The Table Podcast

Singleness and the Church Community

In this classic episode, Dr. Darrell Bock, Dr. Abraham Kuruvilla and Kari Stainback discuss singleness, focusing on how the church can better minister to singles.

Timecodes
00:16
Kuruvilla and Stainback share their stories of singleness
04:50
he church’s struggle to minister to singles
08:16
Singleness comes in different forms and different circumstances
15:30
1 Corinthians 7 and practical implications in the local church
21:57
Advice for pastors and church leaders in ministering to singles
28:40
Singleness and small group ministries
31:45
Experiencing community as a single person
38:25
Advice to singles for gaining greater community
41:00
Ministering to those who have reentered singleness through death or divorce
47:45
Singleness and dealing with loneliness
Transcript

Darrell Bock

Welcome to the table where we discuss issues of God and culture and our topic today is singleness, singleness in the church. It’s a very neglected topic in my view. It’s an important topic especially with how much discussion rotates around issues of gender and sexuality, so I have to two very, how can I say, admired guests in my presence. I’ve known both of these people for a while and I’m really please that they are able to be here. Abe Kuruvilla teaches in our Homiletic Department in Pastoral ministries and has been here at the seminary for eight years full-time and ten years if you count part-time. So he’s a veteran of foreign wars here on the campus and please to have you with us Abe.

Abraham Kuruvilla

Thank you.

Darrell Bock

And then Kari Stainback is here and she’s in ministry at Park City’s Presbyterian Church, is that right?

Kari Stainback

That’s right.

Darrell Bock

And how long have you been there?

Kari Stainback

You know if you count the part-time, 16 years.

Darrell Bock

16 years. That’s a long time. And if I remember correctly, early, early on very involved with the spiritual formation effort that we did here at the seminary back in the formative days when we were just getting launched is that right?

Kari Stainback

That’s right. I helped lead the arm that began the Women’s Spiritual Formation groups.

Darrell Bock

So Kari is also a veteran of foreign wars on the campus. So I really appreciate you all being here with us to discuss a topic that I think actually is often neglected, under-discussed, under-appreciated. I don’t know how many descriptors I can put around this and that is the issue of being single and being in the Lord. So Abe, why don’t you start us off and tell us about singleness as you see it in particularly your own choice with regard to being single.

Abraham Kuruvilla

I think I know exactly when I decided to become single. I was with my friend Rick who was married to Jen told me once, “Abe, I didn’t know what the secret of happiness was until I got married and then it was too late.”

Darrell Bock

Now we’d have to do another podcast on marriage and it’s not that bad but go ahead [laughs].

Abraham Kuruvilla

Many years ago about 20-25 years ago I was serendipitously thrown into a church plant situation in Houston where I was working on medical training. And I ended up being the teacher and the interim pastor for that organization without any theological training whatsoever.

Darrell Bock

Now that sounds like an exciting prospect.

Abraham Kuruvilla

It was exciting. It was being thrown into the deep end of the pool but that forced me to sit back and throw myself into an intense study of scripture just because I had to preach it weekly and I realized that this was a lot of fun. My heart was in it, my passion was to totally throw myself into scripture and that’s when I started thinking about singleness as a lifelong choice. I looked back at what God had done in my life, his fingerprints, personality-wise, I was very content with solitude and didn’t need to be around people. My passion was to have undistracted focus on ministry and it was bearing fruit. So that’s what led me to thinking along these lines.

Darrell Bock

And Kari what about you? What’s your story in terms of how this has emerged in your life?

Kari Stainback

Well it’s probably just the opposite. I have a twin brother and grew up playing dolls and thinking that I would get married and have kids. In fact when my parents had us twins, they knew a week before we were born they were going to have twins. And I don’t know if it was because they just couldn’t come up with four names but I only got two and I remember my mother saying, “Well girls really don’t need their middle names because they’ll get married and they’ll drop that.” So for God’s sovereignty and his love for me that hasn’t been given but I always thought it would. And dated and loved that and in fact was engaged here while I was a student and had a broken engagement. But for whatever reason in God’s mysterious ways that are good. It hasn’t been given.

Darrell Bock

So, two very different stories, two very different approaches. Let’s talk a little bit about singleness in the church. And I really think the church struggles with people being single in some ways. I’m reading that as a married person. So, now I get the chance to ask two singles, is that really true? Does the church struggle with presence of single people in its community?

Abraham Kuruvilla

I think the Protestant church does. I think when that German monk ran away with a Catholic nun I think we Protestants generally threw the baby out with the bath water and forgot the importance of celibacy to the church. And I think we’ve been living in that shadow ever since. And yes I think you’re right. I don’t know if I want to call it a bias against singleness but I think there is a certain amount of naivety as to what constitutes celibacy and singleness. Maybe not over it bias but it’s probably coming out of a sense of ignorance, “I don’t know what to do with these people” kind of thing.

Darrell Bock

And you almost sense sometimes at least in regards to ministry and almost I would say almost a fear of the single person and the risk of having a single person on staff. I know a lot of churches when they post for a position will say, almost assume, that the person should be married to go into certain positions in the church. It’s almost a throw off in terms of the way someone is viewed as a single person.

Abraham Kuruvilla

I think my own students experience validates that. Whenever they have applied, many of them, if they are single are immediately struck off the list for that matter. I’m not sure what the fear is. Though I had a conversation with a friend of mine many years ago who doubted whether single men in particular could remain content. I wasn’t very happy with his remark. Ever since that time, whenever there has been a fall for moral reasons in the pastorate, I email him a link to that article and I ask him, “Was that person married or single?” 99 percent of the time the person was married.

