When we counsel a couple separating or working through the wreckage of divorce, it’s not unusual for a pastor to think, “If only this could have been dealt with sooner—before it got so bad.”
Let’s take it from the beginning. Not the beginning of the marital issues or even the beginning of the marriage. Go all the way back to the moment a couple starts dating, and you realize so many of the problems started long before the marriage. Some of these relationships should never have started, but perhaps she settled in hopes that things might change over time. Maybe he’s the nicest non-Christian guy at work. Maybe he goes to church but is not really following Jesus with his life. Maybe he’s a young convert, and his immaturity shows. Maybe he far too often gets angry at her and she doesn’t know what to do about it. Maybe he’s promiscuous and keeps leading her to violate her conscience. Red flags and warning signs that were there from the start were ignored or dismissed. Why are women settling? And how can you, as a pastor, help?
Why women settle
There are a number of different reasons why women settle. Here is a small sampling of reasons you may see:
Growing up with an idolatry of a relationship and marriage
From a young age, girls are introduced, through books and movies, to a desire to eventually have their own prince, complete with the dreamy wedding. Or maybe it’s the “you-complete-me syndrome,” where the woman has no sense of personal identity apart from being with a man. In an effort to fulfill these lifelong fantasies, women will settle. Their hearts are going to worship something (Rom. 1:25), and often their good desires for a relationship and marriage take on idolatrous proportions. Prince Charming becomes their real hero, and Jesus, while important, is not their ultimate priority.
Dating without community
When dating in isolation, couples struggle to figure out what a healthy relationship looks like. They figure things out on their own, because they don’t want to be a burden to older Christian couples. There is a lack of wisdom and guidance as they try to figure things out.
Overlooking the warning signs
Deep affection and emotional attachments can make a woman blind to a man’s many faults. Things that she might otherwise see with a clear mind, she doesn’t see after they spend weeks and months together and she forms strong emotional ties with him.
Letting fear prevail
Fear can drive a woman to stay in a relationship that she shouldn’t. She’s scared she’ll be alone for the rest of her life, or she’ll never have children, or no one will take care of her when she’s old. Her fears are powerful and can overpower common sense or wise counsel.
Finding the root of why women settle in relationships
As a pastor, it’s important to look at the deeper heart issues for why women settle. The Bible talks about our hearts being the control center for our lives. Proverbs 4:23 says, “For out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks” (BLB). Luke 6:45 states, “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (See also Matthew 12:33–37.) From your heart you speak, you act, you think, you feel, and you live.
Look into the war going on in a woman’s heart, and you’ll find deeper issues that need to be addressed.
1. A distrust of God and His sovereignty over her life
Whether she’s a nonbeliever or she isn’t fully submitting to God’s rule over her life, she doesn’t trust God with her life and her future.
2. A distrust of God’s goodness to her
She might intellectually acknowledge that God is good. She might believe God is good to everyone else, but she does not see God as good to her.
3. A self-reliance or desire to control her future
If she feels like she can or should take matters into her own hands, then she does. She’s no longer going to let God be sovereign over her little kingdom. Her functional theology is such that she is now in charge. At the heart of the matter, she’s rebelling against God and establishing self-rule.
Picture a woman who desperately wants to get married. None of the men at church are paying attention to her. She hasn’t had a date in a while. Suddenly, you see her dating the non-Christian guy at work, and you think, “Why is she doing this?” Maybe she doubts God’s sovereignty and His goodness. Maybe some days she wonders if God has essentially abandoned her. These are some of the deeper issues. As you interact with her about the relationship, she’s defensive and she doesn’t give you much access to her heart. Or maybe she’s brutally honest about her frustrations with God and her struggles with a hedonistic dating culture. Whatever the situation, as you venture in, you come to see it’s complicated and messy. If you stay at a superficial level, you’ll miss the deeper issues. What can you do?
How and why pastors should help
First Peter 5:2–3 says, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” Part of your responsibility to shepherd God’s flock involves guiding God’s people toward healthy dating relationships that bring him honor and glory (cf. 1 Cor. 10:31).
If you don’t speak up, don’t be surprised that secular culture will shape the way singles in your church think about dating and relationships. A passivity in addressing singles is basically setting them up to be lied to and distracted by the world. There’s a spiritual war for these women’s hearts, and the church plays a vital role in defending, loving, teaching, guiding, and protecting them as part of God’s flock.
Preach and teach on dating and marriage issues
Don’t let the culture have the only voice on these topics. As a pastor, you can teach singles what godliness, wisdom, and love look like when choosing a spouse.
