Single working women in the church face pressures, anxieties, and possibilities that are endless. They have important stories to share with the church about God’s grace in the midst of conflicting and disempowering messages about stereotypical measurements of women’s success: beauty, youthfulness, marital status, and bearing children.
Today we are joined by Brenda Bertrand, a speaker and life coach who has researched, studied, and coached many single women of faith to reach their dreams for their future while reinvigorating hope in the present. She wants to invite the church and its members to re-imagine and re-engage their role in the experience of single women sitting in church pews.
4word: We often hear from single career women of faith that they feel alienated by the church. Can you elaborate on why that is?
Brenda: This is such an interesting question. As a 40+ (cough) year old single, I have heard about and experienced this “alienation.” It is such a bizarre tension between singles and the churches in which they attend and serve. First, I must say that there are many churches that understand, support, and empower their single parishioners. Kudos to them!
Yet, there are others that are challenged to graciously address the complexity of ministering to singles, especially career women. Successful on the outside, with deep, unmet longings on the inside, many single career women mourn what they never had- a partner and children. It may be difficult to lament with a woman who, on the surface, appears to “have it all” — a career, disposable income, and the freedom to travel, spend, and do whatever she wants. Churches may find it difficult to understand this sense of loss.
Since their issues do not fit neatly within traditional, women’s pastoral care issues, such as: barrenness, miscarriage, divorce, or widowhood, they are often difficult to understand and even more challenging to minister to. Unfortunately, church leadership is often composed of well-meaning people with hearts of gold who are disconnected from singleness and even more so from the experience of working outside the church walls. This disconnection causes ministers to be frustrated, as they don’t understand why the women complain about the sadness of this season in their lives.
4word: What can be done to change this perception?
Brenda: If we are honest, marriage and motherhood are often lifted as idyllic and the end prize of womanhood, while singleness is perceived as a thoroughfare, a place which one must begrudgingly pass through.
I want to challenge our church to be countercultural by presenting new images of women having it all. Being whom Christ calls us to be comes through surrender and grace, not human effort or marital status. I encourage churches to be places where we remind women of their worth, based on who God says they are and not on how fast they climb the corporate ladder, how much they give, how fast they sprint to the altar, or the number of babies they carry on their hip. The church should be a place where single women’s narratives are positively formed, not where negative stereotypes are reinforced.
I also want the church to be a place where we get honest. Some of our single women will remain that way — single. Others by default, exhaustion, or choice will marry non-Christian men. Some will decide to have children alone through alternative routes, while some will want to talk about their sex life, or lack thereof. The church has to be a place where these conversations are normal and not taboo. We may have to help women come to terms with the reality they did not expect: single and without a family of their own at 30 or 40, or single again at 50, or being a single parent in a traditional two-family church. These are hard realities that we cannot cover up or ignore. There is no reason why the body of Christ has to be silent on issues of prolonged and unexpected singleness.
4word: What are some of the unique issues that single career women of faith deal with on a daily basis?
Brenda: I have summarized the following challenges as constants amongst some of my most amazing single friends and my mentees. These are, in my opinion, some of the key areas that surface when I mentor and coach others (including myself).
God– Some single women live in the tension of being frustrated with God and depending on God. They have been told that God will provide a spouse, so they often think, talk, and pray about their singleness with God. Yet, some feel abandoned and ignored by the very God on whom they depend. They see their singleness, especially after much prayer, as God’s denial.
The stage of singleness impacts the relationship that single women have with God more than we are willing to admit. Singleness can enhance or deteriorate ones relationship with God – it varies from woman to woman and from moment to moment.
The All Consuming Career – Many Christian single women are highly accomplished. Due to their status as single, they have invested a lot of time in their careers. For some, their career trajectories were intentional; they would have been career driven whether single or not. Unfortunately, many in the church often see their choice to focus on careers as part of the explanation for their singleness.
For other women, they have pursued their careers by default. They started their education with a husband in mind but did not get married in college as they hoped. They continued into careers and have been climbing the ladder, hoping someone will call them down from their ascent. They fill the “extra time” they would have devoted to a spouse and children to their education and career. As a result, their career is the place where they experience the most emotional, spiritual, and mental frustration. Career choices are made with relationships (or the lack thereof) in mind.
