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Archive for Community

Singleness In the Church Isn’t One Size Fits All

It’s disturbing to me, a very single 40 year old woman, to hear the much younger, married, male singles group pastor express his frustration with a young widow because she hasn’t started dating again and still has photos of her dead husband up all over her house which might discourage a new guy from being part of her life. When I asked him if she was even interested in dating at this point, or even remarrying ever, he looked confused and had no answers for me. When I stated that her husband was the father of her children, so she will have photos of him up in her house probably forever, he looked surprised. When I went on to say that perhaps she doesn’t want to remarry, he was stunned. He couldn’t imagine a world in which a single woman would want to remain single. Even in the midst of deep grief over the loss of her husband.

The GriefShare group I help facilitate is giving me a new perspective on singleness as many of its participants are widows and widowers of varying ages, some with children, some without. Since my widowed mother is and has been one of my best friends, this second singleness has always been a concern for me. One thing that comes up over and over again is how many people in churches think grief ends when a new relationship begins. That “moving on” is the goal of grief recovery (it’s not, moving forward is, there is no “moving on”) and this will be recognized as complete when there’s a second marriage.

One of my beloved widowers was telling our group that he hadn’t gone to church since his wife died. He said “I just can’t do it. It’s full of couples and families and I just don’t fit anymore.” This is where I stepped in and told him that this isn’t a true thought. The church is actually full of single people as well as couples and families. I reminded him that my mum and I, both single in different ways, go to first service each Sunday and he’s welcome to sit with us. I encouraged him to go, and look around more closely the next time and he’ll see quite a few singles either alone or with friends or families. The church is full of perpetual singles like me, widows and widowers like him, divorced men and women, single moms and dads, young singles who may or may not marry, even men and women who were married more than once and have lost more than one spouse. The body of Christ is made up of all types, not just the typical family. We just need to look more closely.

I understand why he feels this way though, I struggle with that feeling as well. I think it’s because the ideal held up of Christian life is husband, wife, and kids. From the pulpit (since every pastor I’ve ever had has been married with children) most examples of Christian living involves being married. Church leadership tends to be completely made up of married men, with perhaps one or two exceptions. We don’t often see an ever-single man or woman on stage, or a widow or widower, or a divorced and not remarried man or woman (even if it was a biblically allowed divorce). And, since we don’t see ourselves in leadership, nor hear our lot mentioned in most sermons, but see the opposite held up as the perfect Christian life, it’s easy to think we’re alone. And, since we’re often not involved in the leadership of the church as much, our voices aren’t represented so our concerns may not even be noticed or recognized.

This is such an odd state of things, considering the early church was founded by single people and the church, historically, held singles in high esteem. The entire catholic leadership model formed around single believers. The Protestant church has, sadly, not really found a place for celibate single Christians in our average churches. Again, there are exceptions, but it certainly is not the rule.

Singleness isn’t a one size fits all type of thing, so our churches shouldn’t treat it as such. The joke of most “singles ministries” is that most of the single people in a church won’t be included. Once you pass the age of 30, or you’ve been divorced, or your spouse dies, or you’re not actively looking for a spouse, you don’t fit into the singles ministry. Rather, all ministries should embrace singles – in women’s and men’s groups, in Bible studies, in Sunday School, in counseling ministries, in college groups and elderly groups. Sunday morning sermons should include examples that can apply to many different demographics, different types of singles included. Messages that end with applications should work for unmarried parishioners as well as married ones. And articles about singleness shouldn’t focus on the usual “don’t waste this season in your life” and “pray and wait for God to bring your meant-to-be-spouse to you.” There’s more to singleness, and more types of singleness. Let’s make sure we’re asking questions and listening to the singles in our churches so we can understand their specific circumstances, and learn to love and serve them better as one of the unique and varied children of God.

