Do Single People Matter?…or…What Is The UU Definition Of Family?

I’ve been in some conversations lately about family ministry. The conversations have been interesting and timeful, but I’ve come out of them feeling uneasy.

In all of our UU talk of family ministry, are we implicitly telling those who are uncoupled and/or don’t have children that they are unnecessary to the church? In less complicated words…do single people and/or those who are child-free matter to UU churches?

Don’t get me wrong…I think family ministry is important. But does the church (and by this I mean all churches, not just UU churches), by focusing so much on ‘building strong families’ or ‘enriching families’, tell those who not coupled and/or don’t have children that they are somehow less-than…not worthy of being ministered to?

How many UU churches have a really vibrant Singles ministry? (and don’t tell me about your young adult ministry, that’s not the same thing and not what I’m talking about) Where is the Couples ministry in a/any UU church? Ministries for those who have lost a partner?

What is the UU definition of family? Who are we excluding by that definition?


15 thoughts on “Do Single People Matter?…or…What Is The UU Definition Of Family?

  1. My post from a few weeks ago,

    There’s been a few posts on keeping kids raised UU in Church. I’m not going to gather them up and link them here, but it’s a recurring topic in the UU blogosphere.

    I’m betting the answer simple: the young are single and few UU Churches offer much for single people. That’s an assertion from knowing three UU Churches over the years in Illinois and Northern Virginia. Those Churches oriented towards families, couples, and maybe surviving partners, but offered very little to single people.

    There must certainly be exceptions (Micah’s Porch in Chicago?) but I’m betting darn few.

    More people will live the majority of their lives as singles either by choice, divorce, or surviving a partner than ever before in human history. We’re not very will equipped to deal with it…we meaning UUs.

  2. There are certainly some dominant narratives in UU-Land. In some congregations we have special services at which we tell the stories of “How I Became UU” but have no corresponding “How I Was Raised UU” or “How Being Raised UU Saved My Life.” The dominant narrative is of adult conversion from nothing or from something else. That’s the main way we see ourselves. As adult come-inners. And we all know and smile at the “truth” of the joke that implies that Unitarians are (just) atheists with kids. That is, all the way around, the primary way our narrative is shaped is around adults with children who need our RE programs.

    I have no idea how that narrative is reflected in the statistical reality of our churches. But the fact that we still tell our stories in these ways surely makes it more difficult to recognize the needs of and build ministries to serve those who are not specifically included in the paradigm.

    With the Welcoming Congregation program, we have sought to expand the narrative to include LGBTQQI persons. But the narrative is still not quite as inclusive as we see ourselves as reflected in the Principles.

    If we want to serve and reach and retain and maintain singles/ young adults/ couples without children/ etc., we probably need to work on restructuring our dominant narratives to be more fully inclusive – even when we’re joking about ourselves.

  3. Kim,

    I don’t know if you’ve seen the UUA “Tapestry of Faith” youth curriculum called “Families.” You can find it online here:

    One of the curriculum activities has the youth explore the definition of family includes the following information:

    ” … participants may be interested in the idea that some people hold their families in their hearts, even when they may seem to have no family at all. Share the following true story from a UU congregation as you see fit:

    ‘Within one UU congregation there was a celebration of newly signed members at the start of the worship service. An older man, with whom the congregation was acquainted, explained his decision to become a member by saying: “When she was alive, my wife was always telling me that I should join this place, join this congregation. As you know she died two years ago. And since that time she has been even more insistent, so I’m giving in. Now I’m a member.”‘

    Invite youth to reflect on what the man meant. Are there times when they ‘hear’ family members, even when they are not present?”

    In addition to this story, the youth also have an activity where they discuss the meaning of the word “family” and discuss if the following groups would be considered families:

    List of Potential Family Groups

    * Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

    * An eighteen-year-old living alone

    * One youth, two households: one with a mother, stepfather, and sister; and another with a father

    * A foster child living with two children and a dad

    * A woman and her two children living with her sister, who also has two children

    * A boy living with his mother; his aunt living with his uncle and two girl children; a grandmother living in an assisted-living facility

    * A mother, one child, and a live-in nanny

    The purpose for having these conversations is to attempt moving the word “family” a broader meaning where single young adults and single elders might be both “families of one” and also members of families that dispersed geographically, chronologically, and in other ways.

    If you want to have a discussion about Unitarian Universalists and family ministry, you may want to check out this curriculum resource.

