By David Briggs
The pastor never seemed to mention unmarried persons in his sermons, so Kris Swiatocho started putting post-it notes on the pulpit before services that said: "Remember singles."
When the pastor found out the source of the notes, he asked Swiatocho to cut it out. Instead, she began sitting in the front row, occasionally waving her arms during the sermon.
Her pastor finally got the message, and started including the experiences of singles from the pulpit. But unmarried persons still are largely invisible in many churches, says Swiatocho, director of The Singles Network Ministries.
If congregations do not integrate singles into the life of the church, and pastors do not address their issues from the pulpit, "We're not going to feel welcome and we're not going to come," Swiatocho says.
Many singles are already voting with their feet.
While about half of Americans ages 15 and older are married, some two-thirds of worshipers ages 15 and older are married. Young adults, who make up the great majority of never-married individuals, are particularly underrepresented.
Just 14 percent of adult worshipers have never been married, compared to the more than three in 10 individuals in the general population who have never been married, according to the 2008-2009 wave of the U.S.Congregational Life Survey.
Many observers say despite America’s changing demographics, including the rise in single parents and the number of individuals postponing or forgoing marriage, churches still focus most of their attention on married couples.
And it starts at the top, with the preference for married clergy. Just three percent of Protestant pastors have never been married, the US CLS found.
So how can congregations do a better job ministering to singles?
First, it is not necessarily in building separate singles ministries. Many of those ministries, popular in the 1970s and 1980s, did not last beyond the first generation of singles.
The shrinking and aging of many U.S. congregations also means fewer have the numbers of singles for such ministries. And people who look to such venues to find partners now can do so at online dating sites.
What does work for singles, as for any member of a religious community, is that they are integrated into the spiritual and social lives of the congregation, some observers say.
“Singles want to be valued members of a faith community, a faith family,” Cynthia Woolever, research manager of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, said in an essay in The Parish Paper. Her advice to congregations includes:
- Create connections: Offer events where everyone regardless of marital status is comfortable participating.
- Develop leaders: Check to be sure governing boards are inclusive, and encourage singles to seek leadership positions that match their talents.
- Increase visibility: Invite singles to be worship leaders. Question whether some tasks such as bringing up gifts for the Eucharist or lighting Advent candles are always given to "typical
- Welcome everyone: Include all worshipers in conversations before and after services. Consider having church gatherings around holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas so everyone has a place to go.
Singles do not need a separate ministry, Swiatocho says.
"We don't want to be the stepchild. We don't want to be the pathetic ministry on the side." She says. "But at least minister to us. ... We're half the world."
If Christian churches are looking for a role model of inclusion, they do not have to go far.
"Jesus was a single,” Swiatocho says. “He was the greatest single who ever lived. And he was a model of community."