Helping single parents flourish in church
Church at its best is an amazing place for those parenting for faith alone. We know that God’s design for discipling children and young people is that it is not done in isolation and that church is a really important part of the support structure around families. Not just in terms of providing formal services and kids’ ministry, but by being a place where relationships are formed with other people and genuine, supportive, lifelong friendships are made. But life can be tough for single parents both out of church and in church.
So what sort of things should we be thinking about that can make our churches places where people parenting alone, and their kids, can flourish? There’s certainly no one size fits all answer or model to follow. But the first thing, and something that we often overlook, is to ask the single parents in your congregation or wider church about their experience! Then it may help to consider the following.
Be aware: thinking about single parents
It’s very difficult to talk about single parents as if they are a group. What they have in common is that they head up a family unit alone: but in almost every other way they are hugely varied. The following might be worth reflecting on.
- People become single parents for all sorts of reasons. Some were in a relationship that has broken down amicably or for others the break up has been angry and hard. Some chose to become single parents and have never had a partner. Some have run away from an abusive relationship. Some are widowed. Some have adopted or foster. Some parents have children who don’t actually live with them, but they long to input into their lives.
- Some people aren’t a single parent, but find themselves a lone parent at church. Perhaps their partner works away for months at a time, or works on Sundays. There are others whose partners don’t share their faith.
- It’s impossible to talk about ‘the needs of single parents’, like they are all the same. Some single parents are deeply unhappy about their status, while others don’t see it as a problem. Some are financially stable or even wealthy, while others struggle on benefits. Some have a great support network at home while others find themselves isolated. Some who already faced particular pressures, such as having a child with additional needs, find themselves stretched to capacity, while others find their lives easy to manage.Some single parents might love a single parent ministry, while others don’t need it or want to be shoehorned into a category.
- Becoming a single parent is the start of a new journey. Some, particularly those who never planned to become a single parent family, may a experience a rollercoaster of emotions and experiences. Over time these will change as the new norm becomes reality. They may be grieving for what they have lost: the ‘proper’ family they intended, the other children they might have had, the lifestyle they expected, the education they missed out on, their lack of freedom.
- Non-custodial single parents may be under the radar at church, but still having to deal with their feelings and their relationship with their children.
Be clear: teach and share a good theology of family
Many single parents struggle with their self-confidence and particularly if they intended to be a traditional two-parent family they may feel or believe that somehow they are a second-class sort of family. This can be exacerbated in church, sometimes because of teaching – actual or assumed – about ‘Christian families’, and sometimes because of the ways leadership can be presented.
So it is worth thinking through what you or your denomination is teaching about marriage and family and is this communicated clearly? This will include:
- Affirm families of all shapes and sizes. God’s ideal is for two parents working in harmony, but as Scripture shows so many times, families which don’t fit this pattern can be just as powerful and effective. It’s easy for single parents to feel that their family is broken or falls short of what God intended, and this can translate into feeling unworthy or inferior. Single parents need to hear that they are fine, just as they are, and just as capable of raising children well as any other family.
- Be clear that God holds single parent families in high regard. Psalm 68:5 says this: A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows is God in his holy dwelling. Although you could argue about applying this to all single parents and their families, there is no doubt that the Bible paints a picture of a God who prioritises those who are struggling or are feeling broken and expects his people to have the same attitude.
- Teach that single parents, just as much as any other parent, are perfectly positioned to parent their children for faith. Faith is learned in the ordinary messiness of everyday life and we do not have to be perfect to share faith and journey with our children in it!
- Make sure how you present yourself reflects what you believe. A church where all leaders are presented as half of a happy couple could feel disempowering or even unwelcoming for single parents. Share stories of imperfect families and relationships – not just those that have been wonderfully resolved, but stories of people living, serving and thriving in relationships and families they wish could have been different.
- Be clear about single parents and leadership. God has purpose and plans for each one of us, including single parents, some of whom will disqualify themselves. You may need to take the initiative in inviting a single parent to serve and lead; again, sharing stories of all sorts of leaders, not just happily married ones, will be helpful in dispelling myths.
Be family: be church as God intended.
God’s intention for church is that it becomes a family of faith, a real community where lives are shared, friendships are formed, and where we find support and support others as we journey in faith together. For single parents or people parenting for faith alone, church can be simultaneously the very best gift and something that’s really hard to be part of.
So what might help think through how to be family well?
- How accessible are your social or group times? For people to get to know each other we need free time just to be together. For single parents that can present particular challenges. Chatting after church becomes difficult if you are the only one keeping an eye on your children and sorting them out; going out in the evening or at the weekend may mean finding and maybe paying a babysitter. Single parents who are struggling with their self-worth or who aren’t sure about how the church sees them might love an invitation to join in and someone to go along with.
- Offer help with the juggling act. Managing children well during a service and participating fully yourself is virtually impossible! Teenagers and older children sitting with and helping younger children can be a real blessing, as can adults who are happy to sit with a family and help with the kids. Parents may also appreciate help getting children to and from midweek groups.
- Watch out for myths about single parents. Sadly a lot of single parents still feel that there are assumptions made about them. These include that they are single parents because of bad (sinful) choices, that your kids will do badly because you are a single parent, children need a dad to discipline them, and that lone parents are looking for another relationship and therefore dangerous to married people.
- Don’t forget the kids. Being the child of a single parent may make it more difficult to fully participate in church activities, particularly if you alternate weekends with your other parent. The cost of a weekend away may be difficult to find. A dads and lads weekend might feel like a kick in the teeth for a boy who only has a mum.
- What adjustments could you make to ensure single parents can fully be part of the family by serving and leading? Could timings be different? Could whole families serve together? Might they need babysitters or another adult to team up with?
- Is God asking your church to do something specific for single parents? He may, or he may not! For example, maybe a babysitting circle, a single parent bible study, mentoring, or a support group.
Be there for practical and pastoral stuff.
All of us need practical and pastoral help from time to time. Single parents, because of the number of pressures on them, may need more than some. It just helps to be aware of the obvious, and less obvious, issues single parents may face as you consider how you might help.
- The process of becoming a single parent family is for many a traumatic time. They may have experienced the death of a spouse, or the trauma of being abandoned or deceived; there may be ongoing issues with an ex-partner, including differences of opinions about the children or custody battles; many will have had to move and face the loss of home, friends and even jobs as well as their relationship. Some single parents struggle with guilt about ‘what I’ve done to my kids’ and may not believe they can parent well as a result.
- Many single parents struggle with loneliness and feeling isolated or left out. Some may develop new relationships and remarry but many don't. Many find Christmas and school holidays difficult. Mothering Sunday and Father’s Day may be particularly painful for single parents or for children who don’t have a mum or dad or who feel abandoned or ignored by them.
- Single parents who are Christians may struggle with what the Bible says about divorce and remarriage, and may appreciate a safe person to help them think this through with God.
- The children of single parent families may lack role models for what a Christian dad looks like or a Christian mum (but many may have good relationships with their absent parent or grandparents fulfilling that role).
- Things that are manageable in a two-parent household may be crises in a single parent household: a child is ill and needs picking up from school; the boiler breaks down; the parent becomes ill or needs to go into hospital; a child’s behaviour escalates. Although many single parents become adept at learning new skills and taking on new responsibilities, some things are simply easier with help.