At a conference this year, I spoke on a panel about being single in the church and the ways single clergy especially can be isolated by a culture in which marriage is the default. That was the first time since university that I had heard an honest, direct, public conversation about singleness in the church. I have plenty of conversations among friends about being single, but singleness is not something often addressed publicly in church, though we hear countless sermons about marriage. Sharing my personal experiences there was one of the most vulnerable things I’ve ever done, but I thought, “At least we’re finally talking about this.” Since then, I’ve been thinking about what I wish the broader church community understood about what life is like as a single pastor and how we can be a better community for single clergy.
1. As a single pastor, I often feel invisible. Let’s find ways to be more inclusive of the stories and experiences of single folks in ministry.
Recently I was at a seminar about pastoral health and wellness, and a significant portion of the statistics reflected an exclusive attention to the impact of ministry stress on married pastors, their spouses, their children. What about single pastors who hold this stress alone? Where are we in the statistics? How can we hope to care for single pastors if their stories aren’t even being told or represented in the narrative?
At my ministerial licensing interview last year, across from the interviewers were two chairs, one for the ministerial candidate and one for their spouse. I joked, “Maybe next time I’ll bring a cardboard cutout or an emotional support animal or some other spousal stand-in.” This year’s interview was significantly more welcoming. But even so, every page of the re-application forms still had a question about my (nonexistent) spouse, like this one: What is your moral responsibility to your spouse and children as a model to your congregation? I tried to interpret it as best I could for my own situation, sharing how I hope my personal life as a single woman models Christian character to my congregation. I didn’t leave that question blank, because I want to show up to be vetted and affirmed and sent out by my church community, but I want to be seen in my particularities, as the minister I actually am. I care deeply about the ordination process within my denomination; I’m grateful for it and respect it, but in submitting to the process I have encountered some assumptions about “the ideal pastor” that create a lot of dissonance for me. The good news is my district leadership adopts a posture of listening, and they’re trying to acknowledge and welcome single pastors. This year, at our annual pastors/spouses retreat, single pastors are invited to bring a friend who’s been supportive of their call to ministry. Gestures like this give me hope for offering meaningful hospitality to single clergy.
2. As a single pastor, people treat me as if either I hate being single or I love it. It’s not that simple. Let’s be friends and I’ll tell you about it.
Sure, being single in a married world is difficult at times. It’s also great at times to be single in a married world. Let’s start by being friends and sharing our lives together. Then you can ask me how I’m feeling about it, and listen to what I say. If I’m lonely, I will tell you, and you can mourn with me. If I’m loving my independence, I will tell you, and you can celebrate with me. Please don’t assume you know how I feel or what I need to hear.
For as long as I’ve been in ministry, I’ve heard some version of “I’m praying for your husband!” or “It’ll happen when it happens!” They mean well, but their unspoken assumptions are that single = bad, 30ish = bad, so being single and 30ish must be the worst kind of misery. Here’s the thing: I’m not miserable. I have a full and fulfilling life, with a community of deep friendships, compelling work that I care about, and significant dreams and goals I’m moving toward. I would love to share this full and fulfilling life with a spouse. I want to be married, but I’m not pining away for something I don’t have. I don’t mind if you’re praying for my husband; but you could also ask if I want to be introduced to the single guys you know who love Jesus. Please don’t tell me “It’ll happen when it happens.” It’s a well-meaning sentiment, but it sounds like you’re saying my life won’t start until I’m married. I might never get married. Not because I don’t want to be married, but because someone might not want to marry me. I don’t mean that in a self-deprecating way, just I might never meet and fall in love with someone willing and able to integrate their life with mine as it takes this particular shape and direction as a local church pastor. And now at 30ish, I’m making long range plans without a life partner to hold them with me, and that may not change anytime soon. I happen to be single right now, and I’m doing my best to be faithful to what God is calling me to do. Sure, I want to be married, but I’m not waiting around for marriage to start my life. Can you help me hold that tension as my community? Can you be my tribe, my home, my roots? Can you fold me into your life just as I am?
3. As a single pastor, I like to date, just like other single people. Let’s find ways to normalize dating for single clergy.