Singleness and the “Mike Pence Rule”

This summer, I’ll be visiting an old friend of mine who now lives, with her husband I have yet to meet, out of state. We booked the flight together so the timing would be just right, but then her work required her to be somewhere else the first day and half I’ll be there. Changing my flight at this point would cost us hundreds of dollars. I’m a pretty chill solo traveler, so don’t mind exploring her town on my own for a day or two so the question in my mind became: would her husband feel comfortable picking me up from the airport and letting me stay in their home without his wife there for a couple days, and would she be okay with that as well? Her fear was that I’d feel uncomfortable. After we talked, we realized none of us felt uncomfortable, we’re all pretty chill, all trust each other (a trust earned over years of faithful friendship), and we’re all fine just saving the money and not changing the flight.

The evening after this conversation had taken place, I was talking about my plans with my mum and found myself getting a little emotional. “Why?” I asked myself. And I told my mum how nice it was to be trusted, and to be treated, well, like a person. Because I am a person. And sometimes we singles are treated like “single people” which can have an air of distrust about it, an air of suspicion or danger. But this friend and I have been through an awful lot together over the past decade, and I have earned her trust as she has earned mine. And her husband has also been through a lot (as most humans have) and has earned her trust, as she has earned his. So instead of me being seen as some threat, a potential seductress, or a temptation one or both of us might not be able to withstand, I was seen as a person. A trusted person. Which is really nice.

In an era where the “Mike Pence Rule” (formerly known as the “Billy Graham Rule”) is touted by many church-going people as the way to live a pure life, and when the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements remind us how often vulnerable people are preyed upon, being reminded that we can still be treated like people instead of sexual objects or temptations, still earn each other’s trust, still respect and care for others, is beautiful.

Now, I have known a couple of single people who I wouldn’t trust around married friends of the opposite sex because they were grotesquely flirtatious when inappropriate, or worse. But, to be fair, I’ve also known married men and women who were as bad, or worse. So just labeling singles as the dangerous ones, and only hanging out with other couples, isn’t going to stop someone who wants to be unfaithful to their spouse from giving in to that temptation. Married people cheat on their spouses with other marrieds too, not just with singles.  

Yes, men and women should be wise in how they interact with others of the opposite sex, but this wisdom should apply to everyone – married and single alike. If we boil down the relationship between the sexes into men and women who are married, men with male friends and women with female friends, we are severely limiting the body of Christ. Jesus himself spent time alone with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) and had women as some of his closest friends like Mary, Martha (Luke 10), Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and others (Luke 8).

If married couples only go out with other married couples, married women only go out with women, married men only go out with men, then single men and women are going to be significantly cut out of the fellowship of the church. And we are. This happens in most churches. We aren’t invited to lunch or dinner as often as other couples are. And we aren’t given as many opportunities to get the perspective of members of the opposite sex, to be influenced by their wisdom and insight, because we aren’t trusted to be alone with them. We are often only allowed public, cursory, shallow relationships with them which hinders our ability to participate in the very community that is meant to be our family.

I’m not suggesting people put themselves into dangerous situations – there are people we should never be alone with, people who are untrustworthy, situations in which it would be foolish to be alone with a particular member of the opposite sex. But if this becomes the rule instead of the exception, our communities will suffer. We will start to see the unmarried of the opposite sex as dangerous objects of temptation and view them with fear, threats to our chastity, as if every single is just dying to have sex with your husband or wife.

Rather, we should see them as valuable members of our churches with insight and wisdom that could help everyone. And, since the majority of church leadership is made of up married men, the concerns of single people, particularly single women, will never reach their ears and therefore will not be given a voice in the decision making of the church. Since we don’t have husbands to share our concerns, it pushes an already vulnerable population in the church into even more obscurity.

So instead of cutting off personal relationships from every person of the opposite sex except your wife or husband once you get married, let’s work to create god-glorifying ones that defy what the world might think – single people are not threats to your marriage. We’re just people. Some of us are trustworthy. Some of us aren’t. But hey, some married people aren’t trustworthy either. Welcome to humanity. Let’s judge wisely who we spend time with not based on gender or marital status, but on who we actually have proven to be.

