In the movie Bridget Jones, Bridget is having dinner with some pretentious married people. One of them says to her, “Bridget, why do you think there are so many people over 30 and single these days?” Bridget looks her straight in the face and says, “Well, I guess it doesn’t hurt that we have scales under our clothes.”
We singles often feel like we have scales under our clothes in our churches. Not a gross disfigurement that makes everyone stare. Not an outward, in-your-face prejudice that is thrown at us. But something more subtle. Something that makes us feel like even though we look normal on the outside, there is quite possibly something wrong with us underneath the surface.
According to an article in The New Yorker, there were 4 million adults living alone in this country in 1950. Now there are 31 million, almost eight times as many. More than half of adults in the United States are single at this point in time.
We could safely say then that a large portion of church congregations are also single. And yet this huge demographic is often overlooked. Why is this?
I want to be careful with this post, because I don’t want to point fingers at anyone. I love my married friends, I love my pastors, and I don’t think they have ever meant to hurt us. I don’t think they have ever meant to leave us out.
And yet, we have been hurt. We have been left out.
Maybe we can look at some of the reasons that this might be happening so we can help the single friends in our lives and churches not feel like they have scales under their clothes.
Reason #1 — People underestimate the difficulties that singles face.
I have thought a lot about the idea of disenfranchised grief. Disenfranchised means to deprive someone of their legal right. Therefore, disenfranchised grief means to deprive someone of their right to grieve. Instead of mourning over something that happened, disenfranchised grief is a secret mourning over something that has never happened.
When my dad died, I lost something tangible. People called me. They held me when I cried and asked me to talk about what I was going through. They came to his memorial service. It meant the world to me. I needed family around me during that grieving process. People bound up the wounds, told me it was going to be okay, and walked with me through the healing process. They rose to the occasion and helped me recover.
When it comes to being in my 30s and facing the prospect of not having a traditional family, though, people don’t know what to do with my frustration. “There’s nothing there. How could you be in pain?”
The truth is, I am in pain precisely because there is nothing there. The loss is over something that never existed, and that is what makes it so elusive. I have never lost a child but I have never had a child. I’ve never lost a husband but I’ve never had a lover.
The loss of something that did exist and the mourning over something that never existed are both very, very difficult. Unintentionally and silently, we are told that there is no reason to grieve over our singleness. And so we are sometimes deprived of our right to grieve.
Often, people are unaware that there is such a deep grieving going on. They don’t understand how much we need this grieving to be addressed.
There are funny ways that church culture reflects their unawareness of our disenfranchised loss — not in what they do give us, but in what they don’t give us. The sermons that aren’t given, the prayers that aren’t offered, the books that aren’t written. As if what we are going through is not that important or difficult.
Think of all the great books out there about marriage or about parenthood. Then try to think of all of the books out there about being single. There are so few good ones. (Unless you count my book Cupid is a Procrastinator! Wink wink!)
The books that are offered to singles often try to convince us that we need to be thankful for the gift of singleness, a stance that can make us feel ashamed of the grief we might feel. Or they are books that give us formulas on how to get married, which often sends the message that we have to get married to arrive as a human. These books for singles are often written by married people, which again gives us mixed signals on the validity of our life experience.
If singles make up half of our congregations, shouldn’t our problems be addressed more often?
Reason #2 — Influencers in the church are not often single.
This brings me to my second point: The people writing the books and the people giving the sermons aren’t single. The problems singles face are far from these leaders’ minds because it’s been such a long time since they have been single.
When you think about this, it begs the question “Why aren’t there more influencers in the church who are single?” I recently read an article in The New York Times in which a single pastor named Mark Almlie was interviewed about how hard it is for him to find a job. He had applied to 500 jobs to no avail. “I’ll get an email saying ‘wonderful résumé’; once I say I’m single, never married, I never hear back.”
Think about it. Is there any other job in the U.S. that is so biased toward married people? I can’t think of one. In all of my 15 or so years of working in the church, I have heard of only a handful of senior pastors that were single. Kind of ironic that before the Protestant Reformation, all the head leaders in the church were single. Now it’s the opposite.
This can easily send us a message that says, “Your voice is not as important if you don’t have a family. You don’t have enough wisdom to speak to the rest of us if you aren’t married.”
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post. Part of the reason I wrote this was to help us singles feel validated, but I’d love for us to talk about it more and talk about how things might change.
I want to know what you think.
Do you think that there is a bias toward married people in the church, or am I overstating the problem?
Why do you think singles are often unintentionally overlooked in the church?
Have you ever felt ashamed for feeling so much grief over being single?
Have you had experiences in your church body or with your pastor where you felt seen and validated?
Have you ever struggled with being a leader in your church or in ministry because you are single?
What can we do to give a voice to single people in the church?