The Single Woman: Vocational (Dis)Advantage in God’s Mission

by Lauren England | July 31, 2021

Women have always played an important part in God’s mission in the world. Indeed, unmarried women throughout history have defied cultural norms to be productive and effective in God’s mission in ways other than marriage and biological parenting. Often throughout history, singleness has been seen as a disqualifier to ministry and mission, for the partnership of a spouse meant you were a more valuable contributor.1 In light of these assumptions, it is important to highlight and discuss the necessary roles, challenges, and gifts that single women make in mission and ministry to further equip and support them.

The Only Way

For women called to mission or ministry, singleness may not always be a choice, nor do all women feel comfortable to name it as a calling. Throughout history, and even today, breaking down traditional gender roles in the church and home is difficult, and, for some, singleness feels like the only way to fulfill their God-given calling. Lottie Moon, a prominent single female missionary in China in the 1800s, saw these barriers set up against single women being allowed to go to the mission field, particularly through a colleague of hers, Martha Crawford.2 Despite being called to the mission field individually, Martha was unable to be sent alone and instead became a solution to the problem of a young male missionary’s singleness.3 Her marriage removed agency and, instead of her concern being for the people to whom she was called, she was worried about outshining her husband.4 The gender roles of the time, and the limitations that children put on women, meant that marriage itself became a barrier for doing ministry for Martha, and this was key to Lottie’s decision not to marry.

Into the twentieth century, the barriers marriage created continued to be a major factor in the decision of singleness for women. Anne West, a prominent Bible translator in the 1960s, also felt that if she were to marry, her husband and family would be her priority, leading her to forsake mission work.5 In contemporary times, this tension is still an issue for many women who are called into mission. Tara Beth Leach, a prominent Christian author and leader, shares her experience of being a woman called to ministry and marriage in light of the still-common assumption that women are called to be a minister’s wife, rather than a minister.6 This expectation that women are to follow their husbands rather than fulfill their own vocations still makes it difficult for many single women who are called into ministry to find a marriage that centers mutual submission and self-sacrifice.

Finding a husband who does not give in to this stereotype, and is confident in who he and his wife are, is difficult.7 For some cultures, the idea of a man taking up the traditional domestic and parenting responsibilities is a perversion of nature. Sarah Heath, an author and pastor, talks about the difficulty of being single and dating as a female pastor. She has often found it so difficult that she has felt the need to apologize for her vocation.8 She explains that even in the twenty-first century, female pastors—single or married—come with barriers and stigmas that male pastors simply do not.9

Vocational Disadvantage

Similarly, there are unique challenges for being a woman in ministry in the systems, structures, and culture of male-dominated and married-centric workplaces. Throughout history, a married couple was considered more valuable to the ministry than a single person.10 However, in the twentieth century, and still today, women have outnumbered men on the mission field, and this is because of the presence of single women.11 Although there is an increase of female pastors throughout North America, it was difficult to find statistics specific to single women who are pastors;12 this limited research reveals a lack of value placed on single women in ministry and some of the challenges they face. Of the stories and experiences we know, there is a common theme: pastoral ministry is structured around the male pastor and his wife, who may or may not also participate in his ministry.13 Some would go as far to say that there is a discrimination issue in the church against single pastors, for many churches are explicitly looking for a “family man” or married couples to lead the church.14 “Discrimination,” to some, is too strong a word, as is apparently the case for a Southern Baptist Seminary president who instructs his students to expect challenges in ministry if they remain single and to ideally find a spouse.15

Evangelical culture has made it doubly difficult for single women to be pastors as they seek to overcome the barriers of not only their gender but also their marital status.16 Women have too often been seen as temptresses, a potential sin to avoid in ministry.17 This continues to be a barrier women have to overcome in mission and ministry, as they are seen as dangerous because they do not have a husband to keep them in line.18 Margaret Britton describes the particular issue of singleness as a “social disadvantage” in the world.19 For single women in ministry, they are experiencing a vocational disadvantage as the structures perpetuate a preferred married leadership.

The Challenge of Intimacy and Community

Another common challenge for single women in ministry is their unique experience and expression of community, family, and intimacy. Aimee Semple McPherson, an (in)famous evangelist of the early twentieth century, reveals in her own life and stories the tension between desiring intimacy and relationship but also understanding the reality of her life as a single pastor. Aimee received a clear call from God when married to her second husband, who desired her to be a “normal housewife” who stayed at home and cared for children.20 Going against cultural and religious norms of the day, Aimee struggled to pursue her desire for a family and intimacy, while also remaining true to her calling from God. After another failed marriage, and one to come, she understood this struggle. This is a reality for many, as single women find themselves between their expected place in the home, with children and a husband, and the unique relationships of being a pastor.21 It is difficult to find friendship and community and to experience the family of God when the church values only the traditional family.22

