Guest Post: Single Pastors and Unpaid Helpmeets
Today's guest post comes Charity Carney, a religious historian at Stephen F. Austin State University. She received her doctorate from University of Alabama in 2009, and her book, Ministers and Masters: Methodism, Manhood, and Honor in the Old South (Louisiana State University Press), will arrive on book shelves in October. This book provides a much-needed look at the place of masculinity in Christianity, particularly among ministers. Her post today engages the "problem" of single pastors and the roles of minister's wives in the contemporary period. Please welcome, Charity!
Single Pastors and Unpaid Helpmeets: The Problem of Marriage and Evangelical Leadership
In yesterday’s NY Times article, “Unmarried Pastor, Seeking a Job, Sees Bias,” journalist Erik Eckholm examines the lives of single pastors (particularly those belonging to more conservative evangelical denominations) and the obstacles they face in finding employment. Most churches want to have “family men” (the subtext here is not gay and not interested in getting into the panties of the females in the flock). While the article is interesting, what it posits is not new. It mirrors a debate that has received little attention but has plagued evangelical religious figures since the Christmas Conference or Cane Ridge. Should pastors be single or married? Today, that question has some addendums: single or married? man or woman? straight or gay? But for conservative churches, the social narrative arc has remained surprisingly the same even as church policies have changed. First, a bit of the article [emphases added]:
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. If the job search is hard for single men, it is doubly so for single women who train for the ministry, in part because many evangelical denominations explicitly require a man to lead the congregation.
Mr. Almlie, an ordained evangelical minister who lives in Petaluma, Calif., has also had to contend with the argument, which he disputes with scriptural citations of his own, that the Bible calls for married leaders. “Prejudice against single pastors abounds,” Mr. Almlie wrote in articles he posted on a popular Christian blog site in January and February, setting off a wide-ranging debate online on a topic that many said has been largely ignored.
Some evangelical churches, in particular, openly exclude single candidates; a recent posting for a pastor by a church on Long Island said it was seeking “a family man whose family will be involved in the ministry life of the church.” Other churches convey the message through code words, like “seeking a Biblical man” (translation: a husband and a provider).
“I’ll get an e-mail saying ‘wonderful résumé,’ ” Mr. Almlie said in an interview. “Once I say I’m single, never married, I never hear back.”
Mr. Steen later married and for family reasons moved to Long Island, ultimately leaving the ministry. He now markets accounting services to churches.
Some religion experts suggested a less charitable reason for the marriage requirement: the expectation that a pastor’s wife will provide unpaid labor, perhaps leading the choir or teaching Sunday school.
“Sometimes, parishioners have an unspoken preference for a happily married male with a wife who does not work outside the home,” Cynthia Woolever, research director at U.S. Congregations, wrote in a 2009 article. “She also volunteers at the church while raising ‘wholesome and polite children.’ ”
Mr. Almlie notes that during the first 1,500 years of Christianity, “singleness, not marriage, was lauded as next to godliness.” Martin Luther, in his break with Rome, preached against mandatory celibacy and got married himself.
As he searches for a job, Mr. Almlie is also looking for a life partner. He has tried Christian dating services and even eHarmony, but nothing has clicked. He says that he understands the desire to have a model family, but that he faces too many myths and fears.
“Ultimately, I do begrudge not being hired,” he said.
Noble of Almlie, but some early evangelical minister might have begrudged churches, just for very different reasons. In the early 19th c. bachelorhood was viewed as the norm for Baptist and Methodist preachers, even though communities worried that single ministers would engage in inappropriate relations with young or even married women. Their single status also led to an image of "effeminacy" (subtext here may not be gay, but definitely not "manly" enough). Despite these social concerns, church leaders impressed upon ministers (especially circuit riders) the need to be single and celibate because the work was hard, there was little pay on which to subsist, and a wife and child may distract them from God’s work. The Virginia Conference in 1809 was termed the "Old Bachelor Conference" because there were so few married men in it. The denominational narrative has obviously shifted, but the social fears of congregants (who largely determine the direction of churches nowadays) remain the same and evangelical churches have bowed to cultural prescriptions once again. [See Heyrman, Southern Cross, of course, regarding young ministers’ image in southern society especially]
I also take interest in the role of women in this story—not simply the female pastors who are fighting their way into ministerial positions but the wives of the men who seem to be having more luck getting those jobs. The role of “helpmeet” has held a precious place in evangelical culture and women have played an important role in evangelical religion in America [Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture, still holds here]. In some of my own research, I have run across very early debates over the role of Methodist ministers’ wives (most of these sources are dated late-antebellum as more ministers married—including the infamous debates surrounding James O. Andrew’s marriage and the pursuant denominational break in 1844). One of my favorite examples is an account of a minister’s wife’s experience that appeared in 1859 in the Southern Methodist Itinerant. Several women in one church practically persecuted their pastor’s spouse for neglecting her duties, not attending all church meetings, and attending to things that did not contribute to her husband’s ministry. Some of the “leading ladies” in the community went to the woman and told her that she needed to either teach Sunday School or join the Missionary Society if she wanted her husband’s church to prosper. The wife’s response is classic: if the church would like to pay her, she would be happy to serve but since they hired her husband and not her, they had no special claims to her time and energy. She said: “That the minister’s wife is expected to keep her house and clothe her children upon the lowest range of income, that will not allow her competent help” is work enough without having to “spend half of her time in gossiping among the idle or well-to-do ladies of the congregation—take part in their sewing circles, and attend all their various meetings for good or doubtful purposes.” This response is certainly not typical, but it does demonstrate the pressures placed on minister’s helpmeets from very early on.
What may have contributed to the persistence of this gendered vision of the holy household is actually the very commercial imagery of husband and wife preaching teams that invade our televisions on networks like TBN and advertise on billboards alongside the smiling insurance agents. In my current town of Nacogdoches (East Texas), a Baptist church hired a young pastor and the billboard denotes his position as “Head Pastor” and his spouse as “Wife,” an official title for an official (and officially unpaid) church role. For nationally recognized couples like Joel and Victoria Osteen, Creflo and Taffi Dollar, the Hagee clan, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, the patriarchal dynamic is retained even if the wife has a larger role in the ministry. Single women like Joyce Meyers and Paula White (the “messed up Mississippi girl”) who have carved out a space still speak in sexed terms about faith and living one’s religion. Thus the debate continues (married/single, man/woman, straight/well, straight) with mainline evangelicalism—a page taken out of the past and pasted in the Times.