The Parish’s Fifth Wheel

It is interesting to make comparisons between Thornton Wilder’s great play Our Town, set in a New England village in the early 1900s, and life in America in the 2000s.

The family in the play — father, mother, and two children — was typical throughout the U.S. in the 1900s. Today, for every married couple in the United States, there is a single adult. Between 1950 and 2000, singles increased from one-fourth to one-third of the population over 19, and single-person households increased from 10.9 percent to 22.6 percent.

In Our Town, the single characters were young and on their way to the altar. Today, singles range in age from early 20s to retirement. Some have never married, some are widowed or divorced, some are single by choice, and others single through no wish of their own.

They may live alone, with dependent children, with relatives, or with other people. Some are “just passing through” singlehood, while others are “not looking.” Studies show that of single people over 19 in the United States in the past decade, 42 percent were men and 58 percent were women.

Amid such a drastically changed pattern of social life, the Church must retool her ministry if she is to be effective in meeting the spiritual needs of people. No longer can parish programs be geared only to families; they must also speak to the needs of the middle-aged single man, the career girl, the divorcee, the widowed, and those who choose alternative life styles. In many parishes, these groups may represent half or more of the membership.

When parishes focus their programs only on families they often create a feeling of alienation among the many other groups. One single woman in an Arizona parish expressed her frustration by saying, “It’s like you are not always sure how to interact with people. When you’re single and they’re married, you feel like a fifth wheel.”

The Fifth Wheel Group

This “fifth wheel” group has indeed become a significant part of most parishes. Unless clergy and leaders of parishes begin to plan programs to meet their needs — as well as the needs of traditional families — these non-traditional people will be lost to the Church.

Take the example of Jim Lingscheit, vice president of a ceramic technology firm in California, who observed, “I think a person who is single walks around sensitized to everyone being a couple.” His image of the world has deep roots in our culture. As one character in Our Town says, “Most everyone climbs into their grave married.”

When local parishes begin to recognize the necessity of ministering to the needs of a great variety of people, they not only are able to retain these people, but also they experience exciting growth in membership. The parish community can become important to singles. As one graduate student described his satisfaction with his congregation, “I feel I’m stabilized, like an atom being related to a larger molecule.”

But a sense of belonging varies widely with people and parishes. Some blend in comfortably as did one widowed woman in a West Coast parish who commented on the warmth and support she received from fellow members after the death of her husband nine years ago: “I’m still with those people who were so loving and caring. I’ve felt like a single person.” Others who are single for one reason or another, do not share such feelings and see themselves as definitely being “fifth wheels.”

Some people in the various types of singles categories participate in the liturgical life of the parish, but avoid all social gatherings. One single 28-year-old serviceman explained, “There are other activities I can go to, but dinners are for couples. I feel out of place.” Another man echoed this thought by stating, “The family things such as banquets are important for the parish, but they’re not for me.”

Not only do parishes need to provide special ministries for various types of single people, a positive aspect, they also need to avoid situations that can be interpreted as negative. I am reminded of the divorcee in Minneapolis who tells of listening in church one Sunday to a homily on loyalty.

The analogy used for disloyalty was that it is like divorce. She recalls how painful that analogy was for her, especially when her six-year-old leaned over and whispered, “Does that mean we are bad?”

Some Suggestions

Without support groups and sensitive clergy and laity, those who are single may be forced to go outside the parish for the caring and help they need. What can your parish do to establish and maintain a ministry to singles as well as to the family? The following suggestions have grown out of the experiences of parishes that are meeting this challenge:

1. Establish a committee or committees of interested people who are ready to respond immediately to crises. Their work may range anywhere from providing casseroles to visiting and having prayer.

2. How about a parish-wide sponsor program. Each member has a sponsor and, in turn, sponsors someone else. This involves keeping in touch with that person and offering help when it is needed. A good sponsor system is blind to age, gender or marital status, but focuses on person-to-person relationships.

3. Consider special groups designed specifically for single people. Some parishes have organizations that adhere to strict rules specifying that they are for singles only.

4. Arrange workshops for people with special needs. These may include seminars on themes such as recovering from divorce or dealing with the loss of a loved one.

5. Consider a newsletter which focuses on the various programs of the parish, including those designed for singles. It can become a valuable organ for communication and spurring interest.

6. When you have parish dinners and people tend to congregate as families, consider setting up tables with signs “for singles only.” This helps bring together people who are united by at least one common situation. It may also decrease the alienation singles feel when trapped at a dinner table where all the others are discussing “my kids and your kids.”

One woman in Oregon compared entering a church as a single woman to entering a restaurant alone. The ushers (waiters) look past you to see “how many are in your party.” And when they realize you are alone, they get an uncomfortable look on their faces that lets you know right away that you are an exception from the norm.

While no one group can offer support for members as diversified as the young never-married single, the grandmother whose husband has just died, or the woman who has recently divorced with young children, parishes need to evaluate their programming. Is every member being served in the name of Christ?

We are fooling ourselves if we think society is still composed primarily of the traditional family. If we have any hope of rekindling the fire of the Gospel and the sacraments, we must address issues that exclude members of the Body of Christ from full participation in the activities of parish life. Whether we like it or not, if people can’t find the caring community they need in the Church, they’ll go elsewhere to find it.

REV. DICKSON, a college chemistry instructor, retired as a Lutheran pastor after 48 years and is the author of nine books and lives in Hickory, N.C.