7 In the Moments of Ministry: Celibacy and the Married Minister

Rev. Richard C. Stern, EdD


At the time of this writing, I have been married for almost 39 years, nearly all of my adult life and about two-thirds of my entire life. I am on the clergy roster of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, ordained in 1976. On these two bases, it might seem like a bit of a stretch for me to be offering any perspectives on celibacy. Yet celibacy is a frequent topic in my conversation and in my thought. Within the context of the Catholic seminary setting where I am a teacher, we talk about celibacy regularly in various forums and on multiple levels.

In these forums, it is understandably assumed that we are talking about the commitment to celibacy made by those men preparing to enter the priesthood of the Catholic Church. I can well imagine that some seminarians may reach a point of fatigue in hearing about celibacy, thinking about it, talking about it and writing about it. “Enough already!” To those within and without the Catholic Church, however, clerical celibacy is the defining characteristic of the Catholic priest. It is a practice that is spoken of as both awesome gift and awful burden, sometimes in the same breath.

Over the years, I have read hundreds of students’ annual self-evaluations, which include responses to questions about their understanding of celibacy. I sometimes find rather quaint the conception of marriage that a few seem to operate with as they write about their commitment to celibacy and giving up marriage. It is something like the article I read some years ago in an ultra-conservative, evangelical Protestant magazine in which an elderly pastor’s wife provided some guidelines for younger pastors’ wives about a process for Sunday mornings: get up early to prepare the pastor’s favorite breakfast, keep the kids quiet so the pastor/preacher can concentrate on his sermon, make sure he has a laundered, neatly pressed white shirt to put on, and so forth. Dated. Unrealistic. Almost laughable in its naïve prescriptions. The wife patiently waiting at home for her husband to return. Maybe if the Beav’s father was a minister it might have happened then, but not today. Not going to happen.

On the other side of the celibacy coin, I have heard some married Protestant pastors speak of their envy of the freedom enjoyed by the celibate priest. No spouse and children to worry about. No college educations to save for on meager salaries. Easier to move to another ministry setting if the situation calls for a change. Easier to say things that need to be said, but that might be potential CLMs (Career Limiting Moves).

It is not that these folks are unhappy being married and being parents. But they do often seem to experience real tension between the occasionally conflicting demands and expectations of ministry and family. There is only so much energy to go around. They want to be at their child’s school play or soccer match, but an emergency call from an ailing parishioner requires that a visit to the hospital takes priority – again. After all, God has called them to the ministry; they have to respond to God’s call.

We talk about God being the first priority in the lives of all Christians and that everything after that will fall into place. Right? Not really; not always. The tension exists and persists: family or ministry? In the times of ministry to parishioners, for example, the demands of family can conflict with the demands of ministry. The married minister’s attention can become divided or distracted. Indeed, the choice might even be described as conflicting demands between ministering to family and ministering to parishioners. This is why I have heard a few sage souls suggest that a pastor’s spouse and children would do well to belong to a different parish than the pastor’s! A radical suggestion to be sure.

At another level, at the end of the day, it can be difficult to know what to share with one’s spouse about what happened during the day. What can be said? What should not be said, out of respect and concern both for one’s spouse and for the parishioners? How might an off-handed comment reflect on an innocent (or guilty!) party? Where is the line of confidentiality? Does a rift develop because not all knowledge can be shared? Without a rich and deep history of spiritual direction, Protestant spouses can easily become de facto spiritual directors, an unfair burden to place on a spouse.

Both parties – celibates and non-celibates – too often, from my vantage point, operate with an idealized and romanticized vision of the life of the other. My assessment is that the two paths are about equal, a “wash.” Both are demanding, challenging lifestyles that require steady attention and hard, ongoing work to maintain healthy, moderately successful and happy participants. Both have advantages and disadvantages.

