What is the big deal with ministers not being married? This is the subject of a New York Times article this week, which reports that there is an alleged bias against single pastors in most Evangelical Christian churches. The Times story focuses on one single male Evangelical minister whose job search has yielded no results, in part — he believes — due to discrimination against single pastors at churches seeking to hire a pastor.
Mr. [Mark] Almlie, 37, has been shocked, he says, at what he calls unfair discrimination, based mainly on irrational fears: that a single pastor cannot counsel a mostly married flock, that he might sow turmoil by flirting with a church member, or that he might be gay. If the job search is hard for single men, it is doubly so for single women who train for the ministry, in part because many evangelical denominations explicitly require a man to lead the congregation.
This sort of bias seems odd to Roman Catholics who, for centuries, have become used to a professedly celibate clergy. As the Times article correctly states: “Mr. Almlie notes that during the first 1,500 years of Christianity, “singleness, not marriage, was lauded as next to godliness.” Martin Luther, in his break with Rome, preached against mandatory celibacy and got married himself.”
It wasn’t until relatively recently that a portion of the Christian community found married clergy possible, let alone normative. It is curious that Jesus — the model, of course, for Christian living — was himself ‘single,’ never settling down with a partner and family. Yet, some church communities claim that other single men – and women – are unfit for ministry without the requisite spouse (of an opposite sex) and children (another significant requirement).
What is at the core of this issue is one’s understanding of vocation, or the way in which God has created this or that person to live in the world. Not everybody is meant to be married and have children. There are a variety of ways one can authentically live an integrated Christian life — some are married, some are single, some are in another form of relationship. The details of who or what seem extrinsic to the question of faithful Christian living, whereas how one lives in this or that way is what is central.
Catholics tend to be more receptive to the idea that singled living is in fact a form of vocation, a way of living one’s Christian faith in the world, yet there is still a social, cultural and even ecclesial resistance to embracing that form of life as a generally acceptable category — again, an oddity given the Roman Catholic insistence on singled living for ordained ministers.
I know dozens of wonderfully effective lay ministers in the Church who are single (here I’m intentionally excluding ordained and religious ministers because their singleness goes without saying). In graduate school, many of my classmates were young single men and women who are enlivened by the Gospel and wish to minister to God’s people in the Church. Are they any less able to do so? They often take the same pastoral counseling, theology, scripture and ministry classes as those to be ordained or as their married or partnered classmates do.
The issue isn’t one of aptitude, for I am convinced that God calls all sorts of people (just as we see in Jesus’s engagement with disciples and people of his day): married, single and celibate alike. What is really operative in discriminating against single ministers is a latent bias that stems from unaddressed homophobia, fear of difference or a misunderstanding of what it means to be a minister in the Church.
Such people forget that it is God who calls women and men to ministry, not those on church hiring committees. Perhaps if more people remembered that during the hiring process they might have a greater appreciation for the singled life as a vocation and not a deficiency.