The Single Perspective: Single in Church
As I began to think about Valentine's Day this year, I kept coming back to the joking way many single friends would often correct me when I referred to this day. "You mean Singles Awareness Day?" they would say.
When I started writing Single Minded Mondays, I wanted to be honest about my unique experiences as a single person. My ideas and hopes surrounding singleness have changed and grown (and continue to do so). It's been wonderful to have a record of this process, and to walk through it with so many people, in all places in life.
But I've learned that sometimes when you write about something often, people start asking you for a perspective. I have received emails, invitations and comments asking me for "the single perspective." I am more than happy to offer my perspective, and even my perspective as a single woman. But I am just one voice, one perspective. I do not speak for all single people.
So this month, on Mondays, I will be introducing you to some single people that I've invited to talk about their experiences with singleness, one question at a time. They come from many walks of life, geographic locations, and backgrounds. I am honored to stand with them. One voice among many.
This post is a little longer than a regular one, but read to the end, it's worth it, I promise.
Question: What has your experience been as a single person in church?
I’ve had both great and not so great experiences living out my singleness within the church. Many times I’ve been celebrated as an individual. Not necessarily having anything to do with my relationship status, but because of my life choices as far as my career or my passions or great opportunities that I’ve had. Other times I’ve been questioned as to why marriage and family don’t appear to be a priority for me.
I think the key word there is “appear.” What I’m chasing after or rather, pursuing, is life. I’m a big believer that there is so much that this life has to offer and that with my faith in Christ there is an abundance that awaits me to take advantage of. So, I see my life as being one where I take advantage of those doors that open and the ability to use my free will to make decisions that will allow me to live and live fully. If and when the door opens for marriage and family, I’ll walk through that too- if it fits within the timing and the plan that God has for my life.
That is what many people in the church have had a hard time understanding. My priority isn’t a man; it’s God and its life and it’s loving my neighbor as myself. That’s what the church has taught us with its lips but with its actions have somehow constrained us (especially women) to seek marriage & it’s through that institution that I find God. That message is not only contradictory to the gospel but it’s also damaging.
Khristi Adams is an Author, Pastor, Youth Advocate & Filmmaker. She is the author of the book The Misinterpreted Gospel of Singleness: a cultural critique of myths surrounding singleness in the Christian community. She is single, dating, happy, and having a great time living in Washington, D.C.
My experience as a single person in church has been difficult. Many churches are so focused on marriage and family, to the exclusion of topics that could benefit all believers, that it's impossible not to feel like a pariah. I've never wanted to make a big deal of my singleness, or expected special treatment; I just wanted to be treated like a whole person, equally valuable in the sight of God. Instead, I've felt like a defective nuisance. In my last church, I was one of a handful of singles in a community of about 100 30-somethings. When one of the other single girls privately spoke up about feeling excluded, she was reprimanded and told that our pastor "wasn't here to minister to single women." Nice.
It's also hard to find guidance or mentoring for women within the Church that doesn't treat singleness as a "season" that should be spent preparing for marriage. For some of us, it's not a season, it's life (a life many of us would not have chosen). And some of us, even if we become wives and mothers eventually, won't want those roles to be the entire focus of our existence. We need help with these realities, just as much as women in traditional roles need help.
However, I now attend a smaller, more progressive church with no age or relationship-status divisions. Everyone mingles, everyone is treated as a whole individual, and everyone is encouraged to use their gifts and take leadership as they see fit. So far, it's been amazing. For the first time in my adult life, I feel cared for, heard, and like I can make a difference just as I am. I don't feel like anyone is silently judging or trying to fix me. That should be the rule in the Church, not the exception, but at least some people are getting it. There is hope!
Brenda Wilkerson lives and writes in Memphis, Tennessee. She loves Jesus, Friends, basketball, sunshine, and her cat, Peach. She has been divorced and dateless for four years. You can connect with her on her blog, Don't Stop Believing, and on Twitter.
My experience in the church as a single man has showed me how uncomfortable people can be with single people. Other times, however, I have found people who didn’t care who I was with or where I was coming from, and made an effort to connect with me, in spite of those things. So, I've had both.
One time, I invited my friend (who was a girl) to church with me. We sat together, obviously. After the service, I was introducing her to some people that I knew and a couple graciously invited us out to lunch. I had been going there a while and they had never asked me out to lunch before, but it completely made sense for them to do it then. However, It took me a while before I could say that I understood. What's wrong with JUST me? But I realized that there are lots of different kinds of relationships, and the church is like a microcosm of all of them. The context of a relationship of a couple, is natural with another couple. Its just human to find common ground.
