By Matt Johnson
“Please raise your hand if you can name three single moms in your congregation,” I said while coleading a workshop at the 2015 North American Christian Convention. Many hands proudly shot up. Most of us can easily rattle off the names of three or four single mothers. Many can list 10 or more.
These are women we respect. They faithfully wake up early on Sundays to get three wiggly children to worship. They are frazzled with life and still carve out time to volunteer at the Welcome Center. They often do the work of two parents while feeling they yield half the results.
In response, our churches target single moms with ministries designed to meet their needs. MOPS groups provide support. Benevolence programs offer assistance when financial resources run low. Service projects provide moms with free oil changes. It is good when our churches respond with compassion and kindness to single women and their children. It is very good.
“Please raise your hand if you can name three single dads in your congregation.” This was my follow-up request. Exactly zero hands were raised. Full disclosure: my name on the marquee does not attract hundreds to a workshop. Still, many of us struggle to name one single dad at church.
Single dads do not have fellowship groups targeting their specific needs. They have the same three wiggly kids, but no one expects them to be at the 11 o’clock service. Ministry leaders rarely approach to ask them to serve the congregation. And your benevolence ministry probably has not thought much about their needs.
Statistically speaking, there are just as many single fathers in our culture as single mothers. I know. I was one of them. After the breakup of a 12-year marriage, I navigated what it meant to have primary custody of my 8-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son.
I created new traditions to replace old ones that were lost through the divorce. I clumsily played both disciplinarian and nurturer to children who, in a time of transition, didn’t know what questions to ask, let alone how to process the answers. When money was tight, I stretched dollars and pinched pennies. I paced work, juggled life, ran our home, and kept current with their school, sports, friends, art, music, and church activities.
There is a word to describe that kind of parent—typical. There is nothing supernatural about raising children on your own. In fact, in 2009 the U.S. Census Bureau reported that almost 13 million families were headed by a single parent. But the same poll revealed that only 20 percent of those families were headed by a single dad. It seems foreign for men to raise the children in our culture, and in our churches, people like me are often made to feel invisible.
The good news is we can reach out to the other half of the broken family and rethink our attitudes about single dads. The single-parent household is a crisis that is not going away, and our churches can address it more comprehensively by being intentional.
Realize the Culture Is Changing
A few months ago, I sent an e-mail to my daughter’s teacher. I signed it with my first and last name. The teacher’s reply began, “Dear Mrs. Johnson.” I try not to be hypersensitive to wrong assumptions, but year after year even small slights begin to wear on a dad. Please realize I care about my children’s education and I am a father.
Until recently the children of divorced parents almost always lived with their moms and they saw their dads every other weekend. While that dynamic is still the experience of some children, more and more family courts are giving preference to a 50/50 physical custody arrangement.
So, unless we want to see those children only every other weekend, churches must expand their ministry mind-set to include single dads who have the kids half the time. Additionally, many dads like me have the responsibility of primary custody, and we choose if our children will ever go to church.
When we stereotype and assume active and involved parents are always mothers, we risk alienating single fathers in our community. It sends the message that we don’t understand them and either cannot relate or don’t care about them as parents.
Beware of Unintended Consequences
Without stepping on the theological landmine of God’s gender (or lack of), we must acknowledge that the Scriptures overwhelmingly portray the Lord as our Father. We undermine our own theology when we ignore dads.
Admittedly, some dads are dopes or worse. Some dads are absent. Others are abusive. Sometimes it is easier to ignore the bio-dad and hope he goes away. But what message does that send to the child? “We’re assuming the worst of your dad and ignoring him. And by the way, your Heavenly Father loves you and always wants to be with you.”
Isn’t it far better to assume the best of a dad? How can we exalt God our Father while degrading earthly fathers? There are theological implications to our assumptions and actions, and little eyes and ears are paying attention. It is in their best interest to support both of their parents.
Take Steps Toward Inclusion
Attitudes and theology are great, but ultimately we have to take action. Here are some practical steps for ministering to dads more effectively:
1. E-mail dad too. When you register a child for children’s church or summer camp, there is often only one line for a parent’s e-mail. Provide two lines—one for mom and one for dad. Regardless of which parent brings the child, make sure both parents are on your e-mail list to get all your updates, pictures, and newsletters.
2. Remain neutral. It may be tempting to get sucked into divorce drama, but it’s unproductive. Besides, who are you going to believe? Solomon said, “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines” (Proverbs 18:17). Make sure dads walk through your doors with an even count. The church should be a refuge from family conflict.
3. Never, and I mean never, refer to a dad as a babysitter. Just don’t.
4. Accept the single-dad identity. Some churches unintentionally communicate single-dad status as incomplete or as in-between life goals. Unfortunately, this is a misconception some single dads adopt. We must accept the identity of a single father. The last thing he needs is a date with your cousin. Like yours, his identity is in Christ, not in his marital status.
5. Give him a break. Some single dads are exhausted. Others are financially strapped. We can be sensitive to these needs, especially when the youth trip costs $350 per student and he has three children. Most men will not ask for help. We must take the first step to offer it.
6. Create space with the guys. Since parenting in our culture is still stereotypically maternal, many single dads feel more like one of the gals than one of the guys. If the women of the church are more open and accepting than the men, this dysphoria is perpetuated. Men in the church must reach out to single dads as one of the guys.
7. Speak to his family situation. Single dads should be represented in your next sermon series on parenting. Skipping this family dynamic while speaking to nuclear families and single moms communicates that these men are either ignored or unwanted. Speaking to him and his unique challenges is good pastoral ministry.
These are small steps, but they are steps in the right direction. Awareness is a great beginning, and acknowledgement will speak volumes to single dads. We may not be able to save every marriage, but we can redeem the relationships that remain.
Matt Johnson serves as pastor with Levittown (Pennsylvania) Christian Church.