Some Blunt Challenges to the Church About Single Parents

I have been a single dad now for about 8 months. Maybe a bit more if you include the season of growing responsibility before my wife’s death. In some ways, I still feel brand new to this identity and community. However, as I have walked into it (and walked it somewhat publicly by nature of my job and temperament), I have found myself having conversations with other single parents. They have given me opportunities to hear stories and ask questions and learn, and coming out of that I want to say a few things to those with influence in the church. I’m especially going to be speaking to pastors and leaders. I am, after all, one of you. However, I hope others in the community of faith will also pay attention.

Because, just being blunt: a lot of us as pastors and as churches are terrible at loving single parents. We don’t know what to do with them. We are  bad at it in a number of ways.

First, though, I want to admit that I am writing from a complicated in-between place. On the one hand, I am a single parent, with the exhaustion and aloneness and outsider status that brings. But more specifically I am a single dad, which puts me in a substantial minority. Maybe 1 in 5 single parents are fathers. Not only that, but I was also the primary breadwinner for our family (meaning we aren’t facing the financial struggles of some) and am a pastor (meaning I have a literal bully pulpit from which to be heard if I want it.) So when I say the church is terrible at this, I'm in many ways including myself more on the church side than the single parent one. Sure, there are some particular challenges to single fatherhood. Trying to arrange playdates, for instance, is weirdly fraught when much of our culture relegates such events to the relational networks of women. However, it is mostly a position of advantage. I get publicly applauded just for getting my kids out the door with clothes on while single moms don’t get complimented even when their kids are basically perfect. I’m going to try to write on behalf of single parents in a way that includes single mothers, but I recognize that is an adjacent but different world. I’d encourage you to ask the single moms you know about their thoughts and experiences.

That said, a few things leaders in the church need to recognize about single parents:

They are there. One in four households with kids is a single parent household. One in four. That is a huge number. It also tells me two things.

One: if you as a church leader care about loving and reaching people, you need to care about loving and reaching single parents. Especially if children are close to your heart. This is a major demographic group, and if you aren’t thinking about, preaching to, and intentionally trying to care for those families, you are ignoring a huge number of the people around you.

And two: if your church doesn’t have any single parents attending, that probably means you are failing in some way to reach or care for them. Hopefully, some of what follows will help with that, but we need to admit it is a problem. I had a conversation while processing some of these ideas where a pastor said that he didn’t think they needed to worry about loving and welcoming single parents “because there aren’t any in our church.” As if that was a justification instead of a self-condemnation.

We’ll talk more about specifics later, but let me just give one general piece of advice based on acknowledging they are there: you should preach and teach and talk in the church as if not everyone is married. This is true more generally—there are those who are not yet married, those called to vocations of singleness, etc.—but especially for single parents for whom marriage itself may be a painful subject, try to occasionally express that you get it. When you consider your audience and your examples, don’t assume that everyone has a spouse to go home to. (As an aside: you should try reading books written for pastors and finding not a single acknowledgment anywhere that not all of us will be married. Because while Jesus was a bachelor and Paul was probably a widower who never remarried, obviously that is unthinkable now.) When you announce an anniversary or talk about the joys of marriage, remember that someone might slip out afterward to cry in the bathroom. That doesn’t mean you don’t speak about those things; it just means you should do it with care.

They are in pain. Nobody becomes a single parent without some significant trauma. I am a widower, so my grief is especially obvious. However, divorce can be just as painful, especially for those for whom divorce comes after years of betrayal, abuse, infidelity, and uncertainty. Abandonment by a significant other, even if they aren't a spouse, is also deeply heartbreaking and often accompanies the worst sorts of financial fears.

Plenty of that pain is also ongoing. Depending on the circumstances, there are struggles with custody battles, traumatized kids, and other continuing sources of hurt. There are financial and practical challenges. And especially for single mothers, there is the reality that they are vulnerable in unique ways to those who would seek to prey upon their situation or take it as permission to mistreat them. Even if they are above reproach, they will be sexualized and potentially victimized in deeply troubling ways by the men around them.

