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    birds sitting on a telephone wire

    Singles in the Pew

    What the Unmarried Know about Church as Family

    Gina Dalfonzo

    November 20, 2020

    Available languages: español

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    • Rebecca Biegert Conti

      Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Your publication is a blessing, and I eagerly look forward to each issue. Thank you for the most recent exploration of family. I especially relate to the article on single people in the church. After 24 years or marriage, my former husband left me and our four teenage children. The excruciating pain that followed was exacerbated by the church's response to us. Suddenly, the church which had been at the center of our lives became a source of searing pain. Because my former husband and I were ministry leaders, the church was embarrassed and ashamed. We were the victims of gossip, condemnation,and awkwardness. They did not know "what to do with us," visibly broken as we were, and the children and I no longer fit in with intact families. The lack of wisdom and compassion on the part of the leadership meant we had to find a new church in which we would be loved and supported, and eventually we did find a loving church family where we could begin to heal. If the church is to be a place for those who are broken, we must go the second mile to affirm, encourage and include them. We need to look for creative ways to foster a sense of the family of God where the downtrodden can begin to heal. Our Father is faithful to his children, and the local church should be a reflection of Him. Thank you for your ministry.

    • Judith

      Thank you for including this article under the topic of family. It may seem unrelated, but living one’s life as a single is part of the whole picture; it is a reality for more than a few people. Gina Dalfonzo describes quite well my own experience as a single woman within the church I belong to. Even though I live among loving, caring families, the need to belong, to feel needed, and the need for companionship are always there. I need encouragement and affirmation that a single life, lived for Christ and in His service, is a valid form of discipleship, just as those who are married need support and courage for marriage and parenting. The final paragraphs give the important reminder that as Christians, as brothers and sisters, we need each other. Whether married or not, each person has something to give which another may need.

    • Mike

      Thank you for this. A reminder for us believers to meaningfully encourage one another in the faith, and that it often takes the selflessness of deliberate, thoughtful action to do so.

    • Joe M

      Great, great piece this is. Thank you.

    • JP

      This is such a good reminder about why intentionality is important. I have been married for 8 years and with one child and one on the way. But I was once single in the church as well, and I can remember the "need" to be intentional about relationships as well. Presence was not automatic as it is for me now. Without being intentional it is far too easy for families to get wrapped up and stay wrapped up in our own chaos. But I know that there is room in our chaos for more of our church family. Christmas coming up we will definitely be looking to invite others in.

    • Deane Schultz

      Hello Gina... Seems my first email to you disappeared but, being I'm older and kinda a 'computosaur' - (computer-dinosaur) - I...wouldn't doubt it. My name is 'Deane' - a Scottish spelling variation of 'Dean'. I enjoyed your article and it touched me. I, myself, have been married nearly 40 years to my wife Teri, but that part about 'your will and your possessions' hit a sad note within your story. A suggestion... I am the family historian for my family. And, as a writer, I 'tell the story' of nearly every picture or physical object within my possession. We have no children and never will (at this point), but part of me 'settling it within my heart' concerning my possessions is.....the story. You know what is important to you more than anyone else concerning 'your stuff', so...write about what you have. A little 'what, where, when, who, and how' on the items/pictures that are important to you. One, you might be married someday. Two, even if you aren't, Somebody will receive your possessions.....treat them a little kinder if they 'knew the story'. Or, give them to someone who would take care of them better. As a writer, you have it within you to 'write that story' in an interesting, or fun, or historical manner which would 'add substance' to your items. I do that often - including writing the story of my father and my uncle arguing concerning 'what is what' as they handed things off to me.....including the laughter and stories where they slapped their leg in the telling. Yes - their narration was different, but that's OK - I wrote down both of them. For posterity! Finally, ask our Lord Jesus what He wishes you to write. He will 'add your Heart to your words' - for the best story of all. Then? Set the stories - and your possessions.....in His Hands. He will take it from there... In Christ, Deane Schultz - Tennessee.