But once one feels trapped in either situation, the end is almost certainly on the horizon, either actually or effectively. One’s vows can become perfunctory, eventually embittering instead of empowering. The dedication to weather difficult moments withers. Adherence to ethical principles becomes more problematic and watered down, if not completely eroded. Shortcuts are taken. Ministry suffers. Trust is destroyed. People are hurt.

Celibacy, then, is a topic that comes up as part of my role as a teacher forming seminarians for ministry as priests. But my considerations of celibacy long predate my work in a Catholic seminary. Initially, while I was a seminarian in a Lutheran seminary, I became interested in religious community, eventually and particularly in monasticism. There was something about monasticism that appealed to me, even though I was then and still am quite happily married. There was a sense of focus and intentionality about the monastic life and its routine and dedication to prayer that I found attractive.

I was able to sidestep the overly romantic view of monasticism by meeting actual monks who were well-adjusted, devout individuals, actually quite “normal,” with interests in sports, movies, politics, various genres of music and so forth. I regularly read the Rule of St. Benedict as a Lutheran pastor and discovered principles of moderation and community life that applied in principle to anyone seeking a life in response to God’s calling.

So, while many might initially think of celibacy in reference to priesthood in the Catholic Church, I encountered it in terms of religious community. I first thought about celibacy in terms of the monastic vows of celibacy, along with poverty, obedience and, for Benedictines, stability. This becomes a somewhat different discussion than celibacy for diocesan priests. Indeed, I suspect the discussion about monastic celibacy may be more germane or relevant to the married minister than that of priestly celibacy.

The importance of both the individual and the community are clear in the Rule of St. Benedict. There is a need to keep both factors in balance, or both eventually suffer. The role of ministers is to develop and then maintain this balance within the community and within their own lives, perhaps on occasion at the expense of their own immediate needs and desires. This is done for the sake of the community, for building up and maintaining the community, always with an eye on faithfulness to Christ’s model and call.

Fr. William Skudlarek, OSB, provides a report on interesting discussions between Buddhist and Catholic monks in his book, Demythologizing Celibacy: Practical Wisdom from Christian and Buddhist Monasticism.[1] Many of his insights would be serviceable to married and celibate individuals alike living in community. Eventually, as I functioned as a pastor, I began to see real value of the concept of celibacy as a mindset appropriate to all ministers, if only in their “moments of ministry.” This becomes a matter of importance both for individual ministers and for the community as a whole, exercised for the sake of Christ and for the sake of the community. “Celibate” becomes a shorthand when talking about expectations and attitudes of ministers.

In either case (celibacy in priesthood or in monasticism), it is important to keep in mind that the religious practice of celibacy predates Catholicism by centuries, and it continues in non-Catholic settings, both Christian and non-Christian, sacred and secular. The first-century Jewish Essene community, of which John the Baptist was a likely member, was celibate. There is, even in the United States, a history of celibate communities that have no connection to Catholicism at all. The most notable example would be the Shakers, although there have been other celibate utopian communities as well.

There is a history of celibacy in the practices of non-Christian religions as well, among Hindus and Buddhists, for example. The significant numbers of Buddhists in the United States warrant a chapter in the history of American religiosity. This is all to suggest that the Catholic Church did not invent and does not have a monopoly on the practice of celibacy, although the topic of celibacy is, of course, most frequently connected to Catholicism’s requirement of celibacy for its priests. Discussions are carried on in many levels, official and unofficial. Hopefully, the recognition that celibacy is not a uniquely Catholic practice gives others, really, gives all, permission to see what values it might hold, whatever their marital status, much as I have found value in reading the Rule of St. Benedict, even though I am not a monk. As Elizabeth Abbott puts it, “Celibacy, I quickly understood, was a staggering panorama of reality, involving humanity everywhere and always.”[2]

There are simple definitions of celibacy that unfortunately hide or obscure the complexity of the practice. Celibacy can simply be considered as the situation or practice of not being married. It could be a practice that one chooses or a practice that is forced upon one. In A History of Celibacy, author Elizabeth Abbott speculates about a number of possibilities in which celibacy is forced upon one. For example, prison inmates were once denied all conjugal visits. Male and female children who were left for monasteries to care for became religious celibates with little real say in the matter.

