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Ministering to Singles: No Longer “All in the Family”

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Won't ComeAt the church I attended when I was at LSU, the college-aged class was included under the Singles Ministry umbrella. We were the Singles I class. What’s now usually called “Young Professionals” was the Singles II class. I think that class went up to about age 30 or so. Even though I was the outreach person for the college class (because no one else in a class that usually had between 50 and 60 people on Sunday mornings would do it), I socialized more with people from the Singles II class—those who were just a few years post-college. Maybe this was why, when I dropped out at age twenty-one, I jumped straight into singles ministry and never looked back. By the time I was twenty-two, I was already the regular substitute teacher for the singles class at the small church I attended in Vienna, Virginia. A couple of years later, attending a different church, I had taken on the same role.

When I moved to Nashville, after having gone to two small churches in Northern Virginia—but both of which had singles groups—my main goal for finding a church was to find one with an active, vibrant, large singles ministry because, I was certain, God had sent me to Nashville to meet my husband—and where else was I going to do it but at a church where there were lots of single guys? That was more than thirteen years ago. In the first six months I lived here, I visited all of the Baptist churches with singles ministries. And a lot of churches have very large, very active, very vibrant groups. But with most of them, I walked in and immediately felt like I was in high school again—the only girl who wasn’t a size 2/4 with perfect hair, expensive clothes, the right accessories, and looks that turned men’s heads. Yes, I’d run into a problem intrinsic in the gathering together of unmarried people: the “meet market.”

Eventually, I ended up joining exactly the kind of church I’d sworn I wasn’t going to join: a mid-size church where the only “singles” class is the one filled with people aged 40+ who are all single-again and mostly single parents (I was 25 when I joined this church). It was taught by a couple in their 40s who’d gotten married the day after their high school graduation. I had absolutely nothing in common with any of them. But I knew that was the church where I was supposed to be. So after I’d been there a few months, I volunteered to start teaching youth Sunday school (7th & 8th grade). Within two years, I was the Youth Sunday School Director (and, because the paid minister wasn’t doing his job, the defacto Youth Director) and teaching the entire youth department on Sunday mornings because I couldn’t get anyone else in the church to help out. With forty or fifty teenagers gathered in one room with only one adult/authority figure—and a youth group hurting from the lack of attention from their youth director—they were very hard to control. I usually ended up barely being able to sing during service after yelling at/over them for the hour. (And many of their parents were in the classrooms surrounding us. I know they could hear what was going on.)

Over the few years that I taught in the youth department, something interesting started happening . . . twenty- and thirtysomething singles started attending the church. When I finally had enough and went to the pastor to tell him I needed to resign from teaching the Youth, he asked me if I would consider taking on co-leadership of the Singles department. The man who was leading it wasn’t comfortable teaching, but loved doing outreach and ministry. I prayed about it and felt like God was leading me to say yes. So I did. The ministry grew to the point where the only place we could meet that was big enough was in the main foyer behind the sanctuary (we always ended on time!). The group grew from about eight to ten regular attendees to about twenty-five to thirty (and that’s in a church that averaged about 350 in worship service). I headed up an activities committee to plan all kinds of social activities. I started a women’s Bible study group (yes, I was teaching that, too). We were so active and growing that we managed to get a line-item added to the church’s budget for Singles Ministry. We even did a weekend-long retreat. Things were going great!

And then my co-leader got engaged and started going to his fiancée’s church. A dating couple in the group broke up. She and her roommate started going to another church; he stopped coming. Someone else’s job transferred him to Kentucky. The Singles Ministry budget was taken away (and used for re-doing the youth room downstairs). When the standardized Sunday school literature had a four-week lesson on marriage and I asked the Sunday school director if I could teach from a wonderful book I’d just read about living a fulfilled life as a single, he said no, that I had to teach what was in the SS literature—and besides, we probably all needed lessons on marriage so we’d stop screwing around and grow up. (Yes, he said that. To ME. If only he’d known…) I taught the lessons on singleness anyway. And then I promptly resigned. At that point, the group, which had once regularly numbered around thirty on Sunday mornings (and forty or fifty at social events, with those who worked in the nursery or taught other classes or just didn’t come to Sunday school) was back down to about four or five die-hards. I didn’t resign from my position on the Nominating Committee until a month later when the chair of the committee (the self-same Sunday school director) said, upon discussion of potential teachers for the Singles group, that we needed to find a married couple to teach the class so they could be a “good example for those kids and encourage them to grow up and become upstanding, contributing members of the church.”

