CARY, N.C. — Single moms and dads, the fastest-growing family demographic in America, have a new and somewhat unexpected ally: their neighborhood churches.
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.
The First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks in Largo, Fla., bought an entire apartment complex, turned it into a nonprofit organization, and now houses dozens of single-parent families for free or reduced rent.
St. Croix Valley Christians in Action in Lake Elmo, Minn., offers a monthly car-care session for single mothers. While mechanics in the congregation unsheathe wrenches, the moms themselves are taught budget principles and other skills in a church classroom.
States, too, are starting to aid churches that want to help poor, single parents. Texas has agreed to fund some church programs aimed at providing help to families in trouble or need - an idea that has captivated church and lay leaders alike.
While the Roman Catholic Church, because of its institutional largess toward the poor, has tended to look on single-parenthood with "more of a sense of realism," it too has had to deal with the moral quandary presented by illegitimacy and divorce, says Clyde Crews, a history professor at Bellerman College in Louisville, Ky. But many Protestant churches - including the Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and evangelicals - backed off tending to the needs of broken families after the federal government began to take over that job in the 1930s. Over time, church officials say, some of these churches came to treat single parents with ambivalence, if not disdain.
Indeed, there have been blow-ups in vestries and pews over what is seen as this new coddling of single parents.
"In one very reputable church in this area, this whole issue of bringing single parents' needs to the church board caused one elder to resign on the spot," says Jamie Pearce, the single-parent minister at Cary Church of God. "Many people still have the mindset that [single parents] ... brought this sin on themselves."
Yet many conservative church leaders say the embrace of single parents - given their growing numbers in American society - is long overdue.
"It's been human nature of the church to lean toward legalism, which is focusing on rules and [the belief that] people who don't follow rules should be shunned, when that's really not heart of Christianity," says Ms. Wright.
Indeed, churchgoing itself has changed drastically during the past 50 years. The longtime American cultural expectation that going to church on Sunday was what everyone did has faded. To revive relevance, many churches in the past decade have started ministries aimed at specific groups: teenagers, single adults, and the divorced.
Of course, churches never completely abandoned single parents and their children, especially in African-American congregations.
Bill Leonard, dean of Wake Forest Divinity School in Winston-Salem, N.C., can remember his childhood days in the 1950s in a small Texas town, when a man from his community church would fetch him for weekly Sunday picnics. The man - whom Mr. Leonard recalls only as "Mr. Wilkerson" - stepped in to help after divorce split Leonard's parents.
In fact, many churches, especially in the genteel South, have always helped single-parent families - albeit covertly. "They didn't organize elaborate programs, lest they embarrass families," Leonard says. "True enough, there was a time when the church was insensitive [to single-parent households]. But I think many church members also knew well what the culture would bear."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society