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  • Hannah Williamson

Singleness & the Church

How can the church better engage, help & embrace singles?

I recently found myself around a table of leaders, many of whom I had not met before. To begin our time together, we went around introducing ourselves. The intros began the same. ‘Hi, I am ???. I am married to ??? I have ?? children. I am from ??? and I am a ???’ I was one of the last people to be introduced and I felt that feeling I have often found in these setting - awkwardness. I have kind of made it my life mission to ‘embrace the awkward’ as I don’t want to feel what I often felt in my teenage years - down right embarrassed over any and everything! I built myself up in my head, telling myself that my marital status did not define me, Jesus defined me and as confidently as I could I introduced myself. Of course no one flit an eyelid, but I knew how I felt. Partly frustration that I felt like the odd one out and part sadness that I still had not met someone.

We live in a world in which marriage is being devalued. We know that God created marriage to be something beautiful and so as churches, it is vitally important that we celebrate and teach what marriage is all about. As often happens when there are large social issues pressing for attention, there are minorities that can often be forgotten. The single person is one of them. And the double blow is that often the single people don’t have kids, another stigma to overcome or for many another sadness to carry.

I was recently called by another church leader who asked me how I felt the church could engage with and help those who were single. He leads a thriving church full of families but became aware that there are singles who may find it hard. I think he was somewhat apprehensive of asking….I guess it can be awkward. As I listened to him speak on the phone I felt overwhelmed with emotion just simply because someone had asked what I thought and what I had experienced. People rarely ask me how I find being single in the church. In fact, I don’t remember if I ever have been asked. To know that someone was thinking about this meant so much to me.

So, this blog aims to offer an introduction to the biblical understanding of singleness and secondly to offer some advice to the church on how to approach this well, ensuring we give people a healthy view of what it means to be single.

Bible First….

I guess I should start with the most obvious - Jesus was single. He did not marry. Even though God created marriage, he didn’t marry. He spoke and taught about marriage. He had friends who were married but he did not marry. We could go into many reasons for why that may be but for now all I think we need to note is that Jesus was single which would suggest there is nothing wrong with being single.

The second person that comes to mind is Paul. He too was single and spoke quite openly about this in 1 corinthians 7. Paul begins by talking about sex within the context of marriage. At the end of the paragraph about this, he says, ‘I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.’ (V7). This is important to note. He says both marriage and singleness are a gift. For many, singleness is seen as a curse. This definitely puts a different spin on things. The rest of the passage gives permission for both, but coming back to verse 7 we must remember they have equal status as a gift. One is not better than the other. There are both challenges and beauty in both.

Finally, I want to mention two women who were both single - Ruth and Naomi. They had both been married but find themselves, due to loss, as single women. As we know Ruth goes on to marry but Naomi does not. There was also no guarantee that Ruth would ever marry again. I am sure she would have carried a concern or fear that she would live single carrying the pain of loss forever. I am deeply inspired by ruth’s steadfast faith and sheer determination in the face of pain.

These bible characters perhaps shed light on the many different circumstances facing those who find themselves single. Some may be graced to be single their whole lives, some may be single for a part of their lives until finding someone, some are married first and then single due to loss or divorce. We should acknowledge before we go any further that singleness does not just mean someone in their 20’s who hasn’t yet found someone to marry. Singleness comes in many different forms and affects people in many different ways. For an older woman who has lost a spouse she may well have children around her. For a man whose wife has had an affair, he carries a different kind of loss and pain. For a person in their early 20’s, they may only be single for a few years but could make good use of that time. There may also be some who are in their 30’s of 40’s who may well marry but not be able to have children. There are so many different scenarios and we should be aware of that as we continue.

So, how can the church ensure they are honouring singleness as a gift alongside the gift of marriage?

I will look at a few mistakes I think the church has made and then give some practical ways we can think differently. I realise this could be quite heavy, so i’ll try to bring in some funny stories to lighten the mode! It’s not all doom and gloom!!!!!

I struggled in my 20’s being single. I wanted to marry just like all my friends around me. Don’t get me wrong, I still want to marry, but I’ve learnt to be content so it doesn’t consume my thoughts and I’m pretty okay waiting for God to sort it! I found it so hard to talk about the pain I felt of being single and people probably assumed that. I remember, sitting in a leadership team meeting at my church when we were discussing the preaching themes. To give context, I worked with my Dad so this could add to the awkwardness of the moment! I remember him saying ‘I think we should do a series on relationships at church. We could talk about marriage, but maybe it would be good to talk about being single.’ The room went quiet so I jumped in saying ‘I could do it!’ It was as if a pin could be heard! Awkwardly he asked, ‘are you sure?’ I embraced the moment and went for it!!! To be honest, the introduction was hilarious. People in the congregation looked so awkward. I started by sharing ‘awkward things people had said to me.’ People were scared to laugh. In the end, I remember saying ‘it’s okay, you can laugh!!!’ Finally people relaxed.