On the other hand, I go to a church now where all kinds of people make time to come talk to me. Usually, I'll sit in a row alone and end up knowing the person sitting next to me by the end of the service.
I think the one universal relational truth I've seen in the church is the desire for meaningful connection. Sometimes people can hide behind the connections they already have, and this causes me to feel isolated. But when one of us is brave enough to reach beyond those walls, and beyond the pride that separates us, that is when I have experienced meaningful connection. With that said, I have been to some brave churches, and to some not-so-brave ones. I was only truly changed in the brave ones.
Kevin Strickland is an Editor for a show on Public Television. He lives in California and enjoys trying to figure out his life. (He is also Cara’s brother).
How could God have forsaken me? He misplaced my husband!
It seemed like the worst fate in the world to be single. I had been in a very serious three-year relationship that let poison and weeds choke it until it died. Afterwards, I tried dating, but my Christian community always gave me disapproving, "too soon" looks. Yet if I wasn't dating, those same people would not stop talking (uninvited) about how my God-elected spouse was coming soon. They would go on and on about how gorgeous I am, how clever, selfless and wonderful I am (hey, their words). "I cannot wait to meet who God has for you! Because he must be absolutely exceptional to be with you, Kaylee."
If I went on a date, I would feel guilty. The 'purity movement' of the Church told me that the more dates I went on, the less able I would be to stick to my husband when I was married.
After my breakup, all these male friends came out of the woodwork with passionate confessions of affection for me, and I would crawl up in a corner and desperately carve bloody lines into my arm, trying to discipline myself for not being in love with all these good men. Reacting like a cat being thrown into a bath, I clawed at my hesitations and silenced my doubts as I lowered myself into a relationship with a guy who kept stressing his interest in me. He was incredibly popular in my Christian community, and everyone else had a crush on him. Dating him seemed like the thing a good girl should do...but when he awkwardly gave up trying to get me to allow him to invest in me, and stepped out of the relationship, I was so relieved.
Single. Single sounded nice. Besides, I had never believed in soul mates or a puppet-master version of God whose main concern is my perfect 'cute meet.’ Every time I tell a Christian, "Yeah, I don't really know if I will get married. I am content as I am. And I don't want to call this just a 'season' when it might be my life. It would take someone so happy by themselves but also content to be with me...Relationships are a lot of work. Really, really exhausting and heart-rending work. I've been in love, and I know. It would have to be someone who made leaving my happily single life worth it,” they scrunch up their noses and come up with the exact same response, "No, there is someone wonderful out there for you."
Am I saying, "No" to marriage? Are you kidding me--I've heard that marriage means SEX! And intimately knowing someone and being known, and buddying up for incredible adventures. I plan on raising foster kids, and I could really use a wise partner to help me. I just want the Church to know that it's okay for me to be happily single without a condition of "this will end soon.”
Kaylee Francis lives in Portland, Oregon and has a degree in Bible/Theology with minors in psychology and English. She has been everything from a director at an organization that cares for women in the adult entertainment industry to an actor in a beef jerky commercial and is seeking out the next adventure. She spends every waking hour with Eärendil, her rescued papillon greyhound, while tweeting (@KayleeFran) about feminism, PTSD, and Speed Racer.
After several attempts and fails to start my answer to this question in a more reasonable way that would make you think I’m a normal, rational person, I’ve decided to just follow my heart and let you know that I think being a single person in church is the pits. Ok, it’s mostly the pits. I mean, I still go, but there’s often a little wincing and dragging of the feet involved.
No one at church treats me like an alien. I’ve never been socially oppressed. I don’t have many specific negative experiences to speak of, but I think that’s because churches just don’t know what to do with single people, especially if they’re over the age of 30. There’s an unharnessed potential there that the Church doesn’t know how to tap into.
In Midwest Christian circles, the majority of people over 30 are married (according to my charts and graphs), so that leaves only a handful of us in the congregation just floating around, trying to find our place in this world. We’re a little bit forgotten (except for when people try to set you up with the one single guy in your age bracket just because you both attend the same church and you’re both human beings.)
This past Sunday my pastor said our church has been described as the Christian eHarmony of our geographical area. He said he longed for diversity, not just a congregation comprised of a bunch of pretty, single people. I appreciated his point, but I’d love it if we could just pack that place full of good-looking dudes who love Jesus and aren’t still in college. That would be a plus for me. I don’t meet guys in bars or online and have yet to meet one by adorably bumping into him at a coffee shop, despite my best efforts. My best bet for finding a husband is to meet him at church.
