It is a strange phenomenon that when I am in the church I feel like I am in the minority and, when I am engaged in the larger community, I feel like I am part of the majority.
I am speaking, of course, to my marital status. I remember nearly thirty years ago when one of my colleagues was going through a divorce while he was serving a church. It was touch and go. In the end, he retained his position and the congregation slowly adjusted to his new reality. But, it forced the congregation to ask, “Can a minister adequately counsel couples and with integrity perform wedding ceremonies if he himself could not successfully maintain a marriage?”
We have come a long ways since then. That was nearly three decades ago. But while there is more acceptance for the divorced among us I don’t believe that our ecclesiastical culture has fully come to terms with the normalcy of divorced, separated, single and widowed persons among us (the exception, of course, being widowed, as it is the one “no fault” category).
If the question then was about this pastor’s ability to counsel couples and perform weddings that same question today could be, “Can a married pastor adequately speak to and address the needs of unmarried people?”
- What does a married pastor say to the 42 year-old recently divorced person who comes in with “how to date” questions?
- How does a married pastor counsel a person who is discerning whether to end a long-term romantic relationship?
- Can a married pastor adequately counsel the single person on sexual intimacy and boundaries?
- Can a pastor in a heterosexual marriage understand the world of the unmarried same sex couple?
I think the answer is often yes, but the shift in questions exposes how much the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction.
I titled this blog post, “The Other 53%” as a reference to the Pacific Northwest statistic that reports that a full 53% of adults are in one of these four unmarried categories—single, separated, divorced and widowed. In other words, people like me are actually in the public majority and yet when I step into my church culture I suddenly feel like I have to accept my place in a private minority.
Of course, this is not surprising. The structure of the ministry of the church was set up at a time when 67% of adults were married (1960). These structures were established around what we consider “the normal stages of human development”—childhood, education, adulthood, vocation, marriage, children, retirement and eventually death. We have rituals to celebrate these stages and transitions—baptism, confirmation, graduations, weddings and funerals. Our rituals reinforce the normalcy of marriage and children.
All of this is well and good—at least for that group that represents the 47% of our communities who fit this mold. But our current rituals do little to help unmarried people navigate the world of dating, divorce, sexual expression and shifting relational networks.
I have nothing against married people. They are some of the nicest people I know. I just wish the church recognized the 53% of us who are not married as equals.
Maybe we should become a voting bloc!
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades
Thanks for this. Several thoughts:
1. Some churches have often adaptation ministries for people recently divorced, “Divorce Care,” usually led by also divorced members. Shows us that pastors don’t have to be the experts on situations that not our own.
2. I do think the church does play a really important and meaningful role of widowed and older single adults as community and family. One way we ritualize that is a Christmas season meal for those widowed in recent years. We talk openly about grief and change of expectations and plans.
3. I am married and child-free. We chose to not have kids. That has also led to some awkward leadership conversations as I challenge parents to take more initiative in the faith formation of their kids. Lots there to parse out as well.
Yes, there are churches who are specifically trying to reach out to this demographic, but as a church culture it seems that marriage and children are baked into our DNA. I appreciate you sharing about what it is like for you to lead parents on faith formation while intentionally being childless. I wonder if these same parents questions the pediatricians on childhood health if they don’t have children themselves.
The one exception to this experience is that it seems our churches do pretty well with widows. Somehow going from marriage to widowhood engenders compassion where as being a life-long single engenders a soft suspicion.
Went through a divorce almost 45 years ago when I was pastor at Westminster Salem. Church supported both of us, my former wife remaining active in the congregation! And when I accepted another call to Cascades Church in Vancouver three years later my former wife was elected to the PNC! A great congregation that knew how to show God’s love!
I wonder about categories that assume that all those in “coupled’ relationships have a similar framework, or all singles, or all without children– or with! As with gender, the diversity within these categories is greater than between them. All households with children are not facing the same challenges or assumed joys. All folks who are single do not face the same desired to move into a coupled capacity–build “family” in the same way. As a sis-gendered, heterosexual married for more that 40 years (and I was not a child bride), parent of two biological–now adult children, pastor (and ruling elder before)– I have faced more assumptions in the church that have been isolating based in these categories than I can point to in the culture around me. I was not interested in the “boomers” couples bible study or heading up the nursery, any more than my mother( in a similar demographic a generation before) was in a Mariners group or the PWA luncheon. When the church “programs” around “target demographics”, I suspect we are not at our best truly seeing people and building relationships for the Body of Christ. That is true when we see all widows, all singles, all experiencing a divorce–“We’ve got a group for that!” rarely hits the mark.
Very helpful reflection. Thank you, Linda.