Stephanie O’Brien, church planter and pastor of Mill City Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, says, “When I go to church-planting conferences, I’ve never been in a setting where someone assumed I was a church planter. People ask, ‘Whose wife are you?’ ” This is also communicated in many ministry job searches. Some job descriptions mention a wife or children, making these values clear. Others communicate this in the interview process. O’Brien explains that the common assumption is that a person who is single can’t minister to those who are married or parents. Of course, one only needs to think of Paul to know this isn’t true.
Loneliness and Burnout Are Magnified Hazards
Because of this focus on marriage and family, single women leaders face a heightened risk of loneliness and burnout. “It feels like so many people do ministry together as a couple, and it can make me really aware that I’m doing this alone,” observes Laura Leonard, a youth leader and elder at Life Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. “I don’t have someone to share the burden of ministry, the joy of ministry, and the relationships.” Loneliness can be especially trying for younger single women. Barkoviak explains, “When you’re at college, you have all these friends. Then you get out into the world and you have a job and you realize that it can get lonely really fast if you’re not willing to invest time in people and build up friendships around you.”
Making time for those relationships, though, can feel impossible for single women in ministry. There is a misconception that people who are single have more time for ministry, so they are often expected to be available whenever they’re requested, which can make avoiding burnout difficult. In reality, people who are single often take care of all the housework, bills, yardwork, and other obligations without the help of a spouse—meaning they may actually have less time.
“When you have a family, it’s easier to create boundaries,” says Tiffany Thomas, director of missions, young adults, and singles ministry at Scioto Ridge United Methodist Church in Hilliard, Ohio. “If I had a daughter, and she had soccer practice on Saturday mornings, I could tell my congregation that Saturday mornings are off the table. If you don’t have a daughter, it’s much harder to make that space. The church isn’t going to intuitively think, ‘Oh you spend a lot of time here. You should go home and do something else for a while.’ ”