The Ministry Spouse Myth

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.

Continue reading

Take Advantage Of Your Singleness – What Does That Even Mean?

I ran into a guy I hadn’t seen in a while a couple of weeks ago.  He had heard about my recent engagement (you read that right). He said, “I always thought that you felt called to singleness.”  I said that while I have prayed about it at different times I’ve never felt that call.  He said, “Man, that sucks”.  What he meant was that since I was 40 that’s a long time to not feel called to singleness.  He’d be right. Ha.

I had another friend tell me once, “We were talking about you the other day and wondering if you really would ever get married.  I mean you take such advantage of your singleness.”

We are told all the time to take advantage of our singleness.  I’ve always kind of been bothered by this idea.  I mean I get it.  When you get married stuff changes.  In many ways you have less freedom to do what you want, when you want.  You aren’t making decisions on your own (not that you should be doing that anyway).  Then when you throw in kids, you have even more immediate responsibility.

But we have to be careful with this line of thinking. Taking advantage of your singleness could lead to a couple traps we as singles can fall into.  

For starters taking advantage of your singleness shouldn’t turn into, “live it up now because when you are married the fun is over.”  This creates a bad idea of marriage. When you get married you don’t die (you will have to die to yourself in places – but again you should be learning to do that anyway).  You’re not dead – you’re married.  This is so critical.  Marriage does require sacrifice and compromise.  But it should be fun.  Marriage should be a new place to live life to the full – just in a different context.

The idea of living it up now – can also become an excuse for sin.  In other words I can just do what I want regardless.  This can lead to sexual sin, partying or other hard living.  Or along with this – why not play video games or whatever all the time.  The list goes on.  This is all stuff that gets in the way of becoming married and more importantly it is not what we are called to by Jesus.

Secondly, taking advantage of your singleness shouldn’t turn into, “Throw yourself into your work and build your career.”  There are way too many people finding their identity in their work.  This is a huge trap for single folks.  I mean if I’m free to work more, shouldn’t I?  When I started out in my career I would sometimes work 80 hours a week.  That was stupid.  But who was gonna tell me that?  No one.  When work becomes our identity it also becomes a place to hide from the hard parts of our singleness. In other words, if I’m focussed on work, then I don’t have to face my insecurities in other areas. Plus if my identity is in my work, and then I get married I’m going to be in trouble – both at work and at home.

Then the church comes into play.  You’re single, so take advantage of your singleness or in other words “You should do more ministry than a married person.”  This is bad on a couple of levels.  It again sets marriage up as an end to doing good ministry.  I know for a fact that this isn’t true because I’ve watched lots of married people be just as effective as me at ministry.  But if we build that into singles’ heads then when they get married they will think that they should not do ministry.  I’ve also seen that happen lots of times.  Don’t get me wrong, marriage will change HOW you do ministry, but it doesn’t change that you should be doing ministry.

Here is what I came to several years ago.  The key is to live life as best you can to the full.  In other words, take advantage of life regardless of the context you are in.  What is Jesus leading me to do from where I’m at?  That is for sure going to look different married vs. single.  But you know what, it also looks different at 40 than it did at 25.  I’m not who I was at 25.  My role in God’s story is different.  I’m counting on that being different 10 years from now.  Don’t take advantage of singleness (and don’t be defined by it) – live your life to the full regardless of context.  Engage Jesus and the people and world around you.  Don’t miss that.

Are you engaged in your context?  Are you taking advantage of the now? Or are you missing it by hiding?  What is your identity in?

What Paul Is Not Saying

A lot of married people have told me over the years that I should enjoy ministry as a single person because when (notice not if) I get married then I will not be able to do as much for the Lord.

I’ve determined that most of these people have no idea what they are talking about.  I don’t mean that as a slam at all.  I just think that most people haven’t lived it.  It comes mostly from people who have a tough situation or who got married really early and the last thing they remember about being single was what it was like as an a person in their early twenties.

This whole thought process is based on a bunch of wrong understandings and assumptions.

A lot of it comes from what I would call a misinterpretation of Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35. Paul basically says that an unmarried person is devoted to the Lord and not distracted by the needs of his spouse. This is then interpreted to mean that a person can do more ministry as a single.

