Singleness and Pastoring

Sometimes it just seems like you have to write something that you weren’t planning on and for which you don’t necessarily have the time…but here it goes. Recently Mark Driscoll wrote a blog piece that was generally against the notion of being single and being a pastor; and Dave Miller wrote a piece on marrying young, where some of the blog comments turned to the issue of being single and being a pastor.

My Story. Having reached 33.5 years of life upon this spinning marble we call home, a lot of people still look at me as a young pup. I guess in some ways that’s true, though my hairline and the gray patches appearing in my beard might argue otherwise. On top of that, May 8, 2014 will mark ten years of being a pastor. I started at my first church, a small country church in south central Indiana, two days before my 24th birthday and as a student at Southern Seminary.

In these ten years I have never been an associate pastor and I have never been a youth pastor; I have always been the main, in fact the only pastor at the church at the moment. A near decade of pastoral service and I have spent the entire time without the partnership of a wife.

Thirty-three might still be relatively young, but a decade of being a pastor and a single pastor carries some weight of experience.

And let’s be clear: nowhere along the way have I ever felt called to a lifetime of singleness and I would prefer to be married. I have dated, in fact most of my life experience of dating has been during my time as a pastor, but none of the relationships have ever worked out. There was one in particular that I thought might, but no…and I’ll leave it at that.

I will say that it has been my experience that when pastoring, especially in smaller communities, it is not easy to meet a similarly-aged single lady who even has the interest of being a “pastor’s wife.” I have a couple of guys in my church with whom I have a good relationship who have said, “We’re going to make a dating website called” I’m still waiting for them to actually follow through with that…anyway.

The Struggle with Scripture. Scripture supports both marriage and singleness as ideal depending on the situation and the person. In general, most of humanity fits under Genesis 2: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” When Jesus taught on divorce and remarriage in Matthew 19, some of the disciples replied, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus answered that some are eunuchs by birth, some have been made so by men, and some make themselves such for the sake of the Kingdom. But, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.”

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul encouraged singleness for the sake of the Kingdom, because, “The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.” Yet, before he made that argument, he also said, “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another…if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”

So, overall, which is better: being married or being single? The answer: both. It depends on how God has “gifted” a person and how well a person is able to control their own desire. If you’re supposed to be married then single is not better, and if you’re supposed to be single then married is not better. Both are best in their own way.

Then we come to the qualifications for elders and overseers (one in the same, by the way). Paul wrote, “Therefore an overseer must be…the husband of one wife [or, I think better: a one woman man, i.e. sexually pure and faithful]…. He must manage his own household well…for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:2-5, and then in 3:15 Paul directly referred to the church as the “household of God.”) Paul also gave a somewhat similar command in Titus 1:5-6.

This is where I begin to struggle. As I was first being mentored in pastoring and heading off to seminary, I was taught and I believed that Paul’s statements about a wife and children were qualified by the unspoken assumption, “If the man is married.” In other words, such passages did not disqualify a single man from being a pastor, but he still needed to strive for sexual purity and if he is married then…apply the verses. It’s what I taught and it’s what I believed.

Yet, with growth and experience and learning the Word better, I can’t really support that position any longer. We don’t look at the rest of the qualifications in these passages and attach conditionals that the Holy Spirit did not and say, “Well if…” Nor should we.

Ah! But: Paul was single and Jesus was single. Were they not qualified? Paul was a missionary church planter and not a pastor/elder/overseer in the sense of staying in a single area to help lead a church for a significant period of time, which is who he wrote the qualifications for. As for Jesus…he’s God, and yes he is the great shepherd, but I’m not comfortable with using Jesus as the exception for what otherwise may be a rule for the life of his church.

And this isn’t just the lack of an exception clause by Paul. In 1 Timothy 3:5, Paul cited a man’s ability in his own household to his lead his family as evidence of his ability to lead a church. In other words, a man proves himself on the training ground of home. Also, I think the word elder, the most used term for the leadership office, implies a sense of age and maturity. Yes, it speaks most to spiritual development and character, but I don’t think we can divorce that from the notion of physical age.

