Odd Wo/Man Out: The Systematic Marginalization of Mennonite
Singles by the Church’s Focus on Family
ELIZABETH M. GOERING AND ANDREA KRAUSE*
Abstract: This study examines the experiences of never-married singles in the Mennonite church. The results, which are based on an analysis of in-depth interviews with 15 individuals who are active participants in Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church congregations in urban and rural settings, indicate that singles often feel like outsiders in the church. This is true in part because the presumption of family-the assumption that the traditional nuclear family is preferable to any alternatives-creates an insider/outsider duality within the church that can marginalize singles. This study identifies specific structures and practices that construct this insider/outsider dichotomy and examines steps individual congregations have taken and could take to integrate singles more effectively into the church.
In recent years, the Mennonite church has given increasing attention to meeting the needs of singles. Some pastors such as Shirley Yoder Brubaker and Sheron Patterson have sought to develop a “theology of singleness” that “embraces all singles [and] informs them that God loves them just as they are,” while other church leaders are attempting to identify strategies for ministering to singles. Amidst these efforts are the voices of singles themselves, describing their own experiences in an attempt to foster greater understanding of what it means to be single within a tradition that strongly encourages marriage. Nonetheless, in spite of the increased attention to issues related to singleness and church life, singles continue to be less satisfied with, and less involved in, the church than their married counterparts. Dean Merrill, vice president of the International Bible Society, reports that while 80% of married people sampled in a national survey agree that the Christian churches in their area are relevant to the way they live their life today, only 61% of singles agree with that statement. 50% of marrieds report that they attend church at least three times per month compared to only 31% of singles.
Why are singles less likely to find church relevant to their lives than individuals who are married? While people undoubtedly experience church negatively for a variety of reasons, part of the church’s apparent difficulty in meeting the needs of singles is the emphasis it places on marriage and family, a focus that can be alienating to individuals who may not fit traditional models of family. Within American culture at large and within the Mennonite church in particular, the family is a primary normative, meaning-making framework. One need only look at the popularity of movements such as the Million Men March, Promise Keepers and Focus on the Family in the decade of the 1990s to see the importance placed on the traditional nuclear family within American churches. Even those voices in the debate about family and the church that recognize the dangers of idealizing the family in the name of Christianity and that seek to reconstruct the family for “postindustrial postmodern times” are often unable to step outside of traditional models of family. For example, while the approach to the family debate carried forward in essays gathered in From Culture Wars to Common Ground: Religion and the American Family Debate, seems truly innovative on the surface, a closer analysis of the collective argument reveals that their “creation of a new family ethic”-an “egalitarian family in which husband and wife participate relatively equally in paid work as well as childcare and other domestic responsibilities”-simply reinstitutionalizes traditional family structures, merely outfitting “Ozzie and Harriet” for the new millennium.
Although there is nothing inherently wrong with traditional notions of family, presenting the nuclear model of family as paradigmatic is potentially problematic on two levels. First, this focus on the traditional family inevitably creates an “in-group/out-group” duality within many congregations, in which those individuals who are not part of traditional family units are subtly, and often not so subtly, identified as outsiders. Pastor Sheron Patterson provides evidence of this insider/outsider dichotomy in her claim that many churches suffer from “marriage elitism,” assuming that “married people are better than single people.” By setting up marriage and family as the preferred ideal, the church-in effect if not intentionally-constructs a reality in which individuals who are married with children enjoy a privileged status while those who are not are easily rendered invisible and voiceless.
On a second, perhaps even more problematic, level, the presupposition that the traditional family should be the preferred relational construct within our churches prevents any real discussion of alternative relational models that may actually come closer to creating the truly integrated family of disciples modeled and described by Jesus in the New Testament. In other words, the presupposition of what family is in the church precludes a true exploration of what the church family could be.
Our study seeks to ensure that the voices of some of those in the “out-group,” specifically single people who have never been married and have no children are not lost in the church’s discussions about family. Specifically, we seek to answer two research questions: (1) In what ways does the emphasis on “family” in the Mennonite church impact the lives of singles within the church? (2) What attempts have been made by churches to break down the “in-group/out-group” barriers created by traditional definitions of “family,” and how have singles responded to those efforts?
In order to capture the voices of singles, in-depth interviews were conducted with 15 singles who are active participants in Mennonite churches in the Midwest. The interviewees ranged in age from 32 to 71, and represent an equal mix of urban and rural communities as well as Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church congregations. Both males and females are represented, although the sample includes proportionately more females. Since the sample size is relatively small, we cannot generalize from the experiences reported here to all Mennonite singles; however, what these fifteen individuals have to say should not be read as merely anecdotal because of the saturation sampling technique employed in this study. Saturation sampling, a technique often used in qualitative studies of the family, increases sample size until additional data is not yielding new information. In this study, the “saturation point” was reached with fifteen interviews. This does not imply that the experiences of singles are not unique-they clearly are. However, it does suggest that the issues and themes embedded in the experiences of singles are consistent across age, urban and rural residence, and General Conference and Mennonite Church congregations.
