As many of my usual readers know, I’ve been in full time paid ministry for 20 years. One thing that makes my story unique is that I served in that capacity as a single person for the first 17 1/2 years. Because of that I’ve been privy to a lot of different experiences interacting with married folks.
As is the case with most protestant and/or evangelical churches and organizations, most people serving in leadership in my organization are married. I don’t know what the percentage is, but it has to be 80%. Probably higher for everyone over 25 in our mission. It’s an expectation in our evangelical culture that the pastor/leader/staff person be married. As such we make a lot of statements an assumptions that while often well intentioned are often false and misleading and frankly usually contradicting.
I was recently at staff conference where they were honoring people who have served in different capacities. At one point, the person leading the time said something to the effect of, “Can we have all the staff spouses stand. Let’s all give them a round of applause because we know that none of this happens without them. They are just as important to this work as anyone else.”
This was followed by a time of honoring certain staff and of course their spouses. “We all know that Joe wouldn’t be who he is without his wife Sally”.
I just sort of cringed. And I’m now married.
How would they honor the person who wasn’t married. “We all know that Joe would be even better if he were married?”
Let me be clear. I’m not suggesting that the staff spouse or pastor’s wife does not have a key role to play or that they shouldn’t be honored. It is a unique role that gets played out in many different effective ways. If a minister is married, they are indeed partnering in one form or another with their spouse. Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to keep doing it. Fair enough.
But to say that someone can’t do ministry or be successful in ministry without a spouse is crazy.
First of all it’s a job. I mean you go to work and do your job. Yes it is a unique calling in the Kingdom. No doubt. But still at the end of the day, I hold the title and all that comes with it, not my spouse.
Secondly, it can be done and done well without a spouse. I know this because I did it for nearly twenty years. While far from perfect God has used me in the ministry as a single person every bit as much as a married one. Every time someone says, I couldn’t do this job without my spouse I think, “Um actually you could and probably would.” Would it look different? Yes.
The funniest part about this is that many of the married people in ministry I know have spent time telling me over the years how much they wish they could do ministry the way I can. In other words, they would tell me that I had an advantage because I didn’t have marital commitments. So basically as a single full time ministry person I get to feel bad twice. First, I’m not “complete” because I don’t have an equal partner in the deal, and as a bonus, I should be able to do more because I don’t. Oh and of course, I guess if I get married then I will be less effective. So confusing.
The inconsistency is amazing. I can only think of one person who put it together. He said to me, “I don’t know how you do this job without a wife. I couldn’t do it single.” While I think he was wrong at least he was consistent.
We should start with the knowledge that if we are following God’s call to ministry then we can do that single or married. I’m not sure we can make the case that either is preferable from a pure ministry context. It sort of depends on the person and their calling.
In addition we should indeed thank the spouses of these people. Seriously. They are often sacrificing in one way or another. I know my wife does. Not only that but if you are married and doing ministry you need to know that your spouse is on your side. I could name a ton of people who are not doing ministry because of their spouse. That to me is why we need to honor them. Not because the minister couldn’t do their job without them, but because their spouse plays an important role that supports that ministry.
We should honor the actual role they play but do it in a way that doesn’t dishonor anyone else. We need to be able to say that the spouse’s role is important without saying that it is the same role or without suggesting that the minister’s role is dependent on it.
Finally, we need to understand that anyone who is called to the role can with God’s help do it. Otherwise we are undermining that call in one form or another.