The Missional Position: Myths and Musings on Being Single

I’ve been married for 16 years, so I can’t very well say, “I understand.”  But, I’ve ministered among college/career aged men and women, I’ve taught, counseled, and supervised many singles at a seminary, and live and minister now in Singles Mecca – San Francisco.  And I think I’ve heard it all.  Singles – I feel for you.  There are some crazy ideas out there…

…which led City Church San Francisco’s Anni Mingin, our Pastor of Spiritual Formation, to organize an event called The Gender Gap. Anni brought together a panel of pastors and therapists to facilitate separate discussions with men and women, and by all accounts the conversation was “lively.”  Who woulda thunk it?

But in these discussions and others, I hear a combination of of things that worry me…and provoke me to muse on my own “Missional Position” when it comes to singles.


Myth 1.  The Church is responsible for providing singles healthy venues to meet each other – I’ve heard this and (thankfully) several singles debunked this myth at our Gender Gap event.  Now, if your church has a roller rink, and you can do a churchy version of “Gents Choice” (yes, we did this in the 70’s and 80’s), then go for it.  Yes, the church is responsible for casting a vision of the good life, shalom, the life of flourishing, and this ought to have application to singles (PS: Most biblical application to singles is shallow behaviorism.  Sad.)  But, I’ve seen what happens when churches give in to this modern-day consumer demand.  Most healthy singles will avoid these events like the plague.  Some will go out of a curiosity – a good speaker, an attempt at a healthy vibe.  But mostly, these foster a meat-market culture.

Myth 2.  God’s focus is on the family – Yes, you know what I’m getting at.  It is a uniquely Western and particularly American theology that focuses on the family as if the Bible advocates its primacy.  Without elaborating with lots of proof texts, I’m convinced a biblical theology places community (ekklesia) first, complete with singles, married, widows, orphans, and aliens.  We privilege Dick and Jane Tithingunit and their 2.3 children, but Scripture doesn’t.  Thus, to say marriage is normative or being single is normative, according to the Bible, misses the point.  “Life together” in community, as Bonhoeffer might say, is the point.  In the end, we are the “New Israel,” not the new Jones’s.

Myth 3 – God is most concerned about our behavior – So much of the moralistic literature on single life focuses on sin-management, not on a life of flourishing.  Thus, the college boys get together for behavioral accountability to confess their most recent J.O., or the single women define the characteristics of the perfect guy.  To be sure, how we live out what we believe is very important.  But more often than not, this leads to the production of the false self – the self we present to others which masks the darker parts of our soul.  Let’s get honest, friends, and let’s begin talking about what we really think, feel, and dream about.  Christian community that plays the game of sin-management may look clean on the outside, but is what Jesus calls a “white-washed tomb.”

So, let’s turn our attention to three musings – a biblical vision of flourishing for a single person.

Musing 1 – Your sexuality is very, very human –In the early years of the church, the answer to this problem was castration.  Bad idea.  Today, we choose behavioral castration, a kind of moralistic attempt at sin avoidance and management.  Bad idea.  God created you sexual.  Now, the opposite of castration is sexual consumerism.  Consumerism is yet another attempt to manage our desires.  Now, the Missional Position says that your attempt to control sin by avoidance, on the one hand, or indulgence on the other, is ultimately self-destructive.  Remember the words of C.S. Lewis: Our desires are not too strong, but far too weak!  Now, living into biblical desire is not killing off you want (castration) or enjoying what you want in the moment (consumerism), but living into your design.  This means that you were designed to enjoy your sexuality, even now.  Of course, being a consumer of information, you’d want me to elaborate and explain…but I’m going to leave this one at the moment of tease…