Special care was taken to design an interview schedule that would invite the interviewees to tell their stories and share their experiences of singleness within the church without predisposing them to particular answers. The interview schedule consists of three sections. The first section asked interviewees to reflect on how their participation in the Mennonite church has been affected either positively or negatively by being single. Because the presumption of family is so deeply entrenched in many churches, the ways in which church structures and practices may alienate singles are often difficult to see. Dean Merrill argues that “age and marital status” are two “major walls that keep the church from full unity and growth.” In fact, he concludes that “acceptance [of singles] into the mainstream of church life is still rare.” Thus the first set of questions was designed to illuminate some of the specific, often subtle, barriers to the acceptance of singles in our churches.
The second set of questions on the interview schedule asked interviewees to respond to the assumptions that are typically made about singles and singleness in the church. According to Merrill, one factor preventing true acceptance of singles in the church is “persistent myths” about singleness. A review of literature revealed several of these persistent myths, or frames, placed on singleness. One of the most prevalent is that singles are essentially in a “holding pattern,” waiting for an opportunity to marry. This frame implies that being married and having a family is the desired or preferred way to be-a status that singles unquestionably would seek to attain. Sheron Patterson has argued that the pressure to be married is strong within the church; she noted “marriage can be an obsession fueled in large part by the church.” A second frame occasionally placed on singles in the church is that their singleness is a vocation, something God has called them to be. For example, Tim Stafford, senior writer for Christianity Today and author of numerous books on religion and spirituality, presents singleness as a call to “radical discipleship” and an opportunity for “radical dedication to God’s kingdom.” A final frame placed on singleness that emerged from the literature review is that the single person is incomplete. Sheron Patterson notes that singles often are made to “feel incomplete,” and Catherine Walsh, a columnist for America: The National Catholic Weekly, observes that the link between wholeness and marriage is particularly strong for women, who “for generations were taught to equate wholeness with marriage and motherhood.” To get a feel for the ways in which singleness is framed within the Mennonite church, the interview schedule asked interviewees to respond to each of these three frames gleaned from the literature and then invited them to identify other frames or persistent myths about singles that they have encountered in the church.
The final set of questions on the interview schedule asked interviewees to share and respond to ways in which their churches have attempted to integrate singles.
The first two sets of questions in the interview schedule were designed to enable us to answer the first research question: In what ways does the emphasis on “family” in the Mennonite church impact on the lives of singles within the church? One-third of the respondents reported that their singleness has no effect on their participation in church activities. The more common attitude, however, is captured by an interviewee who explained: “I don’t participate in activities outside of going to the Sunday morning church service and participating in my small group, and I would say to a large degree that’s probably related to my being single.” This comment is characteristic of two-thirds of the interviewees, who identified particular church events or activities they opt not to participate in, often because they feel out of place as a single. Even those interviewees who reported that they now feel comfortable at all church activities acknowledged that their “comfort” was established over time. One subject explained: “My being single would have affected participation earlier in my life, but it does not currently because of my comfort in my church setting. I know so many people because I’ve been in small groups with a lot of them, and I’ve served on committees with many of them.”
In addition to questions about participation in various aspects of church life, the interview schedule asked interviewees to generate a metaphor that summarized what it is like to be single in the Mennonite church. These metaphors provide a fitting starting point for analyzing the specific ways in which singleness impacts on an individual’s participation in church life.
Tellingly, only two interviewees provided a metaphor that described the self as being part of an integrated whole. One suggested that being single is like being “a goose in a flock of geese. Each one of us has our strengths and role. You know how they all follow one bird, and that bird cuts the wind for a while, then he gets tired and he moves back. That’s how I see being single in this church. I’ll take my turn, just like everybody else takes their turn.” The other explained: “The church has been a place where I have been encouraged to use my gifts. It’s been a place where I’ve grown, and so for me the church has been kind of like a garden.”
All of the other subjects, however, generated metaphors that highlighted either the difficulties of being single or the feelings of distinct “otherness” associated with this status. Three subjects chose metaphors that focused on how hard it is to be single in the church. For example, one interviewee observed: “Being single in the Mennonite church is a constant challenge. I think singles have to work harder at building relationships than families do.” The remaining metaphors all emphasized the “outsider” status of singles. One subject noted: “Being single is like being a button on a crazy work quilt. The quilt is the congregation; it can be comforting, warm and inviting. And yet the button itself in some ways is useless. It’s decorative, and sometimes it’s lifted out as being a shining example, and yet it’s not really integrated into the whole.” Another said: “Being single is different with the time and age. There would have been a time I would have said it felt like not being picked for the team. Cheering for the team, but not being able to play on the team. I don’t feel that so much anymore. Now I think I would say it’s sort of like the duck adopted by the mother chicken. You’re included with the family, but it’s highly recognized that you’re not quite the same as everyone else.” Still another respondent likened being single to being “the proverbial square peg that’s trying to fit into a round hole.” She explained: “You just don’t quite fit. That’s how it feels to me. And I don’t want to make myself fit by cutting off the edges.” Another likened being single in the church to “being the only iris in a garden of roses. If you’re the only single, you’re kind of there, but you’re different. You’re still beautiful, but you’re not like everyone else.” Finally, one interviewee concluded: “Being single in the Mennonite church is like a minnow swimming upstream during the salmon spawning season.”
A theme shared by all of these metaphors is “not fitting in.” More important, in many of them it is not fitting into something that is otherwise an integrated whole-a team, a quilt, a family of chickens. Singles clearly perceive themselves to be “outsiders,” although not always in a negative way. As one subject explained: “It’s not that you’re not included, or you’re not a part of it. You are a part of it, but you’re often made to feel different.”