Pastors, if I can just speak directly to you for a moment: I have heard stories from multiple single mothers who have been harassed and propositioned for sex in your churches. In your single parenting and divorce recovery groups, during worship services, and while applying for jobs. By single men and by married men and in some cases by your staff members. I know you might struggle to believe it is happening in your church, but that is precisely the problem. Your finding it unbelievable is the reason you aren’t ever going to hear about it. You aren’t safe to tell. And we as leaders of the church need to work through that and repent of that because we owe it to our sisters in Christ to defend their cause rather than their victimizers.

They have enormous gifts. I really want to say this loudly after the last point. Single parents are not burdens or charity cases; they are called-and-gifted members of the body of Christ just like anyone else. They have talents and insights and wisdom and understandings of Jesus you do not. In particular, if suffering breeds sanctification (which it often does) and if having idols stripped away makes us rely on Jesus more (idols like marriage and the nuclear family and the easy American dream), then the single parents in your congregation might have more to teach you than you have to teach them.

So treat them like valuable resources. Ask for their opinions about things. Ask them to serve on committees and lead ministries. And then give them the practical help they need to make that happen. One phenomenon that continually boggles my mind is how churches will see a gifted single parent who would need childcare to serve in some way and conclude that the logical thing to do is not to ask them to serve instead of, you know, hiring them a babysitter.

In particular, ask them about their experiences in your church. One of the most common things I’ve heard as I’ve tried to ask fellow single parents about their experiences is, “Wow, nobody has ever asked me that before.” I can think of no more damning commentary on the pride and lack of caring curiosity in many of our communities.

They need community. The single biggest challenge of single parenting, in my experience, is not the time management or the cleaning or the cooking or the childcare. Those are all hard at times, certainly, but they pale in comparison to the unending aloneness. I use that term rather than “loneliness” intentionally—to be lonely is a feeling, to be alone is an objective state of being. I do not have another adult in my house to talk to about parenting choices, to laugh about the latest mess, or just to wrap my arm around and cry together. What is needed in that is not a pep talk to change my feelings; it is the physical presence of other people. The church should be the embodied presence of Jesus with those who struggle, and single parents especially need that presence.

In particular, this means that you, Christian, need to seek to be that embodied presence. Single parent groups are not a way of solving the relational needs of single parents any more than insane asylums were a way of solving emotional needs of those struggling with their mental health. Too often our "ministries" to single parents are really just ways of shunting them into demographically-defined programs where they can take care of each other rather than requiring anything from us. This is sinful, and it also will not work. What they need is the sort of community only the church can offer: people of all ages, all stations of life, coming together in fellowship and faith.

In particular, if you are married, I would strongly encourage you to take the initiative in building relationships with single people in general. I understand why it doesn’t happen naturally: Elizabeth and I used to love our “couple friends,” and hangouts are not as simple when the boys and girls can’t naturally pair off to do their own things. However, that is putting your comfort over the care of someone who needs relationship and who probably especially longs for the beautiful example of a good marriage. And frankly, you’ve probably got more margin to sacrifice pursuing and loving a single parent than they have to take the initiative themselves. 

They could use some practical help too. For all of the above about needing relationships... having a babysitter is also really great. So is sharing meals (it gets exhausting cooking every. Single. Night.) I know several single moms who have mentioned the blessings of having someone to help fix things around the house or their car, since they culturally were never taught to do those things. I am incredibly grateful for the two women who come and clean my house every week as a gesture of love. As one wise friend puts it: it isn't rocket science, it's community.

On that note, let me offer my rules of showing charity more generally, learned from years of receiving it with great gratitude but also occasional frustrations:

1. Generally, don't wait to be asked and handle the details yourself. Obviously there are exceptions (don't repaint my house without discussing the new color), but too often offers of charity will be "I'm willing generally to do something, but you work out all the details and the scheduling and then communicate that all to me and I'll help." This feels like adding work to the person's life, not taking it away. Likewise, saying "Can I take your kids on Saturday" is way better than saying "I'm available to babysit sometime if you want some time away."

