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Churches give single moms a warmer shoulder

By Patrik Jonsson Special to The Christian Science Monitor / September 21, 2000


Single moms and dads, the fastest-growing family demographic in America, have a new and somewhat unexpected ally: their neighborhood churches.

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In a ministerial about-face, churches from Nashville, Tenn., to Seattle are opening "single-parent ministries." This effort to embrace single parents, many of whom are mothers struggling to make ends meet after divorce or loss of welfare, not only offers opportunity for counseling and klatching, but also practical help such as car repairs, rent money, and babysitting.

Once shunned by many churches as "sinners" and masters of their own downfall, the nation's 13 million single parents and their kids are increasingly being viewed as the "widows and orphans" Jesus tended in the Bible. With more single moms and dads likely to come off the welfare rolls in 2001, a rising number of congregations - from Presbyterian and Methodist to evangelical Southern Baptists - are dusting off the welcome mat with an invigorated sense of Christian duty.

"The church [in general] in the past has fallen down on the job as far as helping the single poor," says Darlene Bruce, a group leader at Cary Church of God here and herself a divorce with two children. "Now, it's almost like we're being forced to change because of the sheer multitude of single parents. Whatever the reason, we're doing it, we're catching the vision."

This idea of ministering to the needs of single parents has blossomed among religious leaders, especially in the past three years. One-hundred-fifty church representatives attended a Nashville conference last fall on single parents, compared with only 17 who went to a 1997 roundtable. Another conference on the topic, to be held next month in San Antonio, is expected to draw 200.

"There is a trend where churches are getting back to the heart and the gospel," says Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America (CWA), which promotes religious values in everyday life. "When it comes down to it, we all have something in our life to be ashamed of," she says, noting a wider effort within the church community to lay aside judgmentalism.

By some counts, only 5 percent of single parents attend church regularly, and, certainly, churches hold a wide range of views on divorce and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. In some conservative faiths, acknowledge religious experts, it's a "fine balancing act" to uphold biblical moral standards and, at the same time, minister to people who have challenged that morality.

Yet many conservative church leaders, including those tied to the 15-million-strong conservative Southern Baptist Convention, appear to support this new embrace of single parents. "If you are going to be anti-abortion, then you absolutely must step up to the plate and provide support for women who are alone, in need, and have been dumped by men and by the law," says a spokesman at the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

With an almost evangelical rush, a number of churches are pitching in to help single parents.

Half of all children in the child-care program at Christ Our Shepherd Ministries in Matthews, N.C., come from single-parent families. The church recently reached out to bring these moms into the congregation.

In Colorado Springs, Colo., Guardian Angels Child Care Ministry trains babysitters and teaches other churches how they can subsidize children of single parents.