I’ve moved a lot, and I’ve gone church shopping a lot. I’m all about diversity, but I can’t help but keep my eyes peeled for people who appear to be in my stage of life and who aren’t wearing a ring. For me, it’s part of being a single person in church. I’ve said no-thanks to plenty of churches because they’ve had couples retreat vibes, daycare vibes, college student union vibes, and nursing home vibes. I can’t go into further detail regarding those vibes with any concrete evidence, but the point is: there was probably a zero percent chance I’d meet a man there, so I never went back.
There’s a certain invisibility factor that comes with being a single person in church. Not that pastors should tailor their messages to single people, but sometimes the anecdotes are just a little too far out of my reach. I don’t understand what it’s like to be married or have children, so illustrations about those parts of life make my brain say “You don’t fit in. This does not apply to you!”
I used to attend a church that wrapped up a series about sex, love, and dating with a live panel that answered questions submitted by the congregation. I think it was a good idea, and I know they meant well, but there were zero single people on the panel. Zero! They were all married couples, all of whom married in their early to mid-twenties. I felt unrepresented and small and unimportant. Invisible.
Tara is a graphic designer, writer, and Midwest enthusiast from Indianapolis, IN. She loves a lot of things, but mostly her dog Gretta, Young Life, and Taylor Swift. Tara writes about the beautiful, awkward, stretching, funny parts of life as a single 30-something Christian woman on her blog No Need for Mirrors.
My church has been extremely supportive as I’ve made the transition from a married member to a single person. I know this isn’t always the case and I’m so thankful for the help and encouragement I’ve been given. Divorce can be a tricky matter in the Christian realm, and I appreciate the heartfelt, continual responses from the pastoral team throughout my divorce and the years preceding it. There was one instance when someone made reference to my divorce in a way that made me feel demeaned and uncomfortable but one of the pastors noticed and talked to that person, reminding me of how well cared for I am.
The church I belong to is made up of people in various life situations and I am thankful to feel fully included as a member of that body. Even as people have gone out of their way to include me, to offer help, to give hugs and encouragement, I have never felt I’ve been a “lesser” member but instead was reminded often how we all give and take and weave together a life in which each one is truly valuable no matter what the circumstance they are in.
Kate is mom to four wonderfully unique kids and friend to some of the best people you'll ever meet. After getting divorced in August of 2014, she began two exciting new jobs - one as a legal administrative assistant and the other as a piano teacher. In her free time, she enjoys exploring faith, mystery and beautiful words, listening to Tiger's baseball games, and engaging in autism and lgbtq advocacy. You can find her on Twitter and on her blog.
Background: I've been single my entire adult life...painfully single. I can count on one hand the number of dates I've been on in the past 10 years. My experience as a single person in the church has been highly dependent on my age, so I'll simply talk about my experience in church as a 30-something single woman. Being single for so long, I've essentially "come to terms" with this identity and have actually blogged a lot about it here.
I think my experience in the church as a single woman has actually been pretty positive, but there are moments that stick out that aren't. (When I write about "the church" I'm going to be referring to the general entity...not a specific one or the Church as the Body.)
The church doesn't know what to do with singles. It sometimes feels that there's an unspoken expectation. After college you eventually marry, and if you don't, something has gone wrong.
In another vein, as Christ followers, our relationship with God is metaphor-ed through life experiences I haven't had: God as our Father (I'm not a parent); the Bride/Bridegroom (I've never been married). I hear statements that parenting and marriage are the hardest things to do, and the most sanctifying, because they require so much sacrifice: "you learn so much about Christ through those experiences." I think the church fails to realize that I still have an active relationship with the Lord and contribute to the Body without being married or having children.
Single people shouldn't be counted as "less than" because of our relationship status. As singles, our lives require different kinds of sacrifice. At a Christmas Eve service I attended in December, the pastor began his sermon with a joke about how two kids were comparing their roles in the Nativity play and the punch line was the little girl playing Mary said "try being a virgin" The audience roared with laughter....and I cringed because as a single person who has chosen not to be sexually active before I'm married, and a sexual human being, it IS incredibly difficult and frustrating being a virgin. That reality in my life was a joke.
I long for intimacy and connection and have to surrender those feelings, thoughts and desires to the Lord. It's hard. I am being sanctified too, and to treat me as if I'm not "as spiritual or religious," or as if I don't hear the Lord as well as a married person or parent is hurtful, and communicates that my voice and experiences are inconsequential to the Body.
