Single Pastor Life

I admit I’m a rather curious figure in Protestant circles, and doubly so for evangelical Christians in the rural Bible Belt of the South/Appalachia. Before I took a pulpit, a standard question of introduction people posed to me was “So, are you married?” Now that people know me as the minister of that church beside the funeral home, the question has morphed into “How many kids do you have?” Spot the difference? There’s a fundamental assumption being made, an inherent correlation between ordination status and marital status. “You are clergy; ergo, you are married.” One exchange with another local pastor (younger than me) ran something like this:

“So, how many kids do you have?”
“None. Not being married, I didn’t think it a good idea.”
His eyes widen as he literally takes a step back from me. “You’re . . . not married?”
Now looking at me like I had the plague: “But you’re the pastor? The senior minister?”
“Yup. I know I’m a rarity.”
“Well, yeah, but . . . I mean, when I was a youth pastor, I wasn’t married, but before I got my own church, I made sure I got a wife!”

I think I took it calmly, all things considered. Especially since this wasn’t the first time I’d had this conversation with someone. Somehow I don’t think it’ll be my last, either.

After all, my friend’s (and he is a friend) thinking is the common logic of most evangelical churches. Marriage is a qualification, a prerequisite, for ministry. Some churches take the “husband of one wife” criterion to a legalistic extreme along these lines. Many job openings for ministry positions list “married” as a job requirement. I couldn’t even apply to those. Of some I did apply for back in the day, I received emails saying, “Hey, we love your resume, you seem like a great fit, send us a family photo.” I never heard from any of them again after sending them a picture containing only myself. I watched more than a few interviewers find excuses to cut things short after I responded in the negative when asked “Are you married,” a question perfectly legal and acceptable in church hiring practices. (Corporate world, eat your heart out.)

But if finding a church willing to take a risk on a single minister was hard, let me tell you, doing the job while unwed is even harder. Every “president” needs a first lady, so to speak, and the jobs normally assigned to the long-suffering preacher’s wife must still be done — in this case mostly by me. The church is short a guaranteed volunteer, I recruit members and deacons to accompany me on visits, I routinely fail to get things made in time for potlucks, people with marriage problems are wary about speaking with me because I wouldn’t understand since I’m a bachelor . . . the list goes on. Then, after a 70-ish hour workweek, I come home to manage my household by my onesie (savvy?), doing all cooking/cleaning/administrative tasks myself.

It ain’t easy.

Now, let’s be realistic. Marriage isn’t a panacea. I don’t get out of my share of chores because I have someone else to help with them. She may work long hours, too, and let’s avoid the gender roles argument by saying one of us will have to cook but it could still be me. (I enjoy cooking, though, so there’s that, too.) No one can magically fill every need in a church or a home simply by virtue of being the preacher’s wife. It’s also both unfair and rather reprehensible to view a spouse in terms of utility, so let’s abandon that line of thought altogether.

Regardless, things aren’t horrible. I get things done, and my domicile has the reputation of always smelling like Pine-Sol (even if I don’t get to clean as much as I’d like). My church does something every church should do, and that’s make singles feel included (or at least I think we do). No one has ever disparaged my singleness, and I know of several members who have defended it to others. I’m still included socially outside of the church, and I’m friends with couples who don’t mind my third-wheeling (or who are too polite to say otherwise). This is my home, and that doesn’t change just because it’s currently single-occupancy and we can’t talk about Mrs. Preacher’s casseroles.

How about it, fellow unicorns? Is your absent wedding band a help or hindrance in your own ministry contexts?


Modern Families

I’m not generally one for making alarmist, apocalyptic statements worthy of a Hollywood voice-over, but indulge me just this once:

The year is 2016, and the family lies in ruins.

