Church is a place of labels. Some are logistically useful – we wear name tags so we can engage with others in fellowship. Some are purely organizational, categorizing us into ministries so we can be pastored more easily. But some labels are signs above our heads for all to see. These labels are burdensome to the bearer and scary or embarrassing to the reader – unless you know what to do with them. Then these labels become a signal as to how you can love and care for that person. It becomes a bridge into their life where you can sit with them.
“Single mum” is just such a label. Of course, there are “single dads” as well – but I can’t speak for them, I can only speak to my own experience. But I’m assuming a lot of what I say here will resonate with them too.
The best first step in ministering to single mums is to recognise (and therefore help them not to feel) that they are a rare thing: that its just “them”. Sadly, in Australia, 22% of families are single parent families, and of that 22%, 87% of them are lone mother families. It is unknown how many single mums currently make up our church congregations. It is likely that it is lower than the general population average, given that the number of divorced/separated people outside of church is 48% and 12% within the church. This is a big gap, but not so big that a single parent should feel alone. If your congregation is 100 people, there could be up to 12 people who are struggling with this reality and this label.
The next step is to understand a little of what a single mum might be feeling (again, I can only speak for women here):
- There is terror. This is real. A single mum faces financial, social and logistical challenges that place her in danger of poverty, unemployment and homelessness, and this is not just in the poorer areas we imagine. At one point in my post-separated journey, I had no job, no money, no prospects and came closer than I realized to losing my house. I live in a pretty cozy middle-class area. I was absolutely terrified. The worries crowd in, one on top of the other and there seems no end or solution in sight.
- There is loneliness. We can be surrounded by beautiful Christian community. But at some point, they go home to their families and you are left alone. You wonder who your family will be.
- There is exhaustion. The logistics of taking care of kids can be easy and it can be hard, especially when you are working full time which most single mums have to, to make ends meet. The physical tiredness can’t be pushed aside. What is important to get a picture of though, is the emotional exhaustion. Doing all the parenting – the discipline, the counselling, the loving, the teaching, the cheerleading, the supporting, the bed times, the dinner times, the school drop off, the pickup, the bath times, the bed times – and there’s no back up. It’s exhausting emotionally and it’s intense and sustained.
- There is love. When it’s just you and the kids, the kids become everything and, speaking for my own, my heart pumps for their kindness and joy and humor.
So, all that said, how can our churches better minister to single parents? Perhaps even encourage more single parents to come to church for the eternal perfection of a relationship with Jesus and, in the meantime, find a new community of family.
I am incredibly blessed to say that many of my pointers here are not because this is what I realized I needed, but my community of sisters (and brothers) who just appeared with these supports to me during my time, and still do. These are people who are living out the biblical principles of kingdom community:
“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore” Psalm 133:1, 3
- Sometimes we need your material support: Before I got another job (and sometimes after) and I was in need, every so often I would come home to an envelope or bag of groceries on my doorstep. Another friend from time to time tells me she’s bringing dinner over. She doesn’t ask me if I need it, she just brings it and drops it off with a smile and a hug. Trust me when I say Centrelink does not stretch far so these gifts got us through many a week.
- Open your home and your family: Every second Friday is a hard one for me. I come home to an empty house. I have beautiful friends though who bring me into their home. Its not a dinner party, I just join their family at their table. It’s inclusive, it’s normal, it’s joyful.
- Give us a reason to put our bras on: Some days it can be easy to sink your head down and let the depression take over. A friend of mine one Saturday asked me if I’d like to join her and her friend for coffee. I didn’t feel like it, but I went. We started meeting frequently after that. It gives me a reason to get up, get dressed and get out into the world.
- Cut us some slack on the “hallmark” days at church: A lot of churches do things for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and even Valentines Day. These are hard times for us. We probably won’t come to church those days.
- Don’t assume we can’t or don’t want to serve: OK, it’s going to be hard, but there are things we can do. Some might not want to but helping us to find a serving niche supports us in the church, it keeps us connected (because it is very easy to become isolated). It also tells us that you value us and that our “label” doesn’t also say “Failure – not to serve”.
- Sometimes we need “dad jobs” done: I have learned how to do a lot of things that I never knew how to do before. But sometimes there are things that just stump me – putting new door handles on, replacing a kitchen cabinet door, replacing windscreen wipers. Sometimes we just need a Christian brother or sister to help us with practical around-the-house things.
- Don’t assume we are looking for new husbands: The first line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice could have been written for the modern church – here it is amended for people like me: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single [woman] in possession of [children] must be in want of a [husband].” I personally decided very early that I would not be in another relationship, partially for theological reasons and partially for personal reasons. Others may decide differently. Single mums don’t come to church (on the whole) like it’s a weird singles bar. We come to be with Jesus. Help us to do that. Because ultimately, in our time of need, he is what we need.
- Help us to live in our singleness for the gospel: Whatever people decide to do, there is a period of time when they exist in singleness. Singleness in the church can be difficult whether you are a never-married, a single-again or a widow(er). We need help to discover the potential and purpose in our singleness so that we can grow as disciples and live for Christ.
Jesus says his community of believers is his family (Matthew 12:49-50) and in the book of Acts, we see the community of first believers living with strong bonds of unity. I have this family of believers around me. They saw the sign above my head and used it as a bridge to come into my life and treat me with grace and gentleness and understanding.
The thing that unites and bonds us though, is Jesus – the most gracious and gentle person of all. Help us to stay in church. Help us to stay connected. Everything I have mentioned here helps women like me to survive and get stronger. It helps us to not become isolated from church. It may help to build strong bonds to church because it shows how the church can reach out to people where they are without judgement or recrimination. Ultimately, it helps us to keep our eyes fixed Jesus. The kindness of his community, shows us a present and real picture of God’s love in action.
‘Hallmark days’ at church. Yes. So hard.