Why is this perception of being different, of not quite fitting in, so common among Mennonite singles? The answer to that question may lie in part in the insider/outsider duality constructed by the centrality of family within the church. The interview data illustrate two interlocking points at which the hegemonically entrenched presumption of family in the church becomes clearly visible: (1) in church structures and programming and (2) in frames placed on singleness in the church.
THE PRESUPPOSITION OF FAMILY IN CHURCH STRUCTURES
Rituals in the Church
The reification of singles as outsiders is apparent in several structures that appear to be typical of Mennonite churches. Perhaps the most obvious example is in rituals celebrated within the church. One interviewee summarized the problem by noting: “One thing the church has absolutely no idea how to deal with is celebrating transitions in life.” The primary problem identified by almost every interviewee is that church rituals typically celebrate family, without any counterpoint for celebrating events in the lives of singles. One subject explained: “We tend to celebrate with people things like marriages, babies, baby dedications, but there’s really nothing that we do to celebrate any of the events in a single person’s life.” While subjects agree that celebrating family milestones is important-one noted, for instance, “I still think these are events worth celebrating, but you have to recognize that they’re not going to happen to everybody”-they shared a concern that when a church exclusively celebrates family in its rituals, it can easily make singles feel excluded. “At parent-child dedication, I do find myself grieving sometimes that this isn’t a part of my life,” admitted one interviewee. And another acknowledged: “I have a real hard time on Mother’s Day. The one year it hit me, they had the mothers share stories, and I sat here thinking, ‘There’s so many ways that women who don’t have children contribute to the lives of children.’ Mothers aren’t the only thing.”
The underlying issue is that these family-oriented rituals reinforce the notion that family is normal and that anything falling outside of expected family structures-like being single-is abnormal. As one interviewee put it: “There’s always applause for wedding anniversaries. People get up and say, ‘We’ve been married 25 years today,’ and everybody applauds. Which is nice. Hallelujah, some marriages work. But it also shows a bias towards how you should be living in the minds of the congregation.” Another observed: “Things like baby dedications and anniversaries, while certainly reasons to rejoice, are always a reminder that there’s a status that you haven’t quite achieved yet and really should. You really should be getting married and having kids and then having anniversary celebrations-all those kinds of things that bring people together for celebration in the church.”
Most of the interviewees challenged the church to think more creatively about how events in the lives of people who do not fit the traditional family paradigm might be celebrated. One remarked: “There is this incredible need to help people establish their homes when they’re married-bridal showers and baby showers. That’s an important part of the church family taking care of each other. But, I would like to cook on good kettles, too, and just because I don’t have the man doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t have nice cookware given to me by people who want my life to go well.” Another concluded: “The problem is not the way in which those rituals are celebrated, but the fact that those rituals do not have a counterweight of rituals that celebrate things in the life of a single person that are of equal importance. I would not want to take away from celebrating what in the family’s life is an important moment, but I would hope that the church could at some point find ways to celebrate important moments in the life of a single person.”
The interviewees generated some ideas for creating rituals that are not tied to traditional notions of family that might be celebrated within the church. One, who suggested celebrating job anniversaries, asked: “Why is it more important in the church to celebrate 25 years of marriage than 25 years on the job'” Others suggested births of nieces or nephews, moving into a new home, or becoming a big brother/big sister as events worthy of celebration. The interviewees admitted that finding alternative rituals that are not centered on family is difficult. One observed: “These things happen at different points for different people and in different ways, as opposed to marriage, which is a concrete event which happens on this date and is recorded in Bibles and church registers.” This difficulty illustrates the embeddedness of the assumption of family in the church. Marriages and births are the events we choose to record in our family Bibles, in our church registers, even in the “For the Record” section of The Mennonite. Identifying other, less exclusionary, events in the lives of individuals that could be celebrated within the church is indeed a challenge.
But the presumption of family in church rituals goes beyond determining which events will be celebrated in the church. Some subjects noted that even rituals that are not family-oriented are sometimes structured around family units, which can also be alienating to singles. For example, respondents from several different churches shared how uncomfortable they have been made to feel as singles when people were invited to come up for communion in family units. One interviewee described her experience: “One Christmas to celebrate communion we were asked to come up to the front and kneel around a manger and partake of the bread and the grape juice in family units, which created an incredible awkwardness and, I must say, hurt and anger for me, because was I now not going up there at all? Or was I going up there with friends? Or was I just going to attach myself to some family that went up there? I thought that was very shortsighted of the church on a very holy day to exclude people from the table because they did not fit the family model.” Yet another interviewee who described a similar experience was quick to add: “I just thought that was a very insensitive thing to do. And I know at the same time that nobody in the church would have done it intentionally. But I think that is evidence of how insidious it is; we aren’t even aware of how we just assume that people in our churches are in families.”
Sunday School and Worship
A second example of a church structure identified by our interviewees that often excludes or alienates singles is Sunday school. One-third of the subjects admitted they do not attend Sunday school, often because they feel out of place as singles. One subject, for instance, stated: “I don’t go, because Sunday school is so geared towards couples and children. . . . Often couples go together to Sunday school, and a lot of the material is geared toward raising children and getting along with your spouse, which is very important and needs to be discussed. I just don’t need to be there for it.”