I realize that, in many churches, what I’m saying is controversial. I’m here for the debate, so please feel free to comment or message your concerns or questions. But let me assure you that it is possible to live a life free from anything shady (“above reproach”) and have friends of the opposite sex who are single and friends who are married. And, as a single woman, I value my friendships with my male friends tremendously – my single guys and my married ones – as they are often the main thing that holds me back from becoming sexist and anti-male in this era of toxic masculinity so pervasive in our country and in the church.

When I start to despair of all men, I think of my guys and how good they are, how kind, how wise, how godly, how fun, how loving, and it reminds me to be more balanced and careful. If you took them away from me, if I wasn’t allowed to have these friendships, if lunches and dinners and e-mails and counseling sessions weren’t allowed, I’d lose that perspective. And they wouldn’t know that many women are struggling in this current climate because they’d have no one to tell them. I need that perspective. They need that perspective. We all do.

I’m Dreaming of Expanded Ministry Opportunities for Celibate Single Christians

The singles ministry is led by a male pastor in his early 30’s who happily married quite young, had three little kids, and thinks everyone else should follow his example. The women’s retreat speaker has been married for 20 years and all of her illustrations refer to being a wife and mother. The high school youth group is run by a still-in-seminary early-20-something man who just got married two years ago, and his newly pregnant wife who helps out. The Women’s and Children’s Ministry Directors are married women with children who home schooled their kids and never had careers outside of the home. The break-out session at the parenting conference for single parents is facilitated by a middle aged married couple who blended their families from previous marriages. The entire paid counseling staff of the large church is made up of married men (a couple of women are available for an hour here or there as unpaid counselors who voluntarily counsel in the little spare time they can offer up). In fact, the entire pastoral staff is made up of married men.

When a single person does appear in paid ministry in these churches, it is usually an annoyingly energetic young man, currently in or freshly out of seminary, being groomed for future leadership in the church with the very strong expectation that they will soon get married and have kids,just like every other man on staff. A single young woman in a similar situation is never even a consideration.

This is the status quo of the churches in which I grew up and continue to be a part of. Every. Single. One of them. There may be an exception here or there in some more open minded churches, but for the vast majority of evangelicals, this is our experience.

In some denominations, most, if not all ministry is performed by single members of the clergy. Monks, priests, and nuns who took vows of service and celibacy led (and still lead) parishes and churches worldwide. They were and are respected, useful members of society and leaders in ministry. Yes, there are some who abused and continue to abuse this position (horribly and with lasting effect on those abused and the church itself), but this isn’t because they are single (married pastors are capable of just as much abuse as unmarried priests). The ability for ministers to marry is allowed in Scripture and has benefits of its own, so I get why the Protestant church pushed for that change in leadership policy. But instead of building a church body that allows married AND single men and women to minister in varied ways that utilize their skills and encourage spiritual growth across the board, the conservative evangelical church has relegated single Christians to the corners of ministry, especially single women.

Single women are encouraged to work in the nursery, or maybe the church office. Single men are encouraged to help out in youth group with the sporty stuff and help pass out the communion trays. Both are encouraged even more strongly to find Christian spouses and start “a family” as their main focus of ministry. And, for almost everything else, married men and maybe women will fill ministry roles.

So why is this? If I offered to speak at the next marriage conference, to married couples, about marriage, I’d be considered a bit nuts. So why is it that married people get to lead everything, even ministries specifically to singles? Why has marriage become a seminal part of the conscious or unconscious criteria for what it means to be a ministry-ready mature Christian? Christ was unmarried, as were Paul and Timothy and many other saints of the early church. It’s time to remember that.

