The Marriage Elite

the Marriage Elite

When will the church move beyond its single-minded obsession?

by Nilwona E. Nowlin | March 22, 2018

When I was fifteen, I imagined that I’d be married with kids and a best-selling book by the time I was twenty-five. At twenty-five, I was single with no prospects. It wasn’t quite a recipe for disaster, but it stirred up its fair share of unnecessary stress. See, most of what I’d heard about singleness from the pulpit until then was that it was the time in life to prepare for marriage. If I was “still” single, it meant that a) God was still working on me, b) God was still working on my future husband, or c) a little of both. The longer I was single, the more I began to feel like there was a whole unknown checklist of benchmarks I wasn’t meeting.

I tried to do everything I could to fix myself, including delving into books for singles with titles like Lady in Waiting, Never Alone, and the now infamous I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I was one of the most dedicated volunteers in my church, had an active relationship with God, tried to be a compassionate and dedicated friend—yet I was still single. In my late twenties, I was frustrated and tired of trying to meet these unknown benchmarks.

Then I changed my perspective. I thought about the older single women in my church. There were women in their thirties, forties, and fifties who had never been married, yet they were cheerful and seemed content. If they could do it, then so could I!

So I entered my thirties feeling slightly more hopeful. Surely God had someone out there for me—I just had to shift my focus. Delve deep into working for the Lord, and my husband would show up when I least expected it. That perspective lasted for about twenty minutes. By that point, my biological clock was clanging in a most disrespectful manner, and I was going into panic mode. Maybe I’d set my standards too high and should reconsider old boyfriends? There had to be something I could do. I just couldn’t fathom the possibility of being a “forever single.” Nothing in my spiritual formation had prepared me for such a possibility. My whole life I’d been living with the expectation that I would get married and have children. Teachings from the pulpit (and church culture in general) not only encouraged this but essentially set it as the standard.

By the time I reached forty, I had done some deep work with God and finally come to a place of truly being content in my singleness (and childlessness). If I got married, cool! If I didn’t, cool! When this happened, I realized that I had been duped. It was like I’d discovered the existence of the Matrix. To the church (and society), I had no true value or purpose unless I was married with children. This message is embedded within our sermons, Sunday-school classes, auxiliary ministries—it’s everywhere. And we’ve all—singles included—internalized it. As a forty-three-year-old single woman with no kids, I’ve learned that the church doesn’t quite know what to do with me. Most singles ministries are designed for twenty-somethings, but most ministry activities for people in my age group are designed for married people and/or parents. I’ve learned to “get in where I fit in,” but that can often be an isolating and painful experience. I have found that the longer a person has been married, or the younger they were when they got married, the less likely they are able to realistically speak to the “struggle” of being single. But that doesn’t stop them from trying—and often running over our personhood and emotions like a bulldozer in a junkyard. This is my lived experience and the experience of many of my single friends. Because the church has set “married with children” as the standard, those of us who don’t fit that standard are otherized.

Because the church has set “married with children” as the standard, those of us who don’t fit that standard are otherized.

How can the church do better by the single folks in the pews? Of course each context is unique, but in my ideal congregation here are some ways the church could more fully integrate single people into the body.

Recognize that “single” is only a fraction of our identity. There is an unspoken assumption that for people who are single with no kids life is automatically a cakewalk. This attitude seems to presume that the core of our existence is centered on our missing spouse or children. Yet single folks have the same types of commitments and stressors (work, church, family) as married folks. Should I dare to comment on social media how tired I am at the end of the day, I have to brace myself for the onslaught of, “At least you don’t have to come home and take care of a husband and kids.” For a single person who continues to lament my singleness, such comments are a kick to the gut. They minimize the very real obligations and stressors I face every day that have nothing to do with my marital status. In my own situation I must also manage a chronic illness that renders me exhausted as soon as I get out of the bed in the morning—in addition to working to make a living, cooking my meals, doing laundry, scrubbing the toilet, and taking out the trash at the end of the day. And be present to others in my life as a minister, friend, daughter, auntie, sister, etc.

Recognize that the needs of singles may vary according to their phase in life. Singles inhabit all walks of life and, like all people, have a variety of needs. A twenty-three-year-old divorced woman has different needs than a twenty-five-year-old single man or a thirty-eight-year-old single mom. And their needs differ from the fifty-three-year-old divorced dad or the seventy-nine-year-old widow. Yet too often singles ministries in the church simply still function as holy dating services for twenty-somethings.

I sometimes wonder if singles ministries do more harm than good. Perhaps we could better integrate singles into the life of the church by focusing on all members’ spiritual formation—singles and married people alike. In other words, if we focus on developing disciples—people who are growing daily in Christlikeness—then we could better listen to each person, and where they are on that journey. Rather than lumping all of us into a single category—or all married people into one category—such a perspective could make space for a wider variety of perspectives and stories and needs.

I sometimes wonder if singles ministries do more harm than good.

Instead of making assumptions about us, walk alongside us. Psychologist and theologian Christena Cleveland says the married/single conversation is cross-cultural. She says that married people should approach the topic of singleness as we would any other culture that is different from ours.

When I coach people about cultural competency, I encourage them to build authentic relationships with people who are different from themselves. One of my greatest frustrations as a single person is when people who don’t have a relationship with me attempt to make suggestions about how I should live. Often those comments come from a desire to be helpful, but it is deeply hurtful to hear comments about a single person’s integrity, maturity level, and ability to lead that are too often based on assumptions about singleness.

For example, I have heard the generalization that single people struggle with lust, so single women are often labeled as threats/temptations to men (both married and single). As well, I have been told that being single at my age means there is clearly something wrong with me. Those kinds of assumptions lead to single people being passed over for leadership opportunities in the church.