As this response suggests, part of the problem is structural in that some churches organize Sunday school classes around-and even name them according to-marital and family status. One subject told about being part of the “Honeymooners” class when she was in her late 20s, because that was the name of the class for people her age. Fortunately, this was at a time when a lot of classes were looking at name changes, and this group was renamed the “Young Adults.” However, according to the interviewee, “the language still continued. Like when we had socials, we would decide which ‘couples’ would bring what.”
The interview data suggest that even church services are sometimes awkward, because in most churches the practice is for people to sit in family groups. One subject explained: “I think church services and the scripts that go along with them are uncomfortable to everybody who is new to a church; I think it’s more uncomfortable if you’re new to the church alone. If you go with someone, you have somebody to sit by, you have someone so you’re not alone. And I have to admit that even now, I’m not new to the church anymore, but it’s still sort of awkward on Sunday morning to go and look into the congregation and decide who I am going to sit by. It’s this constant reminder that you are alone.” Several other subjects concurred, stating: “It’s strange for me to have to decide where to sit. Where can I sneak in? Who will I be sharing a hymnal with'” or “Something that has bothered me in our services sometimes, and I don’t think people even think about it, is I tend to come late because then I can go sit by somebody. If I get here early and sit by myself, a lot of times people don’t come and sit by single people.”
A final church structure that is often uncomfortable for singles, according to the interviewees, is time set aside for fellowship. Fellowship time-whether fellowship meals, social time between Sunday school and worship service, church retreats or fun night activities-often visibly reinforces a single’s status as outsider. One subject said that the social time between Sunday school and church is the most problematic for her: “That’s the loneliest time I can think of for anybody, between church and Sunday school, when you’re standing there with no one to talk to.” This unstructured social time appears to be more of a problem for single people than for families or couples. One interviewee offered a possible explanation for this: “People have trouble with that time between church and Sunday school. And it’s harder for singles because you don’t have anyone to lean on. And in a way I can say, ‘This is so stupid.’ But you still feel that way.” Another respondent implied that in addition to the fact that singles are there alone and have no one “to lean on,” part of the problem is that others in the church are less likely to initiate interaction with a single person than with a family or couple: “It was really eye-opening once when my parents came to visit. We were surrounded after the service with people wanting to know who we were and where we were from. But alone I didn’t draw any attention at all. And I made an effort to stand in the lobby. I didn’t want to bolt out of the church and make it all my fault if people didn’t talk to me. At one church, I even held the door as people went out, and nobody spoke to me. That was pretty awful.”
Other individuals identified church retreats as a time for fellowship that singles avoid. One respondent admitted: “The only church activity I choose not to go to anymore is our annual retreat, because it is extremely family-oriented. And I’m supportive of that, but I just don’t find any desire to be so family-oriented for a whole weekend.” Another described her experience when she did attend her church’s retreat one year: “I felt really awkward as a single person because it was very clearly geared towards families. One of the most awkward things was the dividing up into cabins for the night, which, of course, was done by families.” Finally, one subject observed, “There is the men and boys retreat, which I’d be free to go to, but as a single person without kids or without a father here at this congregation, I don’t feel terribly compelled to go.” Clearly, without the legitimation that comes with being part of a family unit, many single people feel out of place at church retreats.
By far the most pervasive fellowship time that many interviewees experience as uncomfortable is fellowship meals. Two-thirds of the subjects reported that they do not attend fellowship meals regularly. One woman explained: “A lot of people think that singles would come to a pitch-in because it’s a free meal, but really it’s a hard situation because you have to come there by yourself.” Another observed: “With fellowship meals, what used to bother me immensely, and it still does, is people reserving chairs for their family. That just really bothered me, to the place where one time I thought, ‘Do I need to take my tray and go to one of the classrooms” because people were reserving everywhere.”
Not all of the singles interviewed for this study reported being uncomfortable at fellowship meals. One-third said that they regularly attend, but even some of these acknowledged that it has not always been easy. “Fellowship meals I don’t mind so much,” one woman explains. “Everyone sits as a family, but I have learned to just sit down and talk anyway. That was hard at one time-to go stand in line alone especially. That has gotten easier as I’ve gotten older. The food is worth it.”
To a large degree, the discomfort singles feel at fellowship meals may stem from the structure of the meals. One interviewee explained: “It seems like the church is set up for families and for couples. There are typically six or eight places around a table, not five or seven. And so often that will mean asking if it’s okay to sit at a place or feeling like I’ve got to search for someone to sit with or go to an occasion with.” When tables seat an even number-six or eight-the implication is pairs and couples. As one subject put it, “I think we need to be liberated from the Noah’s Ark Principle-the assumption that everything comes in twos.”
The presumption of family is not only embedded in the structures of the church; in many instances, it is evident in church programming as well. This can be as simple as the newsletter that comes out once a month at one church with “tips on how to build a healthy family,” or it can be more blatant, as in a Valentine’s Day program described by one of our subjects: “For a while they had a Valentine’s meal, and they billed it as something for everybody. Everybody come. Well I went once, and they did have a speaker-who spoke about husband/wife relationships. And I never went back, because it didn’t make any sense to me.”
In many cases, the examples shared with us of programming that excludes singles could have been broadened to integrate singles quite easily. For instance, in regard to the newsletter on building better families, one subject asks, “Why couldn’t it be a newsletter on building better relationships more generally'” Another respondent shared an account of how one church successfully broadened their celebration on Valentine’s Day: “Instead of having a Valentine’s Party, they had a Celebration of Love Party in which they brought kids, they brought Grandmas, they brought pets.”
