How can churches help those called to vocational singleness thrive with reasonable effort (regardless of sexual orientation)?
Teach about vocational singleness
Pastors and parents can teach about the rich theology of vocational singleness in Scripture. Every time we talk about marriage, we need to talk about vocational singleness. From a young age, we need to share that both marriage and vocational singleness are beautiful possibilities. Just as often as we teach about the beauty of being a father or a mother, we need to share about the beauty of heroes of the faith who were able to do more for the kingdom because they were single.
What should we teach? Check out this video and article from Equip about the theology of vocational singleness. In a few words, Jesus and Paul modeled and spoke of a lifetime calling to abstinent singleness for the sake of kingdom work with undivided attention.
How, practically, can pastors and parents better teach about vocational singleness?
Before you or other leaders at your church start teaching on this topic, examine your own beliefs. Are you convinced of the theology in the video above? Or are you hanging on to another theology that is more culturally convenient but may lack evidence? Then huddle with other leaders in your church to study.
Then, teach parents so they are equipped to lead conversations with teens and children about vocational singleness. Parents will spend many more hours with their children than pastors will. Even if parents think they haven’t had a theological conversation with their kids, they send signals every day about how they think the world works and what they think is most beautiful. Does the average parent in your church believe the theology about vocational singleness? Would they be able to teach it to their kids? If not, what do they believe, and what are they teaching their kids, even if unintentionally?
Next, we can teach students at all ages. We need to weave conversation about lifetime singleness into Bible lessons and share stories about the vocational singleness of Paul and Jesus. If children are led to think wisely about vocational singleness and Christian marriage before puberty, they’ll be better equipped to navigate romantic and sexual desires as teens without falling to the idol of romance.
Model vocational singleness
Vocational singleness must be modeled in our churches. We can only imagine a future for ourselves that we see modeled. Children will only imagine that future as good and valuable if it is modeled as being such. The children in our churches need to see vocational singles thriving in our churches and in places of leadership, up front and honored.
Your church can be intentional about seeking out leaders who are single. Not only do our children need to see single people valued and as leaders, but the vocationally single have so much to offer the church in their singleness. We need single head pastors, preaching pastors, worship leaders, youth pastors, children’s pastors, Bible study leaders, small group leaders, Sunday school leaders, mentors, elders, youth volunteers, etc. Invite single people into your homes to be part of your family: children need to hear and see singleness done well so they can imagine it as a good option for them.
Help young adults discern vocational singleness (and Christian marriage)
We can help young adults in our churches discern which relational vocation God is calling them to: vocational singleness or marriage. As we teach teens how to think theologically about sexual stewardship, we need to prepare them for future discernment that will involve parents and mentors, in prayer and through Scripture, with the Holy Spirit. Here’s five ingredients for healthy discernment:
Develop “spiritual muscles” for general discernment. Do teens and young adults know how to bring a question before God, consider Scripture, consider practical aspects of their question, seek advice from spiritual mentors, arrive at a potential conclusion, hold that conclusion before God, seek confirmation through small steps, and move forward with confidence? Before we ask a question as important as marriage or vocational singleness, let’s help teens and young adults practice their skills of discernment on less consequential decisions. To learn more about general Christian discernment, check out God’s Voice Within by Mark Thibodeaux.
Ensure theological and emotional openness to both vocational singleness and Christian marriage. We want to ensure that the discerner has a healthy theology of marriage and celibacy, free of any theological or emotional hurdles to discernment. A clear understanding of God’s design for the vocations of marriage and singleness will give the discerner a better framework in which to digest the other ingredients for discernment. Two great resources include Breaking the Marriage Idol by Kutter Calloway and Marriage and Celibacy by Max Thurian. Calloway’s Breaking the Marriage Idol is the best analysis of western cultural Christianity’s relationship with romance, and it includes some preliminary suggestions for how we can better teach about and support both marriage and vocational singleness. Max Thurian’s Marriage and Celibacy is by far the best text on the theology of vocational singleness. Just as important as having the right theological foundation, we also need to remove obstacles that might have accrued over time. We all develop and continue to live in a broken world. Loneliness, divorce in your family, sexual sin, heartbreak, abandonment, rejection, and a host of other emotional wounds related to marriage, singleness, and family can bias discernment. The Christian teen/young adult benefits from processing those wounds with a parent, pastor, or counselor to remove any hurdles to clearly hearing God’s calling.
Consider the impact of the discerner’s occupational vocation. What kind of work has God called you to? Does that point you toward vocational singleness or marriage? Pastors, teachers, and those in the helping professions that require numerous hours of work after 5pm will tell you that it’s difficult to both be a good parent to children at home and care well for your church, classroom, etc. In 1 Corinthians 7:32-35, Paul praises vocational singleness because committed celibates can do kingdom work with undivided attention. They don’t have to split their focus between the important and costly kingdom work of raising kids and other kingdom work. Perhaps the kind of work you are called to is more compatible with either marriage or vocational singleness. For example, if you feel called to a special mission, a difficult ministry, or a life of contemplation or study, then a vocation of singleness might be the vocation best fitted to your work. Freedom from raising children will allow you to more fully commit yourself to the kingdom-building work God has called you to. On the other hand, you might feel particularly called to the work of raising children to become faithful and fruitful Christians. Many of my friends see their work as a mother or father as their primary calling, and then their occupation—the work they get paid for—as merely a means to an end. Certainly, they prefer work that pays well, matches their skills and interests, and participates justly in the economy. But their first job is their family. People drawn to this vocation are likely called to marry and raise children. Most people, however, don’t feel confidence in either of these directions. They don’t feel a clear calling to a work that would be better served by a vocation of singleness. But they also don’t feel a particular calling to raise a family as their primary work.
