Shepherding the Single in the Congregation
This title was designed more for reasons of convenience than for its academic correctness. A speech needs a specific title and everyone here present will have certain specific connotations in mind when thinking about "the single" in the congregation. But admittedly, "the single" do not exist. The only reason we have for using this label is in the fact that it is an expression for the understanding of the subject matter of our topic. However, as we will see, among the category of people whom we commonly place among "the single" there is a great variety! And in regard to the phrase "the single in the congregation," we must agree with the Rev. Arnold that actually "in the Church which is truly church there is no one who is single, but all believers are united in the one body." In other words, the expression "the single in the congregation" could be considered a contradiction in terms. Yet, for all intent and purposes we do consider the single as those members of the congregation who in principle are not alone, but who practically live on their own.
Before we go into the topic, I would like to mention that this consideration of a special category of members in the congregation may serve as example in the discussions of every local Council or Consistory under the consideration of Article 73 C.O. In order to improve and enrich our pastoral care for the congregation as a whole, it would be very fruitful and worthwhile to discuss a variety of questions of a similar nature. How can we better take care of: e.g. the young people, the handicapped, the elderly, the widows and widowers, the single in the congregation! In the context of such a discussion according to Article 73 C.O., questions like these could be pondered: What place does the single have in our congregation? What is the reality of their involvement among the communion of saints (are they stimulated by the congregation or ignored, motivated or turned off), what should the place of the single be, and what place should the congregation give to the single, and (in view of our specific interest!) what can the office bearers do for the single? However, before we could express ourselves sensibly on any of these aspects, we should first answer the question:
Who are the Single in the Congregation?
As I said already: "the single" do not exist. In fact, there is quite a variety among "the single." Not only do the unmarried men and women come to mind, there also are the rejected spouses, the divorced, the widows and widowers. When the apostle Paul speaks about the widows in 1 Tim. 5, he distinguishes between widows and true widows, the latter being the ones who are really single because they are deprived of children, grandchildren or others in a position to help and support them. Besides, we should consider the reasons for which people are single, which could be a handicap, terminal illness, impotence and the like; while it could also be the deterring example of parents, an incestuous or abusive background, a homosexual inclination, or a messed up life due to other causes. And as there is a great variety in the way others are as married people, so there is variety in the way these are single. There are those who like to be alone. The reasons for this voluntary singleness could be a matter of preference, or egoism, because they want to dodge marriage and the mandate to have children; while also the more positive sense of duty to care for a handicapped or sickly loved one or parent could be the motive. There are also those who for involuntary reasons remain alone, be it that all their invitations are turned down or because they were not asked. It may happen as well that some have a problem with being single at first, while others develop problems later. Statistically speaking the problem areas seem to be at the ages 25-30 (left-over feeling) or 35-45 (never-a-child-of-my-own difficulty). Understandably, due to all these differences each single one experiences his/her condition in their own way. Besides, there is development in the process of acceptance too. Therefore, "the" single certainly need not be characterized as the ones who are the sour, bitter, withdrawn, hysterical, timid, or quiet ones in the congregation. Our conclusion, therefore, may not be that "the single" are pitiable per se. Among the single, the unmarried, there are many who still see themselves very positively, as being privileged for their own reasons and /or advantages of their position. These privileges could well be that they enjoy a good job, a good income, and many opportunities to have an enjoyable time, while the advantages may be that their singleness allows them to do the many things in the congregation for which busy fathers and mothers don't have time.
What are the Specific Problems of 'the Single'?
Without working in the order of seriousness of problems, we may say in general that there are some misconceptions and misgivings among the congregation and relatives about "the single." Too easily it is overlooked that they, too, have a household to look after (and that all by themselves!) and other business to manage. Concerning their time, finances, or reasons for being alone, others may have quite a distorted understanding. Among the family they often feel out of place or are made to feel somewhat silly. With respect to their "belonging" somewhere, people may ask them whether they are "going home" for the weekend without realizing that they are trying to make themselves "at home" in the congregation where they live and work. For some single ones the Sunday is the most difficult day, in which they are cast back upon themselves, which makes them extra lonely. During special days as well they find that people want to be among themselves. In view of all these aspects much considerateness is lacking among the congregation and family. Special problematic times are days of illness; in days of grieving and other sorrowful or anxious circumstances they have to work things out on their own. Whereas others have partners to help in problem-solving, relativizing, and to give the loving criticism or opportunity to react as needed sometimes, the single often lack this at critical moments. As well, they often miss much spiritual leadership!