But I don’t think that is actually what Paul is saying when you put it in the wider context of that scripture and certainly in the context of all scripture.

First of all if this is true then the Church should be encouraging everyone to stay single. We’d get a heck of a lot more done apparently. But obviously this is not the case.  Hmm. So I can be more devoted to the Lord as a single but I should get married.  Confused yet? So are they.

This is why it is so important to think about calling instead of making assumptions.  In the broader context it seems to me that Paul is saying live as you are called – don’t give in to societal (or I would add Church) pressures.  Are you called to singleness – don’t seek marriage.  Are you called to marriage – don’t remain single.

Paul is not trying to say that married people are any less devoted to the Lord or that they can’t do ministry.

He’s saying be aware that the married person’s number one ministry is to their spouse -that is what the covenant of marriage is all about.  Second would be their children.  But that doesn’t become their only ministry.

Paul is also not saying, as many people tell us singles, “Enjoy this season being devoted to the Lord until you get married because then you’ll be less devoted.”  Paul is not talking about a season of singleness.  He is talking about a calling to follow the Lord in a way that doesn’t include marriage.  Big difference!

This is actually one of the huge tensions single people often face.  They know that they are called to be married, and yet they are trying to serve the Lord.  Tension comes in big time when the calling seems to lead them into less chances to meet potential partners.  Let’s say you’re single and 30 and feel called to work with youth.  You work on a team with all married people.  So now you spending your free time with married people and kids. Whoops.

I have often lived in this tension.  Do I stay in my small group with all marrieds or not? Should I go do my ministry tonight or to the party?  I want to date this person but they aren’t doing any of the same ministry (church, small group, project etc) as I am.  What do I do?

The truth is that despite the common assumption, I can be extremely distracted with marriage and the things of this world even though I am presently single.  I’ve seen this totally wreck single people’s ministry and for that matter their walk with God.

I’ve actually seen many times where a person becomes a better missional person after they get married because the question is now answered and they don’t have to be distracted by it any more.  And there in lies what I think the whole of scripture would point to.

We need to take stock of our calling.  One of the tests here is if I’m not distracted by the need to marry it might be a good idea to stay single (now just because I’m distracted doesn’t mean I’m called to be married but it’s an indicator).  If on the other hand I don’t feel called to follow the Lord that way and indeed feel like I should be married then I need to pursue that.

What Paul is saying is be devoted to the Lord and take action.  When he says to “stay” as you are that is not passive – it’s an action step.  If you should get married pursue it, with the Lord obviously.  If you shouldn’t get married, pursue that – again with the Lord.

40 Year Old Virgin

This weekend I turn 40.  I have never had sex.  That’s right.  I will be the 40 year old virgin.  Now that stirs something in you. Some might think I’m some sort of hero.  Some might think I’m a wuss or haven’t really lived, or that I can’t get a date.  Some will wonder how the heck I haven’t exploded.  Still others might feel guilty of their own sin.

The truth is, I’m neither proud or ashamed of it.

On the one hand I’m glad that I haven’t had sex outside of marriage.  I know that’s not what God would want.  On the other hand I’ve given into sexual immorality in other ways. At some point in the last 25 years I’ve struggled with having lustful thoughts,  viewing porn,  fantasizing about women, and masturbation.  I’ve gone “too far” with women here and there.

I’ve also messed up dating.  Part of the reason I’m a virgin is I’m not married. Ha!  What I mean is if I’d dated better or learned what the heck I was doing maybe I would have gotten married sooner.  I could have been less selfish or arrogant at times.  Other times I shouldn’t have been passive or afraid.  I’ve helped make myself single many times.

So I’m not here to say “yeah me”.  I’m not here to beat myself up either.  I’m here to say that just because you are single doesn’t mean you have to give in to sexual immorality.

The last couple of blogs I’ve talked a lot about principles we need to hold.  We need to have the right view of sex, we need to have the right view of desire, and we need to desire Jesus most of all. These are all essential.

But today I want to talk about some things that have helped me over the last 20 plus years practically speaking.  These are not THE answers necessarily, but as I look back and think about how I ended up not having sex or being completely dominated by the drive to, these are some keys.