Perhaps a more accurate statement is that the traditional two-parent family is in ruins. Or the traditional two-parent-family-with-both-parents-of-all-the-children-still-being-united-in-a-heterosexual-marriage-type-of-family is in ruins. I don’t want to denigrate or deride families of other compositions. A family is a family, regardless of how it came to be. Stepparents often fill in the gaps left by birth parents in ways which far surpass the biological progenitors. Adopted children are loved every bit as much as those sharing the DNA of the adults in the family. These can be wonderful, beautiful things.

What I lament, however, is the absolute lack of significance granted to the family unit itself.

We all know the numbers. Over half of all first marriages end in divorce, and that percentage skyrockets when you get to second marriages, third marriages, and beyond. Why? No-fault divorce, mainly. Again, there are legitimate reasons for divorce, but most marriages today don’t end because of abandonment or abuse (the growing rate of adultery will be discussed later). They end simply because one spouse wakes up one morning, looks at the other spouse, and thinks, I don’t love you anymore. The concept of love as a choice is foreign to most people, particularly Millennials (my generation) and younger. The “for better and for worse” in their marriage vows (themselves taken lightly) means only the first half when actually put into practice. Contemporary society redefined marriage long before any court did, trading a sacrament of sanctification serving as the basis for a family for an agreement of convenience designed to make me (and only me) happy. Since no one can provide 24/7 bliss to another human being, people feel like their marriages aren’t what they signed up for — which they’re not, really — and tear up the contract.

But the rise of divorce is only part of the equation. Most people my age and younger don’t even marry, or, if they do, will live together first. The biblically accepted order to arrive at a family is 1) get married, 2) move in together, 3) have sex, 4) have babies. Nowadays the process is practically inverted: 1) have sex, 2) move in together, 3)have babies, 4) get married. The marriage is the result of societal pressure to become a legal family in the advent of pregnancy or birth of a child. (We used to call those “shotgun weddings” and typically frowned on them.) Marriage is viewed as unnecessary since you can enjoy some of the benefits (e.g. sex, companionship) without the commitment. (We’re a commitment-phobic society, really.) Some never marry the parent of their child — sometimes for good reasons, admittedly, but sometimes not.

The same logic spurring the rise of cohabitation has fueled a rise in adultery. “If my marriage isn’t sexually satisfying, I have the right to look elsewhere for that satisfaction,” they say, “since marriage is about my personal happiness anyway.” That’s just the basic, no-frills model of infidelity. But many marriages are “open,” meaning both spouses are free to sleep with whomever, whenever. Swingers are married couples who get together to sleep with each other’s spouses. Some (far from all, but some) bisexual people are permitted by their spouses to have sex with a member of the same sex since that’s a desire and means to happiness they, of the opposite sex, can’t fulfill. Or they invite the desired person to a ménage à trois. I was getting a haircut this week, and one stylist was telling another she (the other) needed to get back together with her ex. “But I’m with Y now!” “Is that the baby daddy?” “Yeah, and we’re married!” “Well he’s not as good for you as X is.” (You can imagine the awkward lull in conversation after they discovered what I do for a living.) But even that becomes acceptable when marriage is only about happiness — and so is sex. Then you have pornography use and its ilk, which for all intents and purposes is infidelity, too. Promiscuity among married folk: it may not be something new under the sun, but our acceptance of it and lack of guilty/shame concerning it certainly seem to be.

All of that to say: without a proper view of marriage, the family never stood a chance. Children are shuttled between custodial parents. Kids are effectively raised having two lives and, frequently, four or more “parents” and an abundance of step- and half-siblings, any one of whom may be gone at any given time to be with his/her other parent. No stability, nothing solid. Only change and shifting sands. Little wonder so many children have behavioral problems. Others have a stable home, but with only one parent or with their grandparents (birth parents optional). Beyond even the kids, though, is civilization itself. Can we thrive in an anything-goes world where no one has a sense of permanence even about their marriage, their identity, and/or their family role?

Well, enough complaining. What can we as Christians do about it? Here’s my less-than-comprehensive list of ten suggestions.

