Reflection: The Single Pastor

Lebacqz and Barton throughout Sex in the Parish attempt to tackle the challenging question of sexual involvement for the pastor. Christians affirm that sex in its proper context is a gift from God yet we also are very cautious about sex being used in harmful ways. Of the various aspects covered, the question I found the most interesting was that of the single pastor. I almost felt as if a lot of the questions of the married pastor were almost pointless – for example, if you assume that adultery is wrong, then of course adultery with a parishioner is wrong. The question of the single pastor was a very interesting one, though, because it becomes hard to explain what is in the category of sex in its proper context and what is in the category of sex being used in harmful ways.

Working through this question as I read, I found it boiled down to three issues. For one: sexual ethics in general, such as I already mentioned regarding adultery. More controversial, though, is the changing ideas of what is acceptable before marriage, which becomes applicable. I’ll leave that out of this paper since it is a huge question that while related is also distinct. A second issue is the cultural pressure to be part of a couple: singleness is generally not valued, even though most New Testament readers would agree that the trend is toward singleness as a higher good than marriage (in both Paul and Jesus). Thirdly, and the focus here, is the issue of community and the pastor’s role in that community. This also includes the power dynamics which the book covers extensively. From a responsibility perspective, though: is the pastor responsible for not taking any actions that put the community at risk? If that is the case, then a pastor cannot risk dating within the community or arguably even date outside of the community (because that would insult the community).

A few years ago I had a youth pastor at the church I was attending. We had a very close-knit college-age (18 to 25) small group, at our peak about 14 people with about what I’ve experienced as the average gender ratio of young adult Christian groups: 12 women, and the pastor and I. He was single, about 25 years old, and one of the major parts of his ministry was working with 12 women that were almost all single, intelligent, serious disciples of Jesus, and within a few years of his age. There were two in particular that some of us speculated about whether they were a good match. Two years later, he announced his resignation to go back and finish school, and nothing romantic had ever happened.

While my youth pastor didn’t date any of the women in the group, I did. It was a very brief relationship, but there were obvious ripples through the group when it started and especially when it ended. My ex-girlfriend virtually disappeared from the church even though she had been very actively involved. I’ve heard of other couples who have actually had the conversation while dating of who would leave in the event of a breakup as damage control. That was a brief relationship between two parishioners with a relatively-amicable break-up and it was still damaging to the community. Presumably my pastor would not have been able to leave, and for one of those women to attempt to be pastored by their ex-boyfriend would be counter-productive at best, so there was no doubt of the danger if he had tried to date one of the group. As somebody who highly values the church as community who does life together, this becomes a huge concern.

I still haven’t been able to come to any conclusion on this question. I would like to say that since singleness is highly valued scripturally and throughout the first ¾ of church tradition, the pastor should embrace that state. Yet I definitely don’t think that every Christian is called to be single, nor even every clergyperson as in the Catholic Church, and I don’t think it works to essentially punish somebody for going into ministry by taking away that choice. On the other hand, by taking on ministry, to some extent the pastor is pledging to put the community before him or herself, so from a utilitarian estimate, the risk doesn’t seem worth it. I’m left feeling like I could argue either way.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.