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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