In China, the one-child policy, along with a preference for male children, has resulted in many young men having no prospects for marriage because there are simply too few marriageable women to go around.[3] Perhaps economics make marriage impossible for a time or for a lifetime. It could be a permanent situation or one existing for a period of time dictated by cultural tradition, economics, social values and various other contingencies. Perhaps an older sibling takes it upon herself to live with and care for her aging parents at the expense of her own independent life. These latter examples have no particular foundation in religion.

Celibacy and chastity are often confused or conflated. Indeed, this is a decision that Elizabeth Abbott has intentionally made in A History of Celibacy, that is, to conflate the two terms since they are so often related matters.[4] Richard Sipe offers an expanded definition in Celibacy: A Way of Loving, Living, and Serving, “Celibacy is a freely chosen dynamic state, usually vowed, that involves an honest and sustained attempt to live without direct sexual gratification in order to serve others productively for a spiritual motive.”[5]

Here the definition becomes considerably more specific with references to “freely chosen,” vows and spiritual motives. I began to think that the idea or the attitude of celibacy could be applied in a temporary fashion, a state one goes into and out of, in particular, when someone is actively engaged in ministerial activities. The mindset of “celibacy” would not necessarily resolve all these questions. Perhaps, on occasion, however, the expectations might become clearer.

My hope is to broaden the discussion a little to remind us that celibacy is not unique to the Catholic clerical setting with its call for celibate male priests, not even when we add vowed celibate monks and nuns. Some have chosen celibacy for other than religious reasons, as well, either permanently or temporarily, as a response to needs and/or goals that make marriage and the achievement of those goals incompatible. Even within marriage, couples may become celibate/chaste for a period of time.

Some cultures assume a period of celibacy/chastity, that is, a postpartum abstinence following the birth of a child.[6] To be clear, however, what I am thinking of is celibacy in a religious context, for religious and theological reasons. Numerous faithful lay people have also taken personal vows of celibacy as a way of expressing or actualizing their faith in God, which leads to a spiritual wholeness or fulfillment. A few of them have become sainted.

Further, however, I want to suggest that anyone engaged in Christian ministry, at the point of or at the moment of ministry, must also consider himself or herself as “celibate.” I do not intend to question, minimize, erode, exaggerate, expand, contract or collapse the distinctions and charisms of celibate and married life. Both are ways of life to which one might be called; both are paths to holiness. Nor do I wish to engage the matter of priestly celibacy. I simply suggest a way of thinking in which a Gospel-driven ministry requires its practitioners to appropriate and embody the mindset of the celibate at that ministerial moment, practicing a self-giving love that is concerned solely with the well-being of the other, without any worry about attachment or possessiveness.

Celibacy allows me, in that moment of ministry, the freedom to surrender to the pastoral needs of the other at the expense of my hopes and expectations, recognizing the other as “unique and irreplaceable, precious and sacred.”[7] This is made reasonable when God and my relationship with God has become my all, my grounding. (I am bracketing here the obvious objection that celibacy in and of itself is no guarantee of this mindset. There is all too much evidence that some who are celibate violate its underpinnings in flagrant violation of its foundational principles with a shocking lack of respect for personal and professional boundaries.)

We can afford this radical surrender because we believe we have been given the grace to do so, whether for an hour or for a lifetime. We are freed from the consumer-oriented mindset that objectifies the other as a means for my own satisfaction. Or as Colon and Field write, “it becomes the freedom to redefine sexuality apart from the pressures to have sex and the consumer culture that dictates the rules for those encounters.”[8]

In part, this is a matter of pastoral or ministerial ethics, because, generally speaking, the minister holds the greater share of power in a ministerial situation; it is up to the minister to practice ministry ethically, morally. The person to whom one is ministering must be able to trust that the minister will faithfully act in the best interests of the one to whom he or she is ministering without regard for the minister’s needs and desires. This would be true for all professionals.

