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August 21, 2013

What Are We Teaching Our Young Women?

The church needs to Lean In to the conversation concerning marriage and singleness


The Internet is ablaze with discussions surrounding Sheryl Sandberg’s national bestseller, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Early in the book she addresses age-old conversations surrounding women and their choices concerning work and their relationships. She writes, “I was twenty-four and convinced that marriage was the first—and necessary—step to a happy and productive life.” Like so many women, she “was encouraged to prioritize marriage over having a career.”

As I read those words and considered my observations in the American church, I wondered, “Are we really having a marriage versus career conversation with our young women?” And if so, is that the conversation we should be having with young women right now?

According to Sandberg, “Women are surrounded by headlines and stories warning them that they cannot be committed to both their families and careers. They are told over and over again that they have to choose, because if they try to do too much, they’ll be harried and unhappy. Framing the issue as “work-life balance”—as if the two were diametrically opposed—practically ensures work will lose out. Who would ever choose work over life?”

Yet the fact still remains that many Christian women—married and unmarried, young and mature, mothers and women who do not have children—are working. Many of them are working out of necessary and can’t afford the luxury of the work-life debate, which makes me think, “When Christians talk about women who work, are we simply having a conversation about marriage versus career, or are we also having a conversation about marriage versus singleness?” Considering our context effectively changes the whole dynamic of the conversation.

In some Christian circles, the first consideration of marriage versus career views a woman’s choice of having a career as selfish, particularly if she has small children. She has chosen her work over a “real” (some may say “godly”) life. On the other hand, the second consideration—marriage versus singleness, is really a conversation about God, Christian values, and how we view our relationships (beginning with the family).

Think about it…What counsel and direction is the American church providing for young single women in today’s culture? Are we expecting them to graduate high school or college and then make finding a partner and having children their number one priority? And what if a young woman’s prince doesn’t arrive right away? What if he never shows up? What should she do during her “season of waiting”? What if she can’t have children? What advice do we give her then? I hope she works, and accepts that responsibility joyfully and graciously as a beautiful gift from God.

The Apostle Paul affirms singleness as a gift from God (1 Corinthians 7:7) and concludes that singleness gives a person freedom for godly pursuits without the distraction and concern for having to please a spouse (1 Corinthians 7:32-35). I believe we should be honest with ourselves and each other and confess that in far too many American churches today, we still value marriage over singleness, and that has a large effect on how we minister to or ignore the single or “career” women in our churches.

We focus and minister out of what we value. But as women leaders in the church, we need to ask these questions: Are we meeting the needs of all women in our churches? What messages are we communicating (verbally and nonverbally) to the single women in our churches? How are we equipping and preparing women to live out the gospel and shine God’s light beyond their homes and local congregations? How are we helping women develop a Christian worldview that stands up to the tests and challenges of our current culture?

I understand that the debate concerning marriage and singleness is not a new issue in the church. Throughout church history, Christians have wavered from extreme asceticism to holding marriage persons in higher esteem than single persons. The difference between now and the generations of old is that we are losing a generation of Millennials from the church. Therefore, as leaders in the church we need to intentionally Lean In to the conversation about marriage and singleness and create healthy environments for single and/or career women to minister and be ministered to in the church.

Start here by evaluating the lay of your land and asking some hard questions:

1. By all means, don’t isolate single or career women like exotic animals we view at the zoo. There is no need to create a new ministry for this “special” group of women.

2. On the other hand, do give them opportunities to fellowship and connect with other like-minded women. Women should be able to connect in our churches in safe communities where they are not feeling pressure, shame, or guilt to get married or have a baby.

3. Take a look at your ministry setup and consider whether your current ministry options are inclusive of women in all walks of life. See what tweaks can be made to your current ministry offering. Carefully consider the messages in the ministry resources you currently use. Ask the question, How would a single or infertile woman read or receive this material? One of the blessings of our Women’s Mentoring Ministry is each of the small groups is diversified across generations and across personal and professional pursuits. Our individual uniqueness is what allows us to contribute to the church and bless others.

