March 27, 2011

The Single Pastor

Death and taxes are only two of life's certainties. There are others.

For instance, if a tornado hits Oklahoma, network reporters will invariably seek out video of the person with the strongest Okie twang and the worst grammar to share their tornado survival story on the national news.While our hearts go out to anyone who has been so traumatized, I have to tell you, we always wonder why they never seem to be able to find any articulate tornado victims to interview. Believe me, there are plenty of articulate people who have survived tornadoes.

Another certainty? Whenever evangelical churches do something questionable, The New York Times will not only write about it, but they will go out of their way to include a quote from Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. It's also fairly certain that whatever Dr. Mohler says will make me cringe.

Not surprisingly, it is Mohler's quotes on singleness that most try my patience. It was an article in The New York Times this past week that reminded me of how much I hate to hear the man's thoughts on the subject. The article, Unmarried Pastor, Seeking a Job, Sees Bias, centers on Mark Almlie, and evangelical pastor who has been out of work for 2 years.

Almlie, who has years of experience behind him, says he has responded to more than 500 job postings. Some churches reply and request more information, but never contact him again once they learn he is single.

He believes there is a bias against single pastors, and I think his point is valid.

The Times reported that Dr. Mohler said it was unfair to accuse churches of discrimination because that word implied something “wrongful.”

Um, yeah.  That would be the point, Al.  It is wrongful.

The article continues with Dr. Mohler's thoughts. “Both the logic of Scripture and the centrality of marriage in society,” he said, justify “the strong inclination of congregations to hire a man who is not only married but faithfully married.”

Seriously? I'm willing to concede that the man can't be wrong all the time. I'll give him the faithful part...if you have a married pastor, you want him (or her - deal with it, Al) to be faithful to their spouse. But as for the rest of that quote...give me a break.

There is no such "logic" rejecting single pastors in scripture. If there were, Jesus would have been married. Paul - the apostle most quoted in these discussions on the qualifications for a pastor - would have been married. As a matter of fact, the passage most likely to be quoted comes from Paul's letter to Timothy, and there's no indication that Timothy had a wife - although Paul does refer to both Timothy's mother and grandmother by name. And there are countless other biblical examples of singles leading in ministry.

Then there's the issue of "the centrality of marriage in society." Really, Al? You seriously want to argue that society should dictate who churches hire as pastors? Churches should look to the Bible for direction in hiring a pastor. Churches should look to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in hiring a pastor. But society? Come on, Al.

Having been exposed to different Christian traditions, I have had the opportunity to see pastors in action who are married, as well as pastors who are single. I can tell you that marital status impacts how they do their jobs. But I cannot say that one is better than the other. Each brings a different set of advantages - and disadvantages - to the position. The single pastors are free to minister to people at all hours of the day and night in a way that is difficult for pastors with families. The church family truly becomes the single pastor's family. But married pastors can minister in other ways that are just as meaningful and unique to their personal situations. Through their family members, they connect to parts of the church body in a way that is more difficult for the single pastor. Both the married and the single pastor will find a strong connection to some members, and fail to connect at all with others. Neither is perfect. Neither is superior to the other. They are just different.

Paul himself addressed the issue of singles in ministry in I Corinthians 7, while still supporting the ministries of those who are married. He speaks about the advantages of singleness in this passage from The Message:

 32-35I want you to live as free of complications as possible. When you're unmarried, you're free to concentrate on simply pleasing the Master. Marriage involves you in all the nuts and bolts of domestic life and in wanting to please your spouse, leading to so many more demands on your attention. The time and energy that married people spend on caring for and nurturing each other, the unmarried can spend in becoming whole and holy instruments of God. I'm trying to be helpful and make it as easy as possible for you, not make things harder. All I want is for you to be able to develop a way of life in which you can spend plenty of time together with the Master without a lot of distractions. (1 Corinthians 7:32-34, The Message)

Earlier in the letter, Paul was even more direct:

7Sometimes I wish everyone were single like me—a simpler life in many ways! But celibacy is not for everyone any more than marriage is. God gives the gift of the single life to some, the gift of the married life to others. (1 Corinthians 7:7, The Message)

The Times article goes on to say that Mohler tells seminary students “if they remain single, they need to understand that there’s going to be a significant limitation on their ability to serve as a pastor.” As clearly stated in Paul's writings, the limitation they will face is not actually on "their ability to serve as a pastor." Single pastors can serve their churches well because they are free to focus on their work. The biggest limitation on the single pastor's ability to serve in evangelical churches will be on their ability to be hired as a pastor. And instead of defending that system, Al Mohler should be doing everything he can to teach churches what the Bible actually teaches on singleness.

Until next time,

 24Friends, stay where you were called to be. God is there. Hold the high ground with him at your side. (1 Corinthians 7:24, The Message)


  1. great post Margaret! Thanks for writing and commenting on the Al Mohler factor...I'm the single pastor the New York Times was writing about...Thankfully, a national conversation has begun and let us hope that a rising tide will lift all boats. -mark almlie

  2. Interesting. I was at a recent staff meeting where this subject came up (for those that don't know, I work for the Episcopal Church Medical Trust here in New York). We apparently have the opposite problem. Many parishes looking for new priests are specifically seeking out single people. Married priests with children are having a harder time finding placement. And when they do, benefits are offered to the priest, but not his/her family. Economics has become the chief concern, it appears, rather than the best qualified.

    I didn't see the Times article, but I'll seek it out and pass it around at work.

  3. I have a friend who is a single pastor of a large church in the Midwest. I think they were RELIEVED that he was single because two previous pastors (who were married) had either tried to kill their wives/or were having affairs with female parishioners (this is no joke). I read the times article and the many comments. Mark, have you thought about going overseas or to an inner city church?

  4. Great post! For sure, Paul definitely seems to prefer a single leader over a married one.

    He only recommends marriage for those who would see the lack of sexual intimacy as a distraction, if memory serves.

  5. Mark - Thanks so much for commenting. I hope the national conversation continues, and that it leads people to learn what the Bible teaches on singles in church leadership. More than that, praying God will lead you to the right church at the right time.

    Gary - Interesting input. It's just as distressing to think that married pastors are passed over due to economic considerations, but I can see how it's an issue when the economy is down, leading to lower giving in churches.

    Renata - Good to know your friend found a church that was willing to hire a single pastor...too bad it took a couple of bad eggs to get there. Too many churches don't learn that marriage alone doesn't guarantee anything.

    K - Indeed.

    Gringation - You're right. Paul considered marriage better than "burning with passion" but thought singleness was preferable in order to focus one's attention on God.

  6. This sounds like an important conversation and I am glad you bring this up.

    I would be curious what the statistics look like to help reveal if there is a national bias in either direction or if married vs unmarried looks more like 50/50.

  7. once again, you hit the nail on the head, or is it the other way

    my worship pastor is single, and i guarantee he shepherds his
    little flock as a husband and a father. he even calls us "kiddies,"
    in an affectionate way, of course!

  8. update! I got a senior pastor position...I'm the single pastor in the new york times article. I've even invited al mohler to preach the installation sermon! ....kidding about mohler :) but I'm the senior pastor of simi covenant church near los angeles...a church took a chance on a single guy :) blessings -still single Rev. Mark Almlie Senior Pastor Simi Covenant Church

  9. Congratulations, Mark! Blessings to you in your new position.

  10. Every teenage boy has a "strong inclination" to have sex with every girl he meets. She we give in to that too?