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To the Ones Alone in the Front Pew

Encouragement For My Unmarried Sisters and Brothers in Ministry

Looking out over the congregation, I could mentally place each family or collection of retirees in their seats. I see those who’d rather sit toward the back and blend in. I see the same little girls playing with their dolls in the row on the far left -- a seat with a view of the instruments and access to an exit. We’re creatures of habit and Sunday mornings are no exception.

I had my spot, too -- not with wiggling children or a spouse to put my arm around, like my teammates had. I sat alone in the vacant front row on the left. An empty pew just for me.

I could go to movies or even dinner alone during the week. But in a time and place set apart for God’s family to gather around the Scriptures and share a sacred meal, sitting alone somehow felt especially dysfunctional. It was as if I got asked to sit at the bar while everyone else shared a table. I was still in the room, but clearly set apart and distanced.

Some Sundays, I’d busy myself helping greeters or sound techs or slide operators, taking my loneliness out of the limelight. People won’t notice you’re not sitting at the table if you’re on your feet, busy and serving.

There are joys and challenges to each type of relational vocation while being in ministry. I recognize and thank God for my unique capacity as an unmarried leader to show up for students and families at odd hours or jump in when a need arises simply because I don’t have people waiting for me at home. Paul highlights this unique gift of the unmarried in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35:

“I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”

Whether for a season or for one’s entire story, being unmarried comes with the gift of undivided devotion toward the Lord and his calling. God clearly makes use of my unmarried vocation, especially in ministry with college students. Living life with young adults often takes place after late-night chapels or when something unexpected arises that requires some “in the moment” support. The vocation of unmarried ministry is to be honored and cherished -- not wished away, assumed broken, or seen as a consolation prize.

Whether or not it gets said, the Church is, and has always been, incredibly blessed by its unmarried leaders. We must work to honor the faithfully unmarried disciples, just as we honor the faithfully married.

Unfortunately, unmarried leaders are often met with phrases that don’t feel so honoring, such as:

“Can you stay late to finish bulletins? I need to be home for dinner with my family.”

“We put you on the call list for the church alarm system because your life is the most flexible.”

“My grandson is still single, too. I’m going to have you over when he comes to visit!”

Many are unaware of this struggle and how well-intentioned words can shame and invalidate. Our unmarried brother or sister needs affirmation for their role at the table, not just as someone who stays busy until we find a match for them.

The Church is not immune to our romance-obsessed society. I’d even be so bold to say that marriage has become an idol for the Church in an attempt to make our sexualized culture godly. Marriage is a good gift, but a terrible savior. It is not heaven’s end game for us. Jesus didn’t pray “my spouse come,” but “thy Kingdom come.” Sometimes the Kingdom comes through us more fully with a spouse and sometimes without one.

The Church needs all kinds of people in all kinds of seasons and vocations. We are a patchwork family that needs each member. The purposeful, God-designed diversity of life and vocation means we can reach and serve in many ways, covering each other’s gaps. We gather to spur one another on, to rest in grace, and to look more like Jesus in whatever situation we find ourselves.

Unmarried sisters and brothers, you are good for the Church!

Your capacity to serve is a gift! So is your presence at the family table. May you be secure and confident in your calling to teach the family what it looks like to follow Jesus while being unmarried. It may be more needed now than ever.

You offer spare arms to help parents who could use extras. You bring specially tuned eyes to see those in need of additional welcoming. You offer the family of God the fruit of your sweet fellowship with the Lord. These are good things for the Church and the Kingdom.

You are allowed to have boundaries. Your time and ministry are no less valuable. You are allowed to be content with your current calling, believing it’s good for however long God gives it to you.

Please don’t, however, walk alone -- even when it seems easier. You need community. Isolation leads to a heap of temptations and untruths. Following Jesus is a team sport.

To those alone in front pews, the unmarried leaders of the Church: you are seen, loved, and chosen. You are not wrong, broken, or on your own. God has called you. He is holding you and delighting in you.

Come sit at the table, confident in your place within the family of God. You need this community and it needs you.

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