So often, when it comes to potentially painful topics, people get weird and awkward! As a result, they just don’t ever talk about it. The only way to ‘de-awkwardify’ a situation, in my opinion is to just say it! Get it out on the table (you can imagine what I’m like on a team! Ha!). Paul spoke about it when writing to the church in Corinth so I most definitely think we can speak about it!

Some Practical steps you can take as a church to TALK ABOUT IT!!!

Meet with a variety of singles in your church and ask some questions and then really listen. If you’re not sure what questions to ask, here are a few….
- Do you think there is a stigma in the church around being single? (Whether obvious or not so obvious?)
- How can we help you better as someone who is single in this church?
- Do you feel equipped to live as a single christian?
Preach about it - preferably getting someone who is single or at least was for a significant amount of time. Preaching about it when you were only single in your teenage years isn’t overly helpful!!!! Maybe consider if you are doing a series where you will speak about marriage, speak about singleness too!

My 20’s were the years of awkward comments. I’ll never forget the prophecy that a woman gave me saying ‘I really feel your man is just around the corner.’ 15 years later, she clearly was not right or it was one long corner. I remember another time, I was called down from my office as a woman had come to see me. She told me I needed a husband and that the reason I did not have one was that I had not prayed and fasted for 3 days straight. I hope you are laughing at this point!!!! Obviously, at the time I wanted to deck her, but I kept controlled, you’ll be glad to know and made a point of avoiding her if I ever saw her again.

There is definitely a sense in the church world whether said or unsaid that marriage is the end goal. This is problematic for me scripturally. Consider when Jesus is questioned about marriage in heaven in Matthew 22:23-33. He quite clearly states that there will be no marriage in heaven. I also struggle with this view point as it would suggest that anyone who does not marry has not ‘reached the goal.’ Marriage is beautiful and a God given gift, but our ultimate goal is to love Jesus and become more like Him. This is why it is so important that when we talk about marriage, we also talk about singleness. They are equally a gift, as we have said before. Over emphasising marriage can leave singles feeling disappointed and like they have not quite ‘made it’ and even thinking there is something wrong with them.

So, how do we as a church ensure this is not the case?

Some Practical steps you can take as a church to ensure you do not speak like marriage is the end goal or only goal in life…

Consider how you teach relationships to young people - opinions are formed strongly in the teenage years, so if a teenager believes they must marry, that is what they will focus on. Give a healthy understanding of both singleness, dating and marriage.
Ensure you are teaching healthy views of marriage and singleness without emphasising on one over the other!
Steer away from jokes made regarding people getting married. I always cringed when guest speakers would come through and say things like ‘I have a daughter that needs a husband if anyone is interested?’ Jokes like this, although people laugh, speak to the idea that you have to marry. This is hard if you don’t end up marrying.

The most annoying thing for someone who is single, particularly if in their 30’s is for someone to say, ‘I know what it’s like to be single. Before I got married at the age of 23, I experienced it.’ No you didn’t!!! Being 21 and single is very different to being 45 and single. We must also remember those who have been married but have lost a husband or wife. That is another type of pain and challenge. I have a relative who is in her 80’s and recently lost her husband. We discovered after his death that he did absolutely everything for her so when he passed away she was not only struggling with the loss of her husband but the fact she was not independent at all and was very anxious as a result. Her situation is miles apart from my mum when my Dad died. Mum always ran the finances in the house and so she had a good grip on this when my Dad passed away and had huge levels of independence. She faced different kinds of challenges. Everyone’s situation is different and it’s so easy to lump people in the some group and assume we understand.

Some of the conversations that have blessed me the most are when people have asked me ‘what are some of the challenges of being single in your 30’s? Or ‘what are some of the challenges leading as a single woman?’ Now, I’ll be honest, I can only think of 1 or 2 times I have been asked this. Most of the time, people don’t speak about it or tell me they understand. It’s so important in all situations to seek to learn and understand people. Without asking questions, we will never truly ‘get it’ and it can be easy to make assumptions, judgements and to respond to people in a way that can often be hurtful.

Some Practical steps you can take as a church to ensure you don’t make assumptions when it comes to singleness…

Keep the dialogue with singles going, seeking to understand from their point of view
Put things into practice from what you learn.
Consider the different types of singles, seeking to understand how their situations are different.