    • Susan

      Humm good article. I too am single and not bless to have children or family near by. I've worked hard to befriend many at church. Involved in several ministries. Inviting many to be friends. Lost my dad after long illness. Had barely a sympathy extended from the "church". More painful than the loss of my dad at the time. Found more support in 12 step friends and quilt group im in and bowed myself to God as never before. I'm planning to move to a small town that hopefully i will find others more available to love and be loved in return. I dimy can not do all the work. Need relationships that breathe...blessings

    Easter is my favorite holiday. Going to church on Easter is one of my least favorite activities. This may sound as if I only love Easter for the chocolate bunnies, but that’s not true. I love the religious significance – the empty tomb, the angels, the appearances of the risen Christ – all of it.

    What I do not love is sitting alone in church on Easter morning. For some reason, this has happened several times now. I carefully extricate myself from nursery duty to make sure I can take part in the most joyous service of the year, only to be abruptly brought down to earth as I find that the friends I usually sit with couldn’t make it. Holidays do tend to cause extra work, stress, and chaos, and it’s not really so surprising that many end up needing to stay home to take care of it. It is painful, however. I’ve even had serious thoughts of going back to the nursery in future years, to at least make myself useful.

    My Easter experiences encapsulate what so many singles go through at church, not just on holidays but Sunday after Sunday. There are ways around it, of course. We can keep texting friends beforehand until we find one who will be there and can sit with us. We can come into church and ask a family to let us join them.

    birds sitting on a telephone wire

    Image by Kelsk/Flickr

    The hard part of it, the little ache in the heart that never quite goes away, is that we have to work constantly for the most basic companionship. Rather than facing Sunday with the knowledge that a spouse or child will be there beside us, we have to be intentional in our quest for such a presence in our lives, again and again and again.

    “Intentional” is one of those terms Christian speakers and writers have overused to the point of making it a cliché. However, clichés become clichés for a reason. Intentionality is a concept we Christians really do need to apply in everyday life. As the body of Christ, it is our task to forge connections that go beyond our own family and even beyond our own community – to make brothers and sisters out of people completely unrelated to us and often very different from us. That takes all the intentionality we can muster. It does not happen naturally or quickly; it requires one deliberate act after another, for an indefinite stretch of time.

    Single Christians in particular know the importance of this work, from sheer necessity. Aside from our families of origin, from whom we are often distanced, we lack the natural connections shared by the spouses and their children in the pews around us. Intentionality, for us, is a way of life.

    We must make brothers and sisters out of people completely unrelated to us and often very different from us.

    This was brought home to me recently when I updated my will. When one has no spouse or children to whom one can leave everything, this takes a whole new level of intentionality. I spent weeks pondering the fate of my most prized possessions. This was not, I hope, out of an excess of materialism. It was because the things that mean the most to me will not become family heirlooms, as I wish they could. There is no passing them down the generations, at least not to direct descendants. There are my parents and sister, but that is more a passing up or sideways. I could have bequeathed everything to charity, but something in me could not face the thought of my things going to people who would not remember me when they wore or read or looked at them. A self-centered feeling, most likely, but I could not shake it.

    I mention this because it illustrates the extra work and creative thought that have to go into so many of the normal rituals of life for those of us without spouses or children. To create and sustain familial bonds, for us, takes an extra level of effort and an almost infinite amount of flexibility. It means learning to gracefully step back when our friends get married or have children and start to let us drift out of their day-to-day lives, while still keeping ourselves available for the times when we might be called back in. It means, in our interactions with them, orienting ourselves around their lives and interests as an acknowledgment of the many nonnegotiable demands on their time and energy, and knowing that ours, for now, must take second place.

    This is our part of the bonding process. It is not easy, but it is necessary. Also, I will admit, it is good training in the selflessness that every Christian is supposed to pursue.