In view of these problematic aspects, it is no wonder that feelings of self-pity, estrangement, or jealousy come up. It seems as if they are living for themselves. Quite often the question bothers them: "What is my task in life" since married people are there for each other and for their children. Seeing that everyone has the desire for affection, intimacy, and security, the feeling of being despised and not considered attractive enough is easily aroused. Most, if not all, do have to wrestle with the idea of being left over or left out at one time or another. And the problem of acceptance of one's life-position, though not germane to "the single," is often more severe among them. All this is enough of a struggle in which the devil will step in to complicate the difficulties. Satan will use anything to make us ineffective, so also the obsession to be married. At moments when a single person sees a happy couple or family, the enemy may put thoughts of self-pity, envy, jealousy or despair into their mind. As well, although it is difficult for any believer to remain pure in a permissive society, we should not underestimate the difficulties in our sex-centred culture either. The temptations for over-attention to sexual matters as well as of the sexual freedom in our modern society make the single's working with his/her sexuality more difficult yet. Besides, due to the "abnormal" position, sexually speaking, there is already the problem of working out one's sexuality in a sense different from others and peculiar for the individual's situation. All in all, enough peculiarities and difficulties to give due consideration to the specific problems encountered by the single, generally speaking. Yet, these should not cause us to make them silly members or people who haven't reached their destination in life.
What are the Main Answers to these Problems
Starting from the Scriptures, we may say, indeed, that in some way "being single" is abnormal. The Lord said that it was not good for man to be alone. Yet, this should not lead us to consider the single "incomplete" or "half" people. Although from a creational point of view we could speak of a creation disorder, the work of the Holy Spirit certainly is restorative or corrective or compensatory enough to make people very fulfilled and complete in their single state. The Bible knows many fruitful unmarried people, such as Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist, Lazarus, Mary, Martha, Annah, Dorcas, and the apostle Paul as well (although we cannot be certain whether the description and statements in 1 Cor. 7 imply that he was a widower or an unmarried man.) People such as Jephtah's daughter or Jeremiah the prophet were single for very specific reasons and purposes, while in the life of the apostle Paul his full time concentration on the work in the kingdom of God shows us already an enlightening purpose as well. For is that not also the possibility which the Lord Jesus opens up in His discussion of the eunuchs and marriage in Mt. 19:10-12. Scripturally speaking we may say that the Lord "calls" to marriage, but it is possible indeed that He could call to the unmarried state (e.g. to care for those who cannot be cared for by married people). Therefore, also, the perception among the single of a double standard is not correct. This perceived double standard is seen when office bearers in their visits on the one hand praise the position of the unmarried and the good they do in their special calling, but when there is a prospective marriage partner they suddenly change their tune to the calling for marriage. However, the Scriptures show us both elements too: On the one hand there is the fact that it is not good for man to be alone, while on the other hand circumstances (such as persecution of believers in the situation of 1 Cor. 7) could lead the apostle to say "it is better not to marry." The latter statement does not make the apostle an advocate of the unmarried state, but an office bearer, who is realistic and sensitive to peculiar situations. In view of these Scriptural data, we may conclude that the goal of our life is not to be married or not, but to live for God in our life which He directs. Both married and unmarried people are called to make sacrifices according to their calling and life's situation. Our purpose in life must be to give glory to God's Son, and not merely to seek happiness. The question, therefore, is: Is God getting out of my life what He had His Son Jesus Christ pay for? In thankfulness for this, all God's children must pursue love, but not necessarily marriage.
Against this background it is also important to note that we confess the Providence of God as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! Before anything of us even came to life, we were included already in His book of life, we confess, and in this plan and aim with our life He governs us in love, wisdom, and goodness. He knows best how our life will come to its optimal fulfilment and purpose. Also in marriage it can happen that the specific functions of sexuality, love, or service do not work out. Then, too, the question is: how do you deal with it as God's Providence. In unity with Christ, who was single too, we all have to come to the point of acceptance in which we must say "Thy will be done," at one or another point in our life. And sometimes the struggle to arrive there requires a struggle to the point of shedding our blood, says the epistle to the Hebrews. And it is good in the Christmas season to remember Mary, the mother of our Lord, whom the Holy Spirit brought to her "fiat mihi" in the most unusual of circumstances. For this applies to the life of each and every one of God's children, seeing that we're all unique for the Lord, special and valuable for the place He has designated to us to please Him (and for which to deny ourselves). Viewing it in this way, we learn contentment with what we have and with who we are. Then it becomes a special dimension, indeed, to consider the single in their place in the congregation, in which the gifts of the single member become a gift to the others too. As Isaiah prophesied in chapter 56:3, the single among the people of God are not a fruitless tree. In the light of the New Testament charismata we may place as well the peculiar calling, opportunities, and gifts of the unmarried, which makes them equal and adequate for the Church of God. No, then we do not try to idealize the state of the unmarried, as we do not romanticize marriage either, but we seek the full employment of our talents and life under the Providence of God the Father with the help of God the Spirit for the Church and Kingdom of the Son.