I think its important to comment that our experiences in the church as singles is also dependent on our self-awareness and self-identifies. Right now, I feel like I have a pretty healthy identity and security in who I am and I approach my community as a person and not a single person. 5 years ago, I was pretty miserable and loathed being single, so I was creating negative experience in the church myself.
In sum: the adjectives need to be removed, the labels need to disappear. Married, engaged, dating, divorced, widowed, not married: we're all humans who need grace upon grace as we attempt to survive in this crazy world trying to live in peace and love one another.
Alisha is a 32 year old Texan who transplanted to Spokane, WA in 2013. Growing up in church in the South, she was expected to marry & make babies, but God had another plan involving singleness and a career in international education bringing her to Gonzaga University. While marriage and family would be a great adventure to embark on, the roller coaster ride of singleness has brought her many joys, tears, and treasures including: travel, the love of red wine, running, food, and Taylor Swift....Did I mention she's still available?
Having never married, I was 52 before I finally received the language that would make sense of my life. For decades, I felt like a third nostril on the face of the church. No family to shepherd into church on Sunday mornings, no spouse with whom I could be part of a couple.
I was part of the fifty percent of church—undistinguished by the unique state in life to which we had been called, or at least the state in which we found ourselves.
Starting in my teens and through my twenties, thirties, and forties, church never gave me a way to define or develop or richly embrace this “unmarried” way of life. Instinctively I knew that I did not want to be defined by what I was not, but rather, by who I am.
Now I can say it: I am a daughter of the Most High, a joyful lay woman anointed for a purpose, for a unique work of love in both church and world which would not be possible if I lived with the commitments of spouse and family.
I live a celibate life. I do not consider myself “single.” So let me distinguish between two important terms.
In the language of God’s calling, a single person is one who lives unmarried but is open to the possibility of marriage, open to dating, moving toward a solemn commitment of lifelong relationship lived in fruitful generosity. We all start out single.
For one who is called by God to celibate life, marriage may be a fuzzy and elusive concept rather than an impelling vision of one’s future life. Over time, dating itself may feel like an interruption, giving you greater clarity on the way of life which you are not called to live.
Vocationally, celibacy is not about not being in relationship. In fact, it is a way of being richly in relationship, first of all with the Lord. And from that relationship flow all other relationships that give meaning to your life.
Celibacy, from a vocational standpoint, is always lived in service to the particulars of one’s calling. For me, it is a life of intense travel, teaching, writing, and one-to-one guidance, all richly nourished in a life of holy solitude. Now in my sixties, I can joyfully say that celibate life fits me perfectly.
For some celibate men and women, spousal imagery best describes the soul’s relationship with God in Christ Jesus. Christian mystics, both men and women throughout the ages, have described their celibate life in spousal language. Sixteenth century Spanish Carmelite mystic Saint John of the Cross comes to mind, with his rich poetic imagery of Lover and Beloved.
For me, spousal imagery doesn’t work. I do not perceive myself as “a bride of Christ.” Frankly, I consider myself a “spiritual eunuch.” An odd phrase, indeed!
But biblically, eunuchs, physically incapable of the marital act, were especially sought by the royal courts because they were known for their loyalty. Unable to leak secrets over pillow talk, they were entrusted with the confidences of king or queen. They lived in service, often in positions of great responsibility.
I find myself spiritually incapable of the marital act, spiritually incapable of giving myself to another in that unique and privileged relationship of love.
As a celibate lay woman of faith, I spend my life teaching, listening, guiding, and animating other women and men of faith to embrace the power of their anointing to stand, in their own ways, in the place of Jesus himself in the world they touch. It is a demanding calling that requires my full attention, loyalty, and obedience to the One who calls me.
Free of the rightful demands of family life, I seem to spend weekends or even longer stretches of time on trains, on planes, and in long layovers in airports, as I am doing right now as I share these thoughts with you. One person dubbed me “Saint Paul with lipstick.” I fully give myself to that description!
What do single—and celibate—women and men of God share in common? It’s not our singleness, nor our “not being married.” What we share in common is our baptism, our anointing to stand uniquely and generously in the place of Jesus himself in the world we touch.
Mary Sharon Moore is a Catholic author, teacher, speaker, and spiritual director, whose practice spans the United States. She works with individuals in all states of life (single, married, divorced, widowed, the “waiting and wondering”) who may be discerning a call to celibate life. For more on her work, visit marysharonmoore.com.
Please return next Monday for the next Single Perspective.