“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 single 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.