As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. (Ps. 42:1)
Several years ago, I began attending a new church. I had completed my undergraduate studies six months prior and moved into the city for my new job. After several exasperating months of church-hunting, I was glad to find a church where I was not itching to leave before the service even began.
There’s a lot behind my exasperation. See, in all of my personal church-related experiences, unmarried women like me were never overtly but persistently and subversively put in a category of waiting. What we were waiting for differed—marriage, leadership, recognition—but we were waiting most of all to get out of that category, believing that then we would be seen as fully-functioning members of the church. To be honest, I think I was waiting for the church to see what I was seeing: the undercurrent of unexplained and undue limitations that marginalize single women.
I was happy being single. Then, my married friends started their own small group and had game nights I wasn’t allowed to attend, even if I brought another friend to keep the numbers even. On top of that my married friends were given leadership opportunities that my experiences and education were better suited for. This exclusivity made me hate my singleness, even though I was happy with every other aspect of it. The problem was I was happy with who I was and the life I was living—until I went to church on Sundays. I knew this was not the way it should be. It was not in line with the Christ I encountered in Scripture.
So when the time came to move and say goodbye to my home church after finishing college, it was an easy goodbye. During college, my school friends and I had regularly worshipped, prayed, discussed Scripture, and even taken communion together. They had become a replacement to my home church over the years. Although I knew this was a short-term solution, it was a beautiful season that assured me there were Christian communities where my being an unmarried woman would not make me a pariah.
Church-Hunting as a Single Woman
Finding the motivation to go to a new church alone, as a single woman, is to this day one of the most awkward, deeply uncomfortable things I have experienced. And that includes those times when the dairy-laden dinner I enjoyed at a nice restaurant while wearing a nice outfit (i.e., not something with an elastic waistband) was no longer enjoyable on the never-ending ride home on a road that I didn’t remember as being quite so bumpy.
Attending church alone and female felt shameful somehow. I knew of single, male friends who were doing the same, and having an easier time. We new people would either come too early to the service or purposefully stay a little later, and we would sit toward the back and near the exit (you know, in case an escape was needed). When the time to turn around and greet our neighbors came, men sitting alone were greeted without hesitation. I, on the other hand, felt lucky if a warm-faced woman, usually in her forties, would smile and shake my hand.
When I finally found a church I didn’t dread attending alone, I settled into a routine. I learned to show up ten to fifteen minutes later than the “official” service time listed on the website. I noticed some familiar faces from university, but no one I knew well enough to sit with. Finally, at the end of the service I would pull out my phone, note the time, and pretend to check messages for a minimum of five minutes before making my way to the door (so that it didn’t look like I was booking it out of there).
You might wonder why I picked this church over the others if that’s what my routine was. To be honest, I preferred being left alone over the confused and sympathetic looks I got at the other churches. At a couple of the churches I tried, I knew some regular attenders, but when they did talk to me, they only asked why I was alone or where my friends were.
So I picked the church where I felt least out of place, where I seemed to blend in as a single woman.
The Consideration of Safety
After about six weeks at this church, our pastor, standing by the door, made a point of introducing himself and apologized for not doing so sooner. He explained he had noticed that I was attending alone but wasn’t sure how to approach me in a way that wouldn’t be weird. See, this was all shortly after #MeToo began making waves. When wise men began realizing a little more just how vulnerable women often feel, even in church. It occurred to me then that maybe men at church were being greeted more heartily because it felt easier.
As my pastor and I continued talking, I found myself explaining my experience at this church using a metaphor. I kind of felt like a deer wandering into someone’s yard (a regular occurrence in the neighborhood). The deer wandered into the yard of its own volition, and the people inside the house were happy to have it there, excited even! Many people chose to stay inside the house and watch the deer, allowing it to leave just as it came. However, if they wanted the deer to stay, they had to give it a reason. This would require a careful approach, as quick or careless movements might spook it away. But with slow movements, and maybe some food in hand, the deer might even take a few steps toward the people, beginning to feel safe.
It’s not a perfect metaphor, but it’s one that stuck with both of us. I understand that unmarried women are a challenging demographic to navigate in churches where opportunities are given to men, or women partnered with men. This can be motivated by overt discrimination against women—by believing women are somehow less-than, unfit in some way, until vouched for and covered by a man. However, it can also be motivated by the desire to respect and validate the reality women face, both inside and outside the church. In both cases, my heart aches for the women like me who face systemic patriarchal barriers in our desire to form relationships and fully belong in the church. Particularly in the latter case, my heart aches for the men who want to warmly welcome women who come alone (like the middle-aged women who usually greeted me) but feel like they can’t for fear of coming across as creepy.
The root of the problem is the inescapable sexualization of women. Patriarchal culture has told us that once a woman is married, she “belongs” to another man and is now “safe.” Meanwhile, the single woman continues being perceived as an object of temptation. Therefore, regardless of the innocent intent of those who simply desire to be welcoming, the fear of others’ perception remains, holding them back.
Surely there must be ways to respond to single women in churches besides pitying or ignoring them. Surely there must be a way to welcome this demographic without hesitation or fear. Our churches must learn to see single women not as the patriarchal systems have labeled them but as Christ has labeled them: image-bearing daughters of God seeking to actively engage in Christian community.
Suggested Ways Churches Could Better Include Single Women
1. Hire More Women
Hiring more women into church leadership certainly helps. More particularly, hire single women or women who married later in life, who understand what this feels like. Using my earlier metaphor, it would be like the deer in the yard being approached by a deer who lives in the house. Again, not a perfect metaphor, but you see the point.
2. Normalize Singleness
Normalizing singleness in churches reduces the stigma. Do away with groups dedicated to only single people or only married people, unless perhaps it’s a temporary workshop, instead favoring neighborhood groups. Even then, consider the fact that unmarried people might want to learn from a marriage workshop, and married people might want to learn from unmarried Christians who foster meaningful relationships differently. Dismantling dichotomies creates fresh ground so that the church can see and celebrate the similarities of people in different seasons of life.
3. Preach on Singleness
Preaching on singleness shouldn’t be as difficult as pastors make it seem. After all, Jesus and Paul were single, not to mention very few of the disciples have spouses mentioned, including the female disciples. Even consider how many women are celebrated without ever having their marital or maternal status mentioned, such as Miriam. In the same vein, preaching on the way Jesus interacted with women of various standings in society teaches us that women are more than sexual objects. Marriage and parenthood are beautiful aspects of life, but they are not qualifiers for living a full life within the family of God.
4. Share Testimonies of Unmarried Folks
Intentionally make space for the whole church community to hear the stories of typically unheard voices, including those of unmarried women of all ages. Regular testimony times highlighting all the different people in a community benefit everyone: they reduce stigma, loneliness, and isolation while allowing everyone to be seen, known, and accepted. Having single women share their stories on a Sunday morning not only increases awareness of the challenges they face, but also shows the next generation the value of all women’s voices.
Being unmarried is not a problem to be solved, but the church’s approach to singleness is. These are only a few suggestions, and they may not work in every community, so get creative! From one unmarried woman to the church at large: just go ahead and greet us on a Sunday morning, stand by the exit to catch us as we leave, and lean in with curiosity!
Photos by Scott Carroll and Oliver Pacas on Unsplash.
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