“So, are you married?”
It’s a question I am often asked. And while this is a common question many receive regardless of their career field, it can often produce awkward responses for clergy like myself who are single.
The first response I typically get after I am asked this question when I am guest preaching at a church is “don’t worry, there still is time.” This is my favorite response as I believe many people think one must find their soul mate by a certain date or age. Yet, while I take questions about my singleness in stride, for many other single clergy, having their relationship status brought up by parishioners in conversation can be a sensitive subject.
“What my husband did for a living and asking how old were my children were the first questions my parishioners asked when they met me,” a friend of mine (who is a single, 54-year-old woman) recently told me. “Needless to say, they looked disappointed when I told them I had no children and was not married.”
While there are more second career individuals becoming pastors later in life than before, there are also more unmarried or divorced individuals in ordained ministry than previous generations. While I applaud this new trend of diversity in ministry, the reality can also be hard for single ministers who are more inclined to feel isolated and lonely in their call. And sadly, while many churches may be open to having an unmarried person as their pastor, many churches have a hard time giving up the fantasy of calling a young pastor (with a baby in hand!) who will enter their church with an equally enthusiastic spouse and together, their young family will save their church by bringing in “the young people.”
Another friend of mine, a 35-year-old woman who is a pastor of a small rural church, shared her painful story about not only being single in ministry, but also being divorced. She said one of the most difficult days in her life was telling her congregation that she and her husband (who came with her to her church) were divorcing. While she said her small and mostly older congregation supported her through her divorce, it was the snide comments from parishioners that caused her to feel hurt – including one woman who said she was sad there was not going to be young children in the manse.
“It’s a lot worse for women pastors,” she told me. “While there may be an expectation that you are married with children if you’re a man, parishioners tend to think there is something wrong with you if you’re a single pastor and are a woman.”
While it’s my hope that churches will be increasingly open-minded in calling single pastors, its also my hope that mainline denominations will create resources and communities for clergy who are single, especially since doing ministry can be lonely and isolating.
One way I already am already seeing this done is through Facebook groups for single ministers who support and encourage one another. For example, one group includes pastors of different mainline denominations across the country who share funny stories about trying to date while in ministry. Other places, pastors share painful confessions of how hard it can be to officiate a wedding when you are single — especially if you are a divorced pastor.
As our American society begins to have a greater population of adults who are single than married, its important to remember that while our ministries need to do more to include single people, we also need to do more to support our single pastors. While resources and connections can be tremendously helpful from a denominational level, parishioners reaching out to their single pastor during holidays and birthdays can mean more than anything else.
After all, no matter what our relationship status may say on Facebook, God call us to be in relationship with each other.
Christopher Schilling is a 2013 graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary. Currently, he is a candidate for ministry in the Presbytery of the Redwoods in Northern California. Christopher is also a freelance journalist, creative writer and has a passion for the outdoors, running, radio broadcasting and cars.