I have wanted to write a blog post about singleness in the Christian life for a long time. I believe in marriage; indeed, I think that the church overemphasized celibacy in its early and medieval periods. Nevertheless, I have a special place in my heart for single people—and especially for single ministers. I was one for a long time, and I know the perils and the promise of serving Jesus solo.
The Perils of Singleness
It is difficult being single. There are, of course, the obvious sexual struggles; you long for intimacy, both physical and otherwise, and those longings must remain dormant if you are to retain your integrity as a follower of Jesus. Many don’t succeed in completely controlling this aspect of their lives, and they are left with guilt and shame as the residue of their failures.
But there are other struggles. Everything is harder when you do it by yourself, whether it be paying for graduate school, planning for the future, or just making a meal. Worst of all, people look at you like you are defective. It is incredibly hard for single ministers in free-church settings to get hired, and even positions of lay leadership can be hard to obtain.
Of course, I can explain this social scientifically. People form prototypes in their head of what a functional Christian leader is supposed to look like. They do it without even thinking about it, and, most of the time, these prototypes involve a wife and kids. The fact that I could explain it, though, was little comfort to me when I was single. And I suspect that it is little comfort now to the single people reading this post.
The Promise of Singleness
Humans are experiential learners, so there is no doubt that that single adults will struggle to understand some aspects of married life. But that does not mean that they have nothing to contribute to the body of Christ. Following Jesus is about more than healthy marriages and happy kids. Besides, you might be surprised what they do understand. The best relationship advice I ever got was from a woman who has never been married.
So what advantages are there to being single? For one thing, single adults can devote themselves to the service of God’s people in a way that people with families simply cannot do. Paul told us this in 1 Corinthians 7, and I have seen it lived out by a friend of mine who was a single, Methodist pastor for a while. What he lacked in “real-world experience” he made up for in devotion, sincerity, and compassion.
Single people also learn, in a special way, how to depend on Jesus. Believe me, when you come home to an empty apartment—again—you learn to put your trust and your hope in Christ. And you experience his providence in a way that, perhaps, most people who married young do not.
Single people also have the opportunity to gain some perspective on sexuality, marriage, and family life. Singles have the opportunity to watch, from a relatively objective vantage-point, the struggles experienced by their dating and married friends, and, hopefully, they learn from the mistakes made by their peers. Perhaps just as importantly, they have the opportunity to consider whether and how our society and our churches overvalue sex. There is nothing like deprivation to make one aware of the all-pervasive sensuality that characterizes our culture.
What Churches Can Do
So what can your church do to help single Christians live a more joyful, more fulfilling life? And how can your church benefit from the unique experiences and perspectives of its single members? I can think of three things.
- Be realistic. Without compromising the standards and values that are given to us in Scripture, be realistic about what you expect of your single members. Provide singles a safe place to share their struggles. Help them be honest about ways in which they have failed to live up to God’s standards (if they have) by not freaking out when they confess their struggles. Instead, encourage them to keep up the fight for integrity, and pray for them as they face struggles that you may never have encountered.
- Be supportive. We all need praise for the things we do well and encouragement when we fall short. Singles are no exception. Create a loving, supportive environment where singles are encouraged to pursue the dreams that God has placed in their hearts. Listen to their ideas, and make sure that they know they have support when things get rough.
- Be proactive. Don’t throw the resumes of single leaders in the trash can. Empower them to serve and lead your church with the gifts, time, and energy that God gives them.