Sometimes people assume that childless singles don’t know how to effectively engage with children. Yet paradoxically, because it’s easy to make assumptions about how much free time we have because we’re single, we’re also often the first to be asked to provide childcare or serve in the children’s ministry. Often, married people don’t realize the level of pain these experiences cause single people until they are walking alongside us
in authentic relationship.

When you think about it, it’s a bit ironic that single people are marginalized in a faith tradition that worships a single Savior. If we revisit the life of Christ, we are reminded that he makes space at his table for everyone. May it be so with his church.

About the Author

Nilwona serves as a minister at Kingdom Covenant Church in Chicago and the executive director of Kingdom Oaks Community Development Corporation. One of her goals for 2018 is to finish writing her first fiction novel, Closer to Love. You can catch her procrastinating through oversharing at thedreamerspeaks.com.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

16 Comments

  1. Thought provoking and insightful. I am integrated in my current church but often wonder why I did miss out on the blessing of a mate. Nevertheless I am determined to serve the Lord wholeheartedly.

  2. Thank you for this. Married at 23 (12 years ago) and trying to meet the singles at our church where they are, not where I assume them to be!

  3. That is one reason I do not regularly attend any church – it just can get so overwhelimg emotionally to be overlooked and ignored.. But when people hear that I am ‘outside the camp’, I am the one who gets the blame.. for not ‘having fellowship’.
    I have found there are more fellowship opportunities outside the organized church than inside it – which is not what God intended, I am sure! – I am grateful for the surprises and encounters He provides.

  4. Thanks for this important perspective. It’s a conversation the church is not having! As a pastor I include myself in that mix…sometimes we’re guilty of what we don’t say…

  5. Thank you Nilwona for this well written article! I cannot thank you enough as it helps me feel less alone in my singleness and reminds me that others understand. I am a different single as I have adult children with distance between us. I long for companionship and the things Carlene mentioned and to truly be loved for who I am. Sometimes when I think that I could die and no one would know until I did not show up at work it makes me really sad.

    1. Hey, Pam! I SO agree with you. It’s weird to wonder as a single person who would miss you if you dropped off the face of the earth. I’m not on anyone’s radar. I found a good Christian couple who don’t have kids and live nearby who are such a blessing to me. I’ve been burned a few times by my church. I was once put in a small group with 5 grandmothers, the youngest was old enough to be my mother! I dropped out before the first meeting. At one service, they asked us to greet each other and share what you did on Valentine’s Day. Umm…I went to the gym and wondered where everyone was.
      I wrote a thesis on this very topic. I think the church needs to first LISTEN to singles. Don’t assume you know my life even though you were single for a second. You don’t know what my life is like!!
      I like to say, “single is WHAT I am; it’s not WHO I am. I am so much more than my marital status. I have learned to not wait for marriage for things because that may never happen.
      I am still trying to learn how to mourn the loss of someone who’s never existed without looking like a crazy person.

  6. If this hasn’t been said yet, let me say, ‘I am sorry.’ I have been on both sides of this conversation and neither feels good when it is not done well. Thank you for the encouragement to be a better church to our sisters and brothers.

  7. Super thanks, Nilwona. I would add to the misunderstandings between the married group (dominant although no longer majority!) and singles the failure to recognize how extremely isolated a single adult is in our culture today. Not saying that marrieds are not lonely, just that a married person is more likely to have someone at hand to hear how the day went, to share a meal, to do something (anything!) with on the weekend, to travel with on vacation, to help consider various plans — whether for remodeling a home or retooling a career. Singles in 21st c America wake and fall asleep in an empty house, cook for 1, and have social contact only by prearrangement. Married people (esp w/ kids) complain about finding time for themselves (until the nest empties …). Singles have to work very hard to orchestrate any time at all with other people (other than side-by-side program activity). And you’re right: Married generally aren’t listening to single. Perhaps even less now that they’re becoming a beleaguered “minority” of the adult community.

    1. Thank you so very much for this comment & acknowledgment – especially since we’re learning that loneliness, esp when chronic, is as harmful as smoking or obesity. It’s particularly hard when you’re more introverted (another marginalized group in many churches) & so aren’t nourished and replenished by the regular social gatherings/groups. Again, thank you.

    2. This is a great point! As I read this excellent article, I remembered how stressful it was at the end of a hard day to return to my one-bedroom apartment as a single person. I had no energy to go out, but I also had no one “easy” to talk to. Now, as a married woman with kids, at least I get hugs and know there are people walking this journey with me.

      I often lament what marrying the clergy in the reformation did to the value of singleness. It was unfortunate that in the west, singleness & celibacy were considered higher spirituality. The reformation had the opportunity to make married and single spirituality equal, but instead made married spirituality higher. Whereas many medieval nuns had spiritual authority on their own, Protestant singles no longer had much. Many married and their avenue for spiritual authority was through their husband. In modern Protestantism, there’s little honor for single spirituality and I think we miss out.

      Luther didn’t think single clergy could advise married people, but I’ve received some really great advice for my marriage from a single female pastor and a Roman Catholic priest. We all can learn from single people! (It’s crazy that I have to say that. BOTH Jesus and Paul were single, and we learn from them when we read the New Testament!)

      I wrote a short blog on why single people make great pastors a while ago: http://amyfdavisabdallah.com/singlepastors/

  8. Those kinds of assumptions lead to single people being passed over for leadership opportunities in the church. I had a bit of a different struggle with the church. I was placed in leadership positions because I was of a certain age, but I was the only single woman, so many times I headed up way too many programs because, my age group “couldn’t” take on responsibilities because their husbands wouldn’t let them, and the older women “had done their time.” All the time listening to comments that they had to find a wife for the youth pastor. No one was interested in finding a husband for me. I eventually burned out and left that church.

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *