I am fortunate to know many amazing single women in ministry. They serve in student ministry, women’s ministry, missions, small groups, teaching roles, and church planting. I’m encouraged and challenged by their obedience to God’s call on their lives, and I have personally benefited from their ministries in countless ways. As someone who has served in several staff ministry roles, I have often marveled at how these dedicated women navigate the tough parts of ministry so well.
As one woman told me, ministry as a single woman is not for the faint of heart. On top of the usual ministry stress, single women have to worry about being treated like a minority in the church, guilt about taking time off, awkward comments about their dating life, and acute loneliness—just to name a few issues. Unfortunately, those of us who are married in ministry sometimes forget that. Ministry is hard in general, and we may forget—or not realize—that going through it alone can make it feel unbearable.
So I sat down with 11 single women in ministry, one at a time, to hear about their experiences. I felt like I already knew a lot when I embarked on this journey, but I have to be honest—I learned so much more. These women serve in different roles, in different regions of the country, in different denominations, and are in different stages of life, but there were several similarities that rose to the surface when I asked them how other leaders could help them flourish. Here’s what I learned:
1. Get to know each person as an individual.
Of the 11 women I spoke with, there was a wide variety of reasons for their singleness and how they felt about it. Some had no desire to date or marry in their current stage of life. Others were actively dating. One woman was a widow. It’s easy to assume when we see a single woman that we know her story, and even that we know what she wants. We might guess that she’s desperate for a spouse, even offering to set her up with a friend. In reality, this may be more discouraging to her than anything. Worse, we often assume we know what her experience as a single is like. One woman shared with me that because everyone has been single at some point in their lives, our tendency is to assume we know what it’s like to be single. But being single in college is drastically different than being single in your 40s, and being single in the 1980’s is drastically different than being single today. Ask questions rather than assume. She’ll feel honored, and you’ll learn the truth.
2. Be a friend.
Whether you’re single or married, you can provide support and intentional friendship to single women in ministry. Often single women are friends with singles and married women are friends with other married women, but both groups can benefit from the other. There’s no need to separate! We both benefit when we have a mutual relationship that sticks it out through the best and worst of life.
3. Invite singles to your celebrations.
Now that I have a 3-year-old, I’ve been tempted to assume that my single friends don’t want to spend time with my loud, tantrum-prone, high-energy daughter. Sure, there are times that it’s best that we get some time together without my daughter, but by and large, my single friends want to be part of our family celebrations and holidays. It’s an amazing privilege to be able to invite my friends into our family moments so they can share in some of our traditions. So whether you’re throwing a birthday party, headed to the fireworks, or hosting Thanksgiving, invite a single woman along. The only rule is that you can’t be offended if she doesn’t take you up on the offer. Sometimes we need a break from our church family to recharge—so allow single women in ministry the freedom to do that.
4. Encourage healthy boundaries.
To whatever degree you can influence your church culture, encourage people in ministry to be allowed rest, vacation, and good boundaries. This is crucial if we want to see single women succeed in ministry and stick around for the long haul. Single women need the time and space to develop their close friendships, travel to see family, and invest in life-giving hobbies. On top of that, single women have double the amount of housework and errands because they don’t have a spouse to share the load. This fact flies in the face of our idea that single woman have more time for ministry than married women. My friend, Rachel Wassink, who serves on staff at a church plant leading a variety of teams and ministries, wisely says, “Just as married people need to tend their marriage, single people need to tend their singleness.” We don’t often think about it in those terms, but it’s absolutely true. And, as several women shared with me, they feel guilty when they do try to set healthy boundaries or take time off. So if they have other leaders advocating for them and supporting them in this decision, they’re much more likely to do it. Wassink’s church, for instance, asks her to block off a day for Sabbath each week and ensures she gets a longer sabbatical break on a regular basis.
