Being single is hard. Being single and a pastor is even harder. Each year, there are thousands of sermons given on the topic of marriage and family but very few on the complexities of being single. Seminaries train pastors on how to navigate the challenges of ministry and family life, but they often leave out conversations on what to expect as a single pastor. The church can be an isolating place for single people. Despite this, I love my job. I am grateful for the season of life I’m in, but that doesn’t mean I don’t wrestle with the challenges of being a single pastor.
People often ask me about the strange things people say to me as single pastor. Frankly, that list is long, and I bet, if you’ve been in church leadership for a significant amount of time, your list of strange things people have said is long, too. For single pastors, though, there are a unique set of situations that have to be navigated with grace and a firm tone. Like the request for a private prayer session, the hug that lingers way too long, or having a man tell you that God told him you were supposed to be his wife—even though God has not communicated that message to you. I learned pretty quickly how important boundaries are and the importance of referring specific cases to a male pastor.
Another challenging issue for single pastors is work-life balance. In the church, work-life balance is often discussed within the context of marriage and family. I used to think that because I wasn’t married and didn’t have kids, work-life balance didn’t apply to me. No one explicitly says you need to have a healthy work-life balance so that you can have healthy friendships. The focus is usually on the spouse or children, not the value of fostering healthy, supportive friendships outside of marriage. The truth is that work-life balance applies to everyone. Just because I’m single doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t prioritize my friendships and self-care. I had to learn that it was okay to leave work at a normal hour to spend time with my friends, work out, or just do something for me.
Being a single pastor also makes have a dating life challenging. Dating within the church can be complicated, and everyone seems to know your business regardless of the size of your church. Even if you’re meeting people online or outside the church, I’ve found that one of the easiest way to shut down a conversation with a potential interest is to tell him what you do for a living.
For some reason, church staffs tend to have a very high number of married people. Because of this, even simple staff gatherings and conversations can be a painful reminder of your singleness. It might be an invitation to attend a staff party with your spouse and you’re the only who shows up alone because there wasn’t an opportunity to bring a date or friend.
Or it might be the constant reminder from coworkers to spend quality time with your family. One year, we were given staff Christmas gifts themed around spending time with your spouse and kids. It was a very thoughtful gift given with good intentions, but it was a painful reminder that I was once again alone for the holidays.
It can often seem as if the church places marriage above all other types of relationships. I believe marriage is a beautiful form of intimate relationship with another person, but to place it above all other relationships is problematic. There is beauty and joy to be found in relationships whether you’re single or married—and we miss out when we primarily focus on the marital relationships.
Offering Hope to Singles
While there are a lot of challenges, there are also plenty of amazing experiences that come with this role. I am often entrusted with the stories of others who are in the same season of life as me. They’re usually struggling with similar things, wondering how to be content, and wondering if they’ll ever feel complete without a spouse. It’s a joy for me to offer messages of hope and new ways of approaching their singleness.
My hope has been born out of the pain of being single and wanting something different. I have watched friend after friend find “the one.” Each time I wonder if it will ever be my turn, and I question whether I can stay content in a season of life I never expected to last this long.
Through this journey, however, I’ve come to see that marriage isn’t the goal. God values inclusive community for all people—married, single, divorced, or widowed—and that’s what we’re working toward. God created us as relational beings made for this beautiful community.
There was a time when I focused solely on what was missing from my life: a spouse and children. After a lot of prayer, therapy, and self-reflection, I realized that I was missing out on the beauty of all the different relationships that I already had in my life. I may not be a wife but I am a daughter, sister, aunt, friend, mentor, and pastor. I made a choice to invest deeply in these relationships and create a chosen family, a group of people that are committed to doing life with me for the long haul. Today, I have an amazing community made up of single people, married couples, and parents from different backgrounds, classes, and cultures. I cannot imagine doing life without them. We navigate big decisions together, babysit each other’s kids, talk about the challenges of being single and married, vacation together, and cook meals together. They challenge me, support me, care for me, pray with me, and, most importantly, love me unconditionally. They are my family, and if I meet the man of my dreams tomorrow my family would simply grow.
That is the beauty of the church. We are called to be a loving, supportive community for all people. Within the body of Christ, no one should feel like a second-class citizen because of their marital status. While I still wrestle with my singleness, I am committed to creating space in our community to discuss these issues. I’ve been given the gift of seeing how the church can unintentionally harm people in this season of life and how marriage can be the default perspective for many church leaders. Because God has allowed me to see this, I am able to share my perspective and help others see God and the value of community in new ways. God does not discriminate with his love, and he desires for us all to experience that love to the full, regardless of our marital status.
The Beauty of Being a Single Pastor
As single pastors, we get to wrestle with and model this truth. We have an opportunity to ask ourselves: How can we challenge our small-group members, both married and single, to expand their view of community? How are we helping single people invest in building well-rounded community that encourages them to grow and experience the love of God in tangible ways? How are we talking about relationships in holistic ways, rather than just from the perspective of marriage?
We should celebrate our singleness just as married pastors celebrate their marriages. We should tell the real stories of pain, joy, and celebration because, I promise you, there are others in your congregation who need to hear they’re not alone, they belong, and their story matters.
There is beauty in the stories and experiences of single people. We need to elevate those stories to combat the shame often associated with this season of life. The church needs the voices of single people in order to be at its best and experience God more fully. The New Testament is full of single people experiencing radical community, living full lives and changing the world. Why should our churches be any different?
It takes strength, vulnerability, and courage to share this part of our lives because there’s still some shame attached to being single. This is the reason I believe we need more leaders who are willing to show up, embrace their singleness, and share how the love of the Father and transformative community can remind us everyday that we are whole, valuable, and beautiful in the sight of God just as we are.
—Chi Chi Okwu is associate pastor at Willow Chicago, and you can follow her on Twitter @chichiokwu.