The Candid Clergywoman: What Not to Say to an Unmarried (Female) Pastor

Disclaimer: As in past posts of "The Candid Clergywoman," there is a lot of honesty here. Please know that these musings are not directed at any particular person or group, and I share this is in a spirit or reflection--not anger, not resentment, not frustration. Hopefully, there's a dash of humor, too. I can only speak as an unmarried, female pastor, but I can guess that both men & women in other vocations can identify with the sentiments. Even though I write now as a young woman who is in a dating relationship, these reflections stem from the days when I was not in a relationship. Thank you for reading, laughing, and learning with me.

There might have been a TV show called, "Kids Say the Darnedest Things," but it's actually people who say the darnedest things. I especially began to notice this after becoming a pastor. I don't know statistics of married/single clergy or male/female, but I have certainly felt like I was in the minority. I was only 25 years old when I became a pastor, and at first I was humored by people's reactions to my age and relationship status. Some of the comments have been kind, with people obviously desiring that I be happy. Others have been more puzzling, comments that made it sound as if I "needed" a guy. I've talked to single, female colleagues over the years and exchanged stories of the "darnedest things" said, and we've laughed a lot.

But we've also cried.

We've cried because sometimes words, even with the best intentions, can touch on sensitive spots. I was told in seminary to grow a tough skin. No matter how tough skin becomes, there's still a heart underneath that doesn't want to become hardened. Sometimes words can eat at the heart. From that unhardened heart, I'd like to share a few things that are not helpful to say to a single pastor, along with alternatives of what would be more helpful. The emotional health of the pastor can have an enormous impact on the health of a congregation. If we are more aware of how laypeople and clergy can help make each other healthier, won't our congregations also be healthier?

1. In your profession, it must be hard for you to meet guys.

Yes, it can be difficult even to form friendships, whether one lives in small town or a large city, in any profession. What this says is that my vocation could keep me from being a relationship, which is not true. What I would rather hear, and what some dear people have said to me, is: I respect your profession so much, and you deserve the best in relationships.

2. I just wish you could find somebody.

Somebody? A vague semi-person? That's not what I desire, nor is it what I believe God wants for us. Relationships, whether platonic or romantic, are not something that we find. They are formed by us and by God. What I would rather hear is: I hope you are forming meaningful relationships.

3. You must get really lonely.

Yes, and saying so doesn't make it any easier. The Winter 2012 issue of Church Health Reader featured a column on the concerns of loneliness. It's also very difficult for many people to admit to their loneliness, laity or clergy, male or female, young or old. The Church Health Reader offers some practical ideas to combat loneliness. Personally, instead of a verbal label of "lonely," I would rather hear an invitation: I'm going to the coffee shop this afternoon. Want to join me?

4. Would you like to meet my grandson/nephew/son? He's cute....

No, not really. Haha. Every female pastor I know who was single at some point of her pastorate faced this question. Of course, a great friendship might be possible with that grandson/nephew/son. But this kind of matchmaking is just plain awkward. Instead, why not say, "My relative is about your age and coming into town next weekend. If you're in town and want to hang out with some younger people, let me know. I'll give you his number."

5. It's strange to have a pastor without a family.

What people are actually saying here is an understandable observation: "In the past, we've had a pastor who was married with children." I fully understand that people likely meant nothing insulting in this statement. But to use the phrase "with or without a family" is not helpful. We all have families because we are all a part of God's family. Parents, siblings, pets, friends, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are only some examples of family, even if we don't live under the same roof. To describe a person as not having a "family" implies that they are disconnected, unsupported--and strange. This is the opposite of encouragement and can eat away at a person's soul. Instead of observing what is lacking, affirm what is present: We appreciate all that you bring to us--and it's always so good to see your family when they come to visit.

We often hear that the Church wants young ministers, and the reality is that young people are marrying at later ages. This means that having a young pastor might mean having an unmarried pastor. I share all of this with you so that healthy relationships might be fostered, so that encouragement might abound. Yes, I've heard some "darned" things. But I have also been affirmed, encouraged, and supported tremendously by people's words. Paul writes to the church in Philippi: "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." May we also speak such things to one another--for the good health of ourselves and our churches.

all good things to each of you,
Pastor Darian