4. Get back to the basics and get creative. One of the many things the young generation needs right now is the ability to think, develop a Christian worldview, and make right decisions so they can effectively respond in word and action to the pressures they face once they leave the church building. Consider: How effectively are we preparing these young people to face the world? Would it be wrong for a church to host a Lean In small-group discussion? Or challenge our young people to learn and lead and use their passions and giftedness to serve the church? How intentional and effective are you in discipling single or career women?

I believe now is the time for the church to Lean In to the conversation concerning marriage and singleness, discuss the nature of our work and relationships, and equip women for their various choices in living out their creative calling. What do you think?

Natasha Sistrunk Robinson is a full-time student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC campus (Christian Leadership). She also serves as co-director of the women’s mentoring ministry at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. She is a blogger, a writer, and the founder and President for His Glory on Earth Ministries. You can connect with Natasha through her blog, Twitter, or Facebook.

Related Tags: Career; Marriage; Singleness; Work


I remember my mom got a book of "prayers for my daughters" once as a gift and started praying through it for my sister and I. In the middle of one of the prayers for "her future spouse", she felt God asking, "what if my plan for them is not marriage?" and so changed the prayer to "if they get married..." instead of "when". She wrote her own prayer for us if we stayed single (there wasn't one in the book).

My experience is that most girls do not receive the message that singleness is a good and legitimate option - neither from their parents nor from leaders/mentors in the church.

A single friend of mine who has served the church in Latin America for over a decade was hosting a girl who came to teach English for a year. This girl felt a call overseas, but was moving towards marriage with a guy from her small town who was the best "marriage material" in their church. She had NEVER been told serving God single was a legitimate option and so was ready to ignore the call overseas in favor of what she saw as her "Christian duty".
Through her interaction with my happily single, serving friend she learned it was possible to be fulfilled, serve God, and be single. She broke it off with the guy and is happily living and serving overseas.

We've got to do a better job encouraging our young women to follow God's plan for them rather than working to fit a mold of marriage-and-family that is our culture's status quo.

Amen, Sarah. And this is such a powerful testimony and words of encouragement from your friend. Thanks so much for sharing. Blessings, Natasha

What are We Teaching Our Young Women? Does it Matter?
This is a rich question for a lot of us today.

I am a 23 year old, recent college graduate seeking to serve God however He sees fit with all that He’s equipped me with. An issue me and some college-grad friends have found, is that in many churches there aren’t simply do-life groups for us. We’re either lumped in with the college students until we reach 29 and/or get married, or if there are groups for young professionals, they’re singles groups – like singleness is something to cope with, or, (and this usually happens in smaller churches where our age-group is virtually nonexistent) we’re roped into leading ministries without actually having any real discipleship. My main concern right now isn’t marriage nor is it being the ideal 21st-century working woman that “has it all”, it’s finding like-minded young women (with older women for mature guidance) to nurture biblical growth, so that we can discern and obey the will of the Lord in our lives.

Thank you for writing and making some hard points!

Fortunately I had good role models as a child of older single women who were very happy in their lives and were passionately following Jesus. However, as an adult, I see little if any indication in the church that this is a valid or even desirable option. I'm in my 40's and never married. I'm now in the search for a new church and it is disheartening how many churches I look at that have absolutely no box for me. One is tempted to think that either there ARE no older single women in the church, that our situation is temporary and therefore we can just squeeze ourselves into a slot that doesn't fit until we get married (presumably even if that's when we're 90), or that singleness is shameful and "shhhhh" let's not draw attention to the fact that it exists. And it's not that I want to be only with other singles or other single women. I would love to be involved with other women of multiple generations as well as life situations, but if the only options are kids ministry, young adults ministry, or family ministry there is literally no place for me.