Here’s what I’d like to see:

  • I’d love to see middle aged single men and women encouraged to lead the singles ministry, even hired (gasp!) to do so. If the main goal of the singles pastor is to get his parishioners married off, and to teach them how to be good future husbands and wives, then you’ve hired the wrong person for this job. If they view singleness as a temporary state to be raced through as quickly as possible, then assign them to a different ministry. We do not have singles leading married ministries, so why do we have married pastors leading singles?
  • I’d love to see youth groups invite dedicated, celibate, older-than-20-or-30-something single speakers when they discuss “purity culture” so there can be a balance to the whole “save sex until marriage” and “your virginity is for your husband/wife” message. Wouldn’t it be amazing if our teenagers realized that not everyone is actually going to get married? And that marriage isn’t actually the only way to honor God? And that celibacy is not punishment, but a form of worship? Only a single speaker can convincingly make this argument, not a married one.
  • I’d love for the next women’s retreat or conference to headline a single woman speaker rather than just have one break-out session (if any) for the singles that focuses on not wasting this valuable time until marriage (with eventual marriage assumed, of course). Let’s have sermons by women where being a wife and mother fills 10% of the illustrations instead of 100%, just every once in awhile to remind the other women that probably over 50% of adults in church actually aren’t married. Let’s have single male speakers at men’s conferences too, who can shift the focus from godly man=husband/father to godly man=godly man.
  • I’d love for every church that has a counseling program to hire a full time female counselor on staff, and why not some single ones while we’re at it? See, most of the people who turn to churches for counsel are women. And by most, it’s like 80%. Sadly, due to our culture’s weird view of masculinity, men don’t tend to ask for counseling. It’s tragic, really. But this does mean that more women are coming to churches for counseling, and most churches only have male pastors on staff to help them. They may have a few women who volunteer to counsel in between their jobs and kids and everything else, but our time is always limited, and we rarely get paid for it meaning we can’t offer as much. And, when women are not on staff at churches, the elder board will actually have zero clue what needs the women of the church actually have because they have no voice at the table. Single counselors would be awesome too, as we have a lot to offer!
  • I’d love for the next parenting conference to host a break-out session by a single teacher who can help them speak to their kids about the possibility that Prince Charming or their Disney Princess may not exist. Parents need to know that God may have chosen a path of singleness for their children, that they may not get grandkids, and that this, if it is God’s will, is truly beautiful and fine and good. Parents need to be told that putting undue pressure on their kids to find a spouse and “settle down” (as if all singles are unsettled???) is not showing trust in God. They need to know that it’s okay for them to pray for their kids’ future spouses, as long as they’re also praying for God’s will which may actually not include a spouse at all.
  • I’d love for Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries to hire single male and female professors to teach and mentor and for churches to hire full-time single Christians on staff. The next generation of Christians needs to see there are valuable places in the Christian community for singles. They need mentors who can minister differently. They need a variety of voices and perspectives pointing to the same God, using the same Scripture, loving the same body of Christ. They need to see that singleness can be used for the glory of God, that committed celibate singleness is respected, and that life is not over if you can’t find a spouse.

Inclusion of mature, dedicated, celibate single Christians is even more important in a time when we demand that same-sex attracted Christians remain celibate for life, closing themselves off to the possibility of any kind of traditional family, or marry someone they are not attracted to. We expect a woman who has never been sought after as a wife to remain faithful to God alone and find her fulfillment in Him instead of being a wife and mother, even when we preach that a woman’s highest calling is to be just that. We look at older single men in the church with suspicion. We demand a difficult commitment to purity and service, yet relegate singles to second-class status with few opportunities for Christian vocation, little respect, no possibility of paid ministry, no voice in church leadership, and ultimately a life on the fringes of the community that is meant to be our family.

The church is meant to be made up of all image bearers of God; this includes both men and women, people of every tongue and race, all socioeconomic backgrounds,  and it should also include singles as well as married Christians. If any of these are lacking, then the church is bound to not even realize the gaps in who they are not able to serve. The blind spots will be insurmountable because they won’t even know they exist. It’s time for singles to be involved in every aspect of church life, including leadership.

