Advocating for the Ministries of Single Women in Your Church

Article
12.10.2019

“What you’re doing is a high and holy task.” These were the first words of my PhD supervisor and mentor after I had asked for his help. I was a third-year doctoral student preparing to teach my first seminary class to a group of student wives. When I met with him, I’d expected to get some practical advice—some syllabi-writing tips, a book recommendation, etc.

But these details were trivial compared to the gravity of his voice. To hear him talk, you would have thought I was teaching the most significant class at the seminary. It didn’t matter that it was entry-level—and it certainly didn’t matter that it was a class of all women, few of whom would enroll in the master’s level classes and none of whom would become pastors. What mattered was the ministry of teaching and my responsibility to impart sound doctrine. No class composition or course level code could diminish from the significance of that task or my duty to fulfill it with excellence.

Women in the corporate world have observed that their ability to flourish in their field requires more than a mentor. They need a sponsor, someone in their sphere who champions their potential and helps create opportunities for them to excel. A sponsor knows how to navigate potential pitfalls, recommends her for opportunities she may not otherwise pursue, and advocates for her success. My doctoral supervisor was just that: a sponsor who considered my success in ministry as part of his own success.

Our churches are brimming with women like me. We’re devoted to Christ in our personal lives. We’re investing our time and energy in ministry. We’re also unmarried. On the one hand, that should mean we have no lack of opportunities for meaningful contribution to the Kingdom. We’re free to give undivided devotion to the Lord (1 Cor 7:34–35). On the other hand, it can leave us feeling out of place. We need a sponsor, an advocate who sees our potential for Kingdom impact and is willing to invest in our spiritual flourishing.

When the Apostle Paul described opportunities for ministry, he reserved a category for unmarried women. But for Paul, the single woman in the church was not a misfit; she was a minister. He saw her personal and spiritual gifts. He understood her potential to the church. The same Apostle who planted churches throughout Europe championed the ministries of unmarried women in those churches. The same Apostle through whom we learned the gospel significance of marriage advocated for their ministry potential. And the same Apostle who said, “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man,” (1 Tim 2:12) sponsored the Kingdom contributions of single women.

How can pastors champion the contributions of unmarried women to their congregation? How can godly men apply their spiritual authority to “sponsor” a single woman in ministry without compromising belief or practice? As a single woman in ministry, I offer the following suggestions.

1. Acknowledge that her personhood precedes her position.

There’s an unfortunate and usually unintended consequence that an adherence to complementarian theology can create: we reduce one’s identity and consequent ministry potential to one’s gender. Please don’t hear what I’m not saying. Our gender is neither accidental nor incidental; it’s divinely given and carries implications for our relationships in both personal and spiritual families. Sadly, however, the extent of a woman’s possible ministry involvement often predicts the extent of the ministry investment from her pastor.

Consider Phoebe. Of all the candidates to deliver Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he chose a woman. One can only wonder about the circumstances that precipitated his trust. Paul must have believed she was reliable, conscientious, and savvy enough. Perhaps because she was unmarried and without the obligation of husband or children, she was free to risk the danger involved in the 700-mile journey.

We need not question Paul’s theological consistency to affirm his confidence in this brave woman. For Paul, Phoebe’s leadership [1] was grounded in the person God created her to be, not a position she could or could not attain. In other words, her personhood as a child of God and a minister in his Kingdom comprises her identity, rather than her position in a local church.

No doubt, you have a Phoebe in your congregation. She’s a woman with the aptitude for leadership. She’s dependable and faithful. And as a single woman, she’s ready and able to devote herself to serving in ministry with a greater focus and commitment than most married women can devote. That the unmarried woman in your church will never serve as an elder need not preclude her from serving as a trusted deaconness in your church

That she will not be entrusted with the position of an elder doesn’t preclude her from trustworthiness. If she has teaching gifts, encourage her to develop those in biblically appropriate ways, of course with the same dedication as your male congregants. If she shows an inclination or aptitude for doctrinal discussion, direct her to the same theological resources you would a man—because as wonderful as many of the books by and for women are, we need to read the great theological works as well.

2. Family-based support is incongruous with fear-based suspicion.

In Acts 16, we meet Lydia, a wealthy businesswoman who received the gospel then immediately devoted herself to serving others. Luke tells us that Lydia was not only an unmarried homeowner—a status that often entailed employing servants—but that she was also an assertive woman: “She prevailed upon us” (Acts 16:15). Lydia was persuasive, strong. She had chutzpah. She saw a practical need, and she knew how to fulfill it.

We get no indication that Paul was embarrassed to receive her help. And we certainly don’t see that he disparaged her determination as somehow “unfeminine.” Even more, it’s likely that the first church at Philippi met in Lydia’s house. Rather than view the strength of her personality through the lens of suspicion, Paul welcomed her as a sister in the Lord. She was family. And since they were members of the same body, Paul could welcome her gifts and abilities as contributions to their common mission.

You probably have a Lydia or two or three in your church. She responds to the Word with zeal and readiness for action. She identifies a need and fulfills it. She has a strong personality, a determined work ethic, and administrative competence.

Regrettably, such women often find their vision for Kingdom ministry extinguished by the steady drip of suspicion. Some might reason: she’ll take the proverbial mile if we give her an inch. Others might say her involvement would portend a drift into theological error. In an effort to curtail her potential overreach, some leaders restrict beyond the boundaries of Scripture the ministries available to her. And yet, is not the dedication and enthusiasm of a “Lydia” precisely what Paul had in mind when he said single women could devote themselves to the Lord? To commit the totality of their time and energy to serving Christ?

What might happen in your church if the single women in your congregation sensed pastoral support, rather than suspicion, for using their gifts in the Church?

A Sponsor, Not a Mentor

The single women in your church don’t need you to be their mentor. Instead, they need you to be their sponsor, to identify their potential, to encourage and shepherd them toward developing their gifts, and to make their success in ministry part of your own success in ministry. For the Apostle Paul, advocating for the ministries of single women harmonized with his teaching on church order. May it be so in our churches as well.


[1] By “leadership” I don’t mean elder leadership or oversight over the whole congregation, but leadership in the whole range of diaconal ministries within biblically appropriate boundaries that support the mission of the church.

By:
Katie McCoy

Katie serves as Assistant Professor of Theology in Women’s Studies at Scarborough College. She is also the Editor of BiblcialWoman.com, a women’s issues website of Southwestern’s Women’s Programs.