For those of you who’ve read the last several posts I’ve written about singleness as well as the comments made afterward who may think that my tone has been defensive, this is why. These things were said to me seven or eight years ago—when I was just starting to come to terms with the fact that I was now thirty years old and still not married. When I was busting my butt teaching (SS and Bible study) and leading the Singles group, singing in the choir (serving as a section leader and a choir officer), serving on three committees (youth council, nominating committee, committee on committees), starting and singing in a women’s ensemble as well as a southern gospel quartet, attending Sunday morning and evening and Wednesday evening, volunteering as a “sponsor” for youth trips, and so on. And to have a person in a position (several positions, actually) of leadership intimate that I was not an “upstanding, contributing” member of the church—simply because I was not married—was one of the most hurtful things anyone has ever said to or about me. I and many of the other singles in that church were more actively involved and provided more service to the church and its members than the majority of those “upstanding, contributing” married members did.

I had been a member of that church for almost seven years. And after that happened, I stopped going. I just stopped showing up on Sunday mornings. And Sunday evenings. And Wednesday evenings. And you know what happened? NOTHING. For seven years, I was at that church practically every time the doors were open. I poured my heart into that church. And after not showing up for three or four weeks in a row, it was like I’d never been there. No one cared I wasn’t there anymore. No one called. No one sent cards or e-mails. No one even bothered to find out that I was okay physically—you know, that I hadn’t been maimed or killed in a car accident.

In one of my final attempts to “reconcile” with this church, I made an appointment to meet with the pastor—someone I had considered a friend, up to that point. I explained to him how devastating it was that no one had reached out to me during a time when I was hurting both emotionally and spiritually. I asked him what would happen if one of the senior adult ladies, who only attends on Sunday mornings, were to all of a sudden not show up one week. We both knew the answer: Someone would have been on the phone that afternoon to make sure everything was okay. But even though, in this medium-sized congregation, pretty much everyone knew I lived alone and didn’t have any family in the area, when I didn’t show up for a month, they just wrote it off to my being a “church-hopping single.” (After SEVEN years of active membership/service in that church!)

The modern evangelical church in America prides itself on being “family-focused.” However, the message of being “family-focused” has created such a sense of selfishness in the local congregation that it’s led to a mass exodus of unmarried people from the body. Because the focus isn’t on the Family of Faith—that we’re all part of the same family and need to look out for one another. The focus has become: “It’s all about MY family, and as long as OUR needs are being met, we have no other responsibility to anyone else in the church.”

And this is where the apathetic attitude toward singles ministry comes from. Because singles in a congregation aren’t usually connected with any family unit there, most families in the church don’t even notice them. Sure they might know about them, but it’s more in the way you know the church foyer has a tile (or carpeted) floor. It’s just there, but not anything you pay attention to.

Ever since the Christian church came into being, unmarried people have contributed at least as much if not more to the running and leadership of our local congregations as married people have. We do it because we’re called to and have a heart for it; but we also do it because we’re trying to feel like a part of something bigger than ourselves—we’re trying to build a family of faith so that we don’t have to go through life alone, with no one there to lift us up when we’re down, no one to care about what happens to us.

We’re not looking for the church to “take care of us.” We’re just looking for a family who will love and support us. And yes, there are going to be those unmarried people who hop from church to church to church, looking for Mr./Ms. Right (or Right Now). But that’s not the majority of us.

Next Sunday, look around your congregation. Does it reflect the fact that nearly 50% of Americans are single/unmarried? What can you do—no matter your own marital status—to make your church a place where everyone is cared about and supported and made to feel like part of the family?

29 Comments leave one →
  1. Tuesday, September 29, 2009 11:39 am

    I know you’re focused on singles but what you mentioned isn’t unique to the singles ministry. There seems to be a serious problem within churches today of not really caring about the people in attendance unless they can get something out of them. If you’re not fitting a need that church has at the moment then you’re almost out of sight and out of mind regardless of whether you’re single, married or a space alien named Bob.