But for a Christian practitioner, as Richard Gula writes, “a moral ministry must be closely related to experiences of God and convictions about God. God is the ultimate center of value, the fixed point of reference for the morally right and wrong, the source and goal of all moral striving.”[9] We might go a step further and claim ministry as our vocation. Again Gula writes, “To say that pastoral ministry is a vocation means that it is a free response to God’s call in and through the community to commit oneself in love to serve others.”[10]

What is at stake is higher in this attitude, not just a professional code but a code based on one’s calling or theological vocation. We are addressing a way of life and an understanding of life that is more than a technical or legal adherence to a code; it is a matter of a deep, faith-filled understanding of what the Gospel calls for in our relationships with one another and then practicing that in a professional, ministerial setting. This sort of ministry is warranted and made possible by the example of Christ and also by the sacrifice of Christ that frees us and empowers us to be other-oriented as we conduct our ministerial practice.

Our concern as ministers of the Gospel, whether lay or ordained, is for the welfare of the other. When it is not, we have violated our calling, whether married or celibate. We have made our own satisfaction the goal or benefit of the ministry. Our needs and desires have taken priority over those of the other. Donald Cozzens writes that, “Celibates are perceived as men and women for others. As missionaries, teachers, nurses and pastors, they have ‘left all’ and risked everything in heroic response to the gospel.”[11] He also writes with regard to celibacy, “Living simply and humbly by the lights of the gospel in a culture saturated with self-serving ambition and insatiable material lust is indeed counter-cultural – and radical.”[12] Certainly, this is true for the lifelong celibate, but equally so for all those who engage in ministry.

Ministry and hospitality are related concepts. Hospitality precedes any real opportunity for ministry. Fr. Mark O’Keefe, OSB, notes, “Ministry is about hospitality. In whatever form or context, ministry involves welcoming others as they are and in their concrete and unique circumstances, welcoming Christ in them, and, then, helping them to see and to welcome Christ for themselves in the sometimes unlikely situations where He is not easily recognized.”[13] With hospitality comes the freedom to listen deeply, rather than merely to tell, advise or answer.

Over and over, as I have read literature on celibacy, there is frequent reference to this matter of focus and freedom, the freedom to minister to another without a potential sense or fear of attachment or possessiveness. Yet many of these observations seemed to apply equally to me as a married pastor ministering to a parishioner. For example, Fr. Skudlarek writes about monastic celibacy, “Celibacy can also allow the monk to enter into a deeper and more mature relationship with other people, freed from the craving of pleasure or self-interest that is such a common, even if unintended and unrecognized component of most friendships.”[14]

Elizabeth Abbott, with reference to Kathleen Norris’ discussion in Cloister Walk, notes a point of similarity between celibacy and marriage, “Like Benedictine celibacy, marriage begins as a sacred lifetime commitment that requires self-transcendence.”[15] Richard Sipe comments, “Celibacy rests on an appreciative option to forgo the goodness of unitive and procreative love for the sake of serving the reign of God by loving others unconditionally.”[16] In a similar vein, he writes, “Celibacy is altruism – sacrifice of self for the other – or it is empty and fraudulent. Work, prayer, and community are united under the impulse and force of altruism – the reason for celibate striving.”[17] Sipe then adds, “When ministry is coupled with celibacy, the expectation of altruism…is intensified in the minds of the public. That – service without reward – is the primary expectation lay people have of their clergy.”[18] I would simply add, “regardless of whether they are permanently celibate or married.”