Besides these answers and considerations which are of a more general nature, we could also pay attention to the following possibilities. In the congregation there should be ample opportunity to develop a good friendship. Contacts with friends are not only good to compensate for the lack of a marriage-partner, maintaining a good friendship is very valuable in itself as well. A good friend to solve one's loneliness also provides the necessary confidant with whom you can speak intimately, from heart to heart. Of course, such a friendship must grow, but here too we have the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit to help us in that: a friendly, kind, gentle, and helpful person will certainly find friendship and communion with another child of the Lord in the household of faith. Together with some more single people a weekly schedule could be developed in which they get together once a week for a meal, devotion, Bible study, and psalm and song. Also for the elderly single there are many opportunities for much joy, fruitfulness, and fulfilment according to the promises of God (Ps. 71:17, 18; Ps. 92:15). All God's promises are for all God's children, and especially when getting on in age there is the richness of the growing intimacy with the Lord and a greater awareness of the empathy of our Saviour. In His household of faith and the Family of God there should be a special place, indeed, for all the single, young and old.
The Place of the Single in the Congregation
So, first of all, the single who do not belong to a specific, particular family in the congregation, should experience the congregation as one large family. I'm sure that in most congregations there is much room for improvement in this respect. We cannot suffice with saying that every house should be an "open house" for the single. This should be made more concrete by making pertinent appointments to ensure that this is also experienced. And it should not need special mention, then, that this must be promoted not out of pity for the single but because we have come to need the single with their gifts. For with their gifts the single belong in their home congregation. Yes, we may even seek the help of the single in their own situation, in soliciting their extra prayers for office bearers, the sick, and for people with special challenges as well. In this context it may be stressed that we should express appreciation for the presence of the single in the midst of the congregation. More often than not we may hear from pulpit and in family prayer the petitions for the single rather than the thanksgiving for God's special purposes with the single! Further, it should not only be presupposed that the single visit the couples and/or families in their houses, but it must be considered important as well that the single receive visits. For one reason or another this is often considered more difficult; however, in the mutual love of one another in the communion of saints, this aspect of seeking each other, accepting one another, and serving each other will enhance the peace of the Spirit very much. This way the single need not feel or be considered as strange ducks in the pond, but they become more than a tolerated visitor in the Family. Thus they will also see, perhaps, where in the congregation they can employ themselves, in order to be serving as Dorcas for the well-being of many. For it is true, indeed, that the married ones can mean a lot to one member, while the single can become very meaningful for many! Make sure as well, that at picnics, social gatherings, and other events, the single are taken up in the families. But now, I'm giving suggestions already which we as shepherds of the flock may want to consider and implement in our pastoral care for the single.
The Special Care for the Single
Indeed, the congregation has a variety of members, and the good shepherd seeks them all. With the other office bearers we should look after these sheep of the flock as well. Then we note how the Form for the installation of the Deacons states that they must ensure that no one be lonely in the congregation. Certainly the single come to mind here too, since being alone and lonely often goes together. Besides, the deacons could well be good counsellors and advisors to the single on many a practical question or matter. However, also the elders must be alert for impending loneliness. Their pastoral attention should not consist of pity and lamentation, but rather include appreciation for what they are, stimulation to activity and involvement, and assurance that they are needed by the congregation very much. This is the kind of spiritual leadership which is often lacking for the single. Such leadership may be very business-like in that they show them the gifts and opportunities in Kingdom and Church, while serving as a sounding board and help in problem solving in regard to their experiences in this involvement. The latter function would otherwise be filled by the partner, but of its function the elder should be conscious now. All this may be done in a very casual and practical manner, but with personal attention for personal needs.
As far as the care by the pastor is concerned, we should avoid approaching the single in their peculiar situation with cheap answers to their needs. From this presentation it may be evident that we cannot suffice with calling for acceptance, thankfulness, and prayer. Neither will it help much to express to them that marriage is no bed of roses either. Let us take them seriously in their special needs and circumstances. A pre-requisite for effective help, therefore, is that we get to know them, and try to be sensitive to their unique questions and problems. Thus we will also be able to draw their attention to what they have (distracting it from what they are missing!) in order that they may employ themselves with all their gifts in particular tasks and functions. Pastors could also be very helpful in the discussion about their life and lifestyle, on issues such as relaxation and entertainment, stewardship, of time and money, even matters such as seeking contacts, placing ads, outward appearance, and other confidential matters. Besides, the single's personal walk with the Lord, his/her Bible study, devotion, meditation, etc. are important points of consideration, seeing that it is more difficult to be a believer alone than in a family. This more personal contact will enable the minister to include the single in his preaching and prayer fruitfully, and will help him address their needs, e.g. in a sermon on the seventh commandment etc.
All this, and more, much more, could serve the total development and employment of these sheep among the fold, who will use their gifts with Word and Spirit for the up building of the Church of Christ and the glory of God in their life as single.
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