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Ten Ways to Embrace Single-Parent Families in Your Church

Ten Ways to Embrace Single-Parent Families in Your Church

Thirteen years ago, after my husband succumbed to colon cancer, I became a single parent to our three sons, ages 9, 12, and 13. I quickly learned that our life as a single-parent family would be dramatically different than it had been when we were a married-parent family, and we found that to be especially true in the place where we most needed stable belonging: the church.

The American church is a very married place, with a very specific definition of “family.” My boys and I no longer fit the Christian family mold, which assumes two parents because that’s the way God designed families. Church leaders may design excellent programs and provide for material needs, but they may not know how uncomfortable it can be for the single parent and their child to sit in the pews surrounded by intact families. The very place God ordained to help widows and orphans can be a very hard place for the single parent and their child to be belong.

From my experience, and through interviews with dozens of single moms and dads, here are a few things I learned about how your church can care well for single- parent families:

  1. You’re making friends, not taking on projects. Single parents are not ministry opportunities. They hunger to be seen, known, to have and to be real friends. Most of them feel desperately out of place in church until someone befriends them. Understand their family’s unique hardships because you have become good friends. Prioritizing relationships over programming is a good place to start.
  2. Single-parent families are not problems to be solved or mistakes to be judged. No one wants to feel like a project. Get to know them slowly, respectfully, so you can understand where their wounds are and what their needs might be. Give every member of this family the dignity God has already conferred on them: he made them in his image. They do not need to be fixed or judged. They need what every member of your congregation needs: the love of Jesus.
  3. See the single parents in your congregation; listen to them. Hagar marveled when the angel of the Lord saw her, knew her, heard her cries, and responded to her family’s needs (Genesis 16). If we ever wondered how God feels about single parents and their kids, her story settles it once and for all. Once you know these parents and kids well, ask them what belonging to your church feels like for them. Where do they feel excluded or disregarded? When everything in the life and language of the church implies that families are led by couples, the single parent and their child implicitly do not belong. Do everything you can to show them that they do.
  4. Show up. Single-parent families need your presence. They need you to come close and stay close. Almost without exception, their stories involve a lot of pain. When they share that pain with you, they know you feel awkward, which makes your willingness to swallow the weirdness and stay close even more meaningful. Biblical lament validates their grief and anger, and leads them back to the character of our good God.
  5. Get practical (and notice, this occurs only after godly friendship is well-established). Offer specific help. Ask what that parent’s biggest challenges are, listen for the practical support they need, and then (prayerfully) offer assistance. Be flexible; the parent might need a ride from the car repair shop, or help paying the bill, or legal advice about the accident that caused the trouble in the first place. Often the best way to love a single parent is to become a trustworthy friend and mentor to their child. You know the needs because you know the family.
  6. The best way to alleviate the loneliness that every member of the single-parent can feel? Hang out with them. Extend hospitality every chance you get, especially the un-fussy kind that treats these folks like family, not guests. Spend time getting to know them and let them know you. Be aware of times when these parents and kids are especially vulnerable to loneliness: nighttime, weekends, summer, and holidays are challenging. Sundays are some of the hardest times: in the pews, in Sunday school classes full of couples, after church, these families confront the vivid absence of the other parent. Be aware of how they might feel and love them in the awkwardness.
  7. Dignify the single parents in your midst. Raising children to love Jesus without the partnership of a spouse is hard. We honor single parents because they live at the end of their resources of time, money, energy, attention, and patience every single day, and yet they persevere. Single parents aren’t looking for your admiration, but it sure would be a treat to receive your encouragement.
  8. Invite them to serve. Let God prompt the request. Give single parents and their kids opportunities to serve where they can because they need the blessing of giving as much as other members do (Acts 20:35). At the same time, recognize that for single parents, time and resources are almost always limited. Don’t exclude them by assuming they can’t help out, but don’t burden them by assuming they can.
  9. Your church has much to learn from the single parent family. Single parents live on the edge of not having enough every single day. In truth, this is the position we are all in, all the time, only our spouses and 401(k)s make that easy to forget. We are all one stock market crash or diagnosis or fill-in-the-blank disaster away from realizing how vulnerable we are to losing everything we rely on to be “enough” for our children. Single parents already know this. They can show us the way to true dependence on our heavenly Father because he has graciously met them in their need, and they have learned to trust him.
  10. Give them the gospel. Single parents don’t need pep talks or watered down messages; they need the full weight of the gospel. They need to know that the grace of God is sufficient for them in all their lack, that nothing will ever separate them from the love of God. In Christ, they have been adopted into the family of God. May our local congregations be true and vibrant expressions of that family for the single parents and their children in our midst.

Adapted from God’s Grace for Every Family: Biblical Encouragement for Single- Parent Families and the Churches That Seek to Love Them Well by Anna Meade Harris.


God's Grace for Every Family