Search past and present circumstances for God’s providence. Has He been gently nudging you toward one vocation or another? Perhaps the discerner finds themself single later in life and asks, “Am I still single not by accident, but because God has called me to a vocation of celibacy?” To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that every adult who is single later in life has been called to lifetime singleness. But perhaps if someone is single later in life, that is a sign of God’s intentions.
Offer church prayer and direction in discernment. Parents, pastors, mentors, and friends have unique perspectives on discerners’ lives. They might come alongside a discerner in their study of theology of marriage and celibacy. Maybe they’ve grown up with the discerner and know what emotional barriers they might be experiencing to open-handedly offering this question to God. Perhaps community support can help the discerner process emotional wounds standing in the way of receiving from God. The connection between the discerner’s work and your relational vocation might be more apparent to friends. Or maybe community support can see God’s providence in discerners’ lives in ways discerners can’t. Moreover, lift up their discernment to God in prayer, and listen for wisdom to pass on.
Help vocational singleness find lifelong, lived-in family
One of the biggest ways churches can support vocational singles is by helping them find family.
First, help them experience family in your church. Start with bigger church fellowships where single people can see themselves as part of a big family. Perhaps larger churches or less conventional churches face barriers to organizing these gatherings, but when a single person’s only connection to the church is showing up alone on Sunday and then a revolving door of small groups they can feel disconnected from something larger and stable.
Then, have small groups or life groups that bring together people from different stages in life. Small groups of only single people can become dating groups that feel unwelcome to vocational singles. Small groups of only newly-marrieds and young parents with children can also be lonely experiences for a person committed to lifetime singleness. Instead, form diverse small groups that include older adults, older couples, widows, divorcees, and families with kids at different stages. Committed singles will learn more and feel more connected with the church as a whole when a small group actually reflects the average demographics of the church.
Next, ask single people what they need. Gather with staff at your church and invite single people to share with you what they need. And ask them how they’d like to get more involved—how they’d like to leverage their singleness to do even more kingdom work.
As noted elsewhere, vocational singles need intimate, committed relationships, just like their married friends. They need a family of companions who they know will be there in a decade, be there for dinner at night, listen to them talk about their day, or go on vacation with them. So help them find their inner family.
Here’s three ways vocational singles can find family:
Encourage people to stay deeply connected to their biological family. This might look like living with a parent, a sibling, or a cousin, doing rhythms of family with those people, and committing to helping them raise the children in that household.
Or, you might help single people knit themselves into unrelated nuclear families in your church. Maybe people go out of their way to choose vocationally single people as godparents for their children. Or you invite single people to weekly dinner with your family. Or include them in holidays and vacations. You could even invite single people to live in your home, commit to your family, and help you raise your kids.
Alternatively, you can help single people create families of their own. Help single people gather together and commit to being family for each other and doing rhythms of family together. This is perhaps the least conventional of the options suggested here, and while it might be the most beautiful, it also involves the most logistics. Churches can help support single people in creating these intentional Christian communities by suggesting the idea, helping them cast vision for it, providing pastoral support while they explore the possibility, coaching them through the process, and maybe even providing financial support in the early years. For example, my pastor helped me form the Nashville Family of Brothers. We’re an ecumenically Christian monastery building family in Nashville for men called to vocational singleness. We’re still a part of our local churches. We’ve got jobs outside of the brotherhood. We’re still connected to parents and their kids. And six of us pray and eat and worship and vacation and serve and live together in a home as a family as we discern whether to make lifetime commitments to each other. My pastor was instrumental in suggesting the idea, supporting us through the process, providing wisdom, and leading a public ceremony where we made first commitments.
Regardless of which path vocational singles take, single people need intimate, committed, and permanent family just like everyone else. You’ve noticed that each solution involves living together and commitment; we need to help single people find that because it is particularly hard for them to do and the paths are often unconventional.
Celebrate vocational singleness
Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, wedding anniversaries, marriages, engagement parties, infant baptisms, and baby showers all celebrate the vocation of marriage. What is there for the vocationally single? How do we mark and celebrate their commitment? If there are commitments, celebrate that ceremony—gather friends and family, witness the individual make commitments to vocational singleness to God, and have a party afterward and then celebrate the anniversary of that commitment each year. Honor singles by putting them in leadership and valuing them. And what about those occasions that are harder without a spouse to celebrate them? Birthdays, holidays, vacations, buying a home, adopting a pet, getting a job promotion. We need to find ways to celebrate and encourage single people and show them that their vocation is valued.