5. Refuse to offer false promises.
Nearly all of the women I talked to expressed frustration with people in their congregations telling them that if they just wait patiently, God will provide a great husband for them. In our effort to comfort our friends who are single it’s tempting to try to encourage single women in ministry by telling them that God’s got a perfect spouse picked out for them. The truth, however, is that God doesn’t promise marriage to everyone, but he does promise his presence. Stop yourself from saying things like, “God’s got someone for you,” and “You just need to wait on God’s timing.” Whenever I feel uncomfortable about someone’s life situation that’s different from mine, I ask myself why. It’s important to figure out our own “stuff” that might be prompting us to act in unhelpful ways. After all, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with singleness. Paul even said it’s better to be single! Marriage is not the ultimate goal. It’s not somehow better than singleness. It’s important to remember these truths as we interact with single women in ministry.
6. Use inclusive examples in teaching.
We all know that there are exponentially more sermons on marriage than singleness, and, yes, that is problematic when more than half the people in our pews are single. That said, what can be even more damaging is the lack of inclusive examples in sermons throughout the year. How often have you heard a sermon end with an application that only applies to married couples? For instance, after a teaching on Sabbath, the sermon likely ends with something like, “How might you go home today and spend some quality time with your spouse and family?” That’s one great way to apply the message, but it completely leaves out singles. An inclusive wrap up might be, “How might you intentionally rest today from work and spend time doing something that refuels you? Maybe that’s spending time with a good book, or calling a dear friend, or going to the park with your children.” In addition, as we share examples of faith and love and bravery in our teaching, let’s be sure to share examples of single people as well as married people. This will send the message that we can all learn from and look up to both single and married people.
7. Provide space to bring feelings about singleness.
Some women feel content in their singleness while others are grieving a life they’d hoped for. One of the women I talked to shared that we’ve gotten better at talking about grief in the church when it comes to certain topics, like infertility. She praised the way the church has started giving the language of grief to this tough topic and allowing spaces to process feelings around the issue. She suggested that we provide the same language and space for singles grieving the loss of what they thought their life would look like. Allowing this space doesn’t mean we’re saying they’ll never find a spouse, but it does mean we’re willing to sit with them in their present situation and process their feelings with them—whatever they are.
8. Treat singles like adults.
This was one of the most surprising things I learned in talking with single women in ministry. They reported how often other leaders (and people in their congregation) treated them like teenagers. If your primary experience with singleness was as a teen, everything you know about singleness may be based on what was appropriate for that age. That makes it easy to revert to an 18-year-old mindset when interacting with singles. But single women in ministry are mature adults with amazing contributions to share. I know I’d be hard-pressed to find someone who disagrees with me on this, but the way we speak to, interact with, and talk about singles often sends a different message. For instance, single women in ministry don’t need to be parented or protected—they need to be empowered and encouraged.
9. Treat singles like whole people.
Although I can’t find anything in the Bible that says single people are less spiritually formed than married people, many of the single women in ministry I spoke with talked about being treated as “less-than.” One woman shared that she was relegated to the sidelines in women’s ministry because the ministry director said she couldn’t disciple or teach women who were married. Mentally we know this is silly—Paul and Jesus were both single! But our actions may speak a different message. When we act like marriage is the ultimate goal, it’s easy to look at singles as not having “arrived” yet. Let’s root out this false thinking.
10. Sponsor, invite, and validate their ministry.
The road to ministry for women is often not straight, but the path for single women is not only curvy but steep and rocky. Because singles are often seen as less mature and treated as teenagers, many overlook their leadership potential. Single women in ministry can greatly benefit from other leaders helping to clear the way for them, so invite a single woman to teach to your ministry, validate her gifts publically, or sponsor her when your church is looking to fill key ministry roles. Your word of recommendation might be the ticket to having other leaders see her gifts, talents, and skills.
Are you a single woman in ministry? Check out our brand-new resource Navigate Singleness in Ministry for tips on handling the tricky parts of ministry as a single woman.
Amy Jackson is associate publisher of WomenLeaders.com.