    When I read your post, my first thought was that they were using the single as an excuse to cover their own selfishness. You were no longer doing work they didn’t want to do but in essence hampering their real desire to make others do what they want them to do. You were actually trying to minister to people where they were…they wanted to make people fit into the mold of an “upstanding, contributing members of the church” (which likely means give them more money.)

    The singles ministry you mentioned is a good indicator of a deeper sickness within many churches today. We have churches that have become little more than junior high school locker rooms on a bigger scale. If you’re not in the right clique, you’re not important to the “church.”

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    • Tuesday, September 29, 2009 11:44 am

      I totally agree, Jason—this isn’t just a problem for unmarried people in the church. But it seems like most churches at least attempt to do more reaching out to married couples—especially those with children—than they do to those of us who aren’t married.

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    • Tuesday, September 29, 2009 12:01 pm

      Heh – I was going to say a little bit along these lines in my own comment.

      In my old church there was too much busy-ness going on and I saw a lot of people, not just us few singles, falling through the cracks. Several mothers who were suddenly faced with divorce, husbands in jail, etc… and as a church I was frustrated we weren’t doing more. Yes, I realize I should have done more, and with one of the women I did try to reach out a little bit – but since we didn’t really know each other and she was hurting, she couldn’t trust me to help her – and I had no idea how to help her.

      I know I helped her kiddo though. He was in my Sunday School class – I had gone and bought a read-along book about divorce and one Sunday God blessed us with only having him in class. (sometimes having a classroom full of students isn’t the blessing – sometimes its just the one) I was able to sit with him and read the book, and we talked about what was going on – I know it helped him hear from another adult who cared about him that it wasn’t his fault….

      But anyway – there is a major illness in the church. We all want what we want and we don’t care what others want.

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  2. Tuesday, September 29, 2009 11:55 am

    Wow does a little of this sound familiar. My heart breaks that you went through that Kaye. I have the feeling if I had been in those same circumstances I would have exploded and said “EXCUSE ME?”

    I’ve experienced “oh despite the fact that she lives alone and her family lives 2000 miles away, we aren’t going to make sure she’s ok” antipathy.

    I guess your church leaders didn’t really think Paul contributed much to the church with him being single and all…..

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    • Tuesday, September 29, 2009 12:01 pm

      But Leslie, I don’t think that most people in church actually think about the fact that Paul wasn’t married (unless they decide to start quoting 1 Corinthian 7 at us on the annual “token sermon for the singles” Sunday). Just like they don’t focus on the fact that the apostles—those wonderful, upstanding, contributing examples of Christian Marriage—all left their wives and families to enter the ministry.

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      • Tuesday, September 29, 2009 12:03 pm

        I was being sarcastic Kaye 🙂 I know that people forget that fact except when we start complaining about being single that is.

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        • Tuesday, September 29, 2009 12:06 pm

          Well, the attitude about Paul that makes him more palatable to the Marriage-Is-the-Only-Way-to-Heaven crowd is the idea that he must have been married and widowed early in life, because one had to be married to become a member of the Sanhedrin. Which, of course, makes him okay—because he had been married, which gave him the credentials to become someone worthy of notice in the church.

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        • Tuesday, September 29, 2009 12:09 pm

          I should have included in the comment above: according to most theological scholars, not only was there not a “fixed membership” in the Sanhedrin, Paul/Saul was really more of a “junior associate” anyway—someone who was in training to become a leader.

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  3. Lee permalink
    Tuesday, September 29, 2009 12:17 pm

    Such treatment is not endemic to singles, unfortunately. Many churches use up their best workers and, after they’re burned out and used up, simply let them go, often feeling justified because the person has discovered and pointed out an injustice in the system, and the system must not be challenged. The show must go on, and the show needs workers.

    This kind of treatment is one of many reasons I abandoned the institutional church. As the New Testament reveals, the Church is the body of Christ and not contained in a building or built by human hands. Having left the 99, I’ve found the ministry field much broader and the results often more rewarding.

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    • Tuesday, September 29, 2009 12:23 pm

      Lee–
      Have you read the book Quitting Church by Julia Duin?

