Confessions of a (Still) Single Pastor
What to do with those who don’t fit in
For me, the church has been a great place to be single! I’ve loved every minute of it.
OK, that last sentence wasn’t entirely true. I still remember the pain I felt years ago when the gossip came back to me that one of the deacons, who, well, let’s just say he questioned my sexual orientation. (I never thought to ask, but if I had been married or divorced, he probably wouldn’t have offered that opinion.)
A conference official once told me they had tried to place me in a few churches, but when the locals learned I was single, they decided they didn’t want me. That didn’t feel too good. But there was no sense in fighting it. This is God’s territory. In time, other congregations that were less concerned about a pastor who didn’t fit the traditional family-profile stereotype became available.
After years of ministry in three different conferences and a variety of churches, I can honestly say that the church has been a great place to be single!
Here I have made lifelong friends and worked together on Vacation Bible Schools, youth ministries, campus outreach, personnel committees, a church building project, mission trips, Pathfinders, health ministries, evangelistic meetings, camp meetings, Adventist education, and, yes, sometimes even marriage counseling.
I have met older people who welcomed me into their hearts and families. Here I can hug Julia, Naomi, Josephine, Martin, and Velma—all ninetysomethings—who still find their way to church each week to share their love and worship of the mighty God.
I have poured my life into encouraging and leading young people who have become like adopted kids to me. I have put my arms around members young and old who have lost loved ones in death. I have cried with them at the graveside, and with them have remembered the hope of the resurrection. I have dedicated their babies and sat with them through grim times in the hospital. Together we walk through financial challenges, the struggles of child-raising, car accidents, sagas of infidelity, mental health struggles, decisions for baptisms, and what color carpet to choose.
As a single person I am profoundly grateful for the contribution that healthy marriages have made in my life and in the congregations I’ve served. I have fond memories of families that have welcomed me to their lives and homes, starting with the first church, where I went as a lonely youth pastor fresh out of college. That family took me in and treated me like one of their kids. I was only a few years older than their four kids, and the love and energy of that family was a strength to the church and a source of happiness to me. I knew I could show up at their place anytime, talk about plans for a youth activity, have lunch, work on my car, or just hang out. As a single person I thank God for marriages and homes like that!
I often refer to the congregation that I presently serve as our “church family.” Some churches are more that way than others, but that aspect of the body of Christ has always been particularly precious to me.
When my parents died a decade ago, it became even more wonderful to have support within my community of faith. When my only brother died last summer, I would have faced a much greater sense of isolation had it not been for the compassion and understanding of a loving church family.
I’ve never made a point of saying that being single is the better way to go. I’ve never preached a sermon on that topic. I’ve just chosen to make that question a nonissue. If people want to talk to me about it, I’ll talk. If not, I don’t have to bore them with the details. I am a great fan and supporter of marriage . . . and of being single.
Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to speak at events for singles. When I do, my message is this: be happy and find fulfillment in your life as a single person. That’s the best way to prepare yourself for the possibility of a relationship that might lead to marriage. But don’t think that finding Mr. or Mrs. Right is going to install the “happiness software” in your life. People who are unhappily single probably wouldn’t be happy while in marriage.
Being single has its problems; so does being married. I know, because people tell me so. People in stable marriages have disappointments as well as joys. Sometimes the joy seems bigger, and sometimes the disappointments do.
Years ago I was speaking with a member who was older than I was. Somehow we got on the topic of marriage. After we had talked awhile, she smiled and said, “If I had it to do over again, I think I’d do it the way you did,” meaning she would stay single. I never fish for lines like that. But I listen, and try to understand, and sometimes a sad truth emerges.
When I think of unmarried people in our congregation, it seems that for many of them the church is a good place to be single. We have single guys who hang out together in a small group for inspiration and fellowship. I know a single woman, and some of her female friends, who are “single at church” because they are married to men who have no interest in religion.
On the other hand, I know single people who feel very isolated at church. I go out of my way to talk to them and make them feel welcome. lf you are shy and single, and you come to a church where you have no family, history, or friends from the past, the church can be a lonely place. Often single adults feel as if they are the odd one out in a community in which marriage is considered the ideal.
A word to singles persons who aren’t experiencing a sense of belonging: don’t give up, even if you don’t feel as though you are part of the inner circle; try to find some way to make a contribution to the church. Bring flowers. Bring cookies or crayons for the kids. See if there are any shut-ins to visit. See if a single mom needs to have the oil changed in her car. Tell the pastor if you can volunteer. Pray that God will show you how to encourage someone else whose path may be more difficult than your own.
Single in Scripture
As I read the Bible, I get the impression that being married and being single are both good options for followers of Jesus. The stories from the Gospels are significant on this point, because it is interesting how little we know about the marital status of most of the disciples.
In the body of Christ there is plenty of room for those who are single and those who are married. In the garden God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). A few thousand years later Jesus told His disciples, “If someone can handle being single, let ’em go for it” (see Matt. 19:10-12).
From Jesus’ perspective, the church is His most valuable possession. He designed it to be a harbor of welcome for those who are wed and those who are unwed. His design was good, because to this day the church is still a great place to be, no matter what our marital status might be.
Ross Calkins has been senior pastor of the Bellflower Seventh-day Adventist Church for 26 years.