Therefore, my convictions have basically become that I believe the best and most biblical situation for church leadership, especially in regard to pastoring, is that pastors are to be older men who have proved themselves by faithfully leading their families. And that coming from a guy who got into pastoring while young and single, and still kind of young and single.

But…in part due to reluctance based on my own situation and in part based on the insistence of older and wiser men that the unspoken condition is valid in these texts, I have yet to fully adopt that stance. Needless to say, though, it is a personal struggle I have with Scripture.

At the very least, I do think it is best that a man wait until he’s married and has done some family-raising (either via the couple’s own natural births, adoption, or both) before he submits himself to the church with the desire to be a pastor.

What to do in the meantime? Learn the Bible well and learn to live it well. Seek out mentoring, especially by older, faithful pastors; and seek to mentor and disciple others. Serve in a church in whatever ways you can, teach as given opportunities, and use the desire to one day be a pastor to drive you to excel in your spiritual walk. Pray, pray, pray, and sing praise to God, thanking him for whatever is your present situation and asking him to guide you to the right places and right opportunities at the right times.

But…On the Other Hand. A person has to seek godly counsel and pray (a lot) for wisdom and direction, doing our best to understand the Bible for what it says and not what we want it to say…and thus build convictions from there. So if you’re single and a pastor, or single and want to be a pastor and disagree with what I’ve said above (after all, I still struggle with those ideas), then use the time of singleness the best you can as you pastor or seek to be a pastor.

For example, in my own life, not having that anxiety about the things of the world as Paul termed it, I’ve been able to do some things without the worry of: “How will this affect my home life?” “Do I really have the money for this when we have three kids?” etc.

First: world missions. The past two Januaries I have gone to Zambia for two weeks each in order to teach at a Bible college. I love it. And I’m going again in May. Most of the other men I teach with are married, but with them there’s always the sense of: “How’s my wife? How’s my kids?”, especially when communication from the middle of nowhere in a third world country on the opposite side of the globe is not the easiest thing to have. Or: “I have this going on with the family, I can’t afford it this year, maybe next year.” With me it’s been, “Have the money saved up, bags packed, lock the door, and drop the dog off with the parents. I’m out of here! See ya’ in two weeks.” Easier and less burdensome. I’m not going to complain about that.

Second: education. After a six year break, I got back into school and am in the heart of doctoral studies. Again, most of my fellow students are married, and it is a very real burden for them to find time to read, research, and write when they have a family to care for on top of a church. It still takes time and effort for me, but I don’t have that legitimate concern my brothers in Christ do: “Am I neglecting the time I need to spend with my wife and my kids while writing this paper instead of being at home?” Again, personally, I’d rather be married, but since I’m not, I’m going to pursue what I can with my education now instead of later.

Third: vacation. We all need time off, rest and vacation is as good for the spirit as it is the body. But, unless your vacation is sitting at home with a locked door, travel takes time, money, and effort. This period of life without a family of my own has opened the door to go to various parts of the country and see a lot of beautiful sights of God’s creation in national parks, etc., without really having to worry about, “Do we have the money? Are the kids going to get sick? Did we pack everything?” And so on. Also, my three best friends are all married, one has a child, and the closest is about eight hours from me. They don’t have too many opportunities to come see me. But I don’t have much that stops me from being able to go see them. These guys mean a lot to me and its nice connecting with them face-to-face and not just via phone, text, or email. Being married would make that more difficult.

In Conclusion. Singleness and pastoring is a difficult issue, no matter how you approach it. It is also something that I think churches and individuals need to spend more time thinking about and discussing. At the very least, I think it is better for a person to wait until they’re married and older before seeking to be a pastor. If that is not your case (as it was not mine), then seek for a spouse if that is how God is leading you, but also use the time of singleness to pursue things that might be more difficult when you’re married and have a family.


