Single? No parish for you.

My husband sent me a link to an article in the New York Times. (With the paywall soon to go up, expect to see a lot of links to the Grey Lady, as it’s really — as a work colleague called it — a “paysieve” and links get through.)

It considers the poor professional prospects for single evangelical ministers, and notes the built-in rationale for church planting. (A preacher’s parallel to “publish or perish” — parish or perish?)

This phenomenon is rather different among Unitarian Universalists, but with the Hot Stove Report out — founded and reprinted by Unitarian Universalist ministers Hank Peirce (on Facebook) and Dan Harper (open web) respectively — I expect to see, as usual, a disproportionally large number of white, straight, married fathers be called to the larger churches in more desirable cities. (With white, straight, married mothers filling in generally.) But without the data, it’s hard to make that stick.

Unmarried Pastor, Seeking a Job, Sees Bias” by Eric Eckholm. New York Times. (March 21, 2011)

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. No surprises here, especially that the bias is strongest among evangelicals, who have made an idol of the nuclear family.

  2. I read that article yesterday and thought it seemed spot on to me. Of course, not being in search (but a fan of Hot Stove) and married with kids, I only have the anecdotal evidence of others to go on. Still, if this trend does play itself out in the UUA, I wonder why?

  3. Because, as I feel, we’re far more conservative in polity and how we relate to culture than we like to admit? If you read George Hunston Williams’s article on Frederic Henry Hedge from the 1981 issue of the UU Christian journal — it’s still for sale in a larger pack from the UUCF — you’ll see there are some advantages to this. A stained-glass ceiling isn’t one, though.

  4. If it helps, my large metropolitan church has done a fair amount of talking about this issue. Oddly enough, it was inspired by someone from the district who caused a fuss by saying that young mothers probably didn’t have time to work on the search committee and probably shouldn’t be chosen. Even though the initial discriminatory comment was made against a very mainstream demographic, it has gotten everybody talking.

  5. I have had an annecdotal suspiscion that this bias does play out in UU, as well as UCC and Episcopal circles. I suspect that it is not a bias AGAINST single clergy, but a sub-conscious bias IN FAVOR of married clergy with children. At some unspoken level, search committees seem to view such people as more competent (even when their record is lackluster).

    Since seminary I have sometimes been puzzled by the difference in vocational trajectory between some classmates who were married with children but not very stellar but nontheless go on to higher profile senior pastorates; versus others who I thought were amazing but who were single and seemed to get shunted into marginal positions that are often part-time or temporary.

  6. I think Derek is on to something. It may very well be that the married (and the married males in particular) capture committees’ imagination and they (search members) don’t even realize the candidate’s marital status is part of the equation.

    Also, married clergy often come with kids which may capture the imagination of search committees more than they might let on…

    However, I will note that I can list a substantial number of competent married clergy (male and female) who serve small churches coming out of seminary and many who stay serving the small church for the bulk of their careers. Or maybe I’m just touchy ’cause I like to think I am a good pastor… ;)

  7. I think it is one thing if an excellent pastor serves small churches part-time as a mator of choice and vocational leading. It is a path I commend, because small churches need good pastors. It is another thing if you are shunted into such positions because you are not married.

    I have a female relative in the Church of God Anderson who finds herself unable to get serious interviews for anything other than part-time children’s ministries. RE is not her true gift. Preaching is. And it is a shame her gifts are misdirected because of gender and marital status.

  8. My experience is over a certain age a single and non-widowed/widower or divorced person is considered to be that way because they can’t quite deal with a partner, and therefore maybe, people in General. Most UU Churches I’ve experienced (even as a single) seemed oriented towards couples.

  9. Scott – for what it’s worth, it’s not just a church bias in favor of married folks and against single folks. It’s present in other areas of society.

    In 20+ years of active Air Force military service and 9 years of civilian contractor and civil servant work with the military, I have never seen a single or divorced squadron commander, group commander, or wing commander.

  10. One of the dynamics in some of our congregations is that misconduct among the clergy, often during the “swinging sixties,” left some congregations wary of calling an unattached minister. The reasoning being that married or partnered ministers are less of a threat to the well being of the congregation.

    This is not true, of course, because it is probable that the minister who strayed was also married or partnered. It’s a stereotype that interim ministers need to work out with congregations.

  11. I also wonder if some of this is due to the feelings that married with children clergy are seen as more settled?
    Single ministers could be seen as more likely to quickly move on to greener pastures, while married or partnered would be seen as more likely to have other obligations tying them to the area. Congregations would rather be the folks doing the firing, that the folks being fired.

  12. Bill – I think the shift towards second career / second income clergy is already beginning. The economics of most congregations being what it is.


  13. For what it’s worth, one of the commonly accepted beliefs is that if you have a senior pastor with school-aged children, you’re more likely to see growth in your Sunday school. There’s mildly convincing anecdotal evidence to support this, though I can offer plenty of counter-examples.

    Larry @ 10 — People do indeed believe this, but they’re wrong to do so. The clergy sexual misconduct I know about in the swinging seventies often involved married ministers, including ministers who got involved in “wife-swapping” situations (yes, they really called it that back then). Clergy sexual misconduct still goes on, of course, and sorting through the list of misconducting clergy that I know about, most of them were married when they engaged in misconduct (at least initially). So if this is a real bias, I wish search committees would confront it — married clergy *do* engage in sexual misconduct, probably at a greater rate than unmarried clergy.

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