Darrell Bock

Yes. Yes. Fair enough. What do you find Kari in terms of the church and the way singles are received or understood or misunderstood? What do you find?

Kari Stainback

Well the first thing that comes to mind is that most structures of churches programs assume family structure.

Darrell Bock

That’s exactly right.

Kari Stainback

And that just by virtue of how we are structured singles are usually the minority or thought to be. Not in every single church but for the most part. And leadership is usually deacons, elders are almost always married. And so I don’t think it’s purposeful to leave singles out but just by virtue of who your friends what you’re thinking about you just go, “Oh. Oh yeah the singles.” And that it’s a separate entity and a separate identity that probably has too much emphasis.

Darrell Bock

Now my sense is, as I think and wrestle about this particularly in the world that we’re finding ourselves in today that being able to deal with people as individuals whether they’re married or single is a very, very important part of ministry. There are so many ways in which families are broken today to begin with and you have single mothers who have been divorced or single fathers who had been divorced. So you have a lot of people who live in a context of singleness whether they’ve been previously married or not. And as you mentioned with the assumption of many programs that we assume the family, we preach the family, we talk about the family and certainly the family as an important unit to ignore the individual walk or the individual person or to understate it actually doesn’t do the church many favors theologically. Would you find that to be the case Abe?

Abraham Kuruvilla

I think you’re right. Just to backtrack a little bit. You might remember, Darrell, several years ago our dean here at DTS had a program whereby faculty members living in a particular geographic area would get together for a meal. The dean would provide the meat, the rest of us would have to provide the carbs, and the sweets and the rest of it. Do you remember what the program was called? Dinner for Eight. Except when I was there it was seven or nine.

Darrell Bock

Well maybe they were providing the possibility that you might bring a date. I don’t know. [Laughs]

Abraham Kuruvilla

On that note I might add, what I call my singleness is ecclesiological singleness. So it’s by choice, it’s for life, no dates, unto Christ and in community: by choice, for life, unto Christ, and in community. Not hiding under a rock somewhere but fully entrenched in community.

Darrell Bock

Yeah. That last point is something we’re going to develop because I actually think that’s a very, very important point that comes with what you’re talking about. But fair to say that the church finds the single category sometimes a little awkward. And by the way that’s not unusual because if you talk to people who get divorced and I almost apologize for having to constantly make these comparisons.

Kari Stainback

And there’s widowed too.

Darrell Bock

Widowed, that’s right exactly. So there are lots of ways people ? some people are single by choice, some people have fallen into singleness, if I can say it that way, and in the midst of that particularly with divorced couples what you hear is people get surprised about which of their friends stay in contact with them after they get the divorce. It’s almost as if in the social circles in which they were very naturally invited and be a part, the moment they broke up and seized to be a couple how they are related to socially changes automatically because of their new found single status. Which shows that in some ways we’ve made it awkward for people regardless of how they fall into the singleness in many ways.

Abraham Kuruvilla

I think one other factor in that is that the church has not had many models of singleness and I think the primary model has to be an ecclesiological singleness, by choice for life. I think if there were enough models of that kind of singleness, how we treat the other kinds of singleness would actually fall into place. And the fact is that we haven’t had many models. I searched for one when I decided to be single and apart from knowing John Start from a distance I could not name a single person who was by choice, for life, unto Christ and in community.

Darrell Bock

That’s exactly right. Yeah.

Abraham Kuruvilla

And so left me adrift. I had to rethink this or create this on my own. And I think the church does not have enough models for that. I remember when in our church our pastor was going through 1 Corinthians from Chapter 6 he jumped to Chapter 8.

Darrell Bock

He skipped Chapter 7?

Abraham Kuruvilla

He skipped 7 and I asked him about it. And he said, “Hey would you like to preach that next Sunday?” [Laughs] It seems like the married person is afraid to touch on some of these issues for fear of hurting somebody I suppose. I don’t know.

Darrell Bock

Yeah. It’s interesting I’m actually planning on discussing a little bit of 1 Corinthians 7 in a little bit so I’m glad you’ve brought that up. And Kari, what do you find in terms of how the church relates to people who find themselves in a single position. Do they feel like they do struggle with it?

Kari Stainback

I definitely think it depends on the church. And yet within leadership I think it’s the seminary level that’s the kind of thing we’re thinking of that there is some hesitancy, some fear for the single person. When a young married man gets a job at a church I think sometimes the church thinks, “And he’s married. We got two for the price of one.” You’ve got that going for you. And you know, I’ve heard in our church even some leadership say, allude to the thinking you’re not really complete unless you’re married or you’re not really receiving the kind of sanctification that really, really gets to your self-centeredness unless you’re married. As if God couldn’t work in your sanctification in both ways. Sometimes that happens but what I think is the most important thing is whatever the status is in life that God is giving you that it’s just one slice. I mean our identity is in Christ. And that he chose us and he loves us and that he keeps us for all eternity and to live in that, that’s where the greatest freedom is and the greatest identity is.