Nonetheless, the message put forth in the Gospels and the reality of the kingdom of God presents family in a different light—that it is the people of God, those submitted to Jesus, who make a family.23 The struggles of a single woman in ministry may stem from the church’s inability to pursue and find space for unmarried social and spiritual intimacy.24

Gifts to the Church

For too long, women have been subject to a simplistic approach when it comes to their pursuit of a holy life. The examples provided of women throughout history and in Scripture should not be limited to those who were married. The centralization of single women in these spaces would not only show a greater diversity of experiences but also new insights and helpful stories for people pursuing the faith. Single women who are remembered and revered in Scripture should be highlighted, because they not only defy the barriers of society’s expectations of women, but also of the single life. To name but a few, in Exodus we see Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives who were the start of the liberation from Egyptian slavery. They were mightily used by God to oppose the pharaoh’s genocide and were blessed because of their audacious faith.25 The account of Shiphrah and Puah ends, “And because the midwives respected God, God gave them households of their own” (Exod 1:21 CEB), implying that they were unmarried at the time when they saved Moses and many other Hebrew infants. Deborah’s marital status is not certain, but she most certainly led with an autonomy and independence that was unique in the era of the judges.26 In the Gospels, we see the powerful example of Mary Magdalene, devoted to following Jesus, and the first person sent by Jesus to report the resurrection. Regarding other single women throughout history, we see the accounts of their calling as humble examples of a “strong devotion to God.”27

Lottie Moon’s story attests to this devotion and the unique testament of God’s authority in the embodiment of her calling. As Christina Hitchcock says, “Lottie was allowed on the mission field because of the authority of Christ. . . . Lottie’s singleness allowed for no other human explanation of her authority to proclaim the Gospel. Her work as a single woman testified to the authority of Christ in a way that the work of a married woman could not.”28 This truth remains today, as single women defy traditional expectations of womanhood by entering into ministry and mission, while also doing it on their own—identifying with the Apostle Paul (a single man himself), “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20a CEB).

Representation of Single People

A 2017 census report in the United States showed that nearly forty-six percent of people over the age of eighteen were single.29 Representation and the modeling of singleness should thus be valued in churches and on the mission field.30 Single women in ministry and mission are an important gift to the body of Christ and offer a unique perspective and example that others do not. Dora Yu, for example, was influenced in her decision to remain single by those who had gone before her; she became an example to other women of the value and contribution of singleness to the work of the church.31

For much of Protestant history, those at the podium represented only half of the population of the church. However, the church needs people of color, minority groups, those with disabilities, women, and those who are single as leaders so that people can see themselves and their experiences in their leaders.32 As an example, single women can model the virtues of patience in seasons of waiting and long periods of chastity.33

Paul: Better to be Single

For a woman to be single in the first century was to be a financial burden to the family and a failure to her duty.34 So these words  from Paul would have been shocking to a first-century woman: “I’m telling those who are single and widows that it’s good for them to stay single like me” (1 Cor 7:8 CEB). Paul goes as far as to say that it is preferable to be single because, “A woman who isn’t married or who is a virgin is concerned about the Lord’s concerns so that she can be dedicated to God in both body and spirit” (1 Cor 7:34 CEB). Countless female missionaries could attest to this truth—for example, Dora Yu, who despite planning to marry, knew that the “undivided love” she needed would not be possible as a married woman.35

Recommendations

To address the unique challenges of single women in ministry and leverage the gifts that they offer, the following are suggestions in working alongside and supporting single women in ministry and mission. As Tara Beth Leach says, “Emboldened women aren’t empowered because of their age, gender, marital status, or parenting status, but because of Spirit-filled and courageous co-laborers in Christ who open doors for, include, and come alongside of their sisters.”36 Thus it is not singleness per se that is the value; it is the individual called to ministry regardless of their marital status, which should not restrict females or males.

Intimacy

For women who already face barriers in leadership and ministry because of their gender, to also live in the loneliness of singleness is a heavy burden to carry. Intentional, real spaces of connection and community are therefore vital and should be prioritized and implemented to ensure specific support for single women. A common assumption brought up by Mary Lederleitner is that all single women want to live with other single women. For some, this may be the case, but for others, their desire for intimacy may not extend to the need to live with another single person.37 We need to think outside of the box when it comes to the unique life of single women. Ultimately, inclusive, sacred spaces of relationship that allow for sharing of life, ministry, hopes, and disappointments are important.

Pursue and Lift Up the Representation of Single People

Josh Beckett discusses the need for new stories to be told about single people and that representation in all aspects of church life is vital.38 In order to love celibacy, Josh says, we need to “see it as lovely.”39 Singleness therefore needs to be modeled in a way that builds into the next generation for its value and beauty.40 Simple shifts in the language used around singleness, a change from the emphasis on marriage, and not merely sermons on singleness, but sermons by unmarried preachers, are some positive steps to take. For women, specifically, re-telling stories of passionate, capable, and called women, like the ones mentioned in this article, help reinforce the notion that their ideal vocation is not only to bear children and keep a happy husband, but to pursue God’s calling in many other ways.

