The dim market for single pastors

Occasionally a piece sits for a week or two before one of us realizes it needs to be addressed. Straight from that guilt file folder, we have a New York Times front-page article on pastors who struggle to find jobs because they are single.

Like all too many Americans, Mark Almlie was laid off in the spring of 2009 when his workplace downsized. He has been searching for an appropriate position ever since, replying to more than 500 job postings without success.

But Mr. Almlie, despite a sterling education and years of experience, has faced an obstacle that does not exist in most professions: He is a single pastor, in a field where those doing the hiring overwhelmingly prefer married people and, especially, married men with children.

Mr. Almlie, 37, has been shocked, he says, at what he calls unfair discrimination, based mainly on irrational fears: that a single pastor cannot counsel a mostly married flock, that he might sow turmoil by flirting with a church member, or that he might be gay.

I don’t know much about Mark Almlie, but I wonder how the reporter is quantifying “sterling education and years of experience.” It might have been more precise to say that he received a seminary degree from Fuller Seminary and four years of experience at a church, at least judging from his LinkedIn page.

The piece is mostly anecdotally driven with some data that compares male and female pastors and married and single pastors in mainline churches vs. evangelical churches.

Women seeking positions in mainline Protestant denominations like Episcopal and Presbyterian have seen the doors widen: By 2009, 28 percent of senior pastors in mainline churches were female, according to a survey byU.S. Congregations, a nonprofit research group in Louisville, Ky. But a preference or firm requirement for male pastors persists among conservative churches (mainly evangelical), with fewer than 2 percent of senior positions held by women.

Single pastors remain uncommon, especially among conservative churches, where the figure is one in 20, according to the same survey. Among mainline Protestant denominations, roughly one in six senior pastors are single.

Erik Eckholm taps into a longstanding issue for churches, hitting interesting points about sexuality, the concern about leaders about faithfulness, and the role of a pastor’s wife.

The article quotes Al Mohler, which seems appropriate since he is the president of a large Southern Baptist seminary. Mohler represents a large subset, but not the only one, which is why he likely fleshed out some of his thinking in a follow-up column.

One way the article could have been expanded is an acknowledgement that evangelical churches are very different from one another. It’s not just as mainline vs. evangelical question. For instance, a Pentecostal church will probably look at the issue very differently than a Baptist church.

Perhaps he could’ve looked at whether it might be a longstanding reaction to the Catholic Church’s celibate priests. Forgive me for a sentence while I cite Wikipedia: “The Reformers made abolition of clerical continence and celibacy a key element in their reform.” It might be worth looking into the historical significance and acknowledging the contrast.

There is also probably a large regional difference between evangelical churches. For instance, I’d be curious if one of Tim Keller’s Redeemer plants have many single pastors in New York City vs. a nondenominational church in Nashville.

Reporters have limited time and space, but perhaps some of the anecdotes could have slipped in a mention about denominational and regional differences.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • bob smietana

    The Evangelical Covenant Church (my home denomination), has the same issue that many denominations face– namely too many pastors and not enough jobs open — that will change when boomers retire in large numbers but probably any time soon. Which means that single pastors are competing with married pastors for a limited number of jobs. And like many Protestants, Covenant churches prefer married pastors.

  • Christy

    Yes, I think the reporter should have given more perspective by mentioning the contrast with the Catholic church’s continued official policy of celibate priests.

  • Diane

    The data about male/female pastors could comprise an entirely separate article. I don’t have resources on married/single clergy in The United Methodist Church (my home church), but here are statistics on clergywomen & clergy spouses (whether male or female) in the UMC: (ignore the typo on that first page!)

    Since a denomination that loves self-research/statistics (the UMC) has not done much research on single clergy (the group that would have done it is linked above), I doubt that many other denominations have rigorously tracked that data. To give the NYTimes reporter the benefit of the doubt, I am guessing that anecdotal evidence is all there was.

    And as anecdotal feedback, my (single) seminary friends responded this way on fb: “Homophobia, sexism, anti-Catholicism, and frugality… any other reason why single pastors are discriminated against?” “Amen” “Too true” and “To think that all this time I assumed that bringing your mistress along for an interview was a full-proof way to get hired as a minister.”
    ‘Twould be nice to get some statistical evidence to back all of that up!

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Bob, thanks for weighing in. I suspect you’re right – that it’s a huge issue of the market period. Does your denomination definitely state that or is do you just sense that? Do you feel like it’s a regional thing at all? I also wonder whether the size of a church matters – would it matter as much at a megachurch, for instance.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Diane, Thanks for the link. I do wonder whether the male/female pastor thing is a separate issue from singleness, since the male/female thing is more about theology for some denominations whereas singleness might be more about preference. I don’t necessarily fault the reporter for having an anecdotally-driven story, though I wondered whether some factors were just missing. Otherwise, it seemed true to what I’ve seen.

  • Liam Moran

    The whole issues is unfortunate. Paul was single and he clearly addresses the issue in 1 Cor. 7.

  • Karen

    The whole issues is unfortunate. Paul was single and he clearly addresses the issue in 1 Cor. 7.

    But he also affirmed celibacy so one assumes he wouldn’t abuse the teenagers or widows. And single men are considered suspect today, regardless of fairness.

  • Julia Duin

    I believe Erik is quite new to the religion beat which may explain why Al Mohler was one of the only names on his Rollodex. Yes, a webzine like Boundless that’s aimed toward singles would have been a better source for quotes. Still, this is a really good piece about something in evangelicalism that never gets written about. (I’ve written 2 books on singleness and let me tell you, the wider church could care less about its families of one).