    The part of our married friends is to find a way to continue making space for us in their hectic lives, and that is not easy either. “She who is married cares about the things of the world – how she may please her husband,” as Paul reminds us. And how she may please her children, he might have added. Spouses and parents are constantly practicing their own very necessary forms of selflessness, often with little to spare outside the bounds of their family.

    On both sides – singles and married couples – we’re doing the difficult task of creating a family relationship based not just on the natural needs, demands, and connections of actual family, but on the call of Christ to be mutually helpful and mutually dependent members of his body.

    New Testament scholars have noted how frequently Paul portrays the relationship between Christians as one between brothers and sisters. At a time when life expectancy was short and many children lost their parents early, siblingship was deeply important. In that world, siblings were expected to care for each other, advocate for each other, respect each other, and provide for each other.

    This is the kind of relationship Paul had in mind when he referred to men in the church as brothers and women as sisters. It was no light or casual reference; instead, it was one of the strongest he could have used. This tightest of bonds, he was saying, is the kind of bond that should hold Christians together. This is the relationship to which Christ calls us.

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    I’m sure Jesus knew this task would not be easy when he gave it to us, but he gave it anyway. He gave it because he wanted to give the world a picture of what true community looks like, to show that in him our natural bonds are transcended and new bonds are created, bonds that are capable of including and holding the lonely, the needy, the outsiders. In him there is a family that is more than family.

    But to get there, to show this picture to the world, we have to do the work.

    This is where intentionality comes in. To keep others in our lives, to keep doing the hard work of friendship – or more, of creating the family of God – it is necessary to keep pushing past the dozens of barriers life keeps throwing in our way. It is necessary to make the decision every day to reach out, to send the text or make the phone call, to extend the invitation to lunch, to ask if there are any needs, to pray, to consider, to remember, to care.

    We need the spiritual siblings that God made provision for when he established his church.

    Christians who are single and childless, in my experience, are more inclined to do this work simply because we are so much more dependent on the church to be our family. Except for cases when our family of origin is nearby and available, we cannot fall back on the natural family bonds that sustain others. We must be forever busy building, strengthening, reinforcing the bonds with those outside our family – and most importantly, with fellow members of the church. We may be tempted to form our strongest friendships at work, forgetting how easily those bonds can break when other employees leave the company or when we leave ourselves, confusing the professional with the personal in ways that may not always be healthy. We need the spiritual siblings that God made provision for when he established his church. But the church – in particular, the married majority of the church – has not always stepped up for us.

    “Being a single woman (especially without children) puts you out of sync with your peers in a way that’s particularly hard on friendship,” says my friend Ruth Buchanan, author of The Proper Care and Feeding of Singles. “All friendships require sacrifice, attention, and intentionality… But this dynamic persists.” Her plea to married people: “Invite singles into your family’s rhythms. In God’s plan, we all need one another.”

    This is truer than many married people realize. The number of married people who have told me that they feel lonely even within their marriages demonstrates that the married need friends too. They need people around them who can listen to their struggles and offer an objective point of view, who can be the cool “aunt” or “uncle” in their children’s lives, who can talk with them about things outside the family and help them take a broader perspective. They also need to learn to prepare themselves for the day when the family unit is no longer the family unit it was – when the children leave the nest, when only one spouse is left, or even when one spouse decides to stop coming to church, leaving the other to sit alone in a pew week after week. They need friends who know such experiences well and can sympathize and help. For all these reasons, the married need the single.

    The good thing is that the single already know how to be there for them. Through the lessons we’ve learned from this difficult and intentional work, we can lead the way in this area. It only requires a willingness on the part of others to acknowledge our presence and our value, to make space for us in their lives – and to keep a seat for us in the pew.

    Contributed By a portrait of author Gina Dalfonzo Gina Dalfonzo

    Gina Dalfonzo is editor of the popular Dickensblog, a blog about all things Charles Dickens.

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