One subject poignantly summarized the impact such exclusion has had on her spiritual life: “When I have to sit in church, and I feel that in some of the church’s rituals and in some of the ways in which the message is phrased or framed I am not on the church’s mind ever in my status as a single person, then I really get frustrated and begin to wonder whether the church can really help me develop spiritually and find a spiritual home.”
THE PRESUPPOSITION OF FAMILY IN FRAMES PLACED
Structures and programming are not the only way in which singles are made to feel like outsiders within their own congregations. Attitudes and assumptions about singleness can also contribute to the construction of the insider/outsider duality. As noted in the methods section of this paper, our literature review identified three separate “frames” that are often placed on singleness. Subjects were asked to respond to each of these and then invited to identify other frames they have heard expressed within their churches. 90% of the interviewees said the first frame-that singleness is a holding pattern-is a prevalent attitude in their churches as well as in society at large. According to one respondent: “Society says you’re supposed to be married, and it’s regrettable that the church in many regards also says that, particularly when you’re a young person. It sets up these expectations, with no alternatives.” Another interviewee agreed: “I think it’s very common, because I think there are a lot of single people who feel that way themselves.”
The interviewees reported hearing this assumption communicated through comments such as: “When are you getting married'” or “How has such a good catch like you gone unnoticed'” One respondent reported meeting a friend from college at church who said: “‘What? You’re not married? You’re not married” As if she couldn’t fathom that I wouldn’t be married.” This frame clearly preferences marriage over singleness. Singleness is assumed to be a transitory state, not a desired end product. As one subject put it: “When someone asks ‘When are you going to get married” it almost says you’re not okay. It makes me feel that I should be married.” Another explained: “When people say, ‘You’re a nice guy. There’s somebody out there for you,’ it is encouraging. I take it as affirmation that there’s nothing wrong with me. At the same time, it just reinforces the belief that everyone should get married. You’re a single guy, and you should be married, as opposed to you’re a single guy and you should remain a single guy. I don’t want to remain a single guy, but I don’t want to look at it as a handicap or a social deformity.”
The second frame for singleness that emerged from our literature review is viewing singleness as a calling or vocation. Nearly all of the subjects reported that they had heard this frame, either in their churches or in reading. Responses to this frame varied significantly. Two of the respondents found it comforting. One, for instance, stated: “I really like that. I’ve thought a lot about that, and maybe that’s what’s actually freed me to accept my life as it is. I always had a strong desire to be married, and it wasn’t happening. And I was blaming God for that, and this was very freeing actually. Maybe I am being called to be single for some reason, and I’m fine with that.”
Most of the interviewees, however, responded more negatively to this framing of singleness as a vocation, some by arguing that the frame is inaccurate and others by suggesting that the frame is actually insulting. According to many singles in this study, this frame does not accurately represent their experience. One woman explained: “I don’t know that singleness is my ‘calling.’ I guess for folks who feel that’s their calling, that’s wonderful, but don’t impose that on everyone, because it’s not everyone’s story.” Another concurred: “I think it’s a calling for some people, maybe nuns and monks, people who have been called to that life of celibacy and aloneness. But when that’s not been your choice, and not your preference, I would say that I don’t know that I feel called to be that way.” Another subject wondered what people who frame singleness as a calling do when they later marry. “Now it was God’s will, but now it’s not God’s will'” she asked. Yet another person noted: “I have sort of framed it that it’s okay with God for me to be single right now. But I don’t see it as something I may be called to forever. I trust that it’s okay with God for me right now, but I don’t see it as a ‘calling.'”
Another common reaction to this view of singleness as a vocation was that the frame is not only inaccurate, but even problematic. One subject noted, for instance: “Some of my friends found comfort in that-in being able to label their being single not as a failure but as a calling from God. But I don’t see it that way at all. I find it very problematic to think that you have to label being single as something that God ordained in order to legitimate it.” Another observed that she was actually insulted when she first heard this frame: “I was taken aback by the need to come up with some kind of a frame for singleness that explains it in some higher measure. Why can we not accept single people as people who have made another choice in their lives and move on from there? Why does it have to be theorized now into something special'”
The final frame the interviewees were asked to respond to is the notion that single people are not yet complete. The majority of subjects have heard this frame expressed in the Mennonite church. One explained: “I’ve had people try to fix me up before, and sometimes that feels kind and sometimes not. Even that language-fix me up-implies that you’re broken, you’re not whole yet.” This person proceeded to share the story of a cousin who got married later in life, “and in the wedding sermon, the preacher said, ‘Well, your lives can finally begin.’ He had been a missionary for fifteen years, and now his life was beginning’!” Another interviewee observed that this frame is not overtly stated as often as some of the others: “It’s more the implication that you’re not a whole person yet.”
While most of the interviewees viewed these persistent myths about singleness negatively, they tended to frame their own singleness in more positive ways, ranging from acceptance to celebration. Some framed singleness as a choice a person makes; others framed it as a position they find themselves in. One subject said: “This is just who I am right now, and everybody is in a different place and you live life to the fullest where you are.” Yet another woman observed: “I celebrate my singleness. I would like to have my singleness accepted as a valid choice that I made, and not as some errant behavior and not as something that needs to be explained as something God-ordained. I just want it to be accepted as a choice that is as valid as choosing to be married and have a family.” Another interviewee described her singleness in a similar manner: “I would frame my singleness as something I thank God for. And the reason I say that is I think growing up in a traditional Mennonite church and going to a Mennonite college, it would have been very easy for me to follow the traditional Mennonite pattern of getting married and having a family, and I’m so glad I didn’t do that, because it has opened up so many opportunities in my life. And I feel more complete and more whole now than I can imagine feeling if I were in a marriage.”