Once, I was out with some young women from church celebrating a friend’s engagement, and a guy came over to our group and asked me dance. Jokingly, one of my friends blurted out: “You can’t do that! She’s a pastor!” He backed away slowly, and our group went back to our conversation, but I couldn’t shake a sense of uneasiness about the joke. Can’t do what? Dance with me? Flirt with me? Are single pastors supposed to stay single forever and never date anyone ever? That would be unfortunate, and for the record, totally not true.
Sometimes people operate as if my spirituality and intellect are an impediment to dating. Someone once said: “I feel like I’d be dating Jesus’ little sister. I’m likely to be smited any moment I do something dumb. It’s a lot of pressure!” Another time a friend and colleague said: “Think about it. You’re not just reading Bonhoeffer easily; you’re teaching Bonhoeffer. I imagine any of the guys in there who might be interested would feel super intimidated, like they wouldn’t know what to say to you.”
Recently, a friend said, “I wonder how many times someone we know has told someone about us, saying ‘She’s a pastor, she’s really smart, *BUT* she’s great,' as if those things somehow conflict. If our pals aren’t scared to tell their single guy friends how pretty or cool we are, why do they avoid sharing our other good qualities, like being smart or spiritual?” What if my friends were more quick to say how proud they are to have a single pastor friend with a deep spiritual life and a curious mind? What if we treated those things as intriguing to potential dates and not intimidating to them?
4. As a single pastor, I receive some kinds of invitations, but not others, like several Thanksgiving invitations, but no New Year's Eve invitations. Let’s find ways to comfortably include single clergy in all areas of our shared life together.
Everyone seems to want to have the pastor at a cozy family Thanksgiving dinner, but no one wants to see the pastor in a sparkly cocktail dress and bright lipstick at the swanky New Year’s Eve shindig. Pastors are exuberantly invited to officiate a wedding or witness the ceremony, but there’s a level of discomfort if the clergy stay too long dancing at the party, as if it’s somehow inappropriate for them to enjoy themselves in that way, especially if they’re unmarried (and even more so if they're unmarried women).
I’ve noticed many single folks are asked to babysit when their couple friends go out. I love that my flexible schedule allows me to spend time with my friends’ kids while they take time alone. This is a gift I’m able to give to friends who are parents, and I joyfully give it. But what if instead of always asking a single friend to babysit while you go out, you invited them to join you for dinner? What if you invited them to join your family for the day’s adventure? What if you made sure to save a seat for your single friend at the church potluck so they’re not scanning the crowd? Nobody wants to make their single friend uncomfortable by inviting them to hang out with only couples or to be the lone tag-along with a family, and single folks don’t want to feel like they’re intruding, but most of us love hanging out with our couple friends and their families. You all are our people, and we like being with you. What if you just invited us to share your life, to join in what you’re already doing?
5. As a single pastor, I almost always have to turn down weekend invitations. Let’s find a time to hang out during the week instead.
If I’m turning you down on Saturday night, it’s not because I don’t want to go out, but because Sundays are the busiest and earliest days in my schedule. “I have to wash my hair” sounds like an excuse, but it’s not. On Saturdays I wash my hair, drink tea with honey for my voice, make adjustments to the service order, review my sermon notes, and otherwise prepare for a full workday on Sunday. But worse than turning down Saturday night hangs, is turning down Sunday brunch. I can’t convey how much I love brunch, and how devastating it is that I’m always working during prime brunch hours. But who says brunch has to be a weekend thing? Why not some mid-week avocado toast? I bet brunch is just as fun and delicious on Wednesday. Let’s try it and see.
As a single pastor, I hope we can create space to hear the stories and experiences of single clergy, both to acknowledge their unique struggles and joys and also to see beyond the labels of “single” and “pastor.” Reach out to your single friends in ministry and ask them to share their story: “How does this impact you uniquely as a pastor who is single?” or “How could we minister better to you as a person?” or “How can we support you? What do you need?” or just “Would you like to come over for dinner?” If we start there, we’re well on the way to being a the hospitable community I know we can be.