One of the worst moments for me as a single adult in church was actually caused by another single woman. It was Wednesday night and as part of the prayer meeting, there was kind of an open mic element, meaning anyone could go to a microphone and share a prayer request.
This particular Wednesday, a woman from my Sunday school class went to the mic and tearfully requested prayer for all of the singles saying “the singles in this church are hurting.” Everyone at my table froze for an instant. We knew that every single wasn’t hurting at that moment, and more to the point, we knew what was driving her prayer request wasn’t so much about “all” the singles. She had recently been dumped by her boyfriend, also a member of our Sunday school class.
The other 150 or so in the room that night didn’t know that little detail. Neither did the pastor.
Next thing I knew, the pastor, in an effort to be sensitive to such an emotional request, asked all of the hurting singles to raise their hands. Around the room, single people were sitting on their left hands so no one would notice the lack of a ring. Slowly, a few people raised a hand not so much to admit to hurting themselves but to rescue the woman at the microphone from feeling more alone than she already felt. If I were a more considerate person, I might have raised my hand, too. Instead I sat, frozen in my seat, sitting on both hands, and visually measuring the distance between my chair and the door, wondering if there was any possible way to drop to the floor and crawl out of Fellowship Hall without being noticed.
The couples and those of us singles who didn’t raise our hands were then encouraged to lay hands on the ones brave enough to admit to their hurts and pray for them. As I recall, I chose the woman seated next to me – I don’t remember much about the quickly mumbled prayer. I do remember the intense desire to run when it was over.
Another please, God, let the earth open so I can fall in moment used to be Mothers Day. As still happens in a lot of churches, each year all the mothers were asked to stand so they could be recognized, leaving the childless to sit in our seats, feeling particularly empty, and wondering if there is a way to crawl out of the auditorium without anyone noticing.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate motherhood. I take the Jacqueline Kennedy view on parenting. Raising children is the most important thing any parent will ever do. As Jackie said, “If you bungle raising your kids, I don't think whatever else you do well matters very much.” It’s a simple philosophy that clearly demonstrates the importance of raising children for those who are parents.
But somehow it seems that when we applaud women (or men) simply for being parents, it’s as though church members feel a need to pat each other on the back for procreation. It’s seems particularly self-centered when you realize it causes some in the congregation pain. It’s not just women who are single and childless who have a hard time on Mothers Day, there are many couples who struggle with fertility and miscarriages, there are moms who have lost their children, there are (married and single) mothers and children who are estranged from one another, and there are always children – of all ages – who have recently lost their moms and are struggling with grief. And there are those who chose not to have children who feel alienated by churches who make them feel flawed for that choice.
My church has now reached a point where I feel like we have found a happy balance on Mothers Day. Recognizing that Mothers Day isn’t always cause for celebration, we’ve made it more low-key. This year a mom from the congregation prayed for mothers, thanking God for them and asking Him to grant them wisdom, without the big moment for all the moms to stand so we could applaud.
And after that service, I did the unthinkable, smugly patting the church on the back in my mind for recognizing mothers without going out of the way to cause pain to those who weren’t feeling particularly joyful about the day. I forgot about the men in our congregation until this past Sunday, which was Fathers Day.
I am ashamed to admit that I have never given much thought about Fathers Day services. Fathers Day, after all is different. It’s about ties and cookouts. It’s not as warm and fuzzy. And surely, men don’t have the same issues women have.
This past Sunday it finally hit me that all of those things I spelled out that can make Mothers Day difficult apply just as much to Fathers Day. There are men in those couples who struggle with fertility and miscarriages, there are dads who have lost their children, there are (married and single) dads and children who are estranged from one another, and there are always children – of all ages – who have recently lost their dads and are struggling with grief. And there are those men who chose not to have children who feel alienated by churches who make them feel flawed for that choice.
On top of that, while the church has come around on the issue of single moms, we too often think of single dads as lacking. I think groups like PromiseKeepers - while doing much good in the lives of untold numbers of men strengthening them in their walks with Christ - may have had the unintended consequence of making churches more judgmental about single men. When I tell people I’ve just met that I’m single, they often say something like “I think single moms are great.” They don't ask if I have children – they just assume that I do. But I’ve never heard anyone volunteer to a single man that they think single dads are great. In the church, the assumption is often that single moms are struggling to raise their children alone while the dads are living the high life, oblivious to their kids.
The church has to let go of old stereotypes. There are childless men who wish they had kids, just as there are childless women who are grateful they don’t. And there are single dads who move heaven and earth to provide for their children, spending as much time as humanly possible with them, attending soccer games, school performances, and parent teacher conferences. They work hard to make every moment with their kids count. Single dads are great, too.
We often wonder why, by middle age, there are relatively few single men who regularly attend church. I think a greater mystery is why we have any at all. I have to believe that the church that finds a way to encourage single men instead of making them feel inferior will find a lot more single men who want to be a part of their church family.