Churches minister to victims of divorce
OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — At the Overland Park Church of…
In 1998, Danny Dodd was a strong contender for an outreach minister position as a 39-year-old with years of preaching experience.
The preaching minister told him his resume was the best the church had seen. The three search committee members all thought he was the man for the job.
But he didn’t get it. Like many single men — whether never married, divorced or widowed — he faced the fact that churches, as a general rule, seem to prefer married preachers.
Dodd had divorced his first wife in 1994, while preaching for the Skyway Hills Church of Christ in Pearl, Miss. He remained there for a few more years, and Skyway’s elders wrote a letter for him explaining his situation as he looked for a new job.
One of the hiring church’s elders told him, “You know everything we’ve heard is great — preacher and the committee like your background, your resume, good interviews, all positive,” recalled Dodd, now 64. “But we as an eldership do not think you’re qualified because you’re divorced.”
While that was the only congregation that explicitly rejected Dodd for that reason, he believes others did so implicitly.
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He eventually took a job at Magnolia Bible College in Kosciusko, Miss., and would not return to ministry for five more years — after he was remarried and had a child. Dodd is now the preaching minister for the Levy Church of Christ in North Little Rock, Ark.
In 2015, Zack Martin faced similar challenges as a 30-year-old who had never been married.
Around 10 churches rejected him despite a degree from Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., and experience working for multiple congregations.
Martin, now 38, was never told outright that he was rejected for being single, but he believes it was a significant factor — if not the deciding one — given the kinds of questions he was asked during the interview process.
“They were very negative questions, always focused on the negative aspects of a single minister and never really focused on, ‘OK, you’re single. What are the positive things you can bring to our congregation?’” he told The Christian Chronicle. “It was always about the hindrances my singleness would bring to me and the congregation.”
It would be two years before he would land an interim preaching job at Cedar Springs Church of Christ in Louisville, Ky. — a congregation that had turned him down initially. A few months later, Cedar Springs hired him long-term.
Dodd’s and Martin’s experiences are not unique.
If there are two applicants to a preaching position with equal qualifications besides marital status, “you can almost guarantee they’re going to pick the married guy over the single guy,” said Matthew Morine, who preaches for the Castle Rock Church of Christ in Colorado and helps run its Partners in Missions program to equip small, rural churches.
Often, the reasons are purely practical. A married minister brings not one but two sets of hands to the work of the congregation. A preacher’s wife is seen as especially valuable for women’s ministry.
At smaller churches with limited resources, a wife can also provide the preacher with supplemental income and benefits, like health insurance, that allow him to accept lower pay.
“If we were really fulfilling what I see in the New Testament, you have the church using its gifts and talents as God apportioned it, as Christ apportioned it, and then nowhere is an evangelist required to be married.”
There can also be biblical reasons. While the Bible lists no requirement for a preacher to be married, preachers are occasionally expected to take on pastoral roles — at times even officially holding the dual offices of preacher and elder — that Churches of Christ typically see requiring a married man.
“The way we have come to do church and to be so vocally against ‘pastor-led’ models — and yet in … practice, that’s where we are,” said Roger Woods, who is both elder and pulpit minister for the Walled Lake Church of Christ in Michigan. “And it’s sad because I think if we were really fulfilling what I see in the New Testament, you have the church using its gifts and talents as God apportioned it, as Christ apportioned it, and then nowhere is an evangelist required to be married.”
But sometimes there’s a stigma involved as well.
Single men, particularly those past their 20s, can be looked on as if there’s something wrong with them or they have some moral deficiency.
“I think in a lot of people’s minds, a single minister is a sexual deviant if I can say it like that — that he would come in and that he would just take advantage of the single women in the congregation or even the married women in the congregation,” Martin said. “And I’ll tell you what, I have heard (about) more married ministers having affairs than single ministers, but I think congregations or elderships see that differently.”
Regardless of the specific objections, the result is the same: Single men get overlooked, even as U.S. Census data shows married households now make up less than half of all households in the country, with nearly 30 percent comprising only one person.
Amid a minister shortage, discounting single men makes the pool of potential preachers that much smaller.
However, Dale Jenkins — co-founder of The Jenkins Institute, which offers resources for ministers — told the Chronicle that fewer Churches of Christ outright refuse to take on single preachers than was the case 15 years ago.
Single ministers are most likely to be found at smaller congregations, whose limited resources also mean they don’t get the first pick of available preachers.
But while single preachers may be hired more often in practice, Morine believes the desire to have a married preacher hasn’t lessened over the years — neither do Dodd or Martin.
“I think congregations are becoming more desperate for preachers, so they’re willing to go down farther on their preferable list,” Morine said.
When the Walled Lake church was looking for a youth minister during the COVID-19 pandemic, Woods said it didn’t get many applicants, unable to compete with the pay of larger churches.
As it was considering a single man, “You could almost feel the relief when people … learned he was engaged to be married,” Woods said.
When that applicant backed out and the eldership considered another man in his 20s who was “just plain old single,” there was more concern — more from members than leadership — but he was still offered the position.
For churches to stop considering single preachers a last resort, Morine said they should recognize the positive side of single ministry.
Both married and single preachers have their strengths, he noted, and depending on the needs of the individual congregation, a single preacher can be the best fit.
“Every church can be uniquely autonomous and different, and they can really serve a segment in our society that may be underserved with somebody who is single and has certain unique gifts.”
“Every church can be uniquely autonomous and different, and they can really serve a segment in our society that may be underserved with somebody who is single and has certain unique gifts,” Morine said. “I think we need to stop trying to think about one model for churches when it comes to practical ministry and be open to how God is leading that church.
“It may not be young families with young kids, but it could be a lot of people who have gone through divorces. And you could have a congregation full of people who have struggled through that terrible time, and it could be a really healing place for a lot of people who’ve had those wounds.”
Woods referenced the apostle Paul, who’s frequently mentioned as a paragon of single ministry. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth that he wished all the Christians there could remain celibate, as he was (1 Corinthians 7:1-9).
“An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs — how he can please the Lord,” Paul added a few verses later. “But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world — how he can please his wife — and his interests are divided” (1 Corinthians 7:32-34).
“Yes, experience is great, but with the Bible and the Holy Spirit, what more do I need?”
And Martin would remind churches that even in areas of ministry where single preachers may be at a disadvantage in terms of personal experience — counseling church members on marriage and parenting, for example — God has provided them with two important resources:
“Yes, experience is great, but with the Bible and the Holy Spirit, what more do I need?”
SACRED CALLING is a special project by The Christian Chronicle exploring challenges — and opportunities — facing ministry in Churches of Christ. Read all the stories.
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