In his article on singles in the church, Tim Stafford asks: “Is the difficulty [associated with being single] intrinsic to singleness, or is it rooted in the anti-single feeling of our society'” The responses provided by these subjects would imply that much of the negative image associated with singleness is not inherent in being single; rather, it is a result of society’s assumption that being single is the anomaly and being married is normal. Almost all of the subjects interviewed for this study acknowledged a growing comfort with their life as a single person. Most of them have grown to embrace their singleness, to find value and joy in it; however, most also acknowledge that they first had to cope with the hegemonic privileging of marriage and family as the only acceptable relational model. One subject noted, “I’m very comfortable in this life, although I haven’t always been.” Another explained: “If we would have had this conversation three years ago, I would have been saying, ‘Oh pity me.’ But I’m starting to own my singleness, becoming more at peace with that than I had been.” Even in a culture so strongly defined by family as the norm, these singles have come to own their singleness as something positive.
INTEGRATING SINGLES INTO THE CHURCH
The last set of questions included in the interview schedule was designed to answer the second research question: What attempts have been made by churches to break down the “in-group/out-group” barriers created by traditional definitions of “family,” and how have singles responded to those efforts? While our data unequivocally support the notion that church structures, programming and framing of singleness both overtly and covertly reinforce the normative nature of marriage and family, there seems to be increasing awareness in the Mennonite church that single people may not be well served by the family focus. One of the older participants in the study acknowledged: “I’ve seen a lot of changes.” And another interviewee observed: “There is a sensitivity to the fact that it’s not the traditional family anymore. I think there’s a greater awareness now than there was even ten years ago. And I find hope in that.”
According to our interviewees, many churches have addressed this issue by trying to implement programming specifically geared towards single people, including special Sunday school classes for single adults, Sunday morning sermons on singleness, and organized singles’ groups and/or retreats. Nearly unanimously our subjects responded negatively to these efforts. One woman, for example, described her reaction to hearing a sermon about singleness: “Several years ago, the pastor talked about singleness in the church, and I just felt uncomfortable. He didn’t point out, ‘Oh, boy, you’re single. Hey, there’s something wrong.’ Not at all, not the least bit. He made it very clear that you have a place in the church, single or not single. You have a place. Yet I felt like all eyes were on me.”
Responses to Sunday school classes specifically for singles were similarly negative. One interviewee quipped, “I was just in a staff retreat where we talked about how to incorporate singles, and I was the only single there. Everyone was talking about what they were going to do. Let’s have a singles’ Sunday school class, and a variety of things. So finally, I spoke up and said, ‘Well, I’d like to have a class with other people with brown eyes, because I have brown eyes.’ I do not want to be in a class because of my marital status. Don’t alienate that way. The church tries to fix what they perceive as a problem, and it’s much easier to provide a singles’ class rather than change the entire structure of the church which is set up for family/marriage brackets.”
All of the programs described in these examples make single people more visible in the church; unfortunately, they also strongly reinforce the troubling in-group/out-group dichotomy identified earlier by placing singles into a separate, “other” category. The vast majority of interviewees argued in favor of efforts that truly integrate singles into the church community. One respondent said that what she really liked about her church’s Sunday school program when she first started attending was that “you weren’t put into a singles’ Sunday school group because you were single. I liked it because we were intermingled, and I could hear the voices of older people, and I could hear the voices of those who haven’t even begun to experience life. I appreciate our church from that point of view.”
While separate programming for singles clearly missed the mark, our subjects did point out several ways in which their churches have successfully worked at including singles. Interviewees applauded three strategies in particular as effective ways to integrate singles and, thus, ultimately to strengthen churches. First, almost half mentioned their church’s deliberate efforts to increase singles’ visibility by placing them in leadership roles and on committees. One subject noted: “Very important committees always have single people on them. I’m always impressed that there’s a single person’s voice.” Another observed: “I think it’s important to have single people in positions of leadership as visible role models, and also in decision-making, you have to have somebody who’s sensitive to single people’s concerns.”
A second strategy commended by several subjects is the use of more inclusive language. One respondent argued, “I think language in whatever you’re doing is so incredibly important. It can be exclusive or inclusive. Instead of ‘mother/daughter’ banquet, make that title broader; change ‘family’ to ‘household’; refer to ‘individuals’ instead of to ‘couples.'”