Musing 2 – Your disappointment is very, very real – Because our desires are thwarted time and again, we find ourselves confused.  After all, God wants us to be satisfied, right?  Jesus spoke of the “abundant life.”  Once again, we define abundance by what we avoid (I’m obedient!) or what we consume (I’m fulfilled!), but Jesus blows up the extremes and challenges us to live fully, in the now, despite our lack or privilege.  And this living requires the brutal honesty of lament – “Why, Oh Lord?”  Because you know that your singleness, more often than not, frustrates the hell out of you.  You know that you’ve been made to find your deepest joy in God, but let’s face it – lots of other Christians get to experience that joy plus a great spouse, a few kids, and a pretty good life.  Why are you called to suffer and not them?  We were meant to desire.  If you try to control desire through castration or consumerism, you’ll become angry, bitter, and possibly even manipulative.  If you live into desire, you’ll have to confess deep, deep disappointment.  And in this radical honesty, you may even find a kind of brutally honest relationship with God that feel as real as anything you’ve known…

Musing 3 – Your safety is more important than you know – In my work with singles, I hear a lot of constructive advice – “The church ought to provide more singles events,” or “Women ought to convey that they are available and interested by dressing in a more inviting way,” or “Guys need to pursue more,” or “Pastors need to preach more on being single.”  Fine.  There is probably some wisdom in there.  But here’s something to chew on.  In most singles environments I’ve been in, singles feel a whole lot of weirdness.  Guys expose too much chest hair.  Women expose too much cleavage.  Game on.

Now, someone broke through this meat-market craziness in the recent singles conversation when he said, “I think this creates an environment that makes everyone’s stomach turn.”  This was a private conversation, so I followed up.  I asked why, and he said, “I think that it is all about creating a perception, but it misses the real fact that we just want someone to know and be known by…someone to love.”

This is honest.  Listen, most singles I know would say that the exchanges they have, whether online or in person, exist somewhere above the water-line…where we pose and posture.  But beneath the surface, the question is, “What do you think of me?  Are you curious to know my story?  Do you want to talk more?”  Beneath the surface, in other words, is a person’s story.  And, to tell our story, we need safety.

Forget what the Bible says for a moment.  Some of you have become cynical about that.  The best psychological wisdom claims that relational connection occurs when people feel safe with one another.  Even married couples have no hope of communicating without safety, first.  Now, what counters a real feeling of safety?  That’s for you to chew on.  But more often than not, we have an intuition when a person is not safe, when the persona is in full gear, and the mask is on, and the false self is shining.  He’s a bit too cool.  And she’s trying to be a bit too sexy.  And this, on the surface, may be appealing.  But in a while, it becomes an impediment to honest relationship.

So, the Missional Position advocates honesty, curiosity, and story-telling.  It advocates the kind of heart-centered pursuit of another’s soul.  I’ve talked to men who seem fairly mature and who lead in their churches, but who are 15 years old emotionally when it comes to relationships.  Often, I tell these men that they need to relate with maturity to a woman before even beginning a pursuit.  However, these emotionally stunted men often attract emotionally stunted women, who play the game.  Maybe it’ll work.  Maybe they’ll get married.  But I can bet you this much – I’ll see them in my office for counseling soon.  Posing and posturing leads to disingenuous relationship – a form of contrived intimacy that may feel like real connection, but ultimately disintegrates it.  It kills any sense of safety – the safety to be you, warts and all.

Final Thoughts:

I probably don’t have much credibility as a 40 year old man who has been married for 16 years.  But let me tell you this:  those of us who are married, and married honestly, have hit bottom.  Our own crap and posing is eventually exposed.  Our marriages hit a place of death.  All of our former ideals around intimacy and success and sex and prosperity explode.  And we hear that old Scripture ringing in our ear: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground…”  And we know life emerges from death.

In other words, we know the pitfalls.  We’ve entered the “garden”…and we’ve discovered thorns and thistles.  Many of you wish you were in our shoes, and perhaps our beds.  But let me tell you the truth.  Loneliness and difficulty only increase.  What you wish for may come back to haunt you.  And so, we all must be prepared to take the missional position – the road the less traveled, the way down, the path of the suffering Servant.

Keeping our eyes on Christ, we see that pleasure does not come in and through sin- management.  We can’t manipulate satisfaction and pleasure.  It comes through self-abandonment, the kind of cruciform life that looks as it cannot possibly offer fulfillment.  It comes not through managing and manipulating desire, but by living into it – “you only have to let the soft sound of your body love what it loves,” as the poet Mary Oliver says in the her poem “The Wild Geese.” You see, she gets it.  She trusts something bigger than her own ability to control pain and pleasure, castration and consumerism.

Finally, this:  I’ve often told singles that their vision is too “singular” – they focus too much on finding someone rather than focusing on how others might thrive.  What would it look like for men to focus on creating a safe place for women to feel at home, and not like meat at the local market?  What would it look like for women to envision the safety of men – a context where they don’t have to become hyper-masculine, posing like the secure and mature men they are not?  What would it look like to focus on the community?  Not the family.  Not singleness.  What would it look like to anticipate the “new community,” on the new heavens and new earth, where posturing and posing will be no more, and where self-sacrifice and other-centeredness will reign?

The Missional Position.  It’s not just a funny word play.  It’s a call to cruciformity in your singleness.  Let’s talk about.

what’s wrong with your pastor?

“The antidote to exhaustion is not rest but wholeheartedness.” David Whyte

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The poet David Whyte has become a hero of mine, not least for quotes like these.  Who would have imagined that rest was not the antidote to exhaustion?  Whyte, like all good poets, encourages us to look beneath the surface, not settling for traditional remedies.

But what might this mean for the pastor?  And is it not a violation of a biblical call to Sabbath?

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I want to suggest that wholeheartedness…integrity…might just be a new way through the difficulties we experience as pastors.  No, not rest.  Not a longer vacation.  Not a week at the beach.  But wholeheartedness.

A few stories may help.

I once counseled a man who as a young boy was pudgy.  Add to it that he was from a blue collar family in a white collar town, and he just didn’t fit in.  The words he used described his feelings: “rejected, inadequate, stupid, weak.”  His Dad worked a lot and was verbally abusive.  But this young man found salvation in football in middle school.  It became a place of belonging, and gave him a sense of identity.

And so he did something most of my clients have done.  He put all of his shame and insecurity in a little black bag.  The poet Robert Bly talks about this black bag – the place where we put all of the rejected parts of ourselves.  He put his weakness, his powerlessness, and his shame in the black bag – and he emerged feeling powerful, and even a bit angry.  Perhaps, a lot angry.

Another story.  I counseled a woman who grew up in a very patriarchal home.  Her Dad was a misogynist, a true, blue woman-hater who believed women are weak, emotional, and reactive – at best.  However, in high school she found that she had a voice, becoming Student Body President.  She, like many others, put her feelings in a black bag.  She put her weakness, her powerlessness, her fragility, her vulnerability in the black bag.  Being strong just felt better.

A final story.  I counseled a man whose Dad was a very successful pastor.  It seemed like Dad was positive with everyone, but with his own son it was always disappointment.  He was too shy, too uninterested in reading and studying, too disruptive in Sunday School.  Eventually, because of who he was (the son of a pastor!), he was simply expected to have answers in youth group and expected to take leadership.  And so he did.  He got praised for his leadership…and it felt good.  So, he put his sense of failure, disappointment, and rejection in a black bag and tucked it away.

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What do all three of these stories have in common?

Of course, each found a way through difficulty.  Each channeled a powerful part of themselves which would overcome hardship.  However, each client stuffed large parts of themselves in the black bag.

But one other piece of information is critical:

They all became pastors.

And by the time the had come to see me, that black bag had grown to be a football field long…and each person struggled to carry it.  They were exhausted.  And it was time to open up the black bag and look inside.

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What if David Whyte is right and the “antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness”?

Then the diagnosis for those of us who feel burned out and exhausted in ministry is a divided heart.   And the solution is not merely better boundaries or a break or a good vacation, although all of those are important.  The solution is wholeheartedness …wholeness…an inner peace or shalom.

Or, as we’ll see shortly – integrity.

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There was a youth pastor who was exhausted.  In his exhaustion he became angry and reactive, and at one point went in to his senior pastor’s office and demanded a vacation.  He said, “There are too many people and too many things demanding too much of me.  I need a break.”  The senior pastor agreed.  He told his staff member, “Get some rest.  Let’s talk when you get back.”  The young pastor went away for two weeks and laid on a beach.  When he returned, he sat down with the pastor.  The pastor said, “Are you rested?”  The young pastor said, “I wish.  But the weather was colder than normal and the books I brought were disappointing and the hotel treated me poorly and I kept thinking about the talk I need to give in youth group next week and kept wondering why women always break up with me.”

The senior pastor asked him, “Have you ever considered that your problem is not external to you, but within you?”

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Why is it that we can go on vacation, and not feel rested in the end?

Why is it that the problem of exhaustion is always everyone else’s fault – our hard-charging senior pastor, our demanding parishioners, our needy staff, our difficult relationships.

Maybe the answer lies in our heart?

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In Matthew 5, Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart.”  The Greek word is katharos, which in the LXX translates tom – completeness.  From this, we derive the English word integer…which hints at the all-important concept of integrity.

Jesus is suggesting that there is a basic problem with our hearts – a problem of division, of fragmentation, a loss of shalom.  St. Augustine called this problem disordered desire.

In Romans 7, St. Paul says, “The things I want to do, I do not do.  But the things I do, I do not want to do.”  This is the absence of katharos, of inner integrity, of wholeheartedness.  This is a divided heart.

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Exhaustion, in other words, is at least in part due to a divided life.  Consider the high rates of ministry failure:

– 50% of ministers have considered leaving the ministry in the last months.
– 50% of ministers starting out will not last 5 years.
– 1 out of every 10 ministers will actually retire as a minister in some form.

Let’s return to our opening examples.  And let’s consider how they are illustrations of a divided life, yet how wholeness began to emerge:

That rejected and insecure football player became an angry and powerful Baptist pastor.  He held his Reformed Baptist theology like a weapon, and dominated all of his relationships, including his marriage.  When his wife finally threatened to leave him, he decided to see me.  He liked me because I was a seminary professor and had a Master of Divinity.  (Powerful people like to see ‘experts’.)  He couldn’t figure why his wife thought he was intimidating and mean, but in a few short sessions I was able to see why she’d feel that way.  I felt that way.  So, I shared this with him, albeit carefully, but honestly.  And then I asked him to watch a movie – The Kid.

When he returned the following week, he was noticeably quiet.  I asked him about the movie.  He remembered a key scene in which a pudgy little boy is silenced by his father when he cries.  I asked, “Is there any part of you that feels like that little boy?”  He began to cry, and cry like he hadn’t in years.  That day, we opened the black bag, and started pulling out parts of himself disowned long before.  In time, he became a more tender, vulnerable man and pastor.  All of the emotional energy used to keep the vulnerable little boy inside was no longer needed.  And strangely, he found himself energized – more healthy and more resilient.

Remember the second story – the story of the woman who grew up in a very patriarchal home but succeeded and found a voice as Student Body President?  By the time we met, she had become a very hard, very tough, and (dare I say it?) a very masculine young woman mired in confusion about her gender, among other things.  It turns out that as a seminary student and young pastor, much of her energy was given to living up to the expectations of being “one of the guys.”  It took a short time before I began triggering feelings associated with men – abusive, powerful, contemptuous of women.

However, I did everything I could to create safety.  And strangely, this male seminary professor who reminded her of her father became a safe man. I spoke to the moments when I saw her vulnerability, her inkling of trust in me.  And she actually did begin to trust.  Reaching into her black bag, she pulled out a part of herself that was stuffed long ago – a tender, soft, and feminine woman who did not need to, in turn, disown her strength or lose her voice.  In fact, she has become a strong and beautiful pastor and leader.

Do you recall the final story?  It was about a young man whose Dad was a very successful pastor.  He was a disappointment – too shy, too artistic, too uninterested in reading and studying, and too disruptive in Sunday School.  He came to me as a successful worship pastor for 20 years in ministry after it was discovered that he was looking at pornography on the church computer.  However, it did not take long before he confessed experimenting with other destructive behaviors – cutting, intoxication, and drugs.  He was trying to kill off the many disowned parts of himself, but they wouldn’t go away.

I asked him what he longed for in it, at one point, particularly in his pornography viewing.  Interestingly, he was able to say, “The feeling of being held and loved.”  I said, “Tell me about that part of you that wants to be held and loved.”  And he said, “He’s really, really young…maybe 6 or 7…and it’s Sunday afternoon, and he’s all alone, and Dad is watching football and I hate football.  And I sit next to him.  And he says, ‘Sissies don’t like football.’”

That was the day he put his interests and longings in the black bag, and did all he could to learn about football and ministry.  As we opened the black bag, we learned about all kinds of things.  We learned that, at least in part, the porn was about both a longing for love and also a hatred manifesting in sabotage.  He hated the church, despised working for the institution his Dad represented, and needed to step away from ministry.  And so he did.  We also learned more about him as opened the black bag.  We learned that he loved classical music and poetry and cooking.

And this man who was 15 years my elder at the time I counseled him felt like he was sitting with his Dad telling him about himself for the first time.

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The journey from a divided life to wholeheartedness re-energized 3 people who in their own ways were not really living…but merely surviving…and hurting a lot of people along the way.

They were not thriving in ministry.  People experienced them as the false selves that they were living out of – angry, embittered, passive-aggressive, hostile, demanding, critical, invulnerable, unapproachable.

And in each case, the typical approaches to pastoral soul care – better boundaries, a much-needed vacation, more quiet times – might have put a bandage on the wound, but wouldn’t have cured it.  They needed surgery.

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I once knew of a major men’s ministry that talked a lot about integrity.  Men wore shirts labeled “MEN OF INTEGRITY.”  But the conferences were pep talks.  One guy summed it up in this:  “I tell guys, ‘Hey man…buy your wives flowers, don’t look at porn, and don’t be a sissy – women hate sissies’”.  He laughed, and maybe even grunted.  Manhood at its best, right?

Integrity, in this men’s ministry, was about behavior-modification and motivation-by-sissifiying.  It was not about heart change.  It was not about wholeness.  In fact, many of these behavior modifications only served to further solidify the divisions within.  This was not a place where guys would open their black bags.  These men did not want to see fear, or pain, or vulnerability.  They wanted a warrior – a man whose black bag was shut and sealed for good.

Let me be honest with you, pastors:  That version of pastoral soul care does not require a Messiah to do the major surgery.  Rather, you can fix yourself with techniques.  But when your heart is as fragmented and disordered as mine is and yours is, then we need a God who is big enough and safe enough to open up our secret lives and stories to.

In each story I shared in this essay, the pastors felt re-born.  They felt as if they were keeping large parts of themselves away from the healing light of the Gospel.  They discovered wounds that could not be healed by techniques.  The wounds, of course, required therapy.  But they also required the church.  You see, when you live a divided life, you don’t need Jesus, you don’t need the church, you don’t need community, and you don’t need the Lord’s Supper.  You simply lead an exhausting life of self-preservation.

And then you go on vacation.  And you’re mad as hell at your spouse, your kids, your hotel, your car, your server at the restaurant.  You can’t rest.  You can’t rest because you can’t stop keeping your real fears and insecurities inside, and that takes a lot of energy.

It’s time to re-consider what the real problem is.  It’s time to remember that God gives you the Sabbath not simply to sit on the couch, but to become whole.  God wants you to flourish, to thrive, to experience shalom.

The antidote to exhaustion is not rest, you see.  It’s wholeheartedness.