Darrell Bock

Yeah. And I think that one of the problems kind of hovering around this and you’ve already alluded to it Abe, is there’s a lot about identity in our culture that’s defined not just by social status but by gender and sexuality and that tends to overwhelm this area and this conversation in some ways. And so, so much defining goes on in that area in the culture at large and really the church has an opportunity to make a statement, a contrastive statement in the context of singleness that’s very, very important in that regard it seems to me about identity.

Abraham Kuruvilla

Luther in a rather interesting essay called the Estate of Marriage once said, that what’s celibates do can never be pleasing to God, not as much as a woman in child birth, even if that child was born out of wedlock. Fornication is better than celibacy.

Kari Stainback

Wow. Luther said that?

Abraham Kuruvilla

Luther said that. And I can quote others who have said and I won’t name names, contemporary leaders, presidents of seminaries who have said that scripture teaches us that saint making primarily occurs in the context of marriage. I don’t know how far the church can go with leaders making statements like that because we really counter that with

Darrell Bock

Scripture?

Abraham Kuruvilla

Morals and scripture.

Darrell Bock

Well you’ve done a wonderful job of introducing us to what I think is a primary passage that I think a lot of pastors do find awkward to handle and preach, that’s 1 Corinthians 7. So let’s talk a little bit about that passage and what it has to say to us about singleness. It seems to me that Paul, if I can say it this way, has a very positive view about singleness. Since you quoted Luther I’ll trump you with Paul

Abraham Kuruvilla

What is that the new perspective on it?

Darrell Bock

I think it’s the old perspective in relationship to Luther but any way as we think about that Paul actually has a lot very positive to say about singleness doesn’t he?

Abraham Kuruvilla

I’m going to trump your Paul with my Jesus. Matthew 19. It’s given to certain people to live that way. So there’s a sense of giveneness to that. Which connects very well with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7. I think they’re both gifts. The gift of marriage, the gift of remaining celibate. I think they’re both gifts. They’re both valid platforms for ministry.

Darrell Bock

They’re calling in very many ways.

Abraham Kuruvilla

And to great extent so what I tell people or even my students is I’m not asking you to go one way or another just to ask yourself what your gift is, your calling is, and go accordingly because I personally believe without any statistics to support I believe that there are more people with the gift of singleness who end up being married because that’s the default pathway of our culture and the church, than the people with the gift of marriage remaining single. And therefore I think the church has lost out.

Darrell Bock

Interesting. Now Paul says several things in 1 Corinthians 7 that are of value is that he talks about and you’ve talked about this some as well, the undistracted way in which people conserve who are single which might suggest that Paul thinks that marriage introduces distractions, I have no idea where he came up with that idea. [Laughs] So that certainly is one positive is that someone can be completely and totally dedicated and focused on the Lord and I think if I’m hearing you correctly that’s one of the elements that you found attractive about the choice to be single.

Abraham Kuruvilla

I think there are a number of freedoms if you want to call it that. I’m not completely endorsing that term but there’s the biological issue of physical engagement with another person, which we are free from. There is a sense of freedom that there is no security. I think Pope John Paul II who said that celibacy is a series of self-sacrifices, sacrifices of sex, of family, of security that comes from family, of companionship and I’ll add to that there’s a freedom to suffer as 1 Corinthians 7 does seem to imply.

Darrell Bock

Suggest. Exactly yes.

Abraham Kuruvilla

Because I’m not responsible for a family and I have to be careful where I lead them if I am the husband. I’m free from that responsibility. Also free in a different sense, free to engage in or demonstrate an inclusive love. A love of mine that is not restricted in a constricted circle primarily for family then to others but it can be more of an inclusive love. So there are several freedoms like that in addition to that of time. Which clearly is there of course.

Darrell Bock

And Kari what do you find to be, if I can shift questions a little bit, the challenge of being single in the church if I can put it in those kinds of ways. What do you think is and what space do you have to kind of negotiate into some degree. Does that question make any sense?

Kari Stainback

Negotiate? Explain. What do you mean by that?

Darrell Bock

I mean do you find we’ve already talked about how the Church can sometimes kind of almost marginalize the single person. So what is that like? What does that take to deal with the potential marginalization of someone simply because they’re single?

Kari Stainback

Well one of my friends he says, “When you are single you have to have scheduled intimacy.” Meaning good friendship, good talks, you have to organize it. You have to have that depth of friendship and the communication and that kind of thing and certainly when you work at a church staff like I do there’s so much opportunity to have depth of friendship. Depth of ministry and there is great freedom to be available to pick up the phone in the middle of the night, to do that. And yet and I don’t know if this where you’re going but one of the big differences is in longing to be thinking and desiring wanting to be married is there’s a lot of loneliness and in that thinking for years that I kind of had a consolation prize. Ministry is like, “Well you get to do ministry.” When I wanted my ministry to be a family, a mom and a family and a wife. So for me it’s been like surrender to God’s purposes and his goodness and his love and then that has given me so much more joy in my service that it has. Now, certainly involvement with ministry teams and where I am I do not see a limitation by being single. If it’s there I’m kind of oblivious to it.

Darrell Bock

Now do you think you kind of work through it. You said you’ve been at Park City for 16 years is that right?

Kari Stainback

Maybe I have worked? Maybe they don’t think of me but I don’t think of myself first as, “Oh I’m the single person here.” I think there’s a bigger thing that we’re talking about; a bigger thing that we’re doing. It’s the abiding in Christ for the fruit that we all produce then the fact that I come to the table being single.

