Like all too many Americans, Mark Almlie was laid off in the spring of 2009 when his workplace downsized. He has been searching for an appropriate position ever since, replying to more than 500 job postings without success. But Mr. Almlie, despite a sterling education and years of experience, has faced an obstacle that does not exist in most professions: He is a single pastor, in a field where those doing the hiring overwhelmingly prefer married people and, especially, married men with children.
Mr. Almlie, 37, has been shocked, he says, at what he calls unfair discrimination, based mainly on irrational fears: that a single pastor cannot counsel a mostly married flock, that he might sow turmoil by flirting with a church member, or that he might be gay. If the job search is hard for single men, it is doubly so for single women who train for the ministry, in part because many evangelical denominations explicitly require a man to lead the congregation.
Mr. Almlie, an ordained evangelical minister who lives in Petaluma, Calif., has also had to contend with the argument, which he disputes with scriptural citations of his own, that the Bible calls for married leaders. “Prejudice against single pastors abounds,” Mr. Almlie wrote in articles he posted on a popular Christian blog site in January and February, setting off a wide-ranging debate online on a topic that many said has been largely ignored.
Some evangelical churches, in particular, openly exclude single candidates; a recent posting for a pastor by a church on Long Island said it was seeking “a family man whose family will be involved in the ministry life of the church.” Other churches convey the message through code words, like “seeking a Biblical man” (translation: a husband and a provider).
“I’ll get an e-mail saying ‘wonderful résumé,’ ” Mr. Almlie said in an interview. “Once I say I’m single, never married, I never hear back.”
Federal anti-discrimination law specifically exempts religious groups when they hire a person for religion-related activities, and courts have been loath to interfere in ministerial employment, said David Middlebrook, a lawyer and a specialist in religion law in Dallas and Fort Worth.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said it was unfair to accuse churches of discrimination because that word implied something “wrongful.”
“Both the logic of Scripture and the centrality of marriage in society,” he said, justify “the strong inclination of congregations to hire a man who is not only married but faithfully married.”
Mr. Mohler said he tells the students at his seminary that “if they remain single, they need to understand that there’s going to be a significant limitation on their ability to serve as a pastor.”
Women seeking positions in mainline Protestant denominations like Episcopal and Presbyterian have seen the doors widen: By 2009, 28 percent of senior pastors in mainline churches were female, according to a survey byU.S. Congregations, a nonprofit research group in Louisville, Ky. But a preference or firm requirement for male pastors persists among conservative churches (mainly evangelical), with fewer than 2 percent of senior positions held by women.
Single pastors remain uncommon, especially among conservative churches, where the figure is one in 20, according to the same survey. Among mainline Protestant denominations, roughly one in six senior pastors are single.
Amy Mark is, like Mr. Almlie, ordained by the Evangelical Covenant Church, and like him has searched widely in the evangelical world for a permanent position. After seven years with only some temporary pastoral stints, she finds herself working in a crafts shop to get by.
Her denomination’s policy of accepting women as leaders has not been taken to heart by many local churches, she discovered to her chagrin. Being single was a major second obstacle.
In more than 50 interviews, she said, “they often acted like I’m not quite whole because I’m single,” questioning whether she could counsel couples or parents. At the same time, some also asked whether, if she did get married and have a family, she would be able to continue with a demanding job as a pastor.
Ms. Mark is now helping to start a new ministry for teenage mothers in a low-income area east of San Francisco — a project that has lifted her spirits, she said, after years of feeling hurt and betrayed.