I‘ve read the Bible.  Being in the scriptures makes us love God more – which fills us up. It also shaped my view of sex.  As a new believer at 17 we read in a small group about fleeing from immorality and why.  I had never heard it before and it shaped my view at an early age.  What we take into our minds and hearts helps to shape our desires.  We need to take in scripture and worship etc.

I’ve never seriously dated anyone who didn’t know Jesus.  Its not that I never wanted to.  I just knew I couldn’t.  This is so huge. It means both people might at least try to abstain.  I can’t count the people I know who have had their walk shaken by dating someone who isn’t following Jesus.  If you are the only one who is going to say no, you’re in trouble.

Along those lines, I’ve always predetermined that I would say no.  Sometimes this has meant literally avoiding certain situations.  But this is what Paul means when he says flee. Stay the heck out of the scenario to begin with.

To further that thought, for almost as long as I’ve had a computer, I’ve had Covenant Eyes.  This service sends everything I look at online to a friend.  I think this is by far the best approach.  I would say every guy should have this. Why not?

I’ve chosen to have people in my life who know everything I’m doing.  They have permission to ask me anything.  Here is a trustworthy saying.  If it’s secret it’s wrong. Even if it’s not technically wrong.

All of the above have helped me but as I’ve thought about this the number one helpful thing is that long ago I realized that it’s not just about me.

From early on I’ve been doing ministry.  I don’t mean that I’ve been in full time ministry although for much of it I have been.  What I mean is that when you are trying to show others Jesus and leading people, what you do matters more.  Others are looking at me.  I can’t count the times that this has stopped me.

Times when I would have gone to the strip club, or met someone at a bar and had a one night stand.  There were other’s hearts at stake.  I remember early in my career someone said that is not very good accountability.  I would submit that it’s actually damn good accountability.  If it’s just about me or “saving myself for marriage” then I might be willing to compromise. If it’s about God and His kingdom, that’s a whole other thing.

Jesus said the most important thing is to love God and love others. Sexual immorality gets in the way of that.  I truly believe if our focus is ourselves, or even our own little life with Jesus, we are screwed.  But if we are focused on loving Jesus and loving others, we have a chance.

Loving Your Married Friends Well

So I’m 39 and single.  I’ve been very blessed in my life to have several very strong mentors including one who has walked with me for over twenty years and another for over fifteen.  Others who have had huge impact in my life along the way.  One of the things they have all had in common (other than the whole Jesus thing obviously) is that they have all been married.

I think this is a really good thing.  For one, I’ve gotten to see their marriages.  I’ve gotten to see the things that they’ve done well and things they’ve screwed up.  They’ve demystified things about marriage and parenting that otherwise I would have not known.  I’ve seen their families do things differently than mine.  Sometimes better and sometimes worse. They’ve walked with me through all sorts of things, including my singleness and all the cycles that go with it.

I bring this up because I think in our Christian culture we get stuck in this idea that only people just like me can understand.  And while there is some truth to that, mostly it’s a load of crap.

As I wrote about earlier this can happen in the Church from a leadership perspective.  But it also happens because often times we singles view ourselves as less able to minister to our friends and others who are married than we actually are.

What’s interesting is for me it’s been the other way around.

When I started out everyone who was pouring into me was married, but everyone my age was single.  Then when I got into my late 20s and early 30s there was a shift.  Now almost all of my peers were married, but the people I was pouring into were single.  But now at 39 there’s been a new shift.  Now at least half of the people I’m pouring into and discipling are married.  It’s kind of crazy.

You know what, they are still my people.  

I think that we as single people have a unique opportunity to love our married friends well. We can offer some things that sometimes others can’t.  As I’ve mentioned before, we can fight for their marriage.  We can be a great outside voice that asks questions.  Also, just because we aren’t married doesn’t mean we can’t see what is going on and call stuff out. We still know relationship problems when we see them.

We also typically have more flexibility.  And we should use that to serve them.  Now before you freak out, I don’t mean babysitting and I don’t mean that we aren’t busy or that our time is less valuable. But like to admit it or not, there is a difference between the single lifestyle and the married one.

