Imagine how different our world would be if a young woman holding an unexpected positive pregnancy test thought first of the church: “I know who will help me with this baby.” Imagine if she knew single mothers who told her, “The church will help you raise your child.” Imagine if she went to church, alone but for the baby in her arms, and that church welcomed them in a big bear hug of love, commitment, understanding, and grace – and held them close all the years of their lives.
Imagine if the evangelical church got a reputation for being the place where single parent families could grow and thrive. Imagine how enriched the body of Christ would be because those families are there.
Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? Church, we’ve got some work to do. It starts with knowing that it’s not easy to be a single parent in the church.
The average evangelical church is a very “married” place. Most of the adults over a certain age are married, and those who are not often (not always) want to be married. Many adults fulfill the creation mandate, “be fruitful and multiply,” and the biblical path for this occurs in the context of marriage. Marriage and two-parent families are a very beautiful and necessary part of God’s kingdom on earth.
But sin and death have complicated this mandate to the point that one-quarter of the children in the United States are currently being raised in single parent homes. For all those millions of parents and children, a place where parents are expected to be married and children are expected to have two parents can be an uncomfortable place indeed.
No matter how gracious and loving the church may be (and ours has been wonderful), a single parent doesn’t fit anywhere. They don’t belong with the singles because they have children, but they don’t belong with the married folks either. It’s tough to know which Sunday school class to attend; it feels weird figuring out where to sit at Wednesday night supper. Sitting in the pews surrounded by two-parent families is a painful reminder of who’s missing. When the announcement comes that “twenty-seven couples have signed up for the family mission trip,” the message is clear: families are led by couples. If the church is not careful, both mother and child will feel like misfits.
But, dear church, there is much we can do to love the single parent and their child well. We start by getting to know them.
I became a single mother ten years ago when my husband died, leaving me to raise three sons, ages nine, twelve, and thirteen. My story informs my church about what my children and I need from the body of Christ. Get to know the single mothers in your neighborhood, workplace, kids’ school, and yes, your church. Their stories matter; they need to feel seen, known, and loved.
See and Know the Single Mother
The story of Hagar in Genesis tells us much about what a single mother needs. Pregnant with Abram’s child, Hagar’s situation is as complicated as any modern woman’s life might be, and God responds to with her magnificent grace. He knows exactly who she is (“Hagar, servant of Sarai”). He engages her and dignifies her by asking her questions about her past and her plans (“where have you come from and where are you going?”). He offers her hope in the form of a glorious promise for her unborn child. She responds with awe and wonder, “You are the God who sees me” (see Genesis 16:7-14). Loving a single mother starts with seeing her in her difficulty and knowing her story.
Care for the Single Mother and Her Child
Texas governor Ann Richards once quipped, “Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.” Single parents are frantically dancing Ginger’s steps and Fred’s. Impossible, you say? You’re right.
Married parents have no way of knowing how hard the life of a solo parent can be. A single mother is acutely aware of all the ways that she is not enough. There is never enough money, time, energy, wisdom, patience…. anything, and the single mother always feels guilty for all the needs she cannot meet. Add to that the knowledge that she doesn’t have backup if she runs out of money, or needs childcare, or can’t teach her son to shave. She’s on her own to provide for her child in everything: spiritually, practically, emotionally, financially. The loneliness of raising a child alone is staggering, and sometimes desperate mothers make poor relationship choices just to get some help shouldering the burdens.
The church can help. The church can step into Fred’s shoes, or Ginger’s, or be the backup, depending on what the family needs. When single mothers and their children are embraced by the family of God in a local church, God’s kingdom comes a little nearer. The church looks a little more like the light of the world, a bright city on a hill, where mothers and children are safe and loved (Matthew 5:14)
For the church that is serious about ministering to the single mothers in their community, here are some places to start:
Nothing will strengthen and encourage a single mother more than loving her child well. You can be a spiritual aunt or uncle to a child, showing them the committed love of Christ in a thousand large and small ways. Give them a Bible and then read it with them. Teach them to ride a bike. Show up at the dance recital. Knowing that her child has real relationships with trusted adults who love Jesus gives the single mother enormous comfort. It’s a reminder that she is not alone, spiritually or practically.
Consider a sermon series or Bible study on the single mothers and widows in the Bible. Make sure this is not portrayed as a women’s issue—caring for single mothers and children is an imperative for every member of the church.
Emphasize with your congregation that single mothers are all around in the community. Encourage members to befriend them! Partner with local ministries that serve single parent families. Make single mothers and their kids a local missions focus for your church. Invite and welcome unmarried pregnant women and single moms with children into your church family with open, loving, unjudgmental arms.
Assign deacons or elders and their spouses to single mothers in the congregation. Get to know these families. Over time, you will find out what the needs are, and you can make these moms aware of how the church might help.
Cultivate real friendship with these moms and children, remembering that friendship is a two-way street. No one wants to feel like a charity case; dignify the single mom by valuing her friendship and telling her how she has blessed you. You might be surprised how much these families have to teach you about God’s grace.