For nearly a decade LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado, has been trying to figure out how to bless single moms. We’ve had some breakthroughs and some setbacks. Here is the one clear truth: God doesn’t measure success the same way we do.
By Nancy Karpenske
I’ll call her Debbie. When she started attending our group, she sat hunched over, making no eye contact. I kept expecting her to storm out. Ever so slowly her protective layers of hostility began to melt, just a few degrees. She has three children, each with a special needs diagnosis.
She typically works three jobs. She quit the best job when the boss started demanding sexual favors. Then she got a new job and would pile her children into her car in the middle of the night, while she delivered papers.
I was surprised when she asked me if she could have a pair of slacks from the church’s clothing bank. “I’ve got some job interviews,” she said, “and only these faded jeans. I wash them every night.” She found a suitable pair and headed for the door.
“Wait, why don’t you get another pair?” I said. “How about a couple shirts, maybe a jacket?”
“I don’t want to seem greedy.”
I persuaded her to take a few more things for herself and some for her children. While she “shopped,” she told me about growing up in a group home, watching her siblings be adopted while she stayed behind, not chosen.
We helped her financially a few times, with car repair, some grocery cards, some rent money. She was so ashamed to ask for help. She never missed our weekly meetings. She sat a little straighter, looked people in the eye, began to ask us to pray for her situation.
At Christmastime, when the moms were signing up to receive gifts for their children, she said, “I think we all should do something to give back.” She rallied the moms to bring small, inexpensive gifts to give for a Christmas party at the group home where she had grown up. She looked like a different person, not so forlorn. We were celebrating her as one of our “victories.”
Then it became apparent she was pregnant and “in a relationship.” She brought her guy to the Christmas Eve service. It was the first time either of them ever attended church.
Then there’s Karen. She and her four young children endured an abusive marriage. When she finally left for good, her ex-husband took his life.
In all the chaos, it never occurred to her to turn to a church for help. But God kept inviting her. It was difficult to find an apartment for her family of five. Everywhere she applied, the landlords suggested she try that single moms group at LifeBridge. Finally she showed up.
She says, “I live for Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. Those are the two best times in my week. They get me through the rest of our messy life.”
Lisa came with her friend. Next she brought her sister. They eat dinner and then run outside for a smoke before the program starts. Over the months, we didn’t see much change in them. Then Lisa asked her mentor to pray for her daughter who is flunking, skipping school, cutting herself, and threatening suicide. Lisa was at her wit’s end.
Within weeks she reported, “You won’t believe the change. My daughter is getting A’s. That’s never happened. She is talking to me; she’s not cutting. She is hopeful. And let me tell you, the only difference is prayer. It’s gotta be God.”
I’m pretty sure people on both sides of this process are growing—the single moms who need grace, and the “good church people” who need to expand their graciousness. We have grown into a congregation that delights in fulfilling God’s mandate to care for widows and orphans. Every class and small group and friendship circle looks for ways to be involved in the single parent ministry. We are better, but not perfect, at combining grace and truth. Nobody gets “kicked out” when they don’t live up to our “standards.”
What does the single parent ministry look like?
Picture the church building swarming with people on Wednesday night. Groups bringing the meal, hospitality volunteers serving the meal, delivery guy hauling in pizza for 100 kids. Child care workers, more than 25 mentors for individual children, 50 to 60 single mothers, 20 mentors and counselors, 6 single dads in their newly started group, plus youth group activities for fourth- and fifth-graders and middle school kids. Every room is used.
Women are connected to a mentor and stay at the same table every week. After dinner we have a brief worship time, a lesson, and then time to discuss, apply, ask questions, and pray.
Teaching women to pray is one of our highest priorities. Our evenings have improved by adding worship. The majority of the women do not attend a church. Wednesday nights become their doorway into God’s grace
Where do you get your lessons and speakers?
We started with a list of topics suggested by our mentors: forgiveness, healthy relationships, dealing with anger, parenting, budgeting, self-esteem, God’s take on sex, how I know God loves me, boundaries, and health. Several of the mentors are also gifted presenters. But we also invite church staff and community leaders to speak. We repeat the topics, but change up the content. We have used themes from New Start for Single Moms, by Diane Strack, and God Loves Single Moms, by Teresa Whitehurst.