  1. Tarheel says

    I too have struggled thinking through the texts you mention regarding marriage and the pastorate. I appreciate that you have not dictated an opinion as a biblical mandate.

    I think it is a valid biblical position to hold that being single is not an automatic disqualifer from pastoral ministry nor is it an absolute requirement.

    Question regarding your advice…

    “At the very least, I do think it is best that a man wait until he’s married and has done some family-raising (either via the couple’s own natural births, adoption, or both) before he submits himself to the church with the desire to be a pastor.”

    How long should he be married?

    How many children should he and his wife be raising and to what level of raising must his children be before he submits himself?

    Seems quite arbitrary, no?

    I tend to think, as you also indicated above, that the assumption “if he is married and if he has children” is valid one to read into the text. Doing so does not alter, or ‘weaken’ other teaching regarding pastor/elder-ship nor does it read into the text something that is unbiblical or illogical. In fact it is, in my opinion, a logical assumption.

    Also, it seems to me that Paul was speaking to a Pastor Timothy who was very young and quite possibly not married at the time…at least we were not told so.

    • says

      I think it is a bit arbitrary… If the Spirit wanted to inspire an exact age and exact number of children, he would have done so. Instead what we have is a qualification that involves faithfulness to spouse and raising children–the latter being a proving grounds of sorts. For some that might be one child and somewhere in his 30’s, for others that might be 6 children and in his 50’s. It’s one of those things where you’re left with a case by case decision and not a cut and dry system.

  2. Bob Browning says

    Great article!

    Two quick comments related to the objections/exceptions concerning Paul and Jesus and the elder qualifications.

    1) Some would argue that Paul had been married before since he was a Pharisee. I’m personally undecided on this one, but I certainly don’t think Paul’s words for elders would mean that a pastor whose wife passed away must leave the ministry. Therefore, we should give room for the idea that Paul could have been married before and would therefore meet the qualifications in his own epistles.

    2) As for Jesus… this should really be a no-brainer… HE HAS A BRIDE!!! And He’s coming back for her – enough said!

    I continue to be amazed at how much deeper I understand marriage as I focus more on understanding Christ’s relationship with his church. We must not fool ourselves into thinking our marriages are the “real” ones – ours are the shadows and types – the REAL marriage is yet to come. This should give both married couples and single brothers and sisters a reality check regarding the things we think are SOOOO important now.

    -Bob B.

  3. says

    If your interpretation of 1st Timothy 3 is indeed proper, to the point that single men may/should not serve as Pastors until they are married, then how do we deal with men who have been married but their wives have died? If “husband of one wife” is to be interpreted as “a pastor has to be married” and cannot include a single man who has never married, what do you do? Does the widowed man get a “pass” because he was married at one time? Can he remarry? The text does say “one” wife. If we hold the standard of interoperation such that a single man cannot (should not) serve, then it seems only natural that we then must avoid widowed men, whether they remarry or not.

    How about children? Suppose a Pastor and his wife are physically unable to have children? You say, “adoption” and indeed adoption is a good thing, but not everyone is called to adopt. And dare I say a suggestion to a couple who can’t have kids of their own that they then “must” adopt as a result would be truly deplorable. That said, the question still remains if a man who physically are unable to have kids, can serve as a pastor.

    If we make allowances for these two cases, in our interpretation of 1st Timothy 3, they why can we not make the same allowances for single men called to the ministry?

  4. William Thornton says

    The Pope see being single is just fine for a pastor, so there’s no need to discuss that.

    A single SBC pastor is rare, perhaps because churches would rather get two for the price of one and have all those jobs that are usually done by the preacher’s wife. Who’s going to do those?

    The few, very few, single colleagues I have been around have been very solid guys.

