by Kim Karpeles
In 2004, a team of eight from our church headed to Eurasia on a missions construction project. Most of the travelers were deeply involved in the singles group; a married couple led the trip; and I traveled solo without my spouse. During the planning meetings, it quickly became apparent that this singles group was tight. Beyond the usual small groups and Sunday school class, they socialized together, vacationed together, helped each other move, paint, and do rehab projects.
For the previous fifteen-plus years I’d been engrossed in carpools, sports, and school activities for my children and hadn’t given much thought to the single life or spent time with singles without children. It was awkward to realize we were members of the same church and hardly knew each other, but the hours on bumpy roads in a propane-powered minivan were perfect for deep conversations.
The social habits of our church presented challenges for singles I hadn’t noticed. They shared how challenging it was to develop relationships with married couples, particularly those with children. The two groups worshipped in the same building but traveled in parallel universes. Rarely was a single person asked to serve on leadership committees – even more rarely as elders or deacons. Their help with stacking chairs and serving on dish crew after a potluck was appreciated, but they weren’t in the inner circle. They knew it, and it hurt.
In the 2010’s, I served in leadership roles during seminary with several single women in their 30’s-50’s — most had never been married. Their experiences in the local church were similar, and they were as frustrated as my travel companions. They didn’t feel welcome and couldn’t find outlets for their gifts beyond the approved singles’ world. Some couples made efforts to include them in concerts, sporting events, and holiday meals, but most married people couldn’t understand why singles felt like outsiders; most weren’t aware they did.
Language like “Old Maids” or “Confirmed Bachelors” wasn’t used, but not having walked down the aisle placed them in a group most marrieds were glad they weren’t part of. Even though singleness is the default setting (you have to opt-in to marriage), the evangelical churches I’ve been involved with haven’t regarded being single as a desirable marital status. Instead they shuttle the “not-yet-married” into a subculture with specialized groups and activities that distance them from the “already married”.
My single friends regularly commented on how much they treasured opportunities to hang out and have wide-ranging conversations with married people and singles. They wanted to hear about the challenges couples faced, talk about something other than online dating, and feel part of the bigger church family. They enjoyed being around children and hearing about the struggles and frustrations of parenting. They loved being included.
Now that I check the “single” box, I’m thankful for the many lessons my single friends taught me. I saw the importance of building strong friendships and learning how to enjoy the freedom to pursue one’s passions and interests. When my marital status changed, their examples helped me step into my new identity and proudly declare “one” to the maître d’ rather than “just one.” When they shared their frustrations of living in a culture slanted in favor of couples, I could see their viewpoint and knew what to expect when I was a single again.
When people with different marital status spend time together, we hear each other’s stories and can frame issues from another vantage point. As fellow members of the body of Christ, we need to recognize the importance of each part and not put single kneecaps in one slot and married fingers in another. Being single is challenging; being married is challenging. Our churches will be stronger and our lives richer when there are opportunities for singles and marrieds to share together and learn from each other. Mine certainly is.
Kim Karpeles is the Director of Communication for a mid-sized church in Northbrook, Illinois. She holds two masters degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; one in Systematic Theology, the other in Christian Studies. Kim enjoys reading, sudoku puzzles, travel, and learning Spanish.