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      • Lee permalink
        Tuesday, September 29, 2009 12:38 pm

        No, but from reading Amazon’s description and comments, it sounds like she’s providing not only reasons why the church isn’t working, but how to fix it. I believe there’s something intrinsically wrong with the model; it doesn’t need tweaked or improved, it needs to be replaced–in the fashion of “not one stone will be left upon another.” But that’s just me… 🙂

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        • Tuesday, September 29, 2009 12:53 pm

          I’ve been reading it this week. What I’m getting out of it is that we really need to go back to the true “local congregation”—i.e., house church—model. Get rid of the “churches” that spend more money on their bricks-and-mortar facilities than on helping people in their communities/congregations (and for buildings that stand empty 98% of the time).

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        • Lee permalink
          Tuesday, September 29, 2009 5:33 pm

          I pastored a house church for three years. It has its own set of problems, but it does reduce the financial focus on the building, which is part of the issue with “the show” mentality. The Church is people. The world is people. When we don’t have an institution and its trappings, we can concentrate more on ministering to those within and without the fold. Great blog post, Kaye.

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  4. Lori C permalink
    Tuesday, September 29, 2009 12:24 pm

    Kaye, I have a question. Do you think it is possible that churches focus on marriage so much because of the high divorce rate within the “church family”? Some “faiths” view divorce as sinful and thus want to deter it, but they do not see “singleness” as sinful so maybe that is why they don’t focus as much? Just a few questions I thought you could answer better than myself.

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    • Tuesday, September 29, 2009 12:28 pm

      I’ve always kind of wondered if the reason why the divorce rate is so high amongst church-going Christians is because marriage is held up and talked about like this holy grail—like this perfect state of being, and when married couples come to realize they’ll never attain that perfect state of being, that they’ll never live up to the standards of a “good Christian marriage” as talked about in most churches, they just give up.

      As to churches seeing singleness as sinful—I don’t know that I would go that far. But most churches, as Jason said above, want everyone to fit in a nice, neat little box/narrow definition of what being a Christian is. And singleness is definitely seen by a lot as “deviant” behavior.

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      • Lori C permalink
        Thursday, October 1, 2009 7:46 am

        Please don’t misunderstand I said…… “they do not see “singleness” as sinful “. ….. Most churches see divorce as sinful thus they may be trying to reach the “sinful” versus what they do not see as “sinful”.

        Even so I can see why singles feel slighted in churches, as well as, many other groups. Collectively “church family” is made up of people (falliable people). Thank you for bringin up this topic over the past several post(s). I feel our “family” is doing well to not hoard in on the “have to get married” topics and focused more on the “living by the bible” topics, BUT I am going to look inot this a bit more. I don’t want anyone feeling like they are missing out on what God has to offer.

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    • Tuesday, September 29, 2009 12:31 pm

      Or the other contributing factor to the high divorce rate in the church is because there is so much pressure to be “normal” and get married that people are making poor choices in whom they marry.

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      • Tuesday, September 29, 2009 4:52 pm

        I think part of the problem is an overwhelming lack of understanding about what a Christian marriage truly is. The model that we are presented with bears little resemblance to what I see preached about in most churches. It focuses entirely too much on being equals instead of being partners. There’s a big difference there.

        I also think it’s another reflection of how humanism and moral relativism has so permeated “Christianity” that most people don’t know that what they profess to believe has little to do with the Bible. There’s a huge disconnect going on in churches about what it really means to be a Christian. And that is born out by everything you’ve experienced, Kaye, and by the high divorce rate and the steadily declining number of people who call themselves churchgoers.

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  5. Tuesday, September 29, 2009 1:48 pm

    This is really helpful advice, Kaye. Have you considered sending an article query to Boundless.org? I think they would love to run this.

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    • Tuesday, September 29, 2009 4:43 pm

      I’m sort of waiting to see where this takes me before I figure out what I want to do with it!

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  6. Tuesday, September 29, 2009 3:06 pm

    Interesting discussion, Kaye. (I had extended comments yesterday which I thought to email but then decided to keep to myself. You have to do this as God gives it to you.)

    Church might be family focused but most churches don’t really provide a whole lot of help to marrieds prior to them having problems. And even then, most pastors are out of their league when it comes to counseling couples through intense marital issues. Platitudes don’t help, and most aren’t prepared to provide much more.

    Why don’t churches stop organizing groups around their marital or parent status, and rather organize groups around points of interest? A scrapbooking group. Moms of young toddlers, single or married. Football fans. Pilots. Home chefs. Anything would be useful in bringing people together, could be used to incorporate some fun into Bible study, and be a jumping off point for in-depth study.

