(Presented as part of the 2012 Inclusive Language Convocation at Wartburg Theological Seminary)
As I begin, I would like to say a word about faith formation and families. Faith formation for parents and children together and separately is a good and important task of the church. In speaking about single people in the church I do not wish, in any way, to devalue that. Rather, the purpose of this presentation is to make visible some of the unique struggles and considerations regarding language and worldview about single people in the church. That being said, this part of the “inclusive language” convocation will focus less on language and more on attitude or worldview, which comes through in our language.
Single people may find themselves in many different places in life. One might be single by choice or by circumstance. One might be previously married or partnered and now divorced, separated or widowed. One might never have been married or partnered. Each of these circumstances carries its own unique concerns, sensitivities and needs.
As with any situation where one person is speaking for a whole category of people, there are many voices that I will not represent well. The group I can most readily represent is the one from which my own perspective emerges which is: young, female, single and heterosexual. (And relevant to some parts of the conversation, a candidate for the ordained roster.) However, even within that group of people there are many diverse stories and experiences, which is why our ongoing conversations are so important. (Indeed ongoing mutual conversation about all of today’s issues is critical so that we can hear and learn from the perspectives of one another.)
In preparing for this, I spoke with several single people on campus. Below are the things that emerged most clearly from those conversations.
1. Please treat me like a whole person! The fact that I am not partnered does not make me less, and doesn’t necessarily mean I’m just waiting for someone else. Sometimes I think that people hear the common wedding text about two becoming one flesh and therefore assume that if you aren’t partnered then you’re just ½ flesh… somehow less than a whole person. This is neither true nor helpful. So, I suggest identifying people by what is, not what isn’t.
Similarly, well intentioned people sometimes approach those who are single and try to “help them” by setting them up with someone. Or by telling them, “It’s okay that you’re single because they have a career”, as though trying to justify their place in life.
People need/want community not pity! Value them and help give support when needed. There are some circumstances, like when one is new to an area where one doesn’t know people, where extra support may be useful particularly from colleagues. Just think about how you do this.
Please don’t make assumptions about my sexuality based on whether or not I’m in a relationship with someone.
On the whole, it is best to see anyone as a person: created imago Dei, claimed by God in baptism, and one for whom Christ died, rather than viewing them primarily by their relationship status (or any other particular attribute).
2. Men and women both have this problem I have heard about this more from women than men, and as a woman will speak from that perspective myself, but please understand that many of these things go both ways.
3. Don’t create dialectics. Yes, Lutherans really like them, but they can be problematic when applied to people. One problem faced by young women is that if you aren’t married, or well on your way, people assume you will be an “old maid”. However, if you are dating someone, but not yet married, especially for those who are candidates for rostered ministry in the church, people react as though something sexually immoral must be going on. (Such assumptions probably also affect unmarried men, but there seems to be more stigma for the women about being unmarried as they approach age 30 and beyond.)
In light of this, particularly with Visions and Expectations for rostered leaders, it is important to curb assumptions and rumors. In small communities like this, where we know so much about one another, it’s easy for stories to get started, and before the facts can be checked almost everyone knows. If you have a question or concern about someone’s behavior, please ask them before you talk about it.
A couple of helpful things to keep in mind. Sometimes men have friends who are women and women have friends who are men, in whom they have no romantic interest. This is good. However, many times assumptions are made that something is going on between those people. Again, please don’t assume. As colleagues in the parish, you can help support those who are single by not creating or exacerbating situations where there are rumors about conduct. If you have concerns, speak to the persons involved.
Some helpful things to think about as we minister in congregations (and other public contexts):
Culturally, being single can be alienating, particularly when most of your friends are married and have children or are getting married and having children. As the church it is great to create an environment that does not mirror this or enhance it.
Consider that relationship status may not be the single person’s favorite thing to talk about. In fact it almost certainly isn’t. Navigating this cultural issue can be tricky because, as I learned it, one of the five “safe” things to ask someone about is their family. However, you can probably imagine a whole host of reasons, beyond just this one, why that might not be the case.
Please consider that being in groups of all couples may be uncomfortable, particularly if congregational social events are consistently structured around pairs of people. Or have names like “Pairs and Spares”.
Let’s strive for worship that can include everyone intergenerationally, so that families are welcome and kids are able to participate, and so that people who come to worship alone are also included. A couple situations to consider: I was in a worship service geared toward kids’ participation and families were sitting together at tables sized to fit one family. This made coming alone very awkward. It was a good attempt to meet the need of the children. But it separated the worshiping community rather than finding a place for all of us. Similarly, some churches end up with a “widow’s pew” where those whose spouses have died find themselves awkwardly set apart in worship. Things like this are a good challenge for us to continue to think seriously about!
One task of our life together as church is to mark life passages. However, our life passages primarily mark out transitions in one’s life related to family relationships and traditional passages – like marriage. Otherwise for adults there are few markers of significant moments in one’s life unless they are about one’s children. So, how might we honor life passages of those whose lives are transitioning from one state to another that do not fall into those “traditional” categories? (Including transitions such as divorce or the death of a spouse that move someone from a state of being married to one where they no longer are.)
How we think about, and honor, primary life relationships is also important.
→ How do we honor and value people’s primary and important relationships as primary and important regardless of whether they are with parents, spouse, children, or friends?
→ How do we value people’s friends and pets as significant life companions and how can these be honored and taken seriously? For example, taking as seriously a person’s grief at their deaths as we do the death of another life partner.
There are a few considerations related to ministry in the church, singleness and particular age groups.
Unmarried young adults can be invisible in the church. Please don’t treat us like we’re invisible.
Also, we do not typically view church as a dating service. Don’t make it one. We are here for God and to participate in the body of Christ, not to find a life partner. Please help others to understand this as well.
For older adults there are also unique challenges and concerns, particularly as spouses and life partners begin to die. Suddenly people find themselves in groups of couples, but now they are the odd one out which can exacerbate feelings of aloneness. The aforementioned “widow’s pew” can also be an unfortunate result. It is worth thinking about how these folks can be supported without being singled out in an awkward way.
Finally, how do we conceive of the church as a place where we come together to worship God and are viewed in light of our identity in Christ? A community that takes seriously baptismal promises and creates a place for faith formation of people in all walks of life, so that the contributions of all to that journey are valued and each one has a place.