Recently, I was invited to participate in a panel on singleness at a Christian conference. I shared my experience as a single woman pastor and how single clergy can feel isolated in a church culture where marriage is the default. It was the first time since university that I had an honest, direct, public conversation about singleness in the church. We hear countless sermons about marriage, but singleness is not often addressed publicly in Christian communities. When I do talk about my experiences as a single woman, I usually talk among my friends, not in my church. Sharing my personal experiences on that panel 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 want the broader church community to understand about life as a single female pastor and how we can be a better community for single believers, especially single clergy.
1. Single pastors (especially women) often feel invisible. Let’s find ways to be more inclusive of the stories and experiences of single folks in ministry.
At a recent seminar I attended on pastoral health and wellness, speakers highlighted statistics showing the impact of ministry stress on married pastors and their spouses and children. But what about single pastors who hold this stress alone? Where are we in these statistics? Women pastors are already underrepresented in most studies on clergy. Data on single women pastors is virtually non-existent. But how can we hope to care for single pastors if our stories aren’t being told or represented in the church’s narrative?
During my annual ministerial licensing interview last year, a chair sat empty beside me—reserved for a ministerial candidate’s spouse. I joked, “Maybe next time I’ll bring a cardboard cutout or an emotional support animal or some other spousal stand-in.” Thankfully, this year’s interview was significantly more welcoming. But even so, every page of the re-application form 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 pastor models Christian character to my congregation. I didn’t leave that question blank, because I still want to show up to be vetted and affirmed and sent out by my church community. I also want to be judged as the minister I actually am. I care deeply about the ordination process within my denomination. I’m grateful for and respect it. But in submitting to the process, I have encountered some hurtful assumptions about what “the ideal pastor” looks like.
The good news is that my district leadership has adopted a posture of listening, and they’re working to acknowledge and welcome single pastors. At our annual pastors/spouses retreat this year, single pastors are invited to bring a friend who’s been supportive of their call to ministry. Gestures like this give me hope that the church will begin to offer meaningful hospitality to single clergy.
2. People often treat single pastors as if they either hate being single or love it. It’s not that simple. Let’s make it a priority to befriend single clergy and let them tell us about it.
Sure, being single in a married world is difficult at times. This is especially true for many single women in the church, who feel added societal pressure to marry and “settle down.” But it can also be great to be single in a married world. Do not assume you know how single folks feel or what they need to hear about their singleness. Start by being friends with them, by sharing your life with them and vice versa. Until you’ve done that, don’t ask them potentially hurtful questions about their singleness or offer advice for how they should approach dating. Be especially aware of making single women feel like it’s their fault that they’re single and they would be married if only they would . And, when single folks choose to share with you, affirm their feelings. If they tell you that they are lonely, mourn with them. If they tell you that they are loving their independence, celebrate with them. Do not overwrite single people’s experiences with your own expectations and stereotypes.
For as long as I’ve been in ministry, I’ve heard some version of “I’m praying for your future husband!” or “it’ll happen when it happens!” These folks mean well, but their unspoken assumption seems to be that single equals bad and thirtyish equals bad, and so they suppose that being single and thirtyish must be the worst kind of misery. Here is the thing: I am not miserable. I have a full and fulfilling life—a community of deep friendships, compelling work that I care about, and significant dreams and goals I am moving toward. I would love to share this full and fulfilling life with a spouse, but I am not pining away for something I do not have. I do not mind if you pray for my husband, but you could also ask if I want to be introduced to the single, Jesus-loving guys you know.
I encourage Christians not to say things like “it’ll happen when it happens” to single folks in the church. It is a well-meaning sentiment, but it sounds like you are saying my life won’t start until I am married. I might never get married. Not because I do not want to be married, but because someone might not want to marry me. I might never meet and fall in love with someone willing and able to integrate their life with my life as a local church pastor. At thirtyish years old, I am making long-range plans without a life partner beside me, and that may not change anytime soon. I happen to be single right now, and I am doing my best to be faithful to what God is calling me to now. Sure, I want to be married, but I am not waiting around for marriage to start my life. As my faith community, can you help me hold this tension?
3. Single pastors like to date too—just like other single people. Let’s normalize dating for single clergy.
Once, I was out with some young women from church to celebrate 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; our group went back to our conversation, but I could not shake my unease with her joke. Can’t do what? Dance with me? Flirt with me? Are single pastors supposed to stay single forever and never date? That would be unfortunate, and for the record, it is totally false. While on the job, some boundaries are important to ensure safety and respect for everyone. However, it is good and healthy (and wholly appropriate) for pastors to have romantic lives.
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 smite 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 who might be interested would feel super intimidated, like they wouldn’t know what to say to you.” This is not an unusual phenomenon: intelligent, curious women and women in leadership positions such as pastor are often penalized in the dating world for their successes. They are made to feel like their God-given gifts are a liability when it comes to finding a spouse because men will feel threatened.
A female friend and fellow pastor recently asked me: “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 are not 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 quicker 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 traits as intriguing—not intimidating—to potential dates?
4. Single pastors may receive invites to Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings, but often not to New Year’s Eve parties or similar events. Let’s find ways to comfortably include single clergy in all areas of life.
Everyone seems to want to host 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 a swanky New Year’s Eve shindig. Pastors are exuberantly invited to officiate a wedding or witness the ceremony, but there is discomfort if the clergy stay too long to dance at the party—as if it is somehow inappropriate for them to enjoy themselves, especially if they are unmarried and female. There are a lot of unwritten rules governing the conduct of single women, and how they can and cannot have fun. It is not uncommon for single women, particularly single women in visible positions of authority, to receive extra censure for what they wear, how they dance, how much makeup they have on, how late they stay at a party, and generally how they choose to spend their free time.
I have noticed that many single folks are asked to babysit when their married friends go out. This is particularly true for single women who are expected to be naturally nurturing and maternal. 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 are not scanning the crowd for an open spot? Nobody wants to make their single friends uncomfortable by inviting them to hang out with only couples or to be the lone single or childless tag-along among families. And single folks do not want to feel like they are intruding on these moments either. But most of them love hanging out with their couple friends and their families. What if you just invited them to share your life, to join in what you are already doing?
5. A single pastor will almost always have to turn down weekend invitations. Let’s find times to hang out that work with clergy people’s unusual schedule.
If I am turning you down on Saturday night, it is not because I do not want to go out. Sundays are the busiest and earliest days in my weekly schedule. “I have to wash my hair” sounds like an excuse, but it is not. On Saturdays, I wash my hair, drink tea with honey to strengthen 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 cannot convey how much I love brunch, and how devastating it is that I am always working during prime brunch hours. But who says brunch has to be a Sunday thing? Why not some mid-week avocado toast? I bet brunch is just as fun on Wednesday. Let’s try it and see.
I hope the church can create space for the stories and experiences of single clergy, especially women church leaders who are single and/or dating. We need to both acknowledge their unique struggles and joys and also strive to see beyond the labels of “single” and “pastor.” Reach out to your single friends in ministry and ask them to share their stories: “what has your experience been as a single pastor?” or “have you ever felt isolated in the church because of your singleness?” or “have you been treated differently as a leader because of either your femaleness or your singleness, or both?” or “how can we better minister to, listen to, and support single believers and clergy?” or even just “would you like to come over for dinner?” If the church can begin to meet single people where they are—in their grief and their celebration, their struggles and their joy, their self-sufficiency and their moments of uncertainty—we will be well on our way to becoming the hospitable community I know we can be.