Society no longer has a cookie-cutter family unit. Churches are made up of large families, small families, and single-parent families, a growing segment in congregations. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are roughly 13.6 million single parents in the United States today who are raising 21.2 million children.

Churches desire to better minister to these families but often aren't sure what's needed. Further complicating matters, single-parent homes are formed through death, divorce, adoption, foster parenting, and singles who have never married, all having unique needs.

If the single-parent family group could talk, what would they tell church leaders are the areas that would help make a difference in their church experience? Also, what key themes would church leaders consider important for single-parent families to know as they strive to serve them?

What Churches Can Do

1. Recognize unique needs.

Activities should encourage everyone, whether single, married, or divorced, to be involved. Sometimes church staff need to affirm the fact that single-parent families (and singles) are families. For activities involving dads or moms, churches should be sensitive to ensure that if a child is from a single-parent home, there's a staff member or church volunteer stand-in available should that parent be unable to attend. As a single parent, it may be awkward to ask if it's OK to be different with an aunt or uncle accompanying. And everyone knows, kids don't like to be viewed as different.

2. Provide a support system.

Sometimes stepping through the door to a new church as a single parent can feel like going on a job interview, but the sitter canceled. You're ready to put your best foot forward, but someone spilled something in the car, you forgot to make sure the kids put their underwear on, your daughter's wearing one black shoe and one brown shoe, there's something all over your shirt, and the list goes on.

Churches should consider enlisting emergency crews to help when needs arise. These families or individuals would be ready to step in to help single-parent families with things like car trouble, broken heat or air conditioning, and other issues that require major assistance.

Not everything requires an emergency crew. Less intense needs might include offering dependable baby-sitters' names or having child care available so that single parents can attend adult church functions or Bible studies. Other willing church members may offer assistance to single-parent families with repair projects, tutoring, or computer issues. Some churches have an "adopted" family or grandparents who occasionally invite single-parent families to lunch or dinner. These simple actions go a long way toward helping single parents remain active in the church.

3. Offer words of encouragement.

Without a mate, there's often not someone at home to encourage a single parent or child. Single parents are busy juggling day-to-day needs of their children, home, and career, with little back-up. They often don't have time to reflect upon what's going well in their children's lives or even in their own lives. Typically, evaluation only occurs when there's a problem.

Sharing an encouraging word via text, card, email, or phone call with single parents can make a huge difference with those moms or dads as they're trying to raise godly children. Hearing or reading a compliment can remind a single parent that God is working in his or her life.

4. Foster inclusion.

Some congregations may be too small to have a single-parents class. If this is the case, teachers need to make a conscious effort to include singletons in their couples class planning. If the ages of parents or their kids are relatively close, many of the issues they're facing are universal. Of course, coping and managing with two parents versus one parent are different, but lots of commonalities can be shared.

Single parents should also be included in social planning. Teachers and those assisting with the administration of the class can help by looking for similarities within the group, such as children who attend the same school or participate in similar sports or activities, to help promote relationships or initiate conversations.

Most adults fall into the habit of including their usual group of familiar friends and their spouses in conversations because it's easy. Fostering icebreakers at gatherings and in class can help initiate discussion among groups of people who don't always converse regularly. It can also relieve the pressure of single parents having to introduce themselves. Think about it like attending a convention. If you're with colleagues, it's much easier to introduce yourself as part of a group than one person who's there alone.

5. Create a network.

Planned gatherings for single parents are great ways to help bring together people experiencing similar life situations. If there are only a few in a congregation, consider reaching out to other local churches and combining groups for an event. Seek out mentors in the church who are or were once single parents, or even those raised by single parents who have a heart for this ministry area. Have a volunteer meet and greet attendees and ask them to sign in so that the church can invite them to other events. Kick things off with a prepared volunteer telling their funniest single-parent story, and then invite others to share. Laughter is great for creating a network.

What Single Parents Must Remember

Churches want to help.

A church staff may not fully understand the personal struggles a single parent has or experiences, but their ultimate desire is to minister to them and their children. Jesus ministered to people in the midst of their circumstances, and churches desire to do this, too.

Defining needs is challenging.

Knowing and understanding what needs exist in members' lives and those of the communities that churches serve is challenging. Most church staff members are married, and few have experienced a divorce or faced raising children on their own. They don't always know the best way to serve a single-parent family unless someone makes them aware of needs. This is where single parents can help by communicating issues, offering ideas for classes and activities, or suggesting programs other churches have successfully offered. For any family, including a church family, communication is key. Speaking the truth in love is always the best way to initiate a conversation. Meeting needs must first start with defining those needs. Those with the life experience, the single parents, are the best to develop the definition.

All members have problems.

Single parents aren't alone in the trials they face. Despite the contented outward appearance of families in a congregation on Sunday, these are hurting people living in an imperfect world. Everyone has issues in life and must depend on God to get them through. What may seem like an ideal marriage or family to other church members may not be quite so easy. Health issues, caring for aging parents, job loss, underemployment, financial shortfalls, medical bills, children with learning disabilities, infidelity, substance abuse, and other common problems are part of many families' lives today. Church should serve as the haven for believers to come together and support one another despite any issues an individual or family may face.

Single parents must be willing to communicate, be open to the love given by their church as they make efforts to meet their needs, and possess a willingness to accept help when it's offered. By following Jesus' example, the church should love people unconditionally and minister to them where they are in life. Acknowledging the changes in family demographics will stop the one-size-fits-all mentality and help create a one-church-serves-all congregation for all families.

This article is courtesy of HomeLife Magazine.

Shannon Stegall works full-time and is a freelance writer in her spare moments. She's raising Shelby and Samantha as a single parent in all remaining waking hours. She and her daughters attend Providence Baptist Fellowship in Nolensville, Tenn.