On Being The Single In Ministry

Graham introduced a number of salient questions on the issue of singleness, family and ministry, all of which merit careful thought.

I would like to address this from the viewpoint of singleness in vocational ministry. Graham asked: “do we see an unconscious or conscious bias towards clergy having to be married?” As someone currently serving on a search team for a new lead pastor in our church (and someone reading a lot about the process), I observe a fairly strong bias in favor of married candidates. It seems to me that some of the reasons married candidates might be perceived as better are:

1) they are seen as better able to relate to congregants (the majority of whom are married themselves),

2) sexual temptation is (or should be) less of an issue for them if they are married, and

3) they are seen as more socially stable than their unmarried counterparts.

With respect to 1) and 2), I am personally of the opinion that there is no reason that married ministers are necessarily better able to relate to married congregants (just as there’s no necessary reason that younger ministers are necessarily better able to relate to younger congregants – the question is how good are they relationally, more than how similar they are experientially). Nor do I think that married candidates are necessarily less tempted sexually than the unmarried. Life experience tells me otherwise.

Both of those biases reveal a presumption that the singles are single because they are somehow lacking in communication skills or fidelity in comparison with their unmarried brothers; a presumption which does not rightly honour the Holy Spirit’s gifting and sanctifying of all believers.

With regard to the third issue – that unmarried (male) candidates are seen as riskier hires – it has been my experience that single men in ministry often catch the attention of women in the congregation as being potential marriage material – a factor which admittedly does complicate the pastor-congregation relationship. I think that single men in ministry, being visible Christ-like leaders who often demonstrate emotional sensitivity far beyond that of their peers, become very attractive to women seeking godly partners. Certainly: there’s a “risk” that hiring a single pastor might well invite the eager attention of some who want to change his status to “married”. And, for the single person in ministry, there’s the problem of “dating in a fishbowl”, where the entire community becomes invested and interested in your relationships in a way which can interfere with the work of ministry and makes dating feels really awkward.

However, what I think underlies this problem is something which I faced as a single person in vocational ministry for over ten years – and that is that the community is often overly interested in the relationship status of their single ministers, and does not respect their privacy or personal space. People give married ministers space in a way which they do not grant single ministers. A married minister can decline attending an event, saying that “he has to spend time with his family”, and that reason is accepted without question (and celebrated for its healthy boundaries) by a church community.

However, a single person in ministry often has a harder time creating boundaries for personal time. It can be harder to just meet with a friend for coffee (without a well-meaning church member asking if this is a “significant” friendship). It can be harder to say no to an event because you just need a night at home on the couch.

For me, it was something of a relief to transition from being a single person in ministry to getting married, because somehow people backed off a little once I had a ring on my finger, and the line between my private life and public ministry became that much easier to discern.