Do singles or marrieds make better pastors? The debate is nothing new, though it’s been reinvigorated in recent years. Historically, single men predominated. Lately, the pendulum has swung toward marrieds, and some even suggest that singles should not serve as pastors. I have previously written in defense of singleness in the pastoral role. When I wrote the article, I had served as a single pastor for 19 years—14 as a senior pastor.
Over the past three years, something special and wonderful happened to me—I joined the ranks of married pastors. The beautiful tsunami of parenting has recently crashed into my pastoral ministry as well. Through it all I’ve seen the advantages and struggles of pastoring both as a single and as a married man.
I shouldn’t be so surprised, but my experience has followed the analysis Paul gave to the marriage and ministry question in 1 Corinthians 7.
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (1 Cor. 7:32-35)
Both sides of the debate over whether single men should be pastors cite this famous passage. Yet Paul is not arguing for one or the other as right or wrong. Rather, he is giving wise apostolic counsel regarding how the marital state affects life and ministry experience. Allow me to present the relevant points in 1 Corinthians 7 intertwined with my experience. This list is certainly not exhaustive, and comments on this article will likely include many other worthy considerations.
The Advantages of Singleness in Ministry
When my interests are divided, so is my time. Ministry takes time. Relationships take time. In my single years, I had a massive amount of time to spend with people, projects, sermon preparation, prayer, and weekly emergencies and surprises. I loved being a pastor, and the amount of time I could put toward pastoral ministry would have been sinful neglect of family for a married pastor. As an example, over my single years, I would spend one, two, or three nights a week in the homes of church members. I often had people and groups in my home, as it was always available. Now that I am married, those activities have lessened by necessity.
Married pastor, how much better would you know your flock if you spent hundreds of nights in their homes and they in yours? Think of all the good a pastor could do if suddenly the time spent on marriage and parenting could be put toward the church. Is that sermon a little better? Is the exposition a little more thorough? Is the pastor a little more present in those critical moments in peoples’ lives? Do the elders and staff get a little more personal attention?
Relationships take energy. Marriage takes energy. We all have a finite supply of it. In my single years, it seemed I had nearly boundless energy. Of course, my single years were also my younger years. Still, my wife and child demand energy and effort. I slept more and better as a single. Working out was easier to fit into the schedule. There were fewer domestic expectations and duties.
Billy Graham acknowledged this difference in a letter to the lifelong single John Stott. He said, “Thank you for your November letter. Just reading it made me a bit exhausted! How do you do it my friend? If you had a wife, five children, five in-laws—and 15 grandchildren, it would be rather difficult. Please forgive me if I am not able to keep up with you!”
Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 7 that the married are necessarily “anxious about worldly things,” but the unmarried are “free from anxieties.” My experience in both categories would definitely affirm this teaching. For those 20 years of single pastoring, my thoughts were substantially focused on the church. I thought about ministry matters constantly. My mind moved there naturally with problem solving, creativity, prayer, sermon prep, and so on. Those thoughts produced vision, teaching, and countless other helps that assisted my church greatly.
The married pastor has much more to think about that lies outside of ministry. He must think about his wife and her needs, his children if he has them, domestic cares, health issues in the family, conflict resolution, and the ebbs and flows of family life. It is simply impossible for the best-meaning married pastor to match the mental and spiritual focus on church ministry afforded to single pastors. Who reaps the benefits? The local church does.
The Advantages of Marriage in Ministry
The advantages of singleness do not diminish the advantages of marriage, nor vice versa. This is not a zero-sum issue. Paul also calls marriage a gift, and it provides real advantages in ministry too.
1. Maturity, Love, and Spiritual Growth
I begin with this advantage, because it is the most pronounced. Marriage creates daily moments and tensions that change the man. He cannot be as he was. A man will not last long in ministry or marriage if he does not grow in his desire and ability to please his wife (1 Cor. 7:33). This is the joy of love. The highs of marriage are greater than anything I experienced in my singleness. Yet I am regularly challenged and confronted with marriage’s demand to die to self. When you are single, you read that teaching and think, Yeah, I get it. No problem. Then marriage sticks your nose in your own selfishness and, at least for me, it is not pretty. That visage brings change, spiritual growth, maturity, and a host of other pastorally helpful qualities. Here marriage does what no seminary can.
If the husband is worth his salt, he learns to concern himself primarily with the needs of his wife. This is the essence of love and the hallmark of self-giving ministry. Marriage is a blast furnace. The man goes into marriage made of one set of material, but the heat and pressure change him. The furnace forcefully produces qualities that make not just better husbands, but also better servant-leaders. The better the husband, the better the pastor, for pastoring at its core is leading and loving as a servant.
2. Sexual Desire
Our sexualized Western culture so resembles ancient Corinth that Paul’s Corinthian letter is as relevant as ever. Throughout 1 Corinthians 7, sexual desire factors into Paul’s argument for the purpose of marriage. Sex in marriage is a mutual right and a weapon in the fight against sexual temptation. It is at least a consideration when deciding whether to trade the gift of celibacy for the gift of marriage. Marriage’s sexual freedom is a great aid in the struggle for purity, as it provides a righteous outlet for sexual desire.
In ministry, singles are caught in a quiet stereotype. You can be viewed as either not having normal sexual desire or possibly having errant ones. The assumption is that a single in ministry probably has some issue with sexuality, because normal people get married to deal with it. From this perspective, a single pastor is a ticking bomb, and it’s only a matter of time before he compromises.
Really? Does God not give the grace we need, sexual desires included? Dealing with sexual desires is a matter of the heart, and a marriage ceremony doesn’t change that challenge. There are many, many godly singles in ministry who are honoring God with their bodies. They are as sexually desirous as any healthy human being but are patiently waiting for the righteous context to express it. A married pastor is blessed to have a righteous place to go in dealing with sexual desire. Marriage doesn’t guarantee purity, but it wonderfully provides for it.
3. Emotional Breadth and Empathy
Pastoral ministry deals with the sticky points of life—often related to marriage and parenting. While the sufficiency of Scripture teaches that a single pastor can adequately apply God’s Word to all of life, he may still struggle with experiential wisdom and empathy in those categories. I was blessed to fill this void with fellow staff who were better at ministering with those special needs than my life situation allowed. The joys and sorrows of marriage give an emotional depth and breadth that people instinctively sense and to which they can relate. Singleness does have its own unique emotional pains, which God can and will use; they are simply more narrow and specific. The married pastor has a broader emotional experience of humanity and its relational complexities.
I am happy to be married. And it was a joy to serve the church as a single man. Too often this debate forces us to choose sides. But the Bible doesn’t rank them; it honors both sides. The church should as well. As a man who now has lived in both worlds, I would urge churches and search committees to evaluate men for pastoral ministry based on their character, gifts, and maturity, not on their marital status.
We can praise God for how he mightily uses singles in ministry to do what married men and women cannot do. And we can deeply appreciate how God uses marriage to refine and mature men as they shepherd their family and their flock.