Nearly 30% of single moms live in poverty, five times the rate of married couple families. Whether through divorce, death, or desertion, they confront the challenge of raising children and maintaining a household alone. Broken or “stolen” relationships leave many single mothers with nowhere to turn in a crisis, which seem to arise daily…
- Michelle grew up in a Christian family but against her parents’ wishes married a non-believer she prayed would come to faith. Instead, he drifted further from her and the Lord, leaving Michelle with three young children and an empty bank account when he succumbed to the lure of alcohol and another woman.
- Emily was married for 17 years before losing her husband to cancer. Dealing with grief was difficult enough, but she also faced a mounting pile of bills with no life insurance and two pre-teen daughters desperately needing her emotional and financial support.
- Olivia became pregnant with an unexpected, but not unwanted, child as a senior in high school. Her boyfriend broke up when she refused to have an abortion and her mom, also a struggling single mother, was unable to provide much assistance beyond child care so Olivia could find a part-time job.
Who better than churches to step into the gap for single moms like Michelle, Emily, and Olivia? Following Jesus’ example and call to provide comfort and compassion to the “least of these” should be central to our mission. Plus no government agency or charity can serve as an extended family and introduce single mothers and their children to a heavenly Father who will never leave or forsake them.
What Churches and Christians Do Today
Yet few churches offer dedicated programs or services for single moms. Whether she’s a church member or local resident, churches do not serve the materially poor effectively on the front end (relief), as they get back on their feet (rehabilitation), or as they work toward long-term solutions (development). Instead, church assistance tends to be transactional without follow-up or a game plan to help single mothers rebuild the fractured relationships (with self, others, God, and creation) at the root of poverty…
- Michelle had been attending church regularly, wanting her kids to grow up around Christian leadership their dad was not providing at home. He rarely came to church with the family, a CEO (Christmas and Easter Only), but even though few knew him there, Michelle still felt guilt and shame about returning after the divorce. In addition, when she had spoken previously to pastors about her marital issues, they had encouraged her to make the marriage work despite his infidelity and alcoholism. Her discomfort with their advice and inability to follow it, along with the stigma of now being a divorcee, made her even more reluctant to come back. She also remembered years ago when the church (which had beautiful facilities and state-of-the-art worship services) told her they did not have benevolence funds to help when she and her husband were barely making ends meet. So now that she was a single mom and in even worse financial shape, what was the point in asking them (or any other church) for support?
- Emily’s husband endured a short illness but throughout the ordeal church friends and pastors had been attentive, bringing meals, visiting in the hospital, and conducting the funeral. In their eyes, after his death the crisis was over, but for Emily it was just beginning. He had always managed the household finances but unfortunately he had neglected estate planning since he was only in his mid-40s. Without life insurance, a lost income, and not much in savings, Emily couldn’t afford to keep her house and didn’t know how to maintain it anyway. With family in other states and not in a position (geographically or financially) to be of much help, she didn’t know where to turn. The phone had stopped ringing and emails were no longer arriving from the church checking in on Emily and her daughters.
- Olivia had been to church a few times as a child but didn’t know Jesus as her Lord and Savior. Her decision to go through with the pregnancy went against the wishes of her boyfriend and mom, but should have been applauded by Christians and churches. Yet Olivia felt judged around believers for the sin of having a baby out of wedlock. Nevertheless, Olivia’s desperation to feed and clothe her son convinced her to walk into a local church that clearly had resources based on its size and buildings. With her three year old by her side, she told the attendant at the front desk her story and asked if the church could provide assistance of any kind. The response was polite but definitive that the church did not offer services or funds to people in the community, just occasional outreach events and funding for local ministries that serve the “poor”. The church referred Olivia to a couple of those ministries and invited her to attend a worship service, an invitation she had no intention of accepting given its apparent lack of compassion for single moms.
Michelle, Emily, and Olivia are dealing with long-term challenges requiring enduring relationships and support, but those churches supplied short-term “answers”. Church was the first place people came for help for 1900 years but has abdicated that front line role.
Why Don’t We Do More?
The Bible is imminently clear about the critical importance of caring for the poor, mothers, and widows. Whether through divorce, death, or desertion there is no group of individuals more deserving and in need of hope than single moms. Given their plight and Scripture’s unmistakable commands, why do so few churches offer ministries to assist single mothers? How could any church lack empathy for Michelle, forget about Emily, or turn away Olivia at the door?
One possibility is “discomfort” with improprieties that may be associated with their situations. Divorce violates God’s law and the sensibilities of legalistic Christians (even when it’s for reasons condoned by Jesus). Unwed pregnancy goes against the Lord’s plan for families and is frowned up by self-righteousness believers guilty of other sexual sins. Maybe the stigma often sensed by single mothers in church is real and their fears justified.
Self-centeredness may also be at the root of the Church’s neglect of single moms. Pastors and members typically choose to serve the (materially) poor across town or overseas, for a day rather than year-round. Arms-length, distant and transactional compassion reduces the risk that people with significant problems will fill the pews, change the culture, look different than “us”, frequently ask for assistance, and contribute little to the coffers.
Or maybe the dearth of concern for single mothers has a less sinister but more endemic cause – church growth strategies and priorities driven by a definition of members as “customers” to appease and not Kingdom “employees” to deploy into ministry (to the biblical target “customer”). Given how labor intensive and costly it is to attract and retain today’s church “shoppers” (who have little appetite or capacity for “community service”), few churches have enough time or budget left over for ongoing, relational work with destitute single moms.
What Should Churches Be Doing?
Given Jesus’ heart for single mothers and their children, it’s time for Christians and churches to repent and consider what would happen if we treated them like He did…
- Jesus sought out and invested in the Samaritan woman at the well who had divorced multiple times. In contrast, Michelle felt diminished when seeking advice about her marriage from pastors and dismissed when asking for help after the divorce. Michelle’s guilt and shame could have been turned to joy and hope if her church offered a ministry for single mothers with biblically-based affinity groups, a liaison (guide) to walk alongside her, and benevolence funding for (verifiable) urgent needs when her ex-husband failed to pay alimony and child support.
- Paul instructed the church to care for widowed single moms who didn’t have family available to share the load. However, soon after Emily’s husband passed, it seemed the church’s attention quickly transitioned to other concerns, assuming she could turn elsewhere for help with the girls and funds for living expenses. Emily wouldn’t have felt abandoned if the church had built sustainable circles of support around her, a network that could include not only her church friends but a home maintenance volunteer team to handle repairs at no cost.
- Jesus told those who hadn’t sinned to cast the first stone at the woman caught in adultery. Despite not possessing Jesus’ holiness, many Christians (unlike Him) have an uneasy feeling around young unwed mothers. Rather than judging or referring Olivia elsewhere, what if that church (and others across the nation) provided free child care and job readiness classes? The Church could be the answer to America’s affordable child care problem that keeps so many single moms from working to feed their families. By leveraging vastly underutilized (church) facilities and members as volunteers, offering free child care and career coaching for single mothers would have minimal impact on church budgets.
With nearly a quarter of U.S. children living in single parent households, more than three times the average of the rest of the world, moving the needle will require collaborative and proactive outreach, rallying multiple churches around that critical cause.
It’s Your Turn…
Does your church deal relationally and compassionately with single mothers like Michelle, Emily, and Olivia, realizing the lifelong challenges brought by divorce, death, and desertion?