Single. Female. Pastor. Three words that are hard to swallow for the general population, much less the Christian community. Add the word “young” and you will have described my reality during my twenties: young, single, female pastor. Not what I would want to lead with on a résumé. However, it doesn’t take long for these categories to stick, so this is how I have been defined for the last decade.
My time as a single woman stepping into my calling as a church planter and pastor hasn’t been an easy road. However, now that I am in my thirties, I can look back with clarity on my journey. I can see significant ways that others have risen in solidarity and support, giving me the opportunity to not only survive, but to thrive. Being defined by my marital status and gender is something that I have come to terms with personally, professionally, and spiritually. However, the evangelical community has not come to terms with how to navigate the growing population of single adults of all ages in its congregations. Not to mention those who are decidedly not in its congregations.
The failure to empower male and female single leaders of all ages, as well women who are called to lead, is severely crippling the church.
First, discrimination against singles keeps gifted and available leaders off the front lines of ministry. Most single evangelical leaders find it extremely difficult to find employment in churches and Christian institutions; some job descriptions require the leader to be married to even be considered. Single leaders often have more available time and capacity than married leaders, but if there are no employment options within the church, they will be forced to choose other careers. All the while, the church desperately needs the time these leaders could’ve committed to equipping our congregations.
Second, these single leaders may just be the most capable in reaching one of the most unreached people groups in the US: other single people. In 2011, Pew Research reported that 49% of all adults in the US are single. Yet, most churches have relatively few single adults in their congregations. When almost half the adult population identifies as single, but few of those are in church, I would suggest this makes singles one of the most unreached people groups in the United States today.
We need to realize what is at stake if the church does not empower single leaders: some of the most capable leaders will step out of ministry at a time when the church desperately needs leaders, especially those uniquely positioned to reach out to the unmarried population.
Empowering single leaders and tempering an unbiblical elevation of marriage over singleness is going to become increasingly important as the church steps into the future. I lead a church that has a large number of “traditional” nuclear families, but also an unusual amount of singles, some of whom are single parents. Being a single, female pastor with a ministry to many singles has given me some perspective on what it looks like to empower single leaders. I offer this outline of what empowerment has looked like for me as a young, single, female pastor in the hopes that others in the Christian community will continue to rise to the occasion.
Drop the “prefix” when making hiring decisions
Very few leaders in the world have the opportunity to determine another person’s career like those who have the power to hire and fire. I have had the opportunity to lead largely because those with hiring power chose to consider me as a pastor, not a “single pastor” or a “female pastor.” I am a pastor and a leader and I happen to be single and female. There is no need to add “single” or “female” as a “prefix” to the roles I play in the church. I was hired for who I am and my potential for growth as I mature in leadership, not my marital status or gender.
Leaders need to cast a vision that values all members of the church as contributors to our community. It is our job to create spaces where our communities can grow in their understanding of “family” to go beyond what we imagine a traditional nuclear family to be. This includes dropping traditional labels and evaluating candidates for ministry based on what gifts they bring to the table.
Significance without a significant other
Any time writer Shauna Niequist has an opportunity to speak in a college or young adult setting, she offers this statement: “You are significant with or without a significant other.” There are many messages in Christian culture that strongly suggest you are only significant if you have a significant other. Leaders in my community have affirmed that my significance is not tied to my marital status. Affirming gifts that I bring to the table, giving me a voice in important conversations, and giving me the space to lead are ways they’ve affirmed that I’m significant regardless of marital status.
In our Christian communities, do we elevate marriage to the point that it determines the significance we give to individuals? Do we constantly fixate on their dating life, always asking “if they’ve met someone?” Do we have a difficult time when someone experiences a divorce because we had attached more significance to that person because of their marital status? Do we create spaces among all ages and stages where singles feel a part of the family of God, rather than merely creating “singles groups” as their only hope for community?
When my community cares about my life holistically, it speaks significance into my life and reminds me that being a child of God, not my gender or marital status, is what determines my worth.
Friendship across ages and stages
One of the most significant ways I have been empowered in my singleness is through the deep friendships I have made across ages and life stages. The time I have spent with widows, men who have mentored me, and couples with and without kids has been paramount in helping me thrive as a leader and as a single person.
It can be difficult for people to engage in friendship with single people. It seems as though those who are married or who have kids can sometimes be at a loss for how to relate to a single individual. Though we don’t have a spouse or kids to talk about, we live very full and meaningful lives and want to share those experiences with our friends. The couples and families who have learned to include me in their lives have given me the opportunity to experience a healthy sense of belonging.
Spending time with kids is also a wonderful opportunity for single people like me. I love getting to know these young children and getting to see life through their eyes. It’s a gift to me when I get to be a part of these nuclear families, creating a new version of what an extended family looks like. One that extends beyond biological or legal relatives.
This brings me to the final way that I have been empowered to thrive in my life as a single person: being part of community that has realized “family” must be redefined. I believe the success of the church is tied to how well we learn to be extended families on mission—families that are connected through the Holy Spirit and a common mission to love a broken and hurting world in the name of Jesus.
I live with young women that I disciple in a house I own on a street filled with broken people. We all experience brokenness that only God can heal and thus we all live in neighborhoods and work in places where we must pray that God’s kingdom will come. My house of women and another house of women gather with three couples and their kids and live as an extended family on mission to love our neighborhood in the name of Jesus. Some of the moms mentor the young adults. The dads are constantly reaching out to the people in the margins of our neighborhood and encouraging the rest of us to participate with what God is doing.
People from all walks of life, from every age and life stage have the opportunity to thrive when they are a part of an extended family on mission. Such families are how God has chosen to be represented since the people of Israel. When you read through the book of Acts, families on mission were the vehicle for participation with God—the vehicle that started what we know to be the church.
We all have an opportunity to listen to those who are single in our community, to do our best to understand their life and calling. When we do so, we become people who can choose to empower rather than belittle, to include rather than marginalize.
I urge to you listen to those whose life experience is different than yours. That mutual understanding is how we can step toward becoming a family of God that includes and gives significance to all of God’s children.