A final strategy, and one to which several respondents attributed their own comfort in their current congregation, is the use of direct, personal invitations offered to single individuals. One interviewee who feels particularly well-connected within her church related: “After I’d been here a couple of months, a woman from one of the other classes invited me to join their class, and I’ve been part of that class ever since. That was a specific invitation to join that class, and that felt good. I certainly wouldn’t have gone to her and asked can I go to her class.” In some cases, the singles said that they welcomed being invited to participate in the family life of families in the congregation. In addition to making singles feel more welcome, direct invitations can also make it easier for them to participate in events that might be awkward or uncomfortable alone. For example, one individual posited that she would be more likely to attend her church’s retreat if “somebody would take me in as part of their family, so that I don’t feel like I’m going to go and be by myself.” Another observed, “They had a work day with MDS when the tornado went through. Well, I have a hard time just going by myself, but I might go if someone would call and say, ‘Why don’t you go with us””
BUILDING MORE FULLY INTEGRATED CONGREGATIONS
These interviews were with individuals who are active and committed participants in their congregations; yet even these singles often experience difficulty in becoming truly and completely integrated within the Mennonite church. The interview data suggest that, to some degree, this difficulty may be traced to the underlying presumption of family. When the negative frames that are typically placed on singleness are combined with structures that consistently reinforce marriage and family as normative within the church, singles are often made to feel like outsiders. In many instances, the presumption of family manifests itself in ways that are so subtle they are difficult to see and most likely will not be seen until they are pointed out. Like white privilege or male privilege, one doesn’t recognize the way one is “privileged” in the church through marriage and by belonging to a family unit, because it is the unquestioned assumption.
There is hope. Many churches have already begun the kind of much-needed dialogue that will help break down the current in-group/out-group paradigm. Still there is much work to be done. The last question in the interview schedule invited our subjects to share what they perceive to be the most important message for singles to communicate to the church at large. We will conclude by categorizing and summarizing the interviewees’ visions for the Mennonite “family of believers” as we begin a new millennium.
Don’t Separate; Integrate
Rather than providing separate programming for singles, our interviewees recommended that congregations allow opportunities for singles to integrate in meaningful, non-patronizing ways into the processes and structures of church life. As one subject put it: “The most important thing is to include singles in every area of the church.” A place to begin is by examining the structures of the church that may unintentionally exclude singles. “If I were running things, we would have round tables where there were always seven chairs, and I would make it that you can’t always sit by your spouse,” asserted one subject. Another advised: “One of the things that I think is the best solution is to work at more intergenerational things, because it not only forces cross-generational conversations, it also forces people out of their little marriage and family cliques.”
Churches should integrate singles, according to our interviewees, by seeking to find in programming and language the “common denominator,” the level of interaction that speaks to all participants in the church, regardless of marital status. As one interviewee put it: “Find things that are universal rather than particular to marriage and family.” Another respondent elaborated: “The church needs to focus on strengthening individuals and helping individuals strengthen their relationships, no matter what those relationships are. That might be family, but it also might be work, it might be siblings, or it might be friends. If you focus on helping all individuals strengthen their relationships with each other and with God, then you’re doing what a church should be doing.”
Don’t Equivocate; Validate
A recurring theme in these interviews was the desire for singleness to be validated as an acceptable and meaningful way of life. In the words of one respondent: “Please see single people in your church as fulfilled human beings who have every desire like every other adult in the congregation to become a part of the church, to be included.” Another agreed: “Understand that it’s not an aberration. Understand that you don’t have to try so hard. Just realize that there’s more than one model of life.” Yet another respondent shared this perspective: “I don’t want them to perceive us as this angry group, demanding to be included. I don’t think anybody wants to exclude us. But I would like for singleness to be considered as a viable way of life, another way to be a good adult.”
Until singleness is accepted as being as valid as marriage, it will be difficult to completely integrate singles into the church. One subject explained: “The churches’ efforts to integrate singles haven’t been effective in changing the underlying assumption that marriage is normal and singleness is abnormal. And I’m not sure what needs to happen to change that, but I think that’s what needs to be changed for single people to be truly integrated into the church.” Another subject concurred: “I believe that the church needs to get away from focusing on the family as its defining framework or its defining metaphor of inclusion and think of a different way to make church truly a place where people can meet as individuals to form a community of believers where you’re not first judged by whether you’re married or how many children you have but rather more as an individual. Personally, I think that might also help married couples not to only have to be considered a couple, and it might help children not to always only be seen as the children of such and such. It would liberate people from a lot of the little boxes they’re put into.”
Perhaps the counterpart to providing more validating contextual frames for singleness in the church is to provide more realistic frames for marriage. As one subject explained: “The last thing I want to do is tell the church to de-emphasize marriage; however, I think there needs to be more of an acknowledgment that marriage is not the end all and be all of relationships, that marriage in many occasions may not even be a desired relationship. The traditional marriage phrase is ‘what God has joined together let no one rend asunder,’ which I fully agree with. Absolutely. 100 percent. The problem is, I think a lot of marriages are not joined by God. If God indeed brought these two people together, then absolutely they should remain, but I think pressures by society at large and certainly by the church say that the way to do it is get married. So maybe we need to re-evaluate marriage and reconsider its role in society and in the church.”
Don’t Turn Away; Learn the Way
The final “most important message for singles to communicate to the church” is for people in the church to communicate with and learn from one another. One subject summarized the problems related to singles in the church as “just a failure of people to communicate what their needs are and what life is like as a single person.” While there may be more than “just” a failure to communicate at play here, opening communication channels and fostering interaction across marital status lines are clearly important first steps in altering some of the structural constraints identified earlier in this paper.
An important component of the ongoing dialogue recommended by many of the interviewees is the freedom to name barriers or practices that exclude singles. “People have to be conscious of it in order for it to change,” remarked one subject. One respondent, in reflecting on an instance where she was made to feel particularly isolated in her church, admitted: “I don’t think they intentionally did that. And even now, since I didn’t speak up, I’m sure they’re still not aware of how alienating that was for people who don’t fit into families. So I guess part of it would be for single people to speak up.”
