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Life as a single pastor

A few years ago, I visited a church to preach. I vividly remember the small talk with somebody before the service. “I assume you are married with kids,” they said. “No. I’m single actually,” I replied. They were somewhat surprised. “Oh! Have you never found anybody you liked?” And then an altogether different suggestion struck them. “Or have you never found anybody who likes you?”

I was one of the pastors of Woodstock Road Baptist Church in Oxford for 19 years before finishing last summer to lead a ministry training course and work with Living Out. Across that time, most people outside the church assumed that as a pastor I must be married – although generally people didn’t express that quite in the manner above. Woodstock Road itself was wonderful. The elders knew about my sexuality before my appointment as pastor. The church didn’t and initially most assumed I would get married (and a few, in a kind but possibly misguided manner, told me they were praying this would happen). However, when I spoke publicly about my sexuality ten years into the role, I could not have wished for a better response. In all my years there, nobody said that I would be a better pastor if I were married.

Being single may be more difficult than being happily married, but it is easier than being unhappily married 

Tough moments

Nevertheless, being a single pastor had its tough moments. The nature of all ministry is that we give of ourselves. You are visiting somebody in hospital, a church member in the midst of agonising bereavement, a friend going through depression or a long-standing Christian talking about their doubt issues for the first time. As you listen to people’s pain, you inevitably share in some of that yourself - or at least you should do! Or there are the leadership meetings where there is a difficult decision to be made, where you know that whatever the final call, some people you love are going to be hurt or disappointed. Alongside the thrill of new Christians, there is the pain of those deciding to leave the church. In other words, there is an inevitable cost to doing ministry. “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus,” Paul says as he describes serving others (2 Corinthians 4:10).  

Of course, what makes that much harder is doing it alone. Sometimes the challenge was coming back to an empty house after a painful meeting. It would have been great to have somebody to download on, whereas instinctively I would stew on whatever event I’d just come from. I have always had a tendency to overwork and being single meant there was nobody to tell me to say no. At times, self-pity would creep in. The pattern of thinking would go something like this - “I’m trying to help lots of people. I’m bearing the emotional cost of that. But who’s doing it for me? I’ve just got nothing left to give.” Now that was at best a half-truth: there were loads of people in the church and elsewhere who loved me and cared about me. But the challenge of singleness is that you are aware that you are not the number one human priority for anybody else – understandably that place will go to family members. And recognising that made life lonely and left me wondering where to find the resources to keep serving. 

Comparisons with married life

Yet, for all the times of pain, I don’t regret serving as a single pastor for a moment. Indeed, it was possible to see the benefits. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul is profoundly realistic about marriage - “Those who marry will face many troubles in this life.” (1 Cor 7:28). 

Those who are single are set free from this. Instead of needing to focus on how to please their spouse, they can have one clear goal. “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs- how he can please the Lord.” (1 Cor 7:32).  As a pastor I definitely saw this was the case as I looked at my fellow church leaders. Yes. It was a challenge to go from a challenging meeting to an empty house. But I’m not sure that was more difficult than going home to a sick child, to another facing problems at school or just the constant busyness of making sure everybody had what they needed. 

Occasionally I would listen to friends serving as pastors who would talk about family problems and then church problems and never really having time to rest and I would wonder, “How on earth do they manage it?” More than that, being a pastor removed any sense of naivety that marriage was always straightforward. Part of a single person’s problem is that we go to joyful weddings and assume that marriage is always like that. But, in doing pastoral care, I sat with enough couples in difficulty to know that that really wasn’t the case. Indeed, I came to a clear conclusion - being single may be more difficult than being happily married, but it is easier than being unhappily married. 

As a single pastor, therefore, I did have more freedom than my married counterparts. In part, this did make me more flexible and available for ministry. But it also enabled me to have time to enjoy good things in creation that refreshed me - sport, reading, walks and so on. I well remember talking to another church leader with several small children. “Did you see the football?” I asked. “Andy, I am a married pastor with small kids. Of course not!” he replied.

Benefits of singleness

Perhaps more seriously, I was aware that there were benefits even in the pain of singleness.

2 Corinthians has been a source of constant encouragement for me in ministry. In the letter, Paul is candid about the sufferings he has faced and the deeply painful thorn in the flesh that he endures. My sexuality and singleness have been my thorns. But throughout 2 Corinthians, Paul insists that it is the pain that enables ministry, helping him to know the comfort of Jesus and so comfort others who are suffering (chapter 1), showing that the power is from God and making him more like Jesus (chapter 4) and preventing him from becoming proud (chapter 12). I empathise with that. Other than my sexuality and singleness, life has been smooth for me. I would have been a rubbish pastor had I been happily married, because I would have struggled to talk to those in pain. It was the pain of singleness that enabled me to care for others and forced me to depend on the Lord.

There was one other benefit to singleness that I only realised on my last day as pastor. We had a lunch where some in the church managed to find nice things to say! One single lady commented how much it had meant to her to have a single pastor. She sensed that I could empathise with her and it showed the church giving dignity to those who are single. As it happens, the church was in a good position in having elders who were both married and single. We complemented each other well. 

They did more marriage prep than I did (though I did enjoy preaching at lots of weddings) whilst I spent more time with the single adults. And hopefully as a leadership team, we communicated that marriage and singleness were equally good gifts in God’s eyes.

How I persevered

So what helped me to persevere through the joys and challenges of being a single pastor? Friends were massively important. Of course, friends aren’t around all the time, but their encouragement meant that the loneliness was sporadic rather than constant. For most single people, close friends have a similar emotional importance to a nuclear family for those who are married. That’s certainly been true for me. I am part of a group of six church leaders spread around the country that meets for 24 hours three times a year. There’s real trust and openness there and they became my main sounding board for advice. But alongside this, I worked hard to develop friendships more locally. I have to confess to being an off - the - scale introvert (I find my own company endlessly fascinating!) which meant that I generally loathed small talk. But the benefit of this was that most of my friendships went deep quite quickly. Within those friendships, there was the joy of being known. 

Over time, I could begin to spot the lie that my self-pity told me that nobody cared. But, above all, the Lord cares. “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs.” I reckon I was a lousy single pastor when I focused on what I didn’t have. And I did some good as a single pastor when I looked to the Lord and fixed my attention on Him. I found two aspects of the Lord’s character particularly important. One was his sympathy. I love the fact that Jesus is fully human, was single Himself and so, according to Hebrews 2, completely able to feel for us and with us. In the deepest sense, I was never the only one in the house, for He was always with me. Pouring out my heart to Him and thanking Him for His presence was generally helpful. But the other beautiful truth is that He is the bridegroom. 

Singleness may be painful but its only temporary. I’m looking forward to the wedding day.
“Sorrowful yet rejoicing” is another description that Paul uses for ministry. It’s also phrase that describes life as a single pastor.  

This article was originally published in the Spring 2023 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.

Download the Spring 2023 edition of Ascend