2. Don't do things that place demands on the person. Even stuff as simple as returning dishes can be a hassle. Showing up with a meal that can be frozen and baked whenever is great; showing up with food that is piping hot and must be consumed immediately is not, especially when the person may have just eaten a half hour ago and then you stand around watching until they eat it. (Definitely not a weirdly-specific example.) And since we mentioned dishes: some of the best meal-related gifts I have received are paper plates and plastic silverware.

3. Giving money/gift cards is great. Seriously. The people who generally have the best sense of exactly what they need are the people with the needs.

4. Giving your time is the best. Be sensitive to boundaries—don't demand time of others. But giving someone both food and conversation, or dropping by a present and taking a few minutes to pray for the person, is a way of offering community and practical help at the same time.

They need you to not be a graceless idiot. I could probably put this last point less harshly, but I’m not going to, because I think some bluntness is deserved. I have had the experience, in several contexts, of doing what I think of as the “single parent self-justification shuffle.” Christian strangers realize I’m unmarried with kids, they don’t know what I do for a living or my story, and they start asking questions that are transparently trying to determine whether I am one of those “good” single parents or one of the “bad” ones. Whether I’m someone they should pity or someone they should judge.

Those are painful conversations for me, and I have about the least morally complicated story imaginable about how I got to this place. I can only guess how brutal it is for someone with a more challenging past. The problem with those questions and the dance is how little of the gospel there is in it. Jesus doesn’t care how someone ended up in a hard situation; he simply sees their pain and calls them to Himself. In fact, it is precisely the question of moral justification and "bad" single people that lies behind the Pharisee's judgment of Jesus when the woman washes his feet. (Luke 7:39)

Also, please also stop being an idiot in how you talk about how people end up as single parents. I still hear Christians speak about a supposed epidemic of “single mothers” as if this is primarily a sign of female promiscuity and not of men being socially sanctioned deadbeats and abusers. The parent still caring for the kids is likely not the one you should be scorning for their irresponsibility. Same with divorce. Yes, it is a theologically complicated topic. However, when you meet a single parent who is divorced, you are not being tasked by God to pass judgment. You aren't the courts of the church. You are a follower of Jesus being tasked with loving them.

(Also, just generally on the topic of divorce, since it is the single leading cause of single parent households: the first-marriage divorce rate in the U.S. is around 40%; the admitted adultery rate among men is around 20%, women at 13%, and is probably much higher. One of the top reasons given for divorce is infidelidy, in 50-60% of cases. Which means that, without broaching a much bigger topic, even the most conservative interpretation of Jesus's teachings on divorce would say that half the divorces in the U.S. might have biblical grounds. Never mind all the cases where it was the other partner that filed, there was abuse or desertion or other grievous complicating sin, etc. The assumption that someone who is divorced must of necessity be in sin or not value marriage is just not connected to reality, yet that is how many churches treat them.)

At root, here is my issue. Regardless of how they got there, regardless of mistakes and history, anyone trying to be faithful as a single parent right now is engaged in an incredibly noble task. I don't say that to be self-aggrandizing; indeed, thanks to the advantages I have I'm probably doing a much less noble job of it than many. But I get deeply angry that we have taken a labor that should be applauded and admired and held up as an example of gospel parenting and instead made it a source of shame, something to be hidden away. Single moms and dads should get special recognition on Mother's and Father's Day, not feel uncomfortable and excluded. They should be admired as particularly reflecting the Fatherhood of God, who is Himself from a certain (non-theologically-technical) perspective a single parent. The fact that instead they are looked at askance and treated like pariahs is just wrong. We as the church should do better.

So let's do it. Because one last thing I have heard from several people: when the church does live up to this calling, it is a beautiful thing to see. When the community of faith really comes around someone who has lost their partner and provides them with the family and community and honor and encouragement they need, that is a testimony to the parent, to their children, to the families of the church, and to the watching world, that Jesus Christ truly is making all things new.

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