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    • Tuesday, September 29, 2009 3:35 pm

      Oh, I just had to jump in on Patricia’s comment.

      I’ve seen many churches (since I’ve been an adult) give sermons, etc… on how to help married people, so I’m wondering if its just your church that doesn’t have that support structure? Or maybe my geographical area just has made a push to support married people? I live in Texas where most people are married by the time they hit 24… so I dunno.

      I like your other idea – but I’m also concerned that if churches started focusing too much on our hobbies that we would stay too inward. So may I suggest then that we group people according to spiritual gifts? We each have a primary spiritual gift that God wants us to use. Does not mean we are stuck in that gift (you don’t have to have the gift of teaching to be a teacher – it just helps!) – Mine is mercy – and once I learned what that gift meant and was mentored a bit by an older woman with the same gift, I started realizing how God intended that gift to be used.

      Heh – a whole class on our gift – and then after those first three months – switch people around in the different classes so they know how to work together with other gifts (as I was talking to someone else today – people with mercy and people with prophecy tend to butt heads because they have very different goals in their gifts)

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      • Tuesday, September 29, 2009 4:56 pm

        My parents are prophecy and mercy, and you talk about butting heads on how to deal with some situations! They always work it out though.

        The small group we belong to at our church is focused on helping young married couples discover what marriage is truly about. We’re led by a deacon and an elder, and they’ve both been married over 15 years, each. We’re all at different stages in married life, so there’s always someone to go to who’s been there and gotten through it. The book that we’ve been doing is incredible and the author is not afraid to turn things upside down and inside out to get a point across.

        We’ve been blessed and lucky to land in a really great church with a solid theological foundation. It also doesn’t hurt that the pastor is a Trekkie!

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        • Tuesday, September 29, 2009 5:02 pm

          Wow. I think if I were to marry a prophet I would be more than just a little bit um, “God are you SURE?”

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      • Tuesday, September 29, 2009 5:09 pm

        It’s really hard to group people by spiritual gifts—especially for those of us who have leadership and teaching as two of our top spiritual gifts. Think about it. Who’s going to referee the debate over who gets to teach that class? 8) And then there’s my other top gift of administration. We might not learn a lot in that class, but we could get everyone else organized and up and running.

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        • Tuesday, September 29, 2009 5:24 pm

          Ok, ok, ok – so I didn’t think it through that much. *snort* But I do believe there should be more education on spiritual gifts out there. When I finally found out why random people would feel comfortable coming up to me and telling me things that make you go “Um….I’m a complete stranger, why are you telling me this?” things starting becoming much clearer. But that’s another topic!

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        • Tuesday, September 29, 2009 5:30 pm

          Hey, I’ve taught Spiritual Gifts studies before. Maybe . . .

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  7. Tuesday, September 29, 2009 8:02 pm

    Ok, so I don’t want you “stealing” my idea (jokingly said) I was kind of thinking along those lines earlier- but yes, I would agree that would be a great series for you to do – I can get into teacher mode, but its so much harder for me than it is for someone with that gift….- Depending on who you talk to thats at least 7 topics. You can do one for each one and break up each post into 1)the verses that support the gift 2) describe the gift in detail 3)how people can use that gift 4) and how people can work with people with that gift *** and either start the first session off with directing people to a good online spiritual gifts test or end with it as the last one.

    At least that’s what I would do if I were to do that on my own blog…. LOL

    You could even have guest bloggers who have that gift…..

    I’ve already noticed and corrected two or three serious typos – if there are more please excuse them. I’m exhausted this evening.

    ***It wasn’t until I went through a very good class that I realized why one lady and I didn’t get along at all – its because she was a prophet and I have mercy – knowing why God made her the way He made her made me accept her more.

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  8. Tuesday, September 29, 2009 8:06 pm

    Oh – three guesses as to what my secondary/tertiary turned out to be? Exhortation…. ROFL – I think that’s why I tend to be a good bouncing board.

    Supposedly my secondary is service but the more I think about it I don’t believe I actually have that gift – because when I serve other people its to help them out because I know that they are stressed, hurting, etc….. The service is to relieve a need, not because I want to just do something. If the need isn’t there, it never even crosses my mind that something needs to be done.

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