The Pursuit of Egalitarianism

The pursuit of mutuality is essential to support single women. As mentioned already, for some women in ministry and mission, singleness has been the only option for them in order to remain faithful to their calling. This pursuit should continue to reinforce the narrative that goes against expected traditional roles in the home and workplace when it comes to men and women. Men and women need to see, hear, and understand that that singleness is a dignified path, choice, or calling in a woman’s life, rather than merely a backup plan.

Conclusion

I have claimed throughout this article that single women in ministry and mission experience unique challenges and at times discrimination. To counter the obstacles placed before them, we must remember that single women bring unique gifts to the body of Christ. They can be solid examples of holiness, calling, patience, and trust in God. Single women are necessary to the body of Christ to speak to other single women, but also for people to be told different stories about vocation that do not involve marriage or traditional families. It is in these sacred spaces that single women teach us important lessons and to these stories we must listen.

Notes

1. Dana L. Robert, American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice (Mercer University Press, 1996).

2. Christina S. Hitchcock, The Significance of Singleness: A Theological Vision for the Future of the Church (Baker Academic, 2018) 67.

3. Hitchcock, Significance of Singleness, 67.

4. Hitchcock, Significance of Singleness, 68.

5. Kate Shellnut, “How Single Women Became an Unstoppable Force in Bible Translation,” Christianity Today (April 2017).

6. Tara Beth Leach, Emboldened: A Vision for Empowering Women in Ministry (InterVarsity, 2017) 109.

7. Mary T. Lederleitner, Women in God’s Mission (InterVarsity, 2018) 152.

8. Sarah Heath, “Dating a Lady of the Clothe,” Sonderlust, Podcast Audio (Dec 14, 2017).

9. Heath, “Dating a Lady of the Clothe.”

10. Andrea L. Arrington, “Making sense of Martha: Single Women and Mission Work,” Social Sciences and Missions 23 (2010).

11. Arrington, “Making Sense,” 278.

12. Barna Research, Number of Female Senior Pastors in Protestant Churches Doubles in Past Decade, 2019.

13. Stephanie Williams, “Single. Female. Pastor,” Mutuality 21/3 (Autumn 2014) 12-14.

14. Eric Eckholm, “Unmarried Pastor, Seeking a Job, Sees Bias,” NY Times (March 21, 2011). 

15. Eckholm, “Unmarried Pastor.”

16. Eckholm, “Unmarried Pastor.”

17. The “Billy Graham rule” has perpetuated this as many pastors and leaders have adopted the practice of never meeting with a female alone.

18. Lederleitner, Women in God’s Mission.

19. Margaret Britton, The Single Woman in the Family of God (Epworth, 1982) 4.

20. Edith L. Blumhofer, Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody’s Sister (Eerdmans, 1993) 105.

21. Britton, The Single Woman, 26.

22. The “traditional family” being that of a mother, father, and children. Britton, The Single Woman, 45-46.

23. Matt 29:49-50 and 1 Pet 2:9-10 make an important point of this.

24. Dr. Joyce De Rosario, “Week 10 Lecture” (class lecture, Women in Mission, Fuller Theological Seminary, June 4, 2019).

25. Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Westminster John Knox, 2017) 89.

26. Deborah is described as the wife of Lappidoth or “woman of flames” (Judg 4:4). See also Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Woman’s Bible (Northeastern University Press, 1993) 18.

27. Arrington, “Making Sense,” 24.

28. Hitchcock, Significance of Singleness, 77.

29. “Unmarried and Single Americans Week” (Sept 17-23, 2017).

30. Such representation and modeling would counter the traditionally perpetuated message that, for women, marriage is the ultimate vocation. Britton, The Single Woman, 16.

31. Silas H. L. Wu, “Dora Yu: Foremost Female Evangelist in Twentieth-Century Chinese Revivalism,” in Gospel Bearers, Gender Barriers: Missionary Women in the Twentieth Century, ed. Dana Robert (Orbis, 2002) 89.

32. Leach, Emboldened, 123.

33. Leach, Emboldened, 123.

34. Dr. Joyce De Rosario, “Week 3 Lecture” (class lecture, Women in Mission, Fuller Theological Seminary, June 4, 2019).

35. Wu, “Dora Yu,” 89.

36. Leach, Emboldened, 126, cf. 217.

37. Lederleitner, Women in God’s Mission, 188.

38. Joshua Beckett, “Desire in Singleness: Ascetics and Eternity,” in Kutter Callaway, Breaking the Marriage Idol (InterVarsity, 2018) 201.

39. Beckett, “Desire in Singleness,” 201.

40. Britton, The Single Woman, 58.