I was a Youth Pastor in my church and became one when I was 21. I worked in that role for 15 years. I was convinced that I would meet someone and marry during that time, but that was not to be my story, My role then transitioned into Executive Pastor and so my leadership capacity increased and I ended up overseeing a lot of our teams as a church, whilst sitting on the leadership team. At 21, most of my peers were not married but 15 years on at 36, most were married with kids. Throughout that time, I found myself at times getting so frustrated leading and questioning why I had to do it alone when everyone around me wasn’t.

There were of course, leadership challenges that were exactly the same whether single or married, but there were some that were and continue to be quite unique to my situation. I will note at this point, that some of the challenges are unique to me as a single women. I do accept that some things may be different for a guy. However, to give some examples, here are a few things I personally found challenging. 1. Processing. One of the hardest things was working out who to talk through what I was facing with. I watched my parents share everything and help one another work through leadership challenges. I did not have a partner to share that with. I formed friendships outside of my church context which helped but I couldn’t always talk to them when I needed to offload. 2. Relationships with those I led alongside. As a single woman, leading in a team of men, it meant my relationship with them was obviously different to their relationship with each other. They would hang out, go to watch football together or even join with other couples to go on holiday. This level of relationship building aided the way they worked together. For me to have that kind of relationship, I had to be close with the husband and wife, but sometimes I had nothing in common with the wife or she did not want any involvement in leading. I came to the conclusion, as a single woman, in order to lead well in a team context in a church, I would have to have a great relationship with both spouses so that real relationship could be built. This would overcome any awkwardness around working closely with the man.

Some Practical steps you can take as a church to ensure you consider singles who lead….

Be aware of the unique challenges and make sure you ask the person how they are finding things.
Think about how you build relationship across the team - think through how you can ensure a single doesn’t get left out.
Be careful how much you put on a single. It can be easy to assume they ‘have more time’ and they can be prone to burnout as a result.

Friendship is not something I have heard spoken about much in church but it is so central to the biblical narrative. Jesus said I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you,’ in John 15:15. Some of the challenge to singles is loneliness. That feeling of going home at the end of a work day, making dinner for yourself and sitting alone without anyone to talk to. Married people and especially those with children often joke saying ‘I wish I could have that.’ To a single, that is a painful thing to be said to them as they may never have children. But I firmly believe, a single does not have to face huge levels of loneliness if they know how to build and sustain good friendships. Often when people pair off and marry, they only ever meet with other couples and the singles get forgotten. This is tragic in my opinion. I am so very grateful for married couples who want to hang out with me and don’t make it awkward. I want to be friends with both men and women in the context of friendship. I want to be friends with married couples. I also need other single friends. But building these kind of friendships take time and effort. People can get so busy in life that they do not take the time to build these kind of friendships.

One thing I have also seen, from another perspective is when someone is married and then loses their spouse and how friendship looks for them. Often the spouse becomes their only focus and they don’t build into any other friendships, so when they lose that spouse they are stuck without friends. I love the story of David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel. They were friends through highs and lows. They were friends when they were married and had families to take care of. Their friendship carried through. In fact their friendship was so strong that they made a covenant with each other. (1 Samuel 18:3)

I think one thing that would help singles in the church is to help people learn what it is to be a friend. This seems so simplistic and something we would teach to children but we all need community and so whether single or married we need friends and we need to cultivate these friendships. One reason we should teach on ‘healthy friendship’ is to counter a culture in which we live in which sometimes ‘unhealthy attachments’ are formed. There is a way to have a healthy friendship with a member of the opposite sex that is not inappropriate but sometimes we just don’t talk about how and people end up in rocky ground.

Some Practical steps you can take as a church to ensure promote healthy friendship….

Model it to your congregation and ensure your leadership team model it too! My Dad was great at this, he always spoke about his ‘best friend.’ His best friend lived in American but every week, he would call him and they would chat and then every year they would see each other.
Think about your small group structure - do they have a mixture of singles and married couples and families in each group. Another benefit of this is if you have a single or singles in your group, they will see marriage and family modelled to them so that when/if they marry it will help them.
Preach it!!!! Talk about people like David and Jonathan!

I hope as you read this, you can hear my heart. I am content as a single woman although I hold at the same time a desire to marry and holding both in tension is okay and possible. There are some who will never marry. Some who will marry and then face the loss of a partner. And some who may face the tragedy of divorce. All are welcome in the kingdom of God and loved by God. All should be welcomed and find their place in the local church. My prayer through writing this is that you would at least take time to consider, ask questions and seek to understand the world of the single. My hope is that you would do all you can to love, accept and encourage the spiritual growth of a single. Singleness isn’t a disaster but a gift from God that some are graced to carry whether for a season or for life. Let’s protect and honour that gift.

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