  4. As around 50% of UU Congregations have 100 or less members – I suspect that explains why (lets guess half) of the congregations don’t have good singles ministry (or good family ministry either).

  5. Forgive me for being a wise ass Kim but I am pretty sure that the Roman Catholic Church does not “tell those who not coupled and/or don’t have children that they are somehow less-than…not worthy of being ministered to.” Heck Roman Catholic ministers aka priests are not supposed to be coupled and, generally speaking, do not have children.

    • Robin-
      I’ll disagree with you slightly. I do think the RCC tells those who don’t take Orders that if they are single…they are unworthy. And, as I am remembering my friend’s wedding…the priest told them that it was their duty to have children. So what about those that can’t have children…for whatever reason? Or those who don’t have children?

  6. I *did* say “forgive me for being a wise ass” Kim.

    Just being my usual waggish self and did not intend that my comment be taken *too* seriously, I am aware of the issues you raise above.

  7. Given that people with kids are so busy, who does all the charity/committee/pastoral care/etc work in the churches that aren’t welcoming to singles and couples without kids? Do these churches manage to convince parents to serve on the board? If so, how?

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  9. I would venture that churches tend to cater more to families–meaning family units with children–because that is who is more likely to be looking for a church.
    I’ve talked with so many people over the years who said “I went to college, then I stopped going to church for a few years, then I had kids, so I went back to church.” Many people want to bring kids to church because it seems like “the thing to do”, even if it’s not the same denomination they came from.

    In my first couple months at First U, there was another young couple without children who came a couple times. They were nice, but they didn’t stick around. I think having children who get involved in activities like Sunday School tends to “anchor” a family unit in a church. It’s easier to roll over and sleep in on a Sunday morning when you don’t have a little person to bring somewhere for 10:30 am. So people with kids would be more likely to come, to stay, to contribute (both financially and effort) to the church.

    I’m 30, married, and don’t have kids. I can count on one hand how many of my friends without kids go to church. Thanks to facebook, I can tell you have many went to a rock concert that kept them out until 2 a.m. on Saturday night, and that number is higher than the number of church goers. My friends who are church goers went to college close to home, and stayed continuously involved with the congregations of their childhoods. I am the exception, since I moved away and changed denominations a couple times. I am also the only one of my siblings who goes to church. It could be a demographic thing.

    I don’t feel any less valued at First U as a childless woman.
    Groups that are focused on broadly defined groups (like women, men, seniors) and on interests or activities (like Zen or charity work) are a way for anyone to get involved, and I have chosen to take advantage of them.

    However, the church should work harder to offer support for non-parenting issues in our lives, for example:

    A marriage enrichment group or workshop would be nice.
    I know there’s an adult sex ed curriculum from the UUA. I’m interested in that.
    Groups to help with grief, widows/widowers.
    Groups/workshops to help seniors prepare for their needs (fiscal, end-of-life, etc.).

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  11. Thoughtful post, Kim.

    For the most part, I think we call it “family ministry” for lack of a better word. It could be “ministry to families with children” (as it often is called), but we don’t mean people with children, we mean people with children living at home . . . In my church we sometimes talk about the needs of “people who are actively parenting,” and a 70-year-old woman will laugh and say “You’re NEVER done actively parenting.” You get the idea.

    IMO, this language-wrangling becomes dominant only when it evokes a need that’s being unmet. The need is, as you say, for a vibrant singles ministry, a vibrant ministry for couples and elders and singles over 50 and you name it. We have pretty small churches, so these will not likely be lots of separate groups. So maybe we need to ask about other ways to be welcoming to all configurations of families, and to people who say “I’m not a family, I’m just me.”

    I just don’t want it to be an excuse for shortchanging ministries to children and teens. Long before I became a parent myself, I thought one of the most important things a congregation could do was raise up children to be people with “open minds, helping hands, and loving hearts.” If that isn’t a goal of everyone in the church, regardless of parental status, exactly what kind of a world do we imagine we’re going to have in 50 years?

  12. I have often felt that adult groups based on age and relationship status have some exclusionary aspect. I understand that there might be some common interests and needs of parents with young children or teens; but when we start dividing up into groups where those of us who aren’t “young adults” and have no children don’t belong, it can feel a bit lonely. My workplace and most of my life happens with people who have a range of ages, relationship status, and parental status. Why do we want to carve up a church along these particular demographics?

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