My heart goes out to you, Melody. I hope that you do find what you are looking for. May God provide that space of belonging for you. Blessings, Natasha

Very nice article. I attended a church which offered a group for every category of women, however, women in the church were reluctant to join these different groups as they did not want to be identified as such. I agree women should be included within women's ministry as a whole and as women who fellowship together we have the responsibility of creating an inclusive environment. Blessings

Natasha, thanks for this. I would especially encourage churches to pay attention to your third point. The church I go to is pretty small -- I've been the only young single woman there for several years -- and their "women's Bible Study" meets on a weekday morning at 10.30am, smack in the middle of the work day. It's clear that for them, woman = stay at home mom. It's been pretty isolating. My experience is much like Melody's: there is, quite simply, no place for me.

I'm reading this after spending an evening's "fellowship time" at a table occupied by my pastor, brother and three other men after all of the other women had left the church. I'm turning 60 in a few weeks and have never married. I find myself much more comfortable fitting in with the men than with the mothers and grandmothers of my church. Fortunately, I'm not seen as a threat by any of the other women.

@KatK I am very thankful that you have found what author, Carolyn Custis James, refers to as a blessed alliance-where men and women dwell together in unity as brothers and sisters in Christ for the purpose of advancing God's kingdom and lifting each other up.

To All Commenters Here:
I just responded to a comment that another woman wrote in response to this article on FB and closed with:

I wonder if part of this problem, at least in the church, stems from the unhealthy ways that we have segregated ministries - MOPS, singles, women over 60, young couples, couples with kids, etc are all in different small groups and so communities are very isolated, which means that a woman who are not "connected" to someone has limited places in which she can ask these very important questions. Thoughts?

Natasha, you addressed a very real, legitimate concern for Christian women, that of finding our place in the body of Christ that fits our status in the world; be it single,divorced, married, married with children, married without children, career-minded yet married, career minded , single, older singles, etc. That being said, I think one more issue needs to be addressed that I see increasingly occurring in the church, and appears to be ignored:singles, with careers who opt to live like the world and maintain intimate relationships outside of marriage, while they maintain their career pursuits and church ministries. Increasingly, I see little difference between Christian singles and unbelievers, in the way they choose to live out their lives. How can this matter be addressed without being judgmental or unsympathetic to their plights?

I agree wholeheartedly that we are still not addressing the needs of women--both those inside and outside the church--effectively. In my own study of the scriptures, I have discovered that we are doing ourselves a grave disservice because of how inaccurately we have been taught regarding women--who we are, what we can/can't do, our role in the work of the kingdom, etc. I believe not much will change regarding spaces for women in our churches until accurate revelation concerning these matters is taught to the body. Until then, I'm not sure what the answer is, but we can start by seeking guidance for ourselves from the Holy Spirit, who promises to guide us into all truth; commit to loving each other and intentionally making a place for each other in our own lives; taking initiative and creating what we want/need to receive & give, outside the walls of the church because after all, the church is the believers, not the building.

By the way, there are many other "boxes" left out of the church mainstream. Try being a single mom!

@Elena, you do raise another crisis in the church right now. Another topic for another day for sure. There is a interesting and most read article on UrbanFaith online magazine titled, "Why Unmarried Christians are Having Sex." If you are interested in reading more on that topic.

Yes @Chandra, the single mother is yet another group of women that is often left out. This all goes back to one of the points of us ministering out of what we value and I believe our net for ministry needs to be inclusive of all women.

In response to this article a FB reader commented with the article "My husband is not my soul mate" from the heart of a young Christian woman who debunks the myths of what we teach young women about marriage and finding a husband. Writer: Hannah Wegmann. If you are interested more in this topic, check it out.

This is a thought provoking thread for me. I am called to do ministry to women at my midwest church of about 1000. What Elena said resonates with me the most, in that we need to seek the Holy Spirit for guidance on how to love well and be inclusive. I am interested to see how He will lead me in this. So much of the old ways of "doing" women's ministry is just defunct. Unmeaningful eternally, and created with very traditional roles in mind. Today, we can do so much if we can listen and let God show us each step as we move ahead. One thing that seems sensible is involving women from diverse life situations to be in on the planning end.

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