An important part of increasing awareness in the church on issues related to singleness is to create opportunities for people from a variety of lifestyles to share their perspectives. One subject clarified: “Invite people to grow in their sensitivity, to think about how it might feel to be the only person, and not to wait but to take initiative to find ways to talk about things other than family. Intentionally build relationships with single people. Intentionally include variety-intergenerational and varieties of marital status-around the dinner table and in your social times. It’s an awareness and a sensitivity and a thinking piece that I think needs to happen in the church.”
Of course, this kind of sharing needs to be transactional in nature: as marrieds in the church learn about singleness, the singles can be learning about what it means to be married. One respondent explained: “I got to thinking about me saying that married people don’t understand single people, and I thought, well, they could say the same thing about single people. A married person could say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like to get up in the middle of the night with a child who’s crying and have to get up and go to work the next day, and you don’t know what it’s like to sit up late at night wondering where your husband is. You don’t understand about that.’ But that comes around again to saying that no matter who we are, we all have experiences of loss, of disappointment, of grief. Even though we say we don’t understand each other, we all have the same kinds of human emotional experiences no matter who we are.”
Another recommendation that came from the interviews is to involve singles in planning for singles. One interviewee told the story of a roommate who was invited to a meeting to discuss what the larger church should do to reach single young adults: “My roommate was the only person in that age group there. It was people talking about what they perceived the problem was rather than going to those people and saying, ‘What are the things that either alienate you or include you and what is the church doing or not doing”” Another respondent agreed, “Don’t bend over backwards trying to figure out single people over their heads without asking.”
When these recommendations are combined, they form a model for effective communication that has the potential to break down the in-group/out-group barriers that make singles feel like outsiders in our churches. Of course, this open interaction presupposes a climate of supportiveness and trust in which this kind of sharing can take place. This kind of dialogue has the potential to empower single people to raise their once muted voices and to share from their lives as we work together to creatively re-envision what “family” can be in the church.
[*] Elizabeth Goering is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Indiana University Purdue University, Indianapolis. Andrea Krause is an English professor at Hesston College, Hesston, KS.
1. Shirley Yoder Brubaker, “One is a Whole Number,” The Mennonite, May 26, 1998, 8-10.
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. For examples, see Susan Maycinick, “Creating a Singles-Friendly Sermon: How to Preach to 40 Percent of Today’s Adults,” Leadership 18 (Fall 1997), 65-67, or Kay Collier-Stone, Single in the Church: New Ways to Minister with 52% of God’s People (Washington, D.C.: Alban Institute, 1992).
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. An interesting discussion of what it means to be single in the Christian church at large can be found in Dana Anders Hefley et al., Single and Content: Experiencing Singleness in a Paired-Off World (Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 1999). For insights from a Mennonite single, see Mariann Martin, “Ten Questions to Ask a Single Person Other Than, So, Is There Anyone Special in Your Life'” The Mennonite, May 26, 1998, 11.
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. It is important to note that the primacy of the family within the church is something that has been constructed by the church. For a historical account of this construction, see John Witte, Jr., “Consulting a Living Tradition: Christian Heritage of Marriage and Family,” Christian Century, Nov. 13, 1996, 1108-11. Witte convincingly demonstrates how the placing of “marriage and family squarely within the social hierarchy of the church” (1108) has more of a political and social foundation than a biblical one.
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. For a detailed discussion of the ways Jesus radically redefines family in terms of discipleship, see John Painter, “When Is a House Not a Home? Disciples and Family in Mark 3.13-35,” New Testament Studies 45 (Oct. 1999), 498-513, or Carolyn Osiek, “The Family in Early Christianity: ‘Family Values’ Revisited,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 58 (Jan. 1996), 1-24.
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. We have intentionally chosen to restrict our focus to “always singles,” a label Patterson prefers over “singles never married,” because it focuses on what the individual is rather than what s/he is not. We recognize that individuals in the church who are single because of divorce or the death of a spouse and singles with children often feel like outsiders as well, and we encourage churches to be sure the voices of these singles are also heard. However, we believe that it will be more useful to look at the experience of singleness within singleness subgroups rather than trying to generalize experiences to all singles.
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. For a more detailed explanation of saturation sampling, see Barney G. Glaser and Anselm L. Strauss, The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research (Chicago: Aldine, 1967). For additional examples of family research utilizing this sampling method, see Sherilyn Marrow Ferguson and Fran C. Dickson, “Children’s Expectations of their Single Parents’ Dating Behaviors: A Preliminary Investigation of Emergent Themes Relevant to Single Parent Dating,” Journal of Applied Communication Research 23 (1995), 308-24, or Glen H. Stamp, “The Appropriation of the Parental Role through Communication during the Transition to Parenthood,” Communication Monographs 61 (1994), 89-112.
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. The ritualistic affirmation of marriage goes beyond individual congregations to the larger Mennonite church. One interviewee describes yet another exclusionary practice: “It’s long been a marketing ploy for Mennonite publications to give newlyweds free 6 month subscriptions. You know, guess what. I’ve never had a free 6-month subscription.”
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. Stafford, “Beyond the Stiff Upper Lip,” 30.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Marginalization of Mennonite Singles