When an Awkward Blogger Gets Writer’s Block

I’m going to be completely transparent here – I’ve been having a difficult time coming up with ideas for The Awkward Spinster for a few months now. You may have noticed, dear readers, that my every-Monday-posting that was pretty regular for the past couple of years (with a couple of breaks here and there) has become every other week, or even once a month since the holidays. Sigh. Perhaps I’ve been embracing my inner sloth.

It’s not that I’ve been more busy than usual, or can blame the cold I had or being out of town, because that stuff has always happened. It’s mostly because I can’t come up with things to write. I don’t want to NOT write, it just keeps happening. I even have a list of ideas, but none of them seem interesting to me, and if they’re not interesting to me, I doubt I can write on them well enough to be interesting to you. I haven’t been brave enough to post if I think it’s not going to be “good enough.”

Perhaps that’s part of the problem? I know blogs are a place where writers can be more casual, where we can journal and brainstorm and freestyle, but I’ve always struggled with that side of things. My first experience in blogging was a 3 year stint writing posts for my church. My pieces had to be thoughtful, well-designed, biblically grounded, and complete. I was responsible to not only my pastors, but my church body. The other main writing I did in my life was for the school at which I taught – lessons, curriculum, chapel talks, etc. Always with an audience to whom and for whom I was responsible, always from a position of teaching.

Other than intermittent journaling throughout my entire life – mostly when I travel or am more depressed than usual – I haven’t ever just written for myself.

I’m not sure what that would even look like, not sure what my style would be if I wasn’t constantly thinking of my audience and my responsibility to them, my responsibility to my boss, school, or church, and ultimately, God.

The irony of this is that I’ve never been that important. What I’ve written has never been big or groundbreaking, it’s never had a huge audience or a publishing deal relying on it. The pressure I’ve felt is at least 70% just from me, not from these outside entities. Call it perfectionism, pride, fear of disappointing others, high standards, whatever. It’s mostly me. Isn’t that usually how these things go?

So, this year, brace yourselves; the Awkward Spinster is going to get, well, even more AWKWARD. I’m going to try to get back to my usual weekly posts, but in order to do so, they may kind of suck. Yep. Sometimes I have it in me to research, write multiple drafts, ponder an idea for days and weeks first, and put something together of which I can be proud. But other days, days like today, my blog is going to contain some “verbal vomit.” This is, after all, my blog, not a book or sermon or lesson plan. Perhaps I’ll lose some readers, and I won’t feel as important or helpful, but I think it’s better than me feeling so much pressure from myself that I just stop writing all together.

Thanks to those of you who have stuck with me along the way. Seriously, dear readers, you are much appreciated. And I hope that at least some of you will come along for the ride as I try to find my voice once I figure out how to mute some of the more judgmental ones in my head.

The Loneliness of Not Being A Priority

As the holiday season bursts into life around us, making plans becomes more and more difficult. Thanksgiving is barely over, and I’m scrambling to text, call, and email everyone to get solid dates and times for our usual December activities. Some of my frustration with this may be more about my personality than my singleness. I am, after all, a Planner with a capital P. I’ve found that not planning doesn’t work for me. I have friends in different cities to visit, ministries I’ve committed to, family where one of us always seems to be sick at any given time, and miles to drive in traffic to see everyone.

Being single, however, means that I am constantly battling all the other commitments and priorities in my loved ones’ lives. I know married people have this battle too, but they should appear toward the top of the list for their spouses, children, maybe even grandparents and in-laws. As a single person, I’m not really the top of anyone’s list. Well, maybe my mom’s, which is nice. But I’m rarely, if ever, the person other people are going to plan around. I’m the one who has to plan around them. Which is fine. Until I get tired.

