It is a strange phenomenon that when I am in the church I feel like I am in the minority and, when I am engaged in the larger community, I feel like I am part of the majority.
I am speaking, of course, to my marital status. I remember nearly thirty years ago when one of my colleagues was going through a divorce while he was serving a church. It was touch and go. In the end, he retained his position and the congregation slowly adjusted to his new reality. But, it forced the congregation to ask, “Can a minister adequately counsel couples and with integrity perform wedding ceremonies if he himself could not successfully maintain a marriage?”
We have come a long ways since then. That was nearly three decades ago. But while there is more acceptance for the divorced among us I don’t believe that our ecclesiastical culture has fully come to terms with the normalcy of divorced, separated, single and widowed persons among us (the exception, of course, being widowed, as it is the one “no fault” category).
If the question then was about this pastor’s ability to counsel couples and perform weddings that same question today could be, “Can a married pastor adequately speak to and address the needs of unmarried people?”
- What does a married pastor say to the 42 year-old recently divorced person who comes in with “how to date” questions?
- How does a married pastor counsel a person who is discerning whether to end a long-term romantic relationship?
- Can a married pastor adequately counsel the single person on sexual intimacy and boundaries?
- Can a pastor in a heterosexual marriage understand the world of the unmarried same sex couple?
I think the answer is often yes, but the shift in questions exposes how much the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction.
I titled this blog post, “The Other 53%” as a reference to the Pacific Northwest statistic that reports that a full 53% of adults are in one of these four unmarried categories—single, separated, divorced and widowed. In other words, people like me are actually in the public majority and yet when I step into my church culture I suddenly feel like I have to accept my place in a private minority.
Of course, this is not surprising. The structure of the ministry of the church was set up at a time when 67% of adults were married (1960). These structures were established around what we consider “the normal stages of human development”—childhood, education, adulthood, vocation, marriage, children, retirement and eventually death. We have rituals to celebrate these stages and transitions—baptism, confirmation, graduations, weddings and funerals. Our rituals reinforce the normalcy of marriage and children.
All of this is well and good—at least for that group that represents the 47% of our communities who fit this mold. But our current rituals do little to help unmarried people navigate the world of dating, divorce, sexual expression and shifting relational networks.
I have nothing against married people. They are some of the nicest people I know. I just wish the church recognized the 53% of us who are not married as equals.
Maybe we should become a voting bloc!
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades