I took my first “spiritual gift test” (yes, that’s a thing) the summer before my senior year in high school. It was sort of fun. Like a personality test. I remember very little about the results. What I do remember is that one member of our group was more than a little alarmed when the “gift of celibacy” emerged near the top of her list. I listened as others reminded her that she was only 15 and assured her that it was unlikely a multiple-choice test could destine her for a nunnery. But the gift of celibacy came out high on my list too, and I knew exactly why. The test included true-false statements like, “The idea of being single is traumatic for me.” I wasn’t yet 17, but I answered the question confidently as “false.” Evidently, most people had not.
Four years later, I was sitting around a table with a church leader and several other high school and college students. We took turns responding to the question, “Where do you think you’ll be in ten years?” My answer included school, career, and geographical location, but it left out an essential element. Someone quickly followed up:
“Do you think you’ll be married?”
“No…I really don’t.”
The church leader chimed in, “The problem with Heather is that she has no self-esteem. She’d be a great catch. She just doesn’t believe it.” It was true that I lacked self-esteem. But I thought it was an interesting assumption that if I expected not to marry, I must deem myself unworthy.
I’ve been asked many times by well-meaning friends and acquaintances how it happened that I never got married. I’m sure any psychologist would relish the opportunity to explore all the weird and complicated personal history that contributed to this circumstance, but the truth is that it was never part of my vision for my life. I never imagined myself as a wife and mother. I never dreamed of my wedding like so many young women do.
But I’d be lying if I said I’ve never been bothered by it. I often am. I hate seeing “and guest” after my name on a wedding invitation. I dread bridal showers and baby showers because it’s hard to celebrate rites of passage that I sometimes feel like I missed. I’m uncomfortable in groups when conversation turns to marriage and relationships. I have asked family members and close friends if they think something is wrong with me. I have ventured into dating several times and every time have reached the same conclusion: I hate this. It doesn’t fit. It isn’t me. When I am asked (and I have been), “Do you wish you were married?”, the honest answer is no. I do not wish I were married. I just wish I weren’t abnormal.
In college and throughout my 20’s, I asked my mother several times if it worried her that I might not get married. And -God bless her traditional, conservative, Bible-believing heart -she always said no, and I believed her. My maternal grandmother, also a conservative Christian who will forever be one of my favorite people and greatest heroes, adored her husband and grieved his loss but wished marriage on no woman and made no bones about that. That the two most important women in my life, traditional as they were, never urged me to find a husband was a gift I didn’t recognize until years later.
In my early 30’s, I began to realize that nowhere was being single as uncomfortable as it was at church. Once we pass the college/career group stage, we define groups by gender and marital status. We have couples’ groups, moms’ groups, men’s groups, women’s groups, senior groups, and, yes, singles’ groups. I have attended exactly two singles’ group meetings in my life. One quite obviously offered treatment for singleness; the other was a struggling start-up in a church clearly geared to families. I tried to attend women’s events but got tired of hat themes (“We ladies wear so many hats! Wives, mothers, career women…) and Bible studies about busyness. I cringed every time a pastor said from the pulpit, “Ladies, turn to your husbands…” and avoided every sermon series on dating and marriage.
I knew these topics applied to most people and never expected the church to cater to my interests. But I have always felt that church didn’t quite know what to do with me. It was organized around the traditional family structure, and I didn’t fit. I so wanted to eliminate the categories and just be one among many adults. I wanted not to be excluded from a house-building trip because this one was a “men’s” trip or a “family” trip. I wanted not to have my gender, age, and marital status constantly highlighted.
Importantly, it only recently occurred to me that my own discomfort would barely even register compared to that of someone who was gay or gender noncomforming. I can walk into a women’s ministry event without turning heads. I might not feel like I fit, but at least I look like I fit. My cultural practices match, for the most part, the types of activities that take place at church. The styles of music are familiar to me; I can easily make a batch of vanilla cupcakes for the Easter party; when I’m called on to read a passage of Scripture, I can do that smoothly and without embarrassment. If I often feel like a misfit, how might church feel to people whose cultures, lifestyles, and family structures fall far outside the boundaries that church draws? If we want those people to feel welcome, do we ask them to adapt to our structures? Or do we ask ourselves how we might move toward genuine inclusiveness? Are we willing to rethink men’s and women’s ministries to accommodate those who identify as non-binary? Are we willing to make Sunday School look less like traditional school to help embrace children for whom school is alienating?
It’s a long road ahead, and there are no simple solutions. Historically, church has been slow to adjust to social change. Churches remained racially segregated long after federal law mandated integration of schools. But it bothers me that I have often felt more easily accepted and included in secular circles than I have at church, when it should be just the opposite. Of course, church should sometimes make me uncomfortable, but it should make me uncomfortable because I feel convicted to love more fully, to show greater compassion, to live in deeper communion with God. Not because I can’t find a social group to join.