Darrell Bock

Well let me? I’m going to shift gears again. Let’s talk about? lets’ talk to church leaders for a second. Okay because we’ve kind of spent the first third of our time talking about being single what it’s like to be single the church wrestling with singles being in the church. So if you were to give advice about how to interact with single communities, single people, and how to pull them into community because that’s certainly where we are going next. What advice would you give them and I’m going to let ladies be first this time. So Kari you get to lead off. So Kari as you wrestle with thinking about this and what you would say to pastors, particularly pastors who might be slow to admit but recognize this is an area where I feel a little awkward sometimes.

Kari Stainback

So you want me to give advice to the pastor?

Darrell Bock

Yeah. Exactly.

Kari Stainback

I think get to know them. Get to know us. On my way here I called a young woman who’s in another seminary in town and going through a hard time and she said our pastor had called her and he’s not afraid to reach out to single women when he knows they’re in a hard place and I love that. He gets to know the hearts of the single people and not with any hesitation but he’s always very appropriate. He’s always very appropriate. So that would be the first thing, is we’re trying not to think of ourselves as a special needs category. So please don’t treat us that way too.

Darrell Bock

Yeah. Exactly. And I’m going to follow up on this because you’ve actually raised something that I think can be part of the equation at least in some situations and that is the church also has tended to build up certain rules about how men and women relate to one another in general, not whether they’re single or married or whatever and I imagine that ends up potentially being another hurdle in terms of building relationships because a single woman in the context of community that has many married men can create its own sense of awkward. So a pastor who chooses to treat every individual in the church as an individual in the church if I can say it that way actually is doing everybody in the church a favor. Fair enough?

Kari Stainback

Right. Yes. I definitely think so. But I remember when I worked here in the spiritual formation team I was the only woman with 12 men. And I remember one man, I mean he had qualms about taking a woman to lunch and another young man put the woman in the back seat of his car if they ever went somewhere just to not have any question as to anything that might happen. That said, I think in today’s culture that’s so highly sexualized combined with the fact that Satan is after the local church like crazy. I think you just can’t underestimate the things that might get in by under estimating the power of a man and a woman outside of marriage, something happening. I think you just have to be on your guard. Always be on your guard. And I think women need to have great respect for men and I really don’t think you should go to lunch with someone by yourself, another man. I think that’s the wise thing to do over years and years of doing it both ways. That’s where I land and I think it’s not because of the man or the woman personally but for knowledge that Satan wants to take down the local church and I would rather I err on the side of caution. You know our pastor does a remarkable job at making me feel completely cared for and loved but in very appropriate ways. And so it can be done and there’s lots of good ways for God will give you wisdom in that.

Darrell Bock

Now Abe what advice would you give to pastors who might find ? I like the way Kari put it, “Don’t treat us as a special needs category.” Now what advice would you give?

Abraham Kuruvilla

I think again talking from my perspective of ecclesiological by choice, for life, unto Christ, in the community I would probably want to remind pastors of the valid platform that such a single person has for ministry and the fact that marriage is not necessarily the summum bonum of life. If it were it would have extended into eternity, it is not. So if anything celibacy is more eschatologically focused then marriage if I were to put it that way. And I think it’s those things that I would want a pastor to know and to respect and to be open in his dealings with people who are single to encourage them as to what their gift or their calling might be. Again I have to come back to the point that I think the Church has lost out in not encouraging people with that calling to flourish.

Darrell Bock

And how do you deal with the other issue that Kari raised that in cross relationships that inevitably exist in a community between a man and a woman in the context of the Church. Where you’re going to end up being together if you’re ministering together side by side on a team. That kind of thing. There’s going to be mixes where you end up with a group how do you view that aspect of ministry.

Abraham Kuruvilla

I make a distinction as do many and I know you do too between sex and gender. I may not be having sex but I’m fully gendered. I do need the interaction with people of the opposite gender. And God has always seen to it that I’m always in a relationship with a few couples there. There are always two or three couples that re really close, outside of family, my brother and his wife, outside of that. Couples that are very close to me and they can speak into my life and I into theirs to such an extent that even today I have the house keys of one those couples on my keychain. I can go into their house whenever I want to. God has seen fit to provide that, to keep me in relationship with a nuclear family, with their children with whom I have a great relationship. It’s not under a rock. I am fully entrenched in community and relish that and I revel in that.

Darrell Bock

I actually don’t know the answer to this question before I ask it and that is, I take it both of your churches have small groups, is that right? Are you all associated with the small groups in your church? Do they pull you in or not? What’s the situation there?

Abraham Kuruvilla

We do have a singles group. And I usually go there to speak not so much to participate. Here’s the reason. All of them are not by choice, for life, unto Christ and community. And so I’m looking for a very narrow niche. Most singles are either single before marriage, single between marriages or single after marriage, widowed or widowers. I am hard pressed to find a community that of like-minded people who have given that up. And so some of those discussions and those things that they talk about just is foreign to me. Even though we are in the same category of singleness?

Darrell Bock

It’s different.

Abraham Kuruvilla

It’s very different.

Darrell Bock

Now here’s a question that I actually did want to raise at some point during the hour so this a good point for it and that is, are you purposely, I don’t know how else to express this question. Are you purposely segregated into a singles group because you’re single or would you have the option to be part of a group that involved married couples as well?

Abraham Kuruvilla

I would have the option for that. And I would have preferred to and I have attended small groups that are more family oriented. That would be my preference too.

