Going into ministry stirred up feelings of joy at following through on God’s call for my life, but it also brought up concerns about potential challenges. Will the people I work with like me? Will they care about what I have to say? Will I be a good representative of Christ in my ministry or will I leave people with a skewed view of God? These basic questions are asked by most pastors and chaplains serving around the world today. Yet, there is a relatively small group of ministers that have further concerns about pastoral life. Who are these pastors? They are the unmarried men and women serving in ministry. You may not have seen or met many of us, but I guarantee we are out there.
Of course, some of the situations faced by single pastors and chaplains are common to all singles, but there is often another angle brought in by ministry. A challenge that tends to be universal to all uncoupled people is the pressure to find a spouse. I could illustrate this with many personal stories but I’ll share just one.
It was my last Sabbath at my local church before heading to the Seminary. I was giving my all, trusting God with the next three years of my life knowing it was a necessary step on the path to become an US Navy Chaplain Candidate. As I joined the line for a slice of my farewell cake, a church member pulled me aside. With a look of grave concern she stated, “You better not come back from Andrews unless you have a man with you.” I was dumbfounded. I did not know this woman particularly well, but I did know that she had been a single professional for several decades. Apparently being single in my 30s was okay when I was working as an accountant, but now that I was shifting to full-time ministry, it was no longer acceptable.
Once I could regain my speech, I looked her in the eye and smiled. “Thank you for your concern. I am going to Andrews to get my MDiv degree, not a MRS. I think I will be best served focusing on my studies rather than looking for a husband.” I grabbed my piece of cake and went on my way frustrated that now it was not just my family who felt obligated to comment on my personal life.
The universal pressure put on uncoupled people to find a spouse seems to permeate our society both inside and outside the Church. In my experience, there are those who do not feel comfortable with the idea of singleness—it is seen as a sign of dysfunction. This is especially common in regards to women; older single women are negatively referred to as “spinsters” while older single men are called the more neutral “bachelors.” Women without families are often called selfish or thought to have less value.
The pressure put on uncoupled people to find a spouse is especially strong when you are single in ministry. I have been asked countless times by church members and those I come in contact with in ministry why I am not married. The question is usually tinged with pity and the desire to find someone to help fix the “problem.” It can also be a major obstacle when offering marital and pre-martial counseling. If the minister is not in a romantic relationship then what right and experience does he or she have to contribute? Thus there can be pressure to be in a relationship in order to appear as a credible relationship counselor.
I do not see singleness as a problem to be fixed. The lack of a spouse allows me to focus the time and energy I would be spending on a romantic relationship on building up my relationship with God. It provides the opportunity to listen to God’s voice in the silences of home life. And as one of my fellow single pastors pointed out to me, it is a joy to serve as an example for younger (and not-so-younger) generations that happiness and fulfillment are not wrapped up in being in a relationship with another person.
The apostle Paul reminds us that contentment does not come from being one half of a couple, but from putting our trust in God in all circumstances (Phil 4:11-13). Additionally, because I am unmarried I find that I can connect with various groups easier—widow(er)s, divorcees, both young and senior singles, those with special physical or emotional needs, and those who are in need of friends. Children recognize me as an older sibling or a safe adult without the pressure of being seen to have parental authority. Even though I am the same age as some of their mothers, I have found kids to be more open with me concerning their feelings and problems than they might be with the parental adults. I feel blessed to walk beside those on the fringes of our church knowing that those most in need of God’s love may see a glimpse of that in me.
One of the biggest challenges for me personally as a single pastor and chaplain is the management of boundaries on my time. I am 100% responsible for the running of my household. There is only one salary and one person paying the bills, cooking, cleaning, shopping, and running errands. Since ministry is not a 9-5 job, these mundane daily tasks need to be wedged in when time allows. Taking two full days off each week is not practical. It is important for all pastors and chaplains to set some boundaries so that their schedules do not become too demanding. It is tempting to sacrifice self-care and boundaries when we are so wrapped up attending to the needs of others and the running of the church.
And yet a flexible schedule can also be a great benefit in ministry. Because there is no one expecting me home at a certain time or making demands on my schedule, I am often able to make myself available at off times when the need arises. An emergency meeting does not require any special arrangements. Early morning or evening visitations are not a problem. Having flexibility includes the ability to travel and not worry about how to care for those left behind or needing to entertain those coming with me. A single minister can also feel free to move as God is calling without any added anxiety about finding employment for a spouse or schooling for children. It should be noted that single parents constantly deal with the major challenge of good childcare as it can be hard to come by.
Additionally, ministry can be a very isolated and lonely career. Being single in ministry only compounds this. I have known of many single pastors who have suffered great loneliness when they left everything and everyone behind to accept a call to serve a new church. Single pastors and chaplains have a very limited local peer group. For example, I am one of two female pastors in my conference and the only single pastor.
Many of my other single pastor friends note that they are also in the minority and feel uncomfortable attending family focused ministerial retreats or other functions as one often feels left out and acutely aware of one’s singleness. Looking to church members to fill that loneliness may not always be a good idea. Pastors and chaplains have a certain governing authority that may unintentionally be taken advantage of and there might also be the temptation to share frustrations or information with a member-friend that really should be kept confidential. (I have found that my cat is great to talk to when I feel the need to share something that is not for public consumption. She rarely repeats gossip.)
Ironically, finding a good local peer group has become one of my greatest joys in ministry. My close friend network—my biggest source of support—is spread across the country. Without a live-in friend (as in the case of a spouse) or friend-generators (many adults will become friends with the parents of their children’s friends), intentionality is needed to make new friends. As an introvert, this can be a scary undertaking.
I made a particular effort to look outside the local church for friends when I moved into my district. What might this look like for you? It may mean that you reach out to other area pastors or become more involved in the community. Volunteering with a local food bank, joining a running group, and attending events at the local library are some great ways to meet and befriend people. I have met a wonderful group of women friends at the small gym at the end of my street. The class-focused workouts have allowed time for us to get to know each other. Not only am I connecting with members of my community, but I have even met some women who were familiar with the church. Just last week several of the women asked about coming to the church to see me the next time I preach. Their support has been a wonderful blessing as I work on building up my physical and emotional strength.
However, the real challenge and joy of being single in ministry comes down to learning to be content whatever your life may be. The calling of singleness may be for a season or it may be long term (1 Cor 7:7, 17). I have found that contentment is a by-product of the faith and trust in God’s plans; it is essential to survive and thrive in ministry.
Kristy L. Hodson is an associate pastor and campus chaplain for the Southern New England Conference
Reprinted from CALLED magazine
James and Ellen White also speak to the idea that some would do better to remain single in “Dealing with Those Overtaken in the Sin of Adultery.” The Review and Herald, March 24, 1868