From Pastor to Elders

One is a Whole Number Too

James A. Cress was the General Conference Ministerial Secretary when he wrote this article.

When evaluating your congregation, one often overlooked group is your single members. You may not immediately recognize some of these individuals because they have stopped attending, so carefully analyze your singles before concluding that you know who they are, much less what they need.

Who are singles? The church mirrors society with as many as 30% of adults living alone. Nearly one-half of adult church members are single. While less than 8% of them will never marry, many are divorced, widowed, or not-yet-married. Because so many are single for different reasons, the church – and for that matter the individuals themselves – may not see what they have in common.

SINGLED OUT. Many singles have opted out of church attendance for a variety of reasons. Some expect to reestablish their relationship with the church when they marry and have children. Some believe they can maintain spiritual life separate from the church because they feel the church ignores them. They believe the church’s doctrinal or spiritual message, but they feel excluded by a strong cultural message emphasizing marriage as the preferred, or only acceptable, status. They are made to feel “less than whole.” 

SUDDENLY SINGLE. Some were once married but have unexpectedly become single through death, divorce, separation, or abandonment. After a spouse’s death, more and more retirees live alone either by choice, imbalance of genders in older age, economic chaos, or by fear from having observed peers who ended up unhappy in second marriages. Loss is always traumatic and can be catastrophic both economically and spiritually, shattering one’s personal identity.

SINGLE BY CHOICE. For those who choose singleness, you can honor their completeness rather than making unfortunate comparisons with those who are married as “the correct option.” Avoid blatant – or even subtle – insinuation that singles are “marriage wannabees” just waiting to be rescued. When we showcase marriage as the only life-style that brings happiness and fulfillment, we set some people up for disillusionment, pain, and despair. 

Kit Watts, former Assistant Editor of Adventist Review, has written extensively on the church’s treatment of singles and has influenced my thinking and words on this topic. She asks, “Have we over-emphasized marriage and family as symbols of God’s love to the exclusion of other symbols? For example, could we emphasize Jesus’ own model more: ‘Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13 NASV).” 

CIRCUMSTANTIAL SINGLENESS. Some, who once expected to marry, discover that obligations to parents or siblings, completing an education, establishing a profession, or even the passing of time reduces the pool of possible partners. They may not have consciously chosen to remain single, but circumstances have formed their conclusion. 

Further, because of our strong warnings against becoming “unequally yoked,” believers in some areas of the world cannot find a marriage partner of the same faith with similar spiritual, educational, professional, or social expectations. Sometimes singleness is not the choice but the consequence of belief, compatibility, or geography.

SINGLE LEADERS. Intentionally include singles in leadership. Jesus and Paul, themselves single, demonstrated that the church is the place to make family. Yet, while upholding the sanctity of marriage and our duty to honor parents (Matthew 12:46-50), they explained that the gospel transcends family ties and that the church is a fellowship built not upon race, tribe, gender, or social status, but upon eachindividual’s choice to follow Jesus.

SINGLE EXAMPLES. Marriage is honored by Scripture, but not a requirement for spiritual leadership. In some areas, the church would refuse ordination for Paul or John the Baptist because they were unmarried. Kit Watts, also points out that Jesus, as God in the flesh, was a single man who lived an exemplary life. 

God created humans for relationships, and marriage may be one of these. However, the church must have room for everyone. 

Paul describes the church as a body. A body has two arms and two legs, but only one heart and one brain. Remember, the body needs every single part! 

James A. Cress
General Conference Ministerial Secretary