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 singlepastors.com.” 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.