The exhaustion of trying to hold all my relationships together, trying to maintain them over time and distance and through busyness, hit me like a ton of bricks today. And then my head spiraled into the melodramatic exaggerated cry of “Why doesn’t anyone prioritize me? Why don’t they commit to time with me? Why do I have to ALWAYS be the one to text, call, message, plan, and drive? Why am I the one who has to figure this all out? 

Like I said, exaggerated. Because I know I’m not the only one. Heck, my friends and family just threw me the biggest most beautiful surprise Harry Potter birthday party this summer for which I did zero planning. So, obviously, my brain is spiraling into not-quite-reality. Which happens when I’m tired and sad.

There is, however, a trend in my life of being the planner. Like I said, more of a personality thing. But my singleness seems to exacerbate this, especially during the holidays. I’m usually (not always) the person who has to text first to keep up with friends. I’m the one who has to call and say I’ll be coming to town on these dates, so can you meet up? I end up booking 4 dates a day for a 3 day period – breakfast, lunch, coffee, dinner – in order to see as many people as I can. But the thing is, I wouldn’t have to exhaust myself in doing this if others would reach out to me as well. Perhaps actually invite me over for dinner one night. I’d drive down to LA for dinner on a weeknight if anyone actually invited me. No one ever has. Not once since I moved, not without me initiating it. People in the city in which I live don’t even do this very often. Most people just don’t invite others over. Ever. 

So, it’s back to me having to squish everyone I possibly can into a hectic 2-3 day period. And then of course I can’t fit everyone. Which makes me sad. So I end up seeing the people who have responded a bit more to my reaching out and have to leave off the ones I haven’t heard from in awhile.

And it’s exhausting. I am pretty sure that if I stopped texting people first that 90% of my friendships and even some family relationships would devolve quickly into nothing but the occasional “like” or comment on social media. And not because they don’t love me, but just because I’m not a priority. Which is natural and necessary. They have spouses and children, roommates and parents, work commitments and church friends, cousins and grandparents. I actually can’t be a priority. They don’t have enough mental and emotional space for that.

I get it. It makes sense. I’m not bitter or angry. But I am tired. Tired of hearing nothing from the vast majority of those I love until I make first contact. Tired of having to invite myself over because others rarely invite me. Tired of only ever having super last minute invitations that I can’t say yes to because I made other plans, and to which I’m obviously just an afterthought. 

I try pretty hard in this blog to be the best version of myself, but today you just get a rather selfish ramble, a glimpse into the reality of the mind of this single lady. Again, I know how busy life gets. And my friends should, indeed, put their husbands and wives and children in front of me, even their jobs (we’ve all gotta pay our bills, right?); I get it. I think most single people get it. We understand. So we try to accommodate your schedules and your commitments, as well as ours. And we try to be patient. And we try to reach out so others don’t have to. We try to take things off your plates to make it easier for you to spend time with us. We try to squeeze into your lives where we can. We try to be unobtrusive and helpful.

But today, I’m tired of squeezing into others’ lives. Today, I’d just like to say no, I won’t reach out. I won’t drive hours. I won’t bend my schedule. I won’t keep texting. Today, I’d like to become a hermit, like the kind you have to climb a mountain to reach. Like if you value me, you have to come find me because I can’t come to you. I’m tired of putting in the effort.

But that’s what relationships are: effort. So I’ll keep doing it. And every few months it’ll hit me again and I’ll be sick and tired of it. But I won’t give up. It’s not in me to give up on friends. Still, I can’t deny that it would be nice to be someone else’s priority for once. To be, if not #1, at least in the top 5. Or maybe even 10. To be the person other plans get set around, instead of the person expected to bend and change for everyone else.

Just a little reminder to those of you who are married and someone else’s priority: during this holiday season, reach out to someone who doesn’t have that. Text first. Call first. Invite them over. Go to coffee. Don’t schedule them around all of your other plans, but commit to them first and plan other things around that. Please don’t forget there are many of us who could really use being made a priority, even if it’s just for an hour or two.