It’s relationship month, and Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. What are the unique challenges and blessings of being married, in a relationship and single in youth ministry? Martin, Jamie and Phoebe get up close and personal, and share the woes and joys of their relationship situations.
Articles about singleness make me cringe. Even writing this article is making me cringe, as I sit and imagine the word ‘SINGLE’ emblazoned across my face. Because I very rarely (if ever) think of myself as ‘single’, or dwell upon my ‘singleness’.
The only time it is abruptly brought to my attention is when others raise the subject. The worst of these was last Christmas when my dad sat me down with a sincere frown, held my hand, and asked, ‘Does it worry you that you haven’t found anyone?’ It didn’t, but it DOES NOW. Thanks dad.
I know for some, being single is a daily struggle; as others around them get coupled up and babied up they become distinctly aware of a lack in their own life, and feel a spare part in Church and society as a whole. I know many, many superb single Christian men and women who battle with the balance of cracking on with what God wants them to do, while also waiting for their lives to take off. I also know firsthand the challenge of working for and being part of a small local church where there are no others of the same age. These churches, to which we give all of our selves, take up so much of us that we don’t really have time to visit other churches, or look elsewhere for any other potential spouses. It’s hard when you feel called to a particular church and yet there is not a single single person between the ages of 18 and 75. We can hope that God might miraculously bring Mr or Mrs Right through the doors of our ramshackle community centre – but the chances are slim if not zilch, and we know deep down that this is Hollywood theology, not biblical truth.
I am grateful that being single isn’t a daily burden for me. However, I know that it may well one day be, so I hope I take heed of the positives below. Because if you are a single youth worker then you have a lot to give to your young people. Here are just a few of the positives for this season of your life:
Time. I genuinely don’t think I could have done what I have done in the past few years if I had not been single. It has been a particularly fruitful season of my life. I’ve been involved in forming and running a youth group, and had the time to really nurture the relationships within it. This is not to say that youth work is more important than relationships. Nor that youth work is in any way a replacement for a relationship (it’s very important that we have significant relationships outside of our youth work to bring healthy balance). Rather, it is about recognising the season we are in and throwing ourselves into it. As single people we have a huge opportunity not just to be available but to be fully present; to give our young people all of the attention they deserve.
Counter-cultural. In a society where all songs are about relationships, where magazines follow the ins and outs of celebrity relationships, and where all the Church seems to talk about is relationships, it’s very counter-cultural to be a single person and to be content with it. Our young people look up to us and watch our words and actions far more than we can imagine; it is incredibly powerful to model something different to them. This is not to say that we should pretend to be content when we are not, or portray a false perception of ‘I’m great, honest!’ when we are desperate to find a partner. But rather as single men and women we can demonstrate that it’s possible to be secure and fulfilled, living a full and rich life, even before or without being in a relationship or married. I am particularly keen to model this to the young girls in my group; that they have extraordinary gifts to bring and have a key role to play in church, regardless of their relationship status.
Calling. I find the discussion around singleness and calling very interesting. It’s a popular idea that some people are called to ‘singleness’ or ‘celibacy’ – but this isn’t something that we find in the Bible (it is, however, described as a ‘gift’ in 1 Corinthians 7:7). What we do find is Paul’s teaching on singleness and marriage in which the default is singleness, with people only getting married if they can’t fight the lust they feel. Yet the default in Church and in our society is marriage, which is an interesting shift. John Stott, who was single for life, said that we must never exalt being single above being married – but that both are good. He said this of his own singleness:
‘I have never taken a solemn vow or heroic decision to remain single! During my 20s and 30s, like most people, I was expecting to marry one day. In fact, during this period I twice began to develop a relationship with a lady who I thought might be God’s choice of life-partner for me. But when the time came to make a decision, I can best explain it by saying that I lacked an assurance from God that he meant me to go forward. So I drew back. And when that had happened twice, I naturally began to believe that God meant me to remain single.’
It’s encouraging to me that even this late and great reverend, who did so much for the kingdom, wasn’t heroic in his singleness. It was still a battle, and still something he would not have chosen for himself. And yet out of obedience and as a consequence of his practical situation he remained single, and God used him mightily.
Be encouraged, my single friends. Whether it’s just for a time or for life, and even if we would not have chosen it for ourselves, there are many positives to being a single person in ministry.
In a relationship
I’m Jamie and I’m in a happy, unmarried relationship. Man, it was good to get that off my chest.
People are getting married later and later; young people are entering into more and more relationships. Youth workers showing that relationships can work, that they are important, but that they take time, effort, blood, sweat and tears, might be some of the more important role - modelling that we do.
No relationship situation is easy – being a single person in church can be really tough, and being married in youth work comes with a whole heap of challenges - but it feels like we’ve got our theology surrounding those two figured out. Where is the Church’s theology of… dating? The word ‘dating’ is problematic in itself - what does the Church even call it? If it’s dating then we’re in an America teen sitcom, if we’re courting then we’re in the 18th Century, if we’re seeing each then, well, I see lots of people, and if we’re ‘going out’ then the immediate question is: ‘where?’
Even once we figure out what to call ‘it’, churches still ask themselves inane, silly questions. Do we invite ‘couples’ over to Sunday lunch? Do we treat them like a married couple, or two single people? If an employed youth worker has a girlfriend, do we treat that relationship as seriously as if they were married?
