Solo servant leadership: Single and in ministry

By Karin Gregory

A few days ago, I enjoyed lunch out with a friend after a Sunday worship service. My friend is a pastor. She is a woman. She is also single. Not surprisingly, as we talked about our lives and friendship, elements of these three life circumstances – single, woman, in ministry – appeared again and again. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about singles and ministry.

Keep in mind, I don’t mean, “How do we build a meaningful ministry to singles?” Nope – completely different topic! That’s an issue for other blogs and books dedicated to programming, evangelism and “the emerging relevant church.” I’m talking about ministry-when-the-servant-is-single.

Years ago, when most of us were single, sailing through that lovely phase of life after dorms and before mortgages, many of my circle were in seminary preparing for the pastorate. Some of us were already working in ministry settings. The running joke was that single/not-dating was a fine situation, even preferable when pressing hard into the MDiv studies. But the day after graduation, be sure to show up at that first church placement married, with two kids, one on the way, and a dog! It seemed people (and search committees) just preferred their pastors married.

But the times, they are a-changin’. The snapshot of Canada’s population captured by the 2016 census reveals that “for the first time in the country’s history, the number of one-person households has surpassed all other types of living situations. They accounted for 28.2 per cent of all households last year, more than the percentage of couples with children, couples without children, single-parent families, multiple family households and all other combinations of people living together.” And among those one-person households are clergy.

Typing variants of “single ministers” into the standard online search engine, I expected to unearth a treasure trove of well-authored articles examining the experiences of the unmarried pastor: How does singleness enhance ministry in the church? How does it hinder? What theological truths can we learn in the process? Instead – I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised – I received three full pages of dating sites, plus a few articles with tips for those looking to date single pastors.

“Disappointed” doesn’t begin to describe how I felt in that moment.

So, what does it mean to live in a marriage-shaped culture for we who labour solo in the Lord’s vineyard? How do we affirm pastoral and counselling roles that likely include other couples’ marital preparation and support, when we don’t enjoy that blessed union ourselves? Are we really ministering from a place of authentic adult life and experience, or are we occupying a weird sort of waiting room until we grow up? As single people, do we have to defend our ministry calling?

Following are a few truths we need to remember. I hope they will affirm the single clergy among us, and perhaps encourage married people to better appreciate the ministry experiences they had before saying “I do.”

“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” – Colossians 3:11

Paul could just as easily have included “single or married” in this list of status markers that have been swept away by the new, complete and eternal identity found in Christ. Married, single, Scythian or otherwise, our Christian distinctiveness rests completely in the character and work of Jesus.

Since that is true, it follows that being called and equipped to ministry does not hinge on marital status. In His fully human incarnation, Jesus submitted His divine self to be a servant (Philippians 2.6), and lived out that ministry as a single man with rich relationships. Peter was married. Paul was single. Priscilla and Aquila were marriage and ministry partners together. Whether single or married, each of these giants of the early Church chose to follow Jesus, and were used powerfully by God for the spreading of the Gospel. Single pastors and married ministers alike need to explore their fitness for ministry based on Scriptural principles, not lifestyle stages.

Keep in mind that singleness, like marriage, is a circumstance of earthly life only (Luke 20. 34-36). I recall an extremely robust discussion I once had with a fellow grad student who held a rather rigid definition of healthy Christian adulthood. He was fixed to the idea this could only be expressed by those in marriages with many children. I pointed out to him that (aside from the obvious example of Christ) the history of God’s people includes innumerable stories of amazing people who minister and teach the Gospel, and (perhaps for reasons of martyrdom, war, health, social conditions or other factors) remained unmarried and without children. Unfortunately, he could not fathom that a healthy adult could embrace living and ministering solo. Even more unfortunately, this man was a leader in his local congregation! The truth is singleness is no more a deficit of person or character than marriage is an indicator of mature spirituality.

For some, singleness may be a very specific calling from the Lord. For others, being unmarried may be an intentional lifelong choice. Still others may be single simply because circumstances have not afforded an opportunity for marriage. And while it may be that some may remain single for immature or selfish reasons, the same remains true of marriages.

It is important to realize that “single” is not the same as “solitary.” Single people serving the Gospel enjoy a variety of meaningful relationships with people, including other singles, married persons, couples and whole families. Real ministry happens within the context of relationships, and single pastors are as capable of experiencing and contributing to relationships as any married clergy might.

Single pastors are well aware that being solo in Christian ministry brings with it both benefits and challenges. For an unmarried pastor, benefits include flexibility of time, freedom to make independent decisions and priorities, and the ability to devote uninterrupted time to study or ministry events. Also beneficial can be the availability of time and energy for pastoral visitation that married clergy may no longer have. A single pastor may find it less challenging than her/his married counterpart when considering a change of employment since accepting a call to a different, and sometimes distant, community is not nearly as complicated without the additional factors of a spousal employment or children’s school enrollments. Not to be overlooked is the simple truth that solo clergy enjoy dinner invitations, take home doggie bags, and appreciate restaurant meals out at a rate far beyond that which married pastors might enjoy – with or without kids!

At the same time, single ministers of the Gospel have to be very careful that personal freedom does not morph into entitlement or licence, pitfalls that a married pastor’s spouse is much more likely to recognize and address in their context. In the same manner, solo church servants speak openly of the challenges imposed by not having anyone to share specific burdens with. Congregational needs and life can be extremely demanding and, in difficult situations, unmarried pastors may struggle with the absence of a confidant that wedded clergy can count on.

I do not posit that unmarried clergy are better than married clergy, or that either state is more suited to the calling of ministry than the other. The Church needs to affirm the equal role unmarried servant leaders have alongside their married counterparts while also recognizing their unique strengths and weaknesses. No one is better suited to the call of ministry because of their relationship status. The basic truth is we who are called to ministry find our identity first and foremost in Jesus Christ.

Let us, then, follow the diverse example of the early Church and celebrate our gifts regardless of whether or not we have a ring on our finger and children in our home, setting an example for our congregants and the world around us that our lives find meaning and purpose not in our lifestyles, but in the salvation and redemption we find at the Cross!


Karin Gregory is the director of counselling at Focus on the Family Canada.

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