Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.
Philippians 2:4, NLT
“You can’t have a ministry here for women only!” the older woman scolded. “This is a family church, and we don’t want any activities that separate couples.”
I was shocked at this unexpected reaction from a key lay leader in the nearly two-hundred-year-old church we had been newly called to pastor. When I had asked God how he would have me serve there, I clearly heard his direction: There is nothing here for my daughters. Start something. Begin with teaching them to love my Word. I will be with you.
No one could object to a ministry designed to serve over half the adult population of a church, right?
Wrong. I was stunned to face immediate opposition from the most powerful female in the church, one whose strident voice intimidated others into silence. Pointing out that many of our women were unmarried or newly single following divorce or widowhood made no difference. They were not part of a “nuclear family” and therefore were welcome to serve but not be singled out. No gender-based ministry allowed. My orders were to focus on the needs of families alone.
Phooey. (That’s about the closest a preacher’s wife can get to a curse.) With the strong support of my pastor-husband and a stellar group of diverse women who eagerly offered to help, we determined that our church family would minister to the needs of every adult, without regard to marital status. Singles would not only be welcome to serve but welcome period. In the years to come, God began a new work in our church that impacted not only our community but scores of women across the region.
Contrast this with a later church we were privileged to pastor. When the time came to elect a church-council representative of the entire church body, both male and female leaders were appointed. Younger and older. Married and single. And the individual chosen as chairperson just happened to be single. Larissa wasn’t selected because the apostle Paul said the single state is to be preferred[i] or because she had any more time available than those with kids at home. Larissa led because she was gifted with the character and credentials to do so. The entire church benefited from her capable, compassionate leadership.
Despite Paul’s wish that everyone would remain unmarried, the church has had a complicated relationship with its singletons. Mandy Hale, creator of The Single Woman, a social-media movement, comments: “Why is [the church and singleness] rather like oil and water? Like Chick-fil-A and Sundays? Like me and kale? Why do the two just seem to not fit together no matter how desperately we might want them to?”[ii]Whether you are single or married, a party of one or four or seven, know that you have a place at God’s table. We need one another. @maggierowe #thislifeweshare #singleness Click To Tweet
Author Joy Beth Smith writes that one of the first things that we need to change in the church is our language: the way we speak to and about singles. She wishes that, instead of asking about her love life (or lack of it), the married women in her church would engage her in conversation about her work or her interest in foster care: “Those are the kinds of questions that reinforce my worth and contributions right now, not the role of wife and mother I could potentially adopt.”[iii]
My friend Sharon is single again after her husband left their twenty-five-year marriage for another woman. Loneliness is her most frequent companion, so Sharon appreciates it when others make an effort to include her. What makes her wince, though, is when married friends insist they know how she feels because their husbands occasionally travel (which also happens to be the only time they reach out). None of us should blithely say we know how a single woman feels unless we’ve been there too.
Ministries designed specifically for singles get a mixed review. When our oldest son, Adam, was single and on staff at a large church in California, he enjoyed their “1835” gatherings, events organized around varied activities of interest to high-school grads as well as singles in their thirties. For others, singles ministries are highly uncomfortable, as if they’re a “meat market” designed to troll for dates. My friend Alyssa,[iv] an attractive twenty-seven-year-old, attended singles events at her new church in Colorado, hoping to make friends. She was forced to find a new church when several of the other single women looked at her darkly and told her to “stay away” from the few available men.
Women who have experienced the trauma of divorce or widowhood sometimes feel marginalized in faith communities as well, however inclusive the leadership is. One friend told me of small groups who rejected a prospective new member simply because she was not part of a couple. Others look on divorced women with mistrust or even suspicion, as if their presence might threaten the marriages in the group. Still other churches, though, intentionally make space for those who are newly single. My mom, who is ninety-four, was drawn to her new church in the Smokies in part because they welcomed her to a widows’ group that meets regularly.
God is the author of marriage. Healthy marriages reflect the marvelous, mystical union between God and his church. But those who are not yet or are no longer in a marital relationship must be equally valued as cherished members of the body of Christ—for “Christ is the only spouse that can truly fulfill us and God’s family the only family that will truly embrace and satisfy us.”[v]
Whether you are single, married, or single again, a party of one or four or seven, know that you have a place at God’s table. We need one another.
Points of Connection
Explore these questions independently or with a group:
- If you’re single or single again, what have you experienced as part of a faith community? How can ministry leaders help singles truly feel at home within the walls of the church?
- If you’re married, brainstorm ways you can make sure your single friends are remembered and valued. Write a note or call them on days that might be especially tender: the anniversary of a divorce or a spouse’s death. Send Valentines in February. Leave candy on the desks of single coworkers. Invite them to join you for a meal at home with your family.
- Above all else, practice the ministry of presence. Be available to listen without offering advice when your friend needs to verbally process the loss of a marriage or her longing for a spouse.
- Single out your single friends by welcoming them into every corner of life, especially the church.
If this excerpt from This Life We Share: 52 Reflections on Journeying Well with God and Others by Maggie Wallem Rowe encouraged you, you’ll want to read more. Here is a PDF of the first reflection. A catalyst for spiritual and personal growth, This Life We Share is a beautiful, hardcover gift book for your own soul care and even richer when read with a friend.