    Something that might open the eyes of the oblivious male masses here is how highly committed single females look at their singleness experiences in our churches. They are not particularly complimentary.

  5. Jon says

    I don’t think Paul’s teaching excludes single men from the pastorate. I think it is far more likely that most of the men in the church were married and had children and Paul was explaining that they had to be faithful in those things or they weren’t qualified to be elders. I also find it a bit funny that this is a requirement that Baptists are often very legalistic about when we fudge quite abit on the others. I knew of a situation where a man was turned down from being called as Pastor because he had been divorced over twenty years ago. Since that time he had remarried and been faithful to his wife and children. I asked people what was the situation behind the divorce. Did he do something morally wrong to break the marriage? Did his wife? Did he want a divorce? Was he even saved when it happened? They didn’t know, all they knew was he divorced twenty years ago and that disqualified him. And I don’t think that was Paul’s intent. I believe the intent is that the elder must be a proven faithful man in whatever situation he is in. How many pastors are there who lack self-control, aren’t hospitable, are quarrelsome, or whose children are running wild, and yet churches don’t think they are disqualified from the pastorate?

  6. William Carpenter says

    I am also a thirty-three year old single pastor. In ten plus years of service to the church I’ve only had this question brought up twice. Here are five thoughts concerning this issue. (Sorry for the length).
    1) The remarkable aspect of 1 Timothy’s requirements for pastors and deacons (btw if what is being in this article applies to pastors, then it also applies to deacons) is not what is unique but what is not unique to pastors. The listing is not calling for some special “super” qualified persons. Instead the virtues are the same virtues any Christian should exhibit. The qualifications given are that a pastor (and deacon) must be a model of Christian virtue. Since most Christians in Paul’s time and throughout history are married, it is to be assumed most pastors will be married. As such their marriage should be a model of Christian marriage. However, since it is perfectly acceptable for Christian to be single, I find it difficult to say that singles cannot serve as pastors. If they are single then they are to be a model of Christian singleness.
    2) I take Bergman’s position that “one woman man” means one of model standing in his marriage, not just that he is married to only one woman. However, I take it further to than Bergman. I think the passage means exemplary husband to his one wife not just sexual purity. Everything in the marriage then comes in question. It’s not enough that he is sexually faithful, but neglects his one wife in other areas.
    In the same way I believe this passage does apply to singles. A single pastor is to be a “one woman man” meaning that he is to be faithful in his singleness. A church should look just as closely at a single pastor’s relationship with women as they look at a married pastor’s relationships. How does he treat the wives of church members? More importantly, how does he act towards the single ladies of the church and community? If he dates, is he honorable in all areas of his dating? Is he given to flirtation? Does he display inappropriate forms of affection? Is he “chasing” the women of the community? Does he treat our ladies with honor? etc.
    3) Concerning applying the passage to pastors as opposed to church planters, I believe the modern church makes a distinction here that the scripture does not. It seems to me that Paul and his assistants were ordained, which I believe is what the standard of 1 Timothy is being applied to. Further Paul served more in a pastoral role while in Antioch than that of a church planter. I would think that the standard of 1 Timothy 2 would apply to any leader within the church.
    4) Concerning Church Tradition. I realize that scripture takes precedence over tradition, and if the passage can be shown to mean that a pastor must be married, then regardless of church tradition we single pastors need to hand in our credentials of ordination. However, scripture should be interpreted in light of tradition (see Simpson). I am not a historical scholar, but from what I am aware, it seems the church not only permitted but esteemed single pastors from the earliest times up until the middle of the twentieth century. If so we need to ask, “What do we see in this passage that two thousand years of the church missed?”
    5) Finally concerning singleness, if the church is going to have healthy view of marriage, then we must also have a healthy view of singleness. This is the problem that is at the root of Dave’s article, not when people get married but they’re treatment of their single status until they get married. Might it be that part of the problem is that we do not have (rather do not exemplify) good models of Christian singleness. Most pastors should be married, since in fact most men in the church will be married, but I believe there is value in having single men serve setting an example of what Christian singleness looks like just as married pastors set the example of what Christian marriage looks like.