Teach a big view of God. Instead of worldly and selfish desires ruling their hearts (James 4:1–3), point people toward more godly desires—for His will to be done and not ours (Matt. 6:9–10). Teach about biblical masculinity and femininity, about singleness, and about marriage. It’s far too easy for people to develop their own functional theology of men’s and women’s roles based on prevalent cultural ideas. But Christians need to let the Bible set the terms. God’s Word has something to say about all of these topics.
Ask a lot of questions and humbly listen
As a man, I listen to my wife, to single and married women in the church, to women counselors, and to others so I can understand why women settle. So should you. Ask what it feels like to be single in your congregation, ask what pressures women might feel to get married, and ask how you can be supportive. Not only does this build your understanding about the most pressing issues women face, but it also helps better equip you to address them.
Build a community of discipleship within the church
This is a proactive, preventive measure. You don’t just react; you ask: “What does it mean to build community in our church?” Are your church members investing in each other’s lives? If so, then the woman asked out by a non-Christian coworker will have other women speaking into her life. She won’t have to sort through this matter on her own. Other women will already be saying to her, “Trust God with your life.” Other women will be pouring into her. Other women will be on the front lines as the non-Christian guy starts flirting with her at work. She does life in community, not by herself.
Are the older women in your church connecting with and teaching the younger women?
Pastors are a church’s primary culture shapers. So, do you make discipling and investing in one another an important value in your congregation? Does your church understand how important it is to live, love, and sacrifice for one another? Think about building the kind of community where people use their strengths and wisdom to shepherd and help one another (Rom. 12:10; 13:8; 15:7, 14; 1 Thess. 5:11). Don’t face these issues on your own and get stuck in the position of always playing catch-up. Which situation would you rather have—a woman coming to you after she gets deeply and emotionally tangled with the wrong guy OR a discipler helping her to know and love God, and telling her, “Stay away from that man”?
Learn how to navigate the deeper issues with wisdom, love, and grace
Not every pastor actually feels equipped to shepherd. Maybe you entered into ministry to preach and teach and are overwhelmed by the amount of care a pastor needs to provide. If so, take the time to equip yourself. How? Read. Learn from other experienced counselors and pastors. Pursue training or go to an equipping conference. It might seem hard to fit in, but at the point when someone comes in for help, it will be well worth the time spent.
Imagine you have a woman in your office, and you are concerned about her relationship with a guy. Again, the possible reasons for concern are many: He might be a young convert. He might struggle with arrogance and anger. He might be commitment-phobic. Whatever the case, you are concerned that she is settling for the wrong kind of guy. Start with prayer. Ask the Lord to lead the conversation and their relationship. Be really careful about condemning or quickly rushing to judgment and confrontation. A woman has to know that you are for her as her pastor in order for her to really hear you.
Then, build a relationship with both the woman and the man. You’re not going to have one logical conversation to convince a couple they are in the wrong relationship and then push them out the door. Establish a trusting and understanding relationship with both of them. In your conversations, work toward the deeper issues. If they are open to it, have frank and honest conversations. Listen and love on them. Ask yourself, “Why?” What is causing her to settle: Is there a distrust of God or a sense of self-reliance?
Get other, more experienced women in the congregation strategically invested and involved in her life. If the girlfriend is isolated, connect her with other women. Harness the rich relational resources in your church. As a pastor, you have a vantage point on the whole community, and you have access to it in a way that the woman might not.
If you think the relationship is a bad idea, be willing to have the hard conversation. The ability to say the hard thing is a crucial part of love. Let the couple know your honest thoughts (Prov. 24:26). Pray that God gives you gentleness, honesty and wisdom as you speak to them. If only more pastors would intervene on the front end of things rather than waiting to clean up messes after they are married.
Some women will settle, but some will make the courageous choice to break up. There are the Abigails (1 Sam. 25) and Ruths (Ruth 1–4) of our day, who see a difficult situation and face it with wisdom and strength.
Be willing to continue shepherding her and her boyfriend, especially if they get married. If they marry, then your job changes. On the front end, you might be working to dissuade her from moving forward. But after they are married, your job is to do everything you can to support the marriage.
Finally, keep praying. As her shepherd, you represent the Chief Shepherd (1 Pet. 5:4). Your prayers ultimately place her welfare in His capable hands.
Ron Deal shares counsel you can share with a single parent in your church who’s interested in dating. Read it here: I Don’t Want Mommy to Date Anybody!