All people who receive ministry should anticipate the attitude of altruism. This is true for all ministers, the goal toward which all ministry should strive. In all of these quotations, both the celibate and the married minister are called to self-transcendence in the moments of ministry. The attitude that attends these quotations in relationship to celibacy and marriage seems to apply equally well, even more perhaps, to the attitude one ought to assume in any ministry – self-transcendence, the goal of focusing on the situation and the needs of the other. In terms of professional ethics, Richard Gula suggests that “a virtuous professional acts inclusively in offering service, in giving reasonable preference to the interests of others, and in not taking advantage of their vulnerability.”[19]

In a culture that bombards us with notions of sex as recreation and is thoroughly saturated with unrelenting sexual innuendo, any notion of celibacy is a difficult concept to grasp. I offer a workshop for seminarians on celibacy and the media in which I state that there is virtually nothing in the media (film and television, in particular) that would support the decision to be celibate, unless one radically severs the notions of celibacy and chastity, in which case media promote celibacy without any regard for chastity.

The same could also be said of traditional concepts of marriage, especially related to the matter of marital fidelity. It seems that there is hardly a television show on commercial television in which pre-, post-, and extra-marital sex is not only accepted, but promoted and practiced regularly. Commercial media may say that they are simply reflecting the reality of their viewership, but I would propose that they are also shaping ideas and ideals as well. The idea of chaste celibacy as a lifestyle option becomes more and more radically counter-cultural. Faithfulness to one’s spouse, much more with celibacy, would seem to be hopelessly archaic, naïve and extremely counter-cultural in a society in which politicians regularly confess their flagrant infidelities; where one can hardly watch a television show in which promiscuity is not only assumed, it is acceptable, seemingly promoted and graphically demonstrated. Our society is saturated with and obsessed with sex. Celibacy? Come on now.

The idea of employing the term “celibacy” for an overall attitude toward ministry is not so terribly profound, I suppose. I do think, however, that it does have a real utility when it comes to helping define or label the nature of the relationships we have with those to whom and with whom we minister.[20] Most discussions about marriage and celibacy do not address the specifics related to those ministers who are married. Married ministers, in terms of their ministry, straddle to an important degree the two situations: celibacy and marriage.

The reason for a celibate mindset in ministry, whether married or permanently celibate, is its ability to quickly define relationships with those to whom we minister. The nature of Christian ministry is to be oriented to the needs of the other because of what God has done for us. Historically, this has also been a reason for practicing celibacy. I am proposing something more than being a faithful, loyal spouse and parent, more than chastity within marriage for the married minister. I am thinking of something deeper, even perhaps more important. Not just a Catholic or non-Catholic issue. Not just a priest issue. True for permanent deacons, DREs and pastoral associates. True for all ministers of the Gospel.


  1. William Skudlarek. Demythologizing Celibacy: Practical Wisdom from Christian and Buddhist Monasticism (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1989).
  2. Elizabeth Abbott, A History of Celibacy (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1999). 16.
  3. Abbott, 293-294.
  4. Abbott, 17.
  5. A.W. Richard Sipe. Celibacy: A Way of Loving, Living, and Serving (Ligouri, MO: Ligouri, 1996). 40.
  6. Abbott, 295-299.
  7. Mark O’Keefe. Priestly Wisdom (St. Meinrad, IN: Abbey Press, 2004). 31.
  8. Christine A. Colon and Bonnie E. Field. Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today’s Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009). 43.
  9. Richard M. Gula. Ethics in Pastoral Ministry (Mahweh, NJ: Paulist Press, 1996). 9.
  10. Gula, 11.
  11. Donald Cozzens. Freeing Celibacy (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2006). 12-13.
  12. Cozzens, 103.
  13. O’Keefe, 33
  14. Skudlarek, 92.
  15. Abbott, 393.
  16. Sipe, 4.
  17. Sipe, 186.
  18. Sipe, 187.
  19. Gula, 48.
  20. As an example of a celibate mindset for those both with whom and to whom we minister, I mention the policy of some Lutheran judicatories where the single pastor is not even to date members of his or her congregation. One of them would have to leave. This is in contradistinction to earlier days when it was a matter of some pride if a newly minted pastor, typically single until after seminary, married one of the parish’s “daughters.”


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Celibacy by Rev. Richard C. Stern, EdD is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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