  7. says

    Some people can handle being single while at the same time pastoring and living a moral life. And some can’t or will not.
    But then some can handle being married while at the same time pastoring and living a moral life. And some can’t or will not.

    All of us who have been in the ministry a few years could give a list, longer than we’d like, of married pastors who have fallen into immorality and brought reproach on the ministry.

    Whether married or single, we all need to stay close to Jesus. We all need to avoid, even run from, compromising situations.

    There are pluses and minuses to being single.
    There are also pluses and minuses to being married.

    I’m a single pastor, never have married. I would argue I’ve accomplished a thing or two that would not have been done if I were married with a family.
    More than one married man has looked at me and said, maybe with a bit of humor, “You’re the smartest man I know.”
    On the other hand, you married men, don’t ever forget or take for granted what you’ve got; it is a precious thing and a great legacy. Don’t ever jeopardize it.

    Many would be surprised at the number of single men who serve faithfully as pastors.
    And of course there are the classic examples of Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul being unmarried. Not that any of us measure up to them.

    I’ve written some along these lines at:

    David R. Brumbelow

  8. Tom Bryant says

    Good article, Mike.
    I was 45 and had been in ministry (both assistant and senior) for 15 years before I got married. Been in ministry 17 1/2 years since then.

    When I finally met my wife, there were people within the church who didn’t like that I was getting married and would no longer be “free” to minister whenever and wherever. I left the church soon after and have now been at my present church for 16 years.

    There have been funny issues when I was single like the older ladies who wanted to introduce me to their granddaughters when they came to florida to visit. I would ask them how old they were. The answer was 19 or 20 and i would ask if they wanted their 20 yo grand daughter dating a 40 yo man. They soon dropped it. The other would be when a wife would say that she had someone she wanted me to meet. I’d look at the husband and he would inevitably be shaking his head vehemently saying, “NO! Don’t meet her”.

    Then there was the pastor who told me I needed to get married, but that i’d have to drop my standards because I was no longer great marrying material.

    I’d put a smiley face here, but because i too am a Yankee fan, I won’t.

      • Dave Miller says

        Being a Braves fan is not the kind of thing you should admit to publicly.

        It is not quite the kind of thing that disqualifies one from ministry, but it certainly is a hindrance.

  9. John Morgan says

    An elderly man visited a church one morning. He was by himself and seemed rather unkempt. He had a Bible in his hand and seemed appropriately devout, maybe too much so. As he took a back seat, he saw some heads turn from the senior citizens’ pews. “Who is that man” they whispered. “He doesn’t seem to care about his personal appearance.” He unnerves you too because you can’t figure him out. You wonder about his motives. Why didn’t he settle down? What’s the story there? Really, he was never married? You begin to wonder how safe your kids are around him. You’ve heard rumors that he was talking to teenage girls about purity before marriage. Is he a pervert? On the way out the door, he passes by you as you jump back in horror. He offers you his hand and says: “Good afternoon. My name is Paul of Tarsus.”

    Mike – In 1 Timothy, Paul is assuming that the man is married. Nowhere in the Bible do we find the reqirement that a pastor be married. Your distinction between Paul as a missionary church planter and today’s pastor/elder/overseer is a mute point because a man’s marital status has nothing to do with either one of them. Plus, there are pastors today who travel just as much, if not more, than Paul did. It seems that you’re basing your opinion on suspiciousness of single men, which I see more and more of today. The belief that only married men can be “sexually pure and faithful” is not based on fact. God’s word does not change with popular opinion polls. I’m a senior citizen now and have lived all my years without sex. I accepted the call to lifetime celibacy for the kingdom of heaven at a young age. The practice today of linking celibacy and homosexuality is equally offensive. John –