On my last Sunday in my first appointment, my family drove to attend my last church service there and to accompany me on my move to a new city. After worship, several members approached my parents with well wishes and compliments. However, a few well-intentioned church members expressed a troubling sentiment along the lines of, “We’ve loved having your daughter as our pastor, and we were so worried when she was announced because she was so young and single.”
When this message was relayed to me, I was shocked for several reasons. This church was known as a church that welcomed female pastors; when I left they requested the cabinet send another female pastor! They were loving and accepting of me from my first Sunday (and I’m sure some of my early sermons required some grace on their part). I had no idea that they had concerns, not about my calling, experience, or abilities, but about my marital status.
Since then, I have served churches of various sizes, in different districts and vastly different communities, but despite their differences, I have heard whispers of concern about my singleness at each. I am no longer shocked by these comments, but I continue to struggle to understand the reticence of Christian communities to welcome a single pastor.
There are notable single leaders in the Bible: Jeremiah, Paul, many of the disciples, John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, and of course, Jesus. Paul lifts up singleness as the preferred way of life for Christians in his first letter to the church at Corinth. Paul wishes, in chapter seven, that all Christians could be like him and remain single, but if one cannot practice self-control, it is better to marry. The New Testament models a new type of community that is not based on biological connections or marriage, but is based on our commitment to Jesus. Despite all the strong biblical examples of singleness, often the church continues to view unmarried people as odd, immature, or someone to be pitied.
Our attitude toward single people leads to behaviors that compromise our evangelism efforts. About 57% of millennials have never been married, and 35% of unmarried millennials do not plan to marry.
Gen Z will likely continue this trend of having lower rates of marriage than previous generations. If the church is not welcoming to singles and supportive of their lifestyle, we will not be able to reach younger generations, a demographic with whom the UMC already struggles to connect.
Never married adults are a growing demographic, and they are a group that is looking for community. The United Methodist Church should focus more on reaching single adults in order to make new disciples. To reach new single people, one of the things we must do is follow Wesley’s rule to “do no harm” by avoiding hurtful comments and actions. I do not believe many of the negative attitudes and comments toward single people are intentional. Even intentionally helpful comments can drive single, divorced, and widowed Christians away from the church.
Here are some ways to welcome single people into your church.
First, singles groups are great, but many churches do not have enough single people to form a small group or Sunday School class. In these cases, be sure to invite single people to join couples their age instead of having events and groups that are only open to married people. When you form these groups with married and single people, avoid names like Pairs and Spares; single people aren’t spare tires! Single people, especially younger singles without children, often travel for work, to visit family, or for recreation on the weekends. Offer weeknight activities so that single people can regularly participate in the life of the church. Do not assume singles without children are not interested in volunteering with children and youth ministries. Help them to find a way to contribute to the church.
Do not offer to set up your single pastor (or a single layperson) with another single church or family member. This creates an awkward situation for that person. Avoid comments like, “God has someone picked out for you,” “I’m sure the right person is around the corner,” etc. This may not be true; many people are lifelong singles. It also presumes that marriage is the only life path instead of one of several options. Many people are happily single and do not want any pity from their church family. When in doubt, it is usually better not to comment on someone’s personal life.
In the Bible we see different types of families lifted up: married couples, never married people, and widows. As the church, we should imitate the model we see in scripture by welcoming all families, whether they have one or 10 members.
-From an Arkansas Conference clergy member