Single parents are busy, tired and lonely. When they cry out for help, is your church ready to respond?
Single mother of a toddler and three months pregnant with her second child, Roxanne Baucum attended her first single-parent family ministry meeting at Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in spring 1999. Alone and scared, she wondered what awaited her there. But, to her relief, she found love and fellowship in the group.
“My child was saved from abortion,” she says. “And finally, I heard God. I went to him, and my life and the lives of my children haven’t been the same.”
More than 12 million moms and dads are raising their children alone in the United States. Your church can make a profound impact. Do you have a ministry for single-parent families? Read on for ways to ensure your church provides a comfortable and helpful place for the single-parent families of your community.
Accept the Call
Helping single parents means first accepting them. Sadly, today’s culture and church routinely judge and criticize single parents by labeling. With its intense focus on marriage (and a worthy focus it is), the church implies that the only way to be whole is to be married, referring to single-parent families as “broken families.” Terminology like this—and the attitude behind it—makes single parents feel like second-class citizens.
Single parents need to feel accepted, regardless of why they’re parenting solo, whether they’re divorced, separated, widowed, never married, cohabiting, grandparents raising grandkids, military spouses and others.
“It doesn’t matter how we came into single parenthood,” says Sandra Aldrich, widow and author of From One Single Mother to Another (Gospel Light, 2001). “We are all in the same boat.” The needs are the same even though circumstances may be different. Churches must be sensitive to those differences while still meeting the needs.
“Single parents and their kids are modern-day widows and orphans,” says Gary Sprague, who started the Center for Single-Parent Family Ministry to equip church leaders with resources for single-parent ministries. “Helping single parents and their kids is not just good to do; it’s a biblical mandate,” he says.
Understand Their Priorities
What do single parents need? What ministry would they fit into? How can we help them? Often, churches don’t know what to do with single parents.
The typical marriage and family ministry doesn’t allow for parents who aren’t married, so single parents sometimes get placed into the singles ministry, often intensifying the pressure they already feel to get married. And if they get married too soon, they simply exchange one set of difficult circumstances for another.
Churches must understand that parenting—not singleness—drives single parents’ lives, Sprague says. They don’t need a dating service, but help raising their kids, and this means churches’ single-parent ministries must include the kids.
Having a ministry only for the parents may be worse than not having a single-parent ministry at all. The objective of single-parent ministry is to teach every family member how to function as a new family. Any ministry to single parents should include kids at least 90 percent of the time.
At Healing Place Church in Baton Rouge, Lousiana, it does. For single mother Patricia Matherne, the church’s ministry has significantly impacted her and her daughter.
“Anna has had 40-year-old coloring partners and baby sitters when I needed time at the altar,” Matherne says. “We’ve had friends who helped put up our outdoor Christmas lights, helped her give me gifts, and pastors who give her bubblegum lip gloss to let her know how much she’s loved!”
When you offer an activity or program, eliminate hurdles that hinder families from coming. Suggestions: game night at the YMCA; DivorceCare and DivorceCare for Kids; outdoor activities like hiking and canoeing; coffeehouse nights with Christian entertainment; Easter egg hunts and Christmas dinners with gingerbread house decorating. Be sure to choose a convenient time, and make it early enough—and short enough—so that it doesn’t interfere with children’s bedtimes.
Several years ago, Wendi Prekeges, an unchurched single mother, discovered the single-parent family ministry offered at Westminster Chapel in Bellevue, Washington.
“It was such a relief to be in a safe environment with others who could relate to my desperation and crisis,” Prekeges says. She not only found people who cared, but also practical help. Preceding its weekly Tuesday night single-parent class, Westminster provides dinner.
“Having an inexpensive meal prepared for [us] was a huge bonus—both a financial and stress relief,” Prekeges says. “Just taking one item off my to-do list was significant.”
Physical needs must be met before addressing the spiritual ones. For many single-parent families, practical needs can be overwhelming. Sprague says that about 80 prcent of their issues fall into four categories: child care, car, house and money.
“If you’re not willing to help with these four things, your ministry is not going to grow,” he says.
And Westminster’s Learning for Life summer program teaches cooking, car and house maintenance, emergency and first aid care, giving single parents a place to learn better skills as parents, communicators and boundary-setters.
Then Go Spiritual
Many people have been so wounded or are so exhausted that they aren’t able to serve. Give them time and love on them. And then make spiritual inroads.
One way to do this is by creating a mentoring program, matching healthy Christian two-parent families with single-parent ones. Relationships like these provide accountability and also a comfortable place for single parents to ask spiritual questions.
Moreover, serving within the church helps single parents realize they’re valued members not only of the church, but also God’s kingdom. But they will often need encouragement—and perhaps a personal invitation—to do so.
No matter how you meet the practical and spiritual needs of single-parent families though, Sprague says the ministry must be based on James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.”