These are just a few of the tensions caused by being in a relationship, but not married, and it seems like all of them come from pieces of misinformation. Firstly, there’s the idea that the reason you’re in this relationship, but still not married, is because you’re not that fussed about marriage or don’t value it particularly highly. I’d suggest that the opposite is true. Forgive me for talking about myself, but I love the idea of marriage; my steadfast refusal to rush down the aisle is because I value marriage so highly. I want to get married when I’m ready, not when someone else thinks I’ve been with my partner for the appropriate amount of time. The other troublesome myth is that none of this time really ‘counts’, as if somehow at the moment when we say our vows we’re starting from zero, and the previous X amount of years were all preparation to start again. This time matters.
So if all of that is the problem, what’s the solution?
Model something healthy. Youth workers in relationships have the amazing opportunity to show how valuable these relationships are. It’s easy to point at disrupted home lives and unhealthy relationships on TV, but, while plenty within the Church can model marriage, modelling the time before is important. In a time where young people can flit from relationship to relationship, they need a healthy example of something different.
Stress and live the importance. When we talk about marriage in ministry, we put emphasis on the importance of protecting it and churches, to their credit, are getting better at ensuring that those involved in ministry are given the time and space to prioritise that relationship. This is rarely the case for unmarried couples. On one level, this is the case with many jobs, where the lack of ‘legality’ involved in a relationship means there is no need for such provision - but we can call the Church to do better. Your church isn’t going to prioritise your relationship for you - you’ll need to push for it, and prioritise it yourself. This means carving out non-youth work time together (especially if you do youth work together), it means having a shared, non-youth work spiritual life, and it means not dumping your youth work hang-ups onto them. If you don’t set these priorities, you can’t expect anyone else to do it for you.
Find your own rhythm. Each relationship is different. Some people will be married within a year of meeting each other, and that’s totally right for them. For others it will mean waiting, and waiting, and waiting, until the moment, relationship and practicalities are right. What’s important is that as a couple you find your own pattern, rhythm and structure to your relationship. Don’t try and make it look like a marriage. It’s not. It’s different. Don’t try and make it look like your mate’s. It’s not. It’s different. There’s no set way of doing Christian dating (especially if you’ve ‘kissed dating goodbye’).
In some parts of the Christian world, ‘dating’ is a dirty word. The pre-marriage time is special and deserves to be treated as such. Young people’s relationships can be so disordered and messy, and for some of them, seeing a healthy marriage isn’t going to be the silver bullet to deal with that. The Church needs more happy, settled, relationships - not more people pressured into marriage.
Pete was one of the best youth workers I ever met. Or at least, that’s one way of assessing him. He was charismatic, he was loved by young people, parents, his team and his church. He had an infectious passion for the Christian faith, rooted in a Bible he could explain better than most experienced preachers, and lived out in counter-cultural selflessness. Pete’s youth work grew big, and grew quickly. He was one of our very best.
And then one day, Pete’s wife left him. And by his own admission, it was all his fault.
Pete was good at youth work because he invested himself – more heavily than anyone I’ve ever known – in his calling. The church’s youth work exploded partly because Pete was offering opportunities for young people to meet and participate almost every night of the week. He was also personally involved in mentoring five or six young people at any one time, taking assemblies, lessons and Christian union meetings in several local schools, and making time to ‘hang out’ with disenfranchised young people on the local estate. He was, quite simply, obsessed with youth ministry – and it had turned him into a workaholic, working around 80 hours a week.
Pete had a wife and a small child; a baby. They never saw him. When they did, he was constantly checking his phone for messages from young people, or answering late night calls at the door from tearful teens who’d just ended their latest relationship. In the end, it understandably got too much. And as Pete realised what he’d done – that he’d neglected his marriage in favour of his calling – the damage was already too great.
Pete’s story is the most extreme version I’ve ever heard, but over the years I’ve met a lot of youth workers who’ve fallen into this trap. Because when youth work is going well it’s exciting: in those periods we can feel indispensable and needed. But when married youth workers prioritise their youth ministry above their marriage (which usually happens subconsciously) we exchange one calling for another, and we pick the wrong one. As a married youth worker, my responsibility is to be a good husband and father, before I even think about looking after other people’s children.
The key to Pete’s story is that he’d completely obliterated any sense of boundaries in his life, work and marriage. One flowed seamlessly into another, and with an enthralling vocation which tied together his interests, hopes and passions, there was only ever going to be one winner. Pete’s love of youth ministry swamped his relationships with his wife and child. So what might he have done differently? Here are three thoughts on creating better boundaries as a married youth worker:
Set clear expectations… and live up to them. If you’re a good youth worker, it stands to reason that young people will want more of your time. So much of youth work is about building relationships, and so it’s natural that young people will press at the boundaries to see how far they stretch. If they get to know they can drop around at your house any time, or text at 11pm and get an instant response, they will. So you need to make it clear that you’re contactable at certain times, and not at others. If you’re consistent, your young people will appreciate, and abide by, the boundaries you set for them.
Carve out time together… and don’t talk about youth work! I always want to talk about youth ministry. But it turns out that it’s not usually the first topic of conversation that my wife wants to talk about! The ‘date night’ idea isn’t new; it’s a really important discipline for couples to spend some time together each week investing in their relationship – but if we’re not careful we can still spend that time thinking, talking and arguing about work. So set ground rules for this special time together: no junk TV, no talking about youth ministry and definitely no last-minute cancelling!
Don’t live two lives… unless you have to. A leadership job and family life can, if we’re not careful, become completely compartmentalised. In many cases, that’s not entirely helpful for either ‘side’. It helps those involved in each to understand what the rest of your life involves, and to put faces and names to those nasty people who keep taking you away from them!
These ideas might not have saved Pete’s marriage – sadly, he and his wife divorced a couple of years later – but they might just help me, and you, to retain a vital sense of perspective. Youth ministry is an incredible calling, but as a husband and a dad, I pray I never lose sight of the fact that those roles come first.