At least once a year we invite all the area social service agencies and community college counselors to attend. Moms hear about programs, grants, and scholarships that might help them. We encourage women to get career counseling and schooling that will improve their ability to provide for their families. We celebrate graduations and pray for success with tests and term papers.
The mentors are mostly women who have been single moms. They shepherd 8 to 10 women. Their training tools are A Framework for Understanding Poverty, by Ruby Payne, and Kitchen Table Counseling, by Muriel Cook and Shelly Cook Volkhardt.
The mentors receive training in guiding discussions. We prefer to start them working with a more experienced mentor. The relationships they nurture are the glue that holds the ministry together. It’s normal for a mentor to gather her group at McDonald’s (so the kids can play), or to meet one mom for personal counseling. Every mentor feels inadequate, burdened, and either exhilarated or devastated when there is progress or regress.
One of the key safety nets for mentors is having counselors available. LifeBridge has an excellent lay counseling team, as well as professional counselors from the community. We typically have a counselor available on Wednesday nights to meet with a mom who shows up with a big problem.
Where do you get your leaders?
For a while we thought we could grow them within our program. We discovered that moms need to focus on their kids and their jobs. They haven’t much time or energy left over to accept responsibilities for leading other moms. God stirs hearts and sends people to us. We have not needed a “recruiting strategy.”
What about single dads?
We do have a small group for dads. They also meet on Wednesday nights, because child care is available, and they can rub shoulders with another men’s study meeting then. They have used The Single Dad’s Survival Guide, by Michael Klumpp, and 33 The Series: A Man and His Design. Men seem more reluctant to participate. As a whole, single dads are less likely to have custody of their children, and they are more likely to have financially stable jobs.
If you are interested in a single mom ministry in your church, where would you start?
• Create a team of potential mentors. It is critical that the majority of them have experience as a single parent. You can add women with stable marriages, but participants need encouragement from leaders who have experienced the struggles of raising children alone.
• Read What Every Church Member Should Know about Poverty, by Bill Ehlig and Ruby Payne. You will gain a far greater understanding of the problems and come to understand that problems are not solved with money—although you will need significant funds if you intend to make a difference.
• Become acquainted with the single parents in your own congregation and community. Include a brief survey in your bulletin to determine their needs and backgrounds.
• Sponsor a fun event for moms alone or moms and their kids. Publicize it as best you can. Personally bring single moms to the event (don’t expect them to RSVP). We hosted a spa night and “rented out” a local salon. One of our small groups sponsored a hike for moms and kids with a cookout. Another group is sponsoring a campout this summer.
One of our successful events has been a Christmas décor giveaway. Single parents move frequently, and Christmas stuff often is left behind. People donate their extra Christmas decorations. We set up a room that looks like a giant garage sale. The moms take home every candle and string of lights and box of cookie cutters available. These events can be the springboard to starting an ongoing group.
• Start small. We started with an eight-week plan and a dozen moms. Gradually we added weeks, repeated sessions, and now offer programming throughout the school year.
One of the surprising outcomes of our ministry to single parents has been the partnerships that have emerged. We’ve had visits from nearby Catholic and Lutheran churches that want to get involved. Agencies in our community send women to us: elementary schools, the housing authority, social services.
Two years ago the local YMCA asked for a meeting. The Y’s representatives said they wanted to help single parents in our community. “It looks like the best way to do that is to partner with your church.” The Y sends its best employees to lead out-of-the-box fun and games for kids. We pay the YMCA a minimal fee. The blessing and the partnership are priceless.
The police department has also gotten involved. Two police officers came to the church and mentioned a woman who was fairly new to our gatherings. “We had to arrest her,” one officer said. “She threw the first punch. But we are certain she has been the victim in an abusive relationship for some time. She will be out of jail soon. From what we have heard about your group, we think you will be good for her.”
Two years have passed, and this woman can’t stop telling how God has transformed her life. Her house is going into foreclosure, but she has discovered prayer and faith in God. “I didn’t know if God was really there. I didn’t know how to pray. But he answers me anyway.”
Ministry to single parents is messy and costly. It has been the most terrifying and most satisfying part of my journey with God. As one mom said, “Now I know that I’m truly loved, and never alone.”
Nancy Karpenske serves as women’s pastor at LifeBridge Christian Church, Longmont, Colorado, and as current director of the Single Parent Ministry.