  1. Love everyone regardless of their family make-up or lifestyle.
  2. Teach, preach, and maintain the biblical ideals concerning marriage, sex, and the family.
  3. Offer support groups for victims of divorce, including children (and adult children of divorce).
  4. Offer support to single-parent families. Make them feel welcome and help them get involved in the church as you help out with things they may need done at home.
  5. Provide support for grandparents raising their grandchildren. Help out at home, babysit, provide support groups for the grandparents and activities for the children to allow the grandparents some much-needed time off.
  6. Become advocates for adoption and support families with adopted children.
  7. Provide marital counseling to those in danger of divorce while encouraging proper responses to abuse and neglect.
  8. Connect hurting families to healthy families in your church for fellowship, mentoring, and listening ears.
  9. Offer programs on marriage and family to children and youth to show them healthy, biblical relationships and standards before they learn unhealthy behaviors elsewhere.
  10. Know the resources available to families in your community (counselors, pregnancy crisis centers, etc.).
  11. Bonus: Pray.

These things won’t magically solve the problems of modern families, but they may make a difference in your own corner of the world. God established marriage and family. It’s our job to fight for them.

Let’s Hug Dating Hello

I come from the generation that kissed dating goodbye, as one rather popular book chose to phrase it. Christian teens and young adults everywhere opted to forgo traditional dating and just wait for “The One.” This meant dating would only be permissible among those who had intent to marry, as it were. As some still say, dating without the intention of getting married simply robs someone of their spouse for an indeterminate amount of time. And so casual dating was out; “I’m having my first date tonight with my future husband” was in.

Few relationships could withstand that sort of initial pressure. To place that kind of expectation in a relationship at the outset before you even truly know if you’d enjoy marriage to the other person . . . well, it has caused many a relationship to fail. I mean, dating is a way to get to know someone for who they are, not a way to immediately size up one’s marriage potential. I should be married to you to know you as my spouse; dating is the pathway, the vehicle to get that far. It’s the time for getting to know you, getting to know all about you — not a time for naming the kids or picking the color of the kitchen curtains.

All of that — the waiting, the learning — was deliberately kicked to the curb by my generation — by the Christians of my generation, specifically. The others aided the rise of our contemporary hookup culture, thereby also abandoning dating qua dating. If the only options were “God told me to marry you” and “Wanna come back to my place?” it’s little wonder things evolved into our current mess.

And a fine mess it is, too. Real dates, real romance seem to be non-existent. You’re on a date? Because it looks surprisingly like “let’s stare at our phones while in close proximity to each other.” No interaction with each other, no learning about the other and falling in love with the cute freckles on her nose (because you’re not even looking at each other). Just a passive co-existence near one another facilitated by technology. Of course, I have to be fair: there’s the opposite extreme of one’s level of interaction, the notorious (and infamous) “Netflix and chill.” Which, oddly enough, seems to involve a minimum of Netflix and practically zero “chill.”

What more can we expect of a culture where people meet by swiping right (left? up?) on a smartphone app or after a cursory glance at an online profile? We’ve lost our intentionality in even looking for someone to date; why should we expect any higher degree of purpose or deliberate action during the pursuit itself? It’s a bit sickening to watch the average guy treat the average girl (and vice versa) like a product in a shop window, someone who is so much more than a thumbnail image on the Internet. And there’s no desire to date an online construct, especially when so many of them are available.

You may think I’m just jaded since the traditional dating methods have failed me. I am, after all, a single male without a girlfriend who is weeks away from turning thirty. You can point to my failed relationships, including a failed engagement, and say, “This guy is just bitter. He’s stuck in the past because that’s the only game he knows how to play.”

Well, no. I just believe that to see another human is to look upon someone bearing the image of God. I think it means to see Christ in them. It’s not some sort of utilitarian pleasure calculus. It’s about recognizing the other for who they are, caring enough about them to want to get to know them sans agenda, and to treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve.

So maybe we should hug dating hello again.