The Singleness Glass Ceiling

A few posts ago I talked about the fact that your pastor doesn’t get it (the singleness thing that is).  But today I want to take that a step further.  Here is a real question that I think merits discussion.  Is there a glass ceiling for singles in church leadership – and if so should there be?

In other words can a single person hold an elder, deacon or other leadership position?  At first glance this may seem like kind of a weird question but think about your church – or for that matter any ministry.  How is it set up?  Think of the elders and/or deacons at your church – are any of them single?

Now one of the reasons is obvious – through recent history most of the older folks who would lead most churches were married.  So it really wasn’t much of an issue.  But times are a changing.

Now the Church has no problem with married people leading single people (obviously) so the real question is, can single people lead married people?  I think there are three answers from the church.  1. Yes, 2. No, 3. Biblically yes but we don’t know how to handle it, so practically no. (Perhaps 4. If a person is called to singleness then yes – but we aren’t going to help anyone determine that.)

I think the Yes group is smallest.  This would be a church where you see all sorts of people in leadership (assuming the other qualifications of course).  I think the 2nd group is the next largest.  This is the group that would point to 1st Tim. 3 and say that Paul is saying that if you haven’t managed your wife and kids then you can’t manage the church.  To me this isn’t a very good argument – although at least they have the guts to make it.  They would say Paul’s point is, how can an unmarried person mentor/counsel/lead others with families if they haven’t experienced it.  Based on this argument though almost no one could lead anyone.  How can I lead a person who is homeless if I haven’t been homeless.  I haven’t experienced it, how can I understand.  I get it, I just think it’s a reach.

This leads us to group 3 – by far the the largest.  This is the church where anyone can lead but yet no single person ever mentors a married one. It is the one where even though they know they could have single leadership they don’t know how to integrate it.  What if an elder dates someone in the church, or worse from another church, or worse yet if they break up?  Or what if they mess up and have sex or give in to sexual sin (because that’s never happened to a married elder).  They don’t know what to do even at a small group level.  Can a small group of mostly marrieds be led by a single person, or gasp, by two single people – that aren’t dating?  Should they just lead other singles (and marrieds just lead marrieds)?

Some would say that single people don’t typically want to lead, or volunteer at that level.  I think there is some truth to that, especially as it has related to age in the past.  But I also think that they aren’t asked as often, and many of them just assume they can’t do it.  If they look around and see all married people in leadership why would they think they can do it? (It should be pointed out that there are some less “grown up” ministries that it seems only single people can lead).

There are about to be more thirty and forty something single people than ever before in history.  Right, wrong or otherwise, it’s going to happen.  So every church and ministry had better ask this question.  What can single people lead?  If the answer is not certain things -that’s fair, but have the guts to say it.  If the answer is any position, then we need to figure out how to integrate it and build the leadership community together.

17 thoughts on “The Singleness Glass Ceiling

  1. In Ireland being single, with leadership gifts, almost ensured you would hold a leadership position in almost any the church. We see it as a “Pauline” choice, that gives a church community a person who can focus solely on God’s work because he doesn’t have a wife or family. I can’t imagine what type of church community that wouldn’t want someone like you to lead just because you didn’t marry. Is this a common problem in America?


    • Robert you bring up an interesting point. In some places and certainly through out history singleness has been lifted up when it comes to leadership in the church. I think here it’s just kind of fallen by the wayside. I also think it’s not so much the people who have made the Pauline choice that are held back – I think 1. we don’t help people make that choice, 2. there are more older single people who haven’t made that choice but haven’t married yet – and that is where the rub is.
      Here’s a link to the way some think about this – just as an example

  2. I have two thoughts, both experiential: First, Justin, you’ve poured into me and my family spiritually for nearly 20-years in spite of a 30-year age difference and the singleness difference. I some ways we see you as one of our pastors. Second, my church’s hearty leadership team–of which I’m one of twenty–is comprised of all kinds of people with widespread ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, gender, and marriage. Our commonality is Jesus and Jesus alone.

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  5. “Now the Church has no problem with married people leading single people (obviously) so the real question is, can single people lead married people?” I would say that for the vast majority of churches the answer would be no. There are even churches (Southern Baptist) in my area that forbid single men from being a pastor. They actually publish help wanted adds for “pastor-wife” teams only. I’ve heard things like “a single man only wants to hit on single women” and “a single man can’t relate to us married folks” from the mouths of deacons. So I think your article is timely. But I think it would be most appropriately directed to churches, pastors, and other church leaders.

  6. Also difficult for single women, though the women thing is another topic. Lutherans have female pastors, but others don’t.

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