Church growth is more than attracting the married

To help readers prepare for Valentine’s Day, ReadTheSpirit published a column by the Rev. Carolyne Call, a scholar, congregational consultant and author of Spiritually Healthy Divorce, published by SkyLight Paths.
Here’s a link to that column, called A Valentine to the Divorced.

Of course, Carolyne’s work extends far beyond February 14. As a congregational consultant, she knows that church leaders are universally interested in church growth strategies—but most appear to be ignoring the fact that half of American adults aren’t married anymore. Church growth, these days, depends on attracting more than typical nuclear families.

Carolyne Call spoke with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm …


DAVID: We are recommending your book to readers, even if they’re not going through a divorce, because it’s such a helpful book to have on hand. For clergy, lay leaders in congregations or simply members of a family—this book can open eyes to the tough spiritual challenges of divorce.

But you’re trying to help congregations come to terms with a wide range of issues. Let’s start, today, by bursting another myth: When we talk about divorce, or the poverty that may be related to divorce, we’re not talking exclusively about big urban centers. You’re also an expert on ministry in rural America—and you know that these tough issues are part of rural America, too, right?

CAROLYNE: Oh, yes. My own family background is in farming. My father grew up on a farm in western New York that’s still very active. I’ve always felt connected to rural life and I’m very concerned about the spiritual needs of those who live in these regions of the country. I’ve known since I was young that there were stereotypes about people in rural areas—and sometimes those stereotypes are that everything is fine in these communities. Every family is intact; all values are strong; everyone eats dinner together. The truth is that rural poverty is an enormous issue that’s largely invisible in our country. Divorce also is a huge issue in these areas. Spousal abuse is an issue. Suicide is an issue. The truth is that rural communities need a lot of support and congregations can help to provide that.

DAVID: You’re moving to the Midwest yourself.

CAROLYNE: I’m going to be the Associate Conference Minister for the Indiana-Kentucky Conference of the United Church of Christ. One of my main goals is that I want to strengthen the sense of community within that conference. Across the country, a lot of churches are small. A lot of clergy feel isolated. We need to weave a tighter web among communities.

DAVID: When you talk about these issues, I know that you’re also trying to open the eyes of church leaders to how widely families are defined these days.


CAROLYNE: Think about how churches celebrate Advent. A lot of churches invite members to come up and light Advent candles in the weeks before Christmas and usually that’s reserved for families. This becomes a very strong image for people attending these churches. The ideal becomes this family—a husband, wife and children—who walk up front and light the candles. But, imagine how people feel, year after year, who are single or divorced or have no children or are in other kinds of relationships. They start to see themselves as less than complete in the church’s eyes—perhaps they even see themselves with a sense of failure.

These messages are all around us in churches. That’s one reason I wrote that column about Valentine’s Day from the perspective of a divorced person. Just think about what all of our typical Valentine’s Day messages feel like to people who are divorced.

DAVID: We aren’t suggesting that all church leaders are callous. That’s not the problem. One big reason that you wrote your new book is that most Americans simply aren’t aware of the status of marriage in our country. At ReadTheSpirit, we’ve reported on the fact that, at this point, only 51 percent of American adults are married, according to U.S. Census data analyzed by the Pew Research Center. In just a few years, the percentage of married Americans will be less than 50 percent. That’s the trend. As recently as 1960, three quarters of Americans were married. We’re in a dramatically different community, now.

CAROLYNE: The problem is that the majority of people don’t know about these trends. Television is such a powerful force in shaping what we think and the movies, too. Popular culture still tells us that the ideal is a married couple with children. But, if people stop and begin to take an inventory of the people in our lives—our relatives and co-workers and people we know—then we do begin to realize that there is a new landscape of relationships out there.


DAVID: Why aren’t clergy pushing for a greater awareness of these issues? Is it a lack of training?

CAROLYNE: I think that a lot of this does have to do with education. Most clergy are not prepared to do ministry outside the norms of marriage and families with children. Most seminaries aren’t producing people who are prepared for this. Clergy have a hard enough time helping people go through a divorce, let alone working with people in other kinds of relationships. We need new educational programs. We need to find ways to reach out to all of the people who are at the edges of our congregations already—and who already have one foot out the door.

DAVID: Where do we start? Obviously, we need new educational programs. We need more books like your new one—on a wide range of emerging topics about families and relationships. But, any final thoughts on where we can take first steps?

CAROLYNE: I hope we begin with humility. In general, I think we need to embrace humility in the church more than we do. And, we need to embrace humility when it comes to understanding the human heart in relationships. We need to recognize that the way one person’s heart works and moves may be quite different than our own. Some church leaders think this idea sounds funny, when I begin to explain it. After all, we’re supposed to be experts in teaching about God’s love—so we think we’re experts in all kinds of love. But, that’s not the case. And, if we think about it, we can agree that God’s love is vast and complex and mysterious. Human love is the same—complex and mysterious.

Where do we start? One place to start is at each other’s feet—sitting at each other’s feet and listening a lot more than we do now. As church leaders, we’re supposedly good listeners, but genuine good listening is very difficult. We need to realize that, when we’re hearing a person share their story honestly, we’re hearing something sacred. We need to start with a deeper realization, a humbling realization, that when we honestly, truly share our stories with other people—we’re on sacred ground.

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Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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