For example one of my best friends is married with three kids.  About once a month, we grab a cigar late at night – after the kids are down.  I just shoot him a text and say, “Cigar – late?” And I get a text back that says essentially, “Um Yes Please!”  Stuff that I get to do all the time (go to a ball game, meet up for a drink, take a late night phone call) can be a treat for someone with young kids.  So why not use it with one of them.

Here’s what I’m getting at, we need to serve our married friends and we need to keep pursuing them.  We need to use our flexibility to our advantage.  If it’s easier to go to their house for dinner we should do it.  On the other hand when is the last time you made dinner for a couple – why is it always the married people who cook the meal?  Know what I’m saying?  If we want to be treated as equal adults, let’s be that.

I know this is not a super deep post but the point is we have a lot to offer married people and we need to offer it.  A lot of times single people feel left out or not part of the “in group” at church etc.  I have definitely felt that at times and sometimes there is truth in it.  I have and will continue to call that out.  But other times it has more to do with us than them and we just need to get over it.  We need to go with the attitude of what we can offer them.

There will always be some married people who write us off.  But we will definitely be written off if we don’t offer.

If you’re single, how have you felt like you could love your married friends well?  How confident are you that you can minister to married people? If you are married, how have single friends been a blessing to you?

Single People Should Do More Ministry – Not!

When I first started out in my career (which happens to be full time ministry) I used to work about 70 hours a week.  I’m not exaggerating.   I was young, fired up, and I just went at it. It was driven by a lot of things, including the desire to be successful, to be noticed and win approval on the bad side, love of the mission, love of the people, and desire to change the world on the good side.  But what this did, quietly and slowly, was to begin to shape my identity by what I did and not who I was.  It was not my organization’s fault.  It was mine. This of course is a trap for anyone, married, single or otherwise.  Things other than Jesus are always vying for the throne of our life.  As I mentioned in a previous blog even our marriage, singleness or kids can become our identity.

But when you are single there is this subtle (or often not so subtle) message from the Church – “Your single, so you can serve anytime.  You have time, you are free from other things – you should be doing more.”  We believe this stuff and we start living that way.

It’s pushed on us all the time. I’ve heard married people say, how they wish they could do the ministry we can do.  This is kind of an accidental subtle shot at us.  So, the reason that I’m successful is because I’m single?  Might it have something to do with being good at it? Secondly, how do you explain that almost every protestant pastor is married – as are elders, leaders in Christian organizations and on and on.  I don’t think being good at it has much to do with marital status – it has to do with God, obedience and gifting among other things.  Personally, all the people I look up to the most in ministry are married.

Now there is some truth in this for non paid ministry person.  A single person with a full time secular job (not that there isn’t ministry in that) does have more time to give to other stuff than a married person – especially one with kids.  But this idea that as a single person I’m not busy, have no personal life, no personal passions, and no limits is wrong.  By the way it is just as wrong to assume that a married person can’t serve – don’t say no for them. I’ll admit I’ve ruled people out that I shouldn’t have.

In fact part of the danger of this is that it sends two bad messages. 1. If you are single, your personal life and time is less valuable than a married person’s and 2. Once you are married you can’t do anything but be married.  Yikes these are so wrong!  A third danger is that as a single person it is easy to hide in ministry or work, just like as a married person it is easy to hide in being married or parenting (If you are married you can also hide from your family in ministry or work – but that is a different blog).

We need to realize that one is not better than another.  They are instead different, with different needs and advantages.  We have to do ministry differently.  I do have more flexibility as a single person and I should use it for the kingdom.  I can meet you late a night for a drink and conversation, but guess what I also go home . . . alone.  Know what I’m saying here?  I don’t have to be home for dinner, but I also don’t have a safe family environment to invite you into.  There are million examples.

Look, we are all called and all needed.  One of the most attractive things about the kingdom to an outside person should be the diversity within it.  But we’ve got to respect, not judge, each others’ situations and help each other (read push each other) to grow, yes in ministry, but also in life.

So, what is your identity in?  Do you hide in ministry? Or do you hide from ministry?  What are some ways we can help each other grow?