Since relationally they feel “on hold,” their careers become the focus of their attention. They live in a frustrating tension of pursuing a career in lieu of the life they really want. They also spend a lot of time volunteering at the church. This is encouraged by the church leaders who equate singleness with having more time to serve God. Career and singleness is a topic that could have its very own series.
Self-Perception – Some singles struggle with “what is wrong with me” syndrome. Because they don’t often hear practical advice at church, they spend a lot of time trying to figure out what is wrong with them physically, emotionally, and spiritually. As they see it, singleness is not a gift; it is judgment for some wrongdoing or inadequacy. These women need safe spaces to practically discuss their issues and spirituality as they risk challenging their perceptions of God and their own self-worth.
Single Men– This is a huge issue. Single men in church are often disinterested with dating women in the church. Some single men hang out with the ladies with no romantic intentions, causing women to be confused and frustrated with the perpetual “hanging out.” They want clear intentions and defined relationships. The issues of interpersonal relationships within and outside the church is a major issue.
With a broken narrative of an elusive God, an all-consuming career, and a deepening sense of inadequacy, some single women may need help reclaiming their authentic stories amidst this brokenness. Enter the church: If we stop dancing around these issues and instead discuss them head on, we will make progress in redefining singleness in the 21st century church. The experience of a single, Christian women is very complex, often comical, and highly courageous. God has some phenomenal women out there in the world and in the church – we should listen more closely to their stories.
4word: Where do we begin addressing these issues?
Brenda: What if we just followed Jesus’ model as he encountered women in his ministry? After each encounter with him, they had all that they needed. The grace Christ offered then is available to women now. He saw, listened, restored, healed, challenged, empowered, and advocated for every woman he met. Everyone was better because of their encounter with him. Jesus’ ministry model is a challenge to our church to be a place where women leave better than they came. What Jesus offers is greater that what our culture, work, and at times, even church offers.
My hope is that we minister to women as Jesus did: He saw them (Luke 13:12), heard them (John 4), protected them (John 8:1-11), healed them (Luke 13, Mark 5), used them as examples of exemplary faith, advocated for them, called them to lead (Matt 28:20), and called them to rest (Luke 10:32-48). Jesus’ encounters with women begin by hearing their stories and, with God’s Spirit and wisdom, conclude by sending them away having been heard, empowered with a new self perception, and valuing the potential of living a more empowering story.
4word: What advice do you have for those in the lives of single women?
Brenda: Let’s redefine singleness by treating it as a viable and constant season of life rather than a penalty. Singleness is a life stage that bookends the broader life cycle. People are born single, and most will spend a greater part of their adolescence and early adulthood single and most likely lose a spouse to old age. Singleness is not an in-between but rather a constant. Unfortunately, it has not been reflected as such in most pulpits.
With this in mind, we all wait, regardless of our marital status. We need to treat singles as equal citizens of the kingdom of God, not assuming that they are miserable and busily waiting for a wife swap or rescue team. We are not just waiting for a spouse- waiting is a part of the kingdom imperative to which they, and we all belong. There is possibly a reason why there are more scriptures on waiting than on singleness (Proverbs 13:12). I would encourage you to pray for your single sisters as you would your own soul: for strength, grace, and patience through every moment of every day.
In our waiting, there is an opportunity to be reminded of who we are and on whom our soul waits. Our words are powerful during this time, so let us all learn to wait on each other. And as we wait, let us mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice.
Let us say to them (and each other), “I stand with you in your waiting. I walk with you through your lonely and alone moments, days, and years.” Let’s work together as a community to get our minds and tongues aligned with the grace and love in our hearts. God is in both the waiting and the fulﬁlled longings.
4word: Any comments or thoughts you’d like to add?
Brenda: I hope churches will become communities of care for all people. I also pray that every single career woman will healthily mourn unfulfilled dreams in her life and career and courageously create new ones, because the greatest human challenge, single or not, is to be grateful for the life that you have in hopes of the one you want.
I am excited to hear from the single career women at 4word! Email me or leave a comment below. Let’s have a conversation.
Singleness is a complex subject — one that the church has not always addressed well. Brenda challenges our view of singleness to be the norm, rather than a season or exception. As we consider her words, may we create new, Christ-like communities where women in all stages of life and career are celebrated and uplifted.