Darrell Bock

Really. And so I’m wondering because I think some churches might actually unconsciously place you automatically in the singles group because your single, is that sort of what happened or?

Abraham Kuruvilla

Is that really true? I can’t think of churches that would deliberately segregate people

Darrell Bock

I don’t think they would say it but I think by default, by the very creation of a singles group you might be creating segregation.

Abraham Kuruvilla

Expectation?

Darrell Bock

an expectation in that direction.

Abraham Kuruvilla

I think at least at Northwest where I go to it’s an option. If you would prefer to that’s fine but there is no compulsion.

Darrell Bock

How does PCPC handle that?

Kari Stainback

Yeah. It’s an option as well but I will tell you this. What I’ve observed over the years with young singles when they first move to Dallas they want friends more than anything else. So for instance our young women’s Bible study is like we want you to have girl friends that you can go out and do stuff with. And you can meet guy friends in Sunday school but make some good solid women friends. And then later they might want to be in more of a family structured small group. But first out of the chute, first in Dallas they want girl friends and I would assume it’s much like that with young men.

Darrell Bock

So what I may be hearing between the lines it sometimes it can almost happen by default. That end up in you end up there because you’re relocating to begin with and that’s a natural place to start and then that just carry’s on.

Kari Stainback

Um-hmm.

Darrell Bock

Well that’s interesting. Well let’s turn our attention to the last topic that I want to zero in on in some detail and that is the development in community, in developing community and participating in community as a single person with everything that we’ve been talking about. In the back of my voice I’m hearing you, “Don’t treat us as a special needs.” Everything about this podcast has the feel of a special need. But I actually think that’s actually part of the problem. That’s actually part of what we’re trying to think about and challenge people on, is to get them to think about the fact ? don’t treat this as a special category with a special box over here but see everyone in the church and everyone, period, in the church as a vibrant member of the community who has something to offer to it that God has them in the community for a reason. So let’s turn to the idea of community and help us if you will think about community as you see it from the side of being a single person. What can help? How can the church help itself in this area in terms of building community with single people?

Abraham Kuruvilla

For me one of my needs is accountability because it’s very easy to go adrift as boat into the night. You’re living single no one is keeping tabs of what is going on. So I have consciously, deliberately with the permission of certain people invited them into a position of responsibility for me. It may not necessarily be one person for every part of my life but financially they might be somebody, in other aspects there is another person. Just reflecting on what Kari was just saying a few minutes ago. Yesterday I was stuck in an emergency situation where I had to ferry the college going daughter of one of my good friends from DFW airport to her school, a two-hour journey. There was no way I could say no. I immediately texted one of my colleagues here at seminary who’s my neighbor who’s? I am accountable to him that, “Hey I’m doing this. I just wanted you to know.” He said, “Okay got it have a safe trip.” So there’s a sense in which I want my life to be an open book. If there are things happening that others need to know, they need to know even if there is nothing going on. I want to maintain that sense of accountability. I think that’s where for me at least, at least in this phase of life, community becomes very important. That they can say to my life, what I’m doing wrong. Keep an eye open for things for blind spots in my life. Whether it’s financial, whether it’s relationships with the opposite gender, whether it’s ministry engagement and times managements. There are people in these different areas who can speak to those aspects of my life.

Darrell Bock

And I take it these couples in particular that you mentioned earlier that have managed to get become a very vibrant part of your life. Are they occupying some of these roles that you’re talking about?

Abraham Kuruvilla

Yes. They do.

Darrell Bock

And it would be interesting for people to hear how did that emerge? Did that just happen in the flow of community life that you ended up being close to these couples?

Abraham Kuruvilla

Some of it was fortuitous. God brought it about but to a great extent there’s a sense in which if I see that this is a couple that can be trusted because I’m not going to this with just anybody. I’ve opened myself up. Initially they’re very surprised because for the most part they may not have had that close of a relationship with anybody because that’s not the norm.

Darrell Bock

That’s right.

Abraham Kuruvilla

But my life is an open book and I invite them in. Tacitly, not explicitly and that just develops and it’s just worked out very well.

Darrell Bock

Was there anything conscious that you did to develop this? Did you guys have dinner together at one another homes or something like that?

Abraham Kuruvilla

That’s usually how it starts over food, invariably. They’re usually members of the church that I am ? or members where I have interim pastored. And looking back at the few people they’re like that, they are either members of where I am now or members of where I have been in the past. Started off with just a casual invitation, come over for a meal. And I invited them for a meal, I know I don’t cook; I take them out to eat.

Darrell Bock

You’re my kind of single guy. Yeah.

Kari Stainback

I mean I so agree. I mean even the best of a small group and best discussion around God’s word with all ages and stages as delightful as that is to be a part of, the deepest community is when you do life together. And about three years ago I got mono. I mean who gets it at 52-years-old. And that’s when I really saw that God gave me friends not just because I worked for the church but because this was my community because I couldn’t even take the trash out. And they for six weeks I was in bed and people brought me meals at just the right time in just the right way and changed my sheets and cleaned my ? I mean it was amazing how this group of people. And their husbands pitched in too. It was just really feeling taken care of and I feel so fortunate that God gave me that but there is a certain aspect of it outside of a crisis that you have to initiate yourself. That’s what I mean by that scheduled intimacy. You have to figure it out and make it work whereas you’ve got a family all around you?

Darrell Bock

It kind of just happens.

Kari Stainback

It just happens.

