Sunday, April 07, 2013

The New Normal: In Church Alone

A phenomenon I didn’t expect as a strong, independent woman was the way I feel walking into church alone. It is the hardest thing I have had to navigate as a new widow. I don’t feel sad, so far, just awkward. I’m not alone in this. Any widow, divorcee or single person likely has an “uncomfortable” story.

Why is this? Especially in a place that seeks to have arms wide open. I don’t feel awkward walking into a business alone or into the gym. I think the essence of Christianity is relationship – first with God, then in community. So to be alone can be problematic for any church attendee and appears to be a huge untapped area of ministry within the local church fellowship.

I knew this before. It just didn’t touch me so it wasn’t high on my priority list. Maybe it should have been higher. Maybe if I were gut-level honest, I would have to admit that I didn’t really care. It simply wasn’t on my radar.

My friend Carole, a slightly older single woman who died last March, would often seek out women sitting alone (after services and on Tuesday mornings at the Ladies’ Bible study) and engage them in conversation, “just so they feel like they belong,” she would tell me.

She occasionally called or sent me a Facebook message to inquire what weekend worship service we were attending. Only once or twice did she directly ask to sit with us. I would accommodate her when she asked, though sometimes coordinating our time left her waiting for me. She was never a burden and was never needy or clingy. We were close friends and met weekly in a small group.

However, I rarely made intentional effort to reach out to her on Sundays. When I did, she was very grateful. I didn’t really understand what this meant to her.

Now I do.

Couples and families don’t get this. I don’t fault them for that. I didn’t get it either when my husband was alive. We simply didn’t know what it is like. Marriage and family give an automatic sense of belonging. The need for companionship is met, and out of that base of security, one can venture great distance because there is always someone to come home to. Those who have this benefit are unaware that their “independent” attitude would disappear if the foundational basis of their marriage were gone.

Don’t get me wrong. I have friends at church, good friends. I have divorced friends, single friends, married friends of all ages. I usually meet up with them. I am fortunate to have had a decade of building these relationships and most of these friends are very caring and sensitive to include me in their lives but I don’t plan ahead. They can’t always do this either. I didn’t.

I simply didn't make an effort to include Carole sometimes when I could have done so without any inconvenience. I also recall changing directions one Sunday so that my path would not cross with a recent widow. I blush now, but at the time, I didn’t know what to say to her, which is ludicrous because she’s a lovely conversationalist. It wasn’t up to me to comfort her or minister to her, just to say “Hi” and let the conversation go wherever it will. But my own discomfort trumped relationship. Relationship. The one thing I had and she didn’t. I had the ability to give her this gift and I withheld it. How did I miss this so completely?

Another friend’s husband never attends church with her. He has no interest in spiritual things. She is an inspirational example to me in her spiritual singleness.

I asked her: “How do you do it? Always arriving at church alone?”

“Many Sundays I cried,” she replied. “Sometimes I have a pity party for myself. In my more mature times I look for a single lady, a stranger, and ask if I can sit with her. Sometimes they are waiting for someone else, sometimes they push my gesture away, but on a few occasions I make a friend and encourage a lonely person to come back the next week. A few of those lonely people are still lonely and say that I am the only person who befriended them at church.”

One acquaintance, when she saw me entering the sanctuary alone, warmly invited me to sit with her and her husband. Although I was meeting someone else and declined her invitation, her expression of kindness will stay with me for a long time.

Jesus not only commanded us to care for the needs of widows and orphans, he intentionally sought out the outcast. Think of the woman at the well in Samaria. She hauled water at noon, the hottest time in the day, so she didn’t have to be alone in a crowd when the well-behaved wives came in the cool of the day. Jesus quenched her thirst and she became an evangelist to the whole town. This provides an interesting example for the local church in our outreach efforts. This is an untapped area of ministry, both in providing a place of belonging and a place of service for singles, widows and divorcees and in widening our own circle and becoming sensitive to include those that feel outcast.

I am an active volunteer within the church. Volunteerism can provide an “in” to a group, a sense of belonging and opportunity to build new friendships while I am working to meet the needs of others. Serving others also helps keep my own needs in perspective, but I still have to walk in the building alone to get there.

As a follower of Jesus, whether married with family or alone, I need to develop other-awareness and long-term memory, getting out of myself and reaching out to those in need, engaging others in conversation about more than just my own “stuff”.

In the meantime, my knowledge is increasing - of the Lord who never leaves me, the one who sticks closer than a brother, husband or best friend. The one who said, “You are my beloved, I am yours and you are mine.” My dependence on God is growing exponentially and increased sensitivity has softened my heart to the needs of others. I’ve started conversing with the Lord - out loud, anytime, anywhere - just like I would with any other friend who is present with me.

I can almost hear my Saviour say, “Hey, let’s go find someone and invite them to join us. Two is good, but a trinity is better.”


  1. Thank you for sharing this. It's a hard lesson and I'm sorry you had to learn it this way.

  2. A wonderful post about those who are "invisible" in a crowd. Hopefully, your words will prompt individuals be more observant and reach out to others in their congregations.

  3. Divorced about a year and a half after 37 years of marriage, I find attending church alone painful, lonely, and awkward. I have visited countless churches since the divorce, and finally realized that the reason I haven't settled in one has less to do with the churches themselves and more to do with this issue of attending alone. I consider myself a strong and usually brave woman, but have a long way to go with this. Thank you for your post.