Monday, March 28, 2011

Singleness in ministry and transition

Pastoral transition made the NY Times again-- this time, talking about how difficult it is for a single man to find a call as a pastor.

A long time ago, I blogged briefly about a couple of struggles that singles might face (see "Singleness AND Carelessness?"); my aim, however, was not to fortify the underlying rationale that makes it difficult for singles in ministry, but to point it out as something that singles would be wise to be aware of. According the the Times piece, these difficulties still remain-- and if anything, they are getting stronger.

The article focuses on Mark Almlie, a pastor (age 37, never married) who is ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church and has experience as a pastor. Mr. Almlie, who has also written on this topic for Christianity Today's popular blog Out of Ur (Are We Afraid of Single Pastors? and part two) argues that, biblically, singleness is equal, if not preferable, to marriage as a quality in a future pastor:

Our married pastors need to preach the goodness of singleness in accord with 1 Corinthians 7 (consider emailing this post to your senior pastor). Denominations should write position papers affirming singleness as equally biblical as marriage. And pastoral search committees need to stop listing marriage as a requirement in their job applications.

Finally, prominent Evangelicals concerned about the importance of marriage need to avoid obscuring the importance of singleness. Albert Mohler (President of the Southern Baptist Seminary) recently wrote: “From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible assumes that marriage is normative for human beings.”1 The Bible makes no such assumption. In 1 Corinthians 7, for instance, Paul argues that both marriage and singleness are normative for Christians.[ref.]

I don't disagree that singleness has its own dignity, nor that Paul is arguing that singleness has its advantages when it comes to ministry; in my own experience, I remember being a single Youth Pastor and reveling in my freedom to devote as much time as I wanted to my ministry pursuits (and, likewise, reflecting some years later on how marriage could sometimes require turning aside from ministry for family matters, and seeing the validation of Paul's argument). Neither do I disagree that the church in general has done a disservice to singles, and made them to feel like second-class members. I'm certain that I have participated in that, in spite of my heightened sensitivity from my sister's long-time singleness.

But I don't fully agree with Mr. Almlie's exegesis of 1 Corinthians 7; I don't believe that Paul is arguing (contra a huge chunk of the rest of Scripture) that singleness is equal to marriage and normative for a believer. Frankly, I think he takes that point too far, and perhaps discredits himself in so doing. While some Christians are obviously single, and while this shouldn't leave them without a sense of belonging or place in the community of Christ's church, Scripture does teach that marriage is normative. If marriage is normative, then singleness cannot be-- for they are clear opposites.

However, he has a solid point when it comes to the biblical rationale (or total absence of one) for excluding singles as viable candidates for a given pastoral position. And I think Mr. Almlie's points to that end are solid and valuable:

The bottom line is that it is not about being single or married. It’s about being called and gifted by the Spirit to minister to people both like and unlike us (race, gender, marital status, etc). I plead with search committees everywhere to reflect on the implications of 1 Corinthians 7 before overlooking your next single pastoral candidate. They deserve to be evaluated on their excellence, not their marital status.[ref.]

What's interesting is just how uniformly pervasive this problem is. In all of the church profiles and other documentation concerning what sort of candidates a congregation will consider-- in all of the ones that I have seen-- I can't remember ever seeing one that checked single as a preference, or even that indicated no preference. All of them indicate a desire for a married man, and most prefer "married with children".

Some of this is due to poor biblical exegesis: verses such as 1 Timothy 3:2, which speaks of an Elder being a "one-woman man" (as a fairly literal translation) leave many with the assumption that the prescriptive texts about the qualifications of officers require that he be married. This rules out widows, also-- can you envision a man stepping down as pastor solely because his wife passed away? Oh, and it also rules out Paul and Jesus.

Some of it is due to really lame reasons and excuses offered by inconsistent thinking and irrational fear. Mr. Almlie testifies to his own experience here:

When I press people on why they think single pastors are treated with suspicion, 99 percent of the time I get a list of fears rather than actual evidence:
“What if he’s gay?”
“What if he flirts with all the single women at church?”
“What if he tries to steal a married woman for himself?”
“There must be something wrong with him because he’s single.”
“Aren’t single pastors more likely to molest our children?”[ref.]

Ironically, as Matt Steen (another single pastor) points out, all of these can be struggles for married men, just as much as for single men. "Many interviewers seemed to fear that he might 'do something stupid, like get involved with a student,' he said. 'I told them that I understand the concern, but that I’ve seen married pastors make the same mistakes.'”[ref.]

Some of the problem is due, sadly, to a notion that a married pastor is a "two-for-one" bargain, and an unrealistic model for congregations. Witness the example I posted about a few months ago: "Wife to Assist". From the Times piece again: “Sometimes, parishioners have an unspoken preference for a happily married male with a wife who does not work outside the home,” Cynthia Woolever, research director at U.S. Congregations, wrote in a 2009 article. “She also volunteers at the church while raising ‘wholesome and polite children.’ ”[ref.]

Whatever the root, it's a problem that needs to be rooted out. Search Committees, take note!

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