Darrell Bock

It kind of just happens. Yeah that’s actually what I was pushing for in thinking about this. Is that what might tend to evolve rather naturally, I mean you’re put in a small group. I mean the small group that I function is a handful of couples, we run a gamete of ages, but everybody has a family and kids and it’s just kind of a natural?

Abraham Kuruvilla

Affiliations.

Darrell Bock

Affiliations, yeah, but in the case again of being a single person where first of all you’re not naturally often times included in those.

Kari Stainback

They just don’t think about you.

Darrell Bock

Exactly right.

Abraham Kuruvilla

Dinner for Eight.

Darrell Bock

Yeah. Exactly right. In that process you get lost in the shuffle for lack of a better description. So, taking the initiative, which actually raises an interesting question. I had you speak to the pastor’s maybe another element that we need to raise is what would you say to other single people who are in churches. What advice would you give them as they think about being a part of community and encouraging their involvement in community? So there’s a natural tendency perhaps to marginalize the single person to a certain degree. How do you overcome that? That’s actually a pretty important question if you’re thinking about community. So taking this initiative is important. Giving people permission. And I take it you must have couples in your church situation who operate much like Abe has described for him.

Kari Stainback

Yeah. If I were giving advice to singles, I would say if there’s a married couple that you want to spend more time with call them. Say, “Do you want to come over for dinner.” I think they almost always say yes. You have to prayerfully make that and take that initiative and they will more than likely reciprocate. And so it’s just its normal fellowship but there is the initiative. I think when you’re single you tend to think, “Oh I don’t want to bother them. I’ll be an imposition.” But the reality is I think most the time that couple enjoys it. They’ve got some different folks in their life.

Darrell Bock

And there really is an opportunity to introduce something into their own dynamics that actually is pretty important for community to function so that we overcome some of the things we’ve been working the entire hour to overcome. So what advice would you give Abe to single people?

Abraham Kuruvilla

I think that’s exactly right. I think many married couples like the pastors we talked about just don’t know what to do with this strange species of single people. I think just opening yourself up and making friends in that sense. God brings people and there’s a sense of chemistry in the way you make friends and friendships and some of them click and they will go far if you take the initiative. I like that phrase of scheduled intimacy. That’s very accurate.

Darrell Bock

Yeah. And I think the idea of taking the initiative and really everyone sometimes senses a bit of potential awkwardness and that helps to overcome it for the initiative to be taken and the doors to be open.

Kari Stainback

And I don’t want to leave out this very important point, is I mean, God knows how to match these things up. I mean pray, pray that he will send that to you; send you to them. How are these relationships supposed to be formed but by the Lord leads but to pray and watch him provide I think is really important.

Darrell Bock

Okay. Well we’ve got one class of single people who we’ve kind of talked around and about but and really are different from the situations you two find yourselves in in some ways and yet face the same kinds of issues in another way and those are the people who I think the way you put it Abe, was are either between families or have come out of families and find themselves single. And I’ve got two sets of questions here. One is, how easy or difficult is it for a person who’s single and never been married, how easy or difficult is it to relate to the people who have been married? That’s one part of the question and the second question is, how much have we talked about in singleness in general applies to that group as well? In other words should we think in very different kinds of ways or do these people all of a sudden find themselves in a spot that is as awkward sometimes as having been single all along?

Abraham Kuruvilla

Yeah. I’m not sure we can lump everything together, simply for the reason that the goals are probably different, as I define in ecclesiology single is one of them is for Christ. So that I can be fully thrown into, immersed in ministry. If that is not the case with somebody else it may be a little bit harder to form a community in that sense. So yes I think there are differences between these categories. I don’t know if we can? Just because they don’t have a spouse doesn’t mean they can all be put into one basket.

Darrell Bock

But can the single person who’s experienced singleness for life be of a help or minister the person who finds themselves single and now perhaps locates themselves in a place that either they hadn’t anticipated or weren’t prepared for in some ways.

Abraham Kuruvilla

Yes absolutely. And I think the way is simply the goals. The state that marriage is not the greatest good, neither is sex biological, imperative without which we cannot live. I’m alive. [Laughs]. So I think in those aspects and modeling, focused upon Christ, I think it very helpful for those that are before or in between or after marriages or families.

Darrell Bock

And then do you think you’re also in a position to help them kind of get located in terms of, “Okay I’m now single in a church. I’m used to functioning in the context of being in a family.” Are you able to come alongside them and say, “This is what life as a single person in the church can be like and this is how you negotiate this space to some degree.”

Abraham Kuruvilla

Yes. I think a single person’s life is a demonstration of the gospel in at least three different ways. One is that it’s a self-sacrifice. See the sacrifice with a number of things we talked about. Secondly, it is demonstration of God dependence. This is not to say that married people are not depending on God, but in a different way the single person is.

Darrell Bock

Yeah. My spouse is helping me depend upon God all the time. [Laughs]

Abraham Kuruvilla

Whether you like it or not. And then thirdly, the eternity focus. I think all those reflect the gospel. It’s a self-sacrifice, God dependence and eternity focus and if I can model that in my life I would die happy. Model that both to married people and in particular single people to say, “This is what life is about, this is what it means to follow Christ. Self-sacrifice, God dependence, eternity focus.” And I think those three things ought to mark the way in which we single people and everybody else should live.

Darrell Bock

Now Kari what do you think as you think about this group of single people who find themselves single after not having been single. For you do you think about it as a different category or are there enough similarities that there’s ministry that can happen?

