Including All Families

This article is featured in the Families in the Family of God (May/June/July 2013) issue of Circuit Rider

“Draw the circle wide, draw it wider still. Let this be our song, no one stands alone. Standing side by side, draw the circle wide, draw the circle wide.” –Mark Miller, “Draw the Circle Wide,” Worship and Song, 3154


By its very nature, any community includes some people and excludes others. The hymn lyrics above remind us that as Christians our call is to draw the circle of belonging wide; all are welcome at our table, and in our congregations. Unfortunately, we can unintentionally exclude people by making assumptions about their lives and needs. In no area is this more tenuous than when talking about the families that comprise our congregations.

We tend to imagine the typical American household as one with a married couple and a couple of children. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract of the United States for 2012, the reality is much different. Of the 117.5 million households in 2010, slightly