or better at counseling, preaching, or whatever. I could talk about how the apostle Paul was single, or that Jesus himself was single. I could weave in church history that involved the fact that Paul was trying to convince Christians to not divorce (because they thought marriage limited their ability to serve the Lord), or talk about how the church ought to rely on the work of the Holy Spirit instead of relying on the pastor. I am sure you have heard these same arguments, but frankly they do not matter. The truth is simple: being a single minister limits your opportunities in ministry.
Some may argue against this point, but I have been informed by trustworthy people and have experienced my share of unmarried prejudice to know that this is, in fact, true. Even those who are single and currently serving as pastors feel this burden… People in the church consistently referencing marriage, or trying to set you up with their relatives or hinting that you should date so-and-so, or refusing to respect your leadership because you’re not ‘grown-up’ enough… all of these indicate how single minister simply aren’t “good enough” for many churches and /or many people within the church.
There are certainly exceptions to this, and I myself have been blessed with a church family that does not treat me as less significant of a minister because of my relationship status. In my travels, however, I have had to realize that I am an exception. And an exception is just that: an exception; not something to be expected in the majority of encounters.
This reality does have an effect on how one dates, or if they date. Now that I think of it, how many careers withhold advancement if someone isn’t married? I mean, wouldn’t this kind of conversation change the way you view your relationships:
“You’re single!? Well, we aren’t comfortable with you being the manager in that case. We’ll give the position to this other person over here.”
“But.. she has less experience than me.”
“Yes. But she’s married. Therefore, she’s more qualified to be the manager.”
It is too bad that these interactions – while not always verbal – happen quite often in ministry. When they do, there is this added pressure to hurry up and get married to someone. That kind of pressure really sucks, too. Because then it’s like you can’t afford to take your time with a romantic relationship. You need to marry someone, and quickly! Otherwise, you’ll never get into a ministry position and live out God’s call upon your life (after all, the reality is that when it comes to ministry you aren’t subject exclusively to God’s will, but the will of the Church as well).
Sometimes the most helpful thing one can do is gain an awareness for their situation. However, if you’re looking for something positive then maybe I can end with some advice that my mentor – the one who originally told me about this de facto – gave me: If being single is bothering you, and you are feeling the pressure, then go out there and start meeting new people! Find a good godly man/woman. Get married. take your time with it, but sulking and complaining about how no one wants you because you’re single isn’t going to get you anywhere.
Or, get over the fact that it sucks that you’re being held back. You can’t do anything about it anyway. People are always going to be picky, and there will always be chances for someone to nitpick something about that makes you feel unacceptable.
Or, get creative! If you feel like you can’t do anything because you’re not married, then try something new with ministry. If you make a mistake, big deal! People may already look down on you for being single, so why not experiment a little bit while your bar is set low? Embrace the low standards – it makes it easier to impress.
I wish I could say that things will change, but I can’t say that with any real confidence. In the end, we all have to come to grips with the fact that, in the eyes of many people, single ministers don’t make good pastors.