Kari Stainback

Well I think that there’s definitely enough similarities so that ministry can happen. Number one is that you’re alone, but the second thing is most importantly then you aloneness is – Elizabeth Elliot used to say, “Wherever you are God has called you there.” So if you’re a new widow he’s called you to be widowed.

Darrell Bock

Of course Elizabeth Elliot for people who don’t know is someone who was married who –

Kari Stainback

Yes. Who is widowed three times I think.

Darrell Bock

Yeah.

Kari Stainback

Maybe widowed twice, married three times but anyway her perspective on calling was so helpful to me years ago and that when you’re single if God has not brought you your husband this is calling, you’re single for his glory, his purposes. And the same thing with widowhood or should you end up in a divorce. So those three things again I think that yes those are things that happened to us that are life changing and probably not what you thought for the majority of us are like that. However to live it to God’s glory. To be surrendered to his purposes and if he wants you to remarry then that is within his design for you, his assignment for you and that that would further God’s purposes in and through you. And I think the more we can be friends together and pray for each other as a community then we can help know the hand of God in those things. But on just a practical level, if you have children in your newly widowed, newly divorced, then you have some major time constraints that have changed and that’s the kid factor. So it’s really hard for you to have time for your friends at that point and then when you do have time everybody’s busy with their couple world. They’re not able to find the time to schedule the intimacy. So it does make things harder and more complicated.

Darrell Bock

So what you’re saying is that scheduled intimacy that you’re talking about that’s so crucial for the single person who’s not been married that becomes an even greater challenge for a person who has a family?

Kari Stainback

Yeah. When you still have kids in your home.

Darrell Bock

Yeah. Fair enough. You’ve mentioned a word several times that I’d like to talk about because I think this is an important part of the conversation too, being single and the idea of loneliness or being alone. Which I think can be rendered in a variety of ways. So let me walk through this and get your reaction. When I think about loneliness there’s a sense in which I’m not attached and I’m almost uncomfortable not being attached. That’s what I hear when I hear the word lonely. When I heard the word alone I hear, “There’s no one around me I’m on my own.” That could be positive or negative depending on what you make of it. And then the third thought that’s in the back of my head is and Abe I’m hearing your voice in my ear while I’m saying this is, that if I am walking and attached and connected to Christ then I’m actually never completely alone. And so I think ? I’ve kind of painted a spectrum here and I think it’s an important spectrum and I suspect that single people may move along that spectrum at different points in their lives. There are times when they may feel very lonely. There are times when they feel alone. And then there are times when their walk with Christ is very much sustained and of course the goal is that that walk with Christ would do it through the whole thing. Let’s talk about that area of being single because I think it’s an important one that we tend not to talk about. Kari you want to start us off on thinking about that.

Kari Stainback

Yeah. You know the first thing that comes to mind is one of my good friends is in the hospital down the street at Baylor right now and she’s single and she’s feeling pretty lonely. And even though her friends are there and visiting she’s like, “Wait Lord, it’s just you and me. I don’t know what this mass might be but I have to go deep and trust you that you’re with me and your presence carries me and I will stand on the things that you have taught me all these years.”

Darrell Bock

Interesting, so you’ve got a medical condition that’s put persons? I’m assuming here cancer? It is a potential cancer situation. And so how do I negotiate this without any family around.

Kari Stainback

Right. And she has no family but she has a dear group of friends but still I think it’s not like if you had a husband right beside you and kids that were checking on you all the time. It’s not quite the same.

Darrell Bock

Yeah. Interesting.

Kari Stainback

So that’s a different element and then I think like you said, there’s seasons of ups and downs and the loneliness around the holidays or when I was younger and going to everybody’s wedding but my own. Always a bridesmaid never a bride. Everybody is doing something but you. Then I hit my 50’s and I realized, “Wait everybody has something in their life that God assigned that they probably wouldn’t have ever have chosen.” And I was like, “Oh.” I mean to be honest I think I had lived a lot of my days kind of short changing God’s purposes. It was like, “Oh I got kind of the consolation prize. Everybody else got some fun stuff they’re doing. I’ve missed out.” And then I realized there have been some real struggles that I didn’t know about. And not that I’m glad that they were there but it’s part if living in a fallen world and that we learn to live and he is the one that loves us more then we can ever imagine or know. He is the one who loves us like Aba Father and our husband. And then to live in light of that anticipating more is the journey of being single. And then being hopeful that maybe some husband will come along the way. [Laughs]

Darrell Bock

Okay. Let’s talk about this spectrum as you see it Abe?

Abraham Kuruvilla

I have one sibling, an older brother. We take care of our father. He’s 87-years-old, widowed about 30 years ago.

Darrell Bock

So you’re all in the same city?

Abraham Kuruvilla

He’s in Houston.

Darrell Bock

He’s in Houston.

Abraham Kuruvilla

I’m in Dallas. My dad goes back and forth. So he’s with me right now, my father

Darrell Bock

So you trade him back and forth basically?

Abraham Kuruvilla

Uh-huh.

Darrell Bock

Oh interesting.

