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Singled out: when parishes just focus on the family, singles get lost in the shuffle. (the examined life).

IT WAS MY FIRST SUNDAY IN A NEW CITY, 3,000 MILES away from what had been home for 20 years. I walked up to the door of a church that had been recommended to me, and a kind man greeted me. "I'm new in town," I said, "and I'm looking for a new church home." "You'll love it here," he responded. "We're a family church."

Unfortunately I'm not a family. I might be a "pledging unit," but I'm not a family. I'm single, and I live alone.

The greeter that day didn't mean to be unwelcoming to singles, and neither do most churches. But as noted church consultant Lyle Schaller once wrote, singles often find an invisible sign on the doors of churches that tells them to come back when they're married and have two kids. Without meaning to, churches make singles feel unwelcome, and hundreds of singles who have attended my workshops and retreats tell me they've gotten the message loud and clear.

So it is no surprise that religious pollster George Barna reports that while more than half of married adults attend a church service in a typical week, only about a third of singles appear in the pews.

Most churches don't know they're giving off "go away" signals, but most singles can tell you about them if asked. The family emphasis in churches is strong. One woman told me about attending a church picnic where the name tags she could choose from were labeled Papa Ant, Mama Ant, or Baby Ant. As a single 52-year-old she had a hard time figuring out which name tag to use. Then there's the name some church fellowship groups use: Pairs and Spares. I can't say I usually think of myself as a "spare."

Some churches have singles groups that are lively and engaging. But too often they seem to be groups set up to solve the "problem" of singleness by getting folks matched up, and many singles find them uninteresting. Singles groups assume that being single is a hobby--something like the chess club. But singles vary enormously, both in age and in the circumstances around being single, so groups often fail to gel.

Singles are usually the last to be greeted during the sign of peace. They don't hear their stories preached from the pulpit, even though they hear lots about family life and marriage. One woman reports that her priest told folks in his congregation that if they were still single in their late 20s, they should probably be considering the priesthood or the convent.

The church, in general, seems to have forgotten that Jesus and many other biblical figures were single. Which name tag would Jesus have picked: Papa Ant, Mama Ant, or Baby Ant? All is not lost, of course. In 2000 Pope John Paul II designated a Jubilee Day for Single Persons. That was a start.

A woman who was part of her church's pastoral team told me they held a dinner for singles one evening and asked them what they needed from the church. When churches ask me what they can do for singles, I tell them about that dinner. Ask your singles what they need. Talking to singles usually opens up a good dialogue about what they really need. A church in my area started a successful group called "Singles in Service," a gathering of singles who work on community service projects, which is a great idea.

There are lots of little things churches can do to make sure singles feel welcome. Instead of putting an even number of chairs at the tables for a church potluck, put out an uneven number, so a single doesn't feel like she's the odd person out. Invite singles to brunch after church or to your home for meals. Invite them to serve on important church committees, not just as youth leaders. Make sure those who are widowed aren't marginalized and left out of groups that used to welcome them. Learn about and preach about singles in the Bible once in a while.

We sometimes have a "Noah's Ark" view of the church, expecting folks to come in two by two. But God did not come down at the moment Jesus was baptized and say: "You are my son, my beloved. When are you going to settle down, get married, and give me grandchildren?" God isn't waiting for singles to get married to love them better, and the church should--and can--be a place where singles know that, single or married, we are all beloved children of God.

By DEBRA K. FARRINGTON, the editorial director at Morehouse Publishing in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and the author of One Like Jesus: Conversations on the Single Life (Loyola Press).
COPYRIGHT 2002 Claretian Publications
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Article Details
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Author:Farrington, Debra K.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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