Abraham Kuruvilla

So this 87-year-old single man lives with me for six months in the year and he’s had some medical issues, he’s relatively stable. And I have to wonder occasionally, if I live to be 87 – I have no desire to live to be 87, but if the Lord so decides, who will take care of me. So I remember some 34:10 you know, “The young lions do lack and suffer hunger but it’s they who seek the Lord shall not be in want of any good thing.” And so you hang on to that. As someone once said, “In the backyard of solitude there’s always the crabgrass of loneliness.” I think that’s very well put. Not always but occasionally there is, “Uh here’s something nice that I’m doing or experiencing. It would be nice to share it with somebody.” But I submit to you that that may not be as unusual or that is no more unusual then you in marriage occasionally thinking, “It would be nice to be alone.” So I think those flashes of wanting to be alone on a married persons part and those flashes of wanting companionship on my part or probably mutually cancelling and won’t make you give up your marriage and neither will that?

Darrell Bock

Nope I’m not giving up my marriage you got that right. [Laughs]

Abraham Kuruvilla

Sally will be happy to hear that; neither will that cause me to give up calling of celibacy either. So I think it balances out in the end. But it’s there. It’s the truth.

Darrell Bock

Of course the solace that you have in one sense is that you do have family around you so you have some built in relationships that sustain you at one level. The situation that you’ve described over here of this gal who doesn’t have family and is really in some senses more alone then many. That is a challenge.

Abraham Kuruvilla

That’s a difficult situation.

Darrell Bock

And that is a challenge for a community it seems to me because a community really does need to rally around this. I hate to make analogies but we just did an interesting podcast with Tony Evans talking about living as an African American in a predominately white society. It was a response to what’s been going on with Ferguson and that kind of thing. And he was talking about the importance of community with so many broken African American families and there are a lot of people who live as single mothers in the community and the church has to really consciously rally around them to provide the support of what in some case would normally come with a full family. That kind of thing. In some ways you’re in a similar, it’s distinct, but it’s a similar kind of situation for single people and helping to give them a wealth of relationships and a pool of relationships that make for community that.

Kari Stainback

Well and you bring up a good point and I think the hardest and my hat is off to that is single woman, with children, working all the time, and when in the world is she going to have time for a small group study. I mean that is so hard to ? we are not going to see them in the middle of the week I don’t think. Maybe on Sunday and then even then it’s for a short time.

Darrell Bock

Yeah. I have a sister in law who has just gone through a divorce. I mean with in the last several years. And she had four girls and the youngest this year is a senior. So she’s had someone in the house the whole time. And we have made a very, very conscious effort to make sure she’s included in a lot of the things that we do and inviting her to stuff and that kind of thing to have her and she constantly is talking to us about wrestling with her loneliness and how difficult sometimes the holidays are and that kind of thing. I mean we’ve kind of walked alongside her in the midst of all this. And you’re right Abe to point out that there are different paths that people have walked and found themselves on. I mean you’ve made a very conscious choice which means that you’ve accepted some of the things that come with the choice as a part of saying this is what I’ve committed before God to do; this is where God has me. There are other people who fall into situations that they didn’t intend, didn’t design and find themselves in and the church has got to be able to be supportive of all that.

Abraham Kuruvilla

And I have to wonder also maybe if there were an army of singles in the church, they would be the ones to support this friend of yours Kari.

Kari Stainback

Well and she has a lot of friends. She has a solid group of friends but I’m just saying?

Abraham Kuruvilla

No if they’re dedicated to this kind of ministry as a group of singles?

Darrell Bock

Yes.

Abraham Kuruvilla

Who have dedicated their lives to ministering to those in need.

Darrell Bock

Yeah. Part of what I’m hearing from you Abe is almost a plea for the church to think through and seek out and encourage a certain kind of singleness with a certain kind of commitment that will produce the kinds of models you lacked when you made your choice. Am I hearing that right?

Abraham Kuruvilla

And it may produce the extra hearts and hands needed to minister to people like the ones Kari was talking about. And that’s been the history in the church.

Darrell Bock

Exactly and with a deeper understanding of what that person is actually going through.

Abraham Kuruvilla

That’s right.

Darrell Bock

Yeah. Fair enough.

Abraham Kuruvilla

I mean for me my calling is to be in ministry in the teaching responsibility. For others it may be humanitarian interests. I’m going to remain single in order to meet the physical needs of a single mother with children, who have got breast cancer.

Darrell Bock

Or an orphan

Abraham Kuruvilla

Or orphans. There were armies of these in the early church and I’m wondering, why not today?

Darrell Bock

Interesting. Well that’s a question to ponder and it might be kind of a good landing place for where we’ve been together. I came into this podcast, I have to be honest, wondering what are we going to talk about for an hour but you’ve been very, very helpful to help us think through this area of life, which I do think the church really just kind of has trouble figuring out for lack of a better description and hopefully this podcast has helped people think through the area of appreciating the people in some cases who have chosen to be single and in other cases have found themselves to be single with a plea not treat them with special needs on the one hand and not marginalize them on the other although that’s sometimes as socially what inevitably the inertia of our social relationships tend to make us do and to realize single people are a wonderful resource God has given to the church and in appreciating that, the church actually has the chance to extenuate what it is as a community in the midst of doing that.

Abraham Kuruvilla

Amen.

Darrell Bock

So I thank you all for being a part of this and we thank you for being a part of the table where we discuss issues of God and culture and we look forward to seeing you again.

 

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Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than forty books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
Kari Stainback
Kari Stainback is the Director of Women's Ministries at Park Cities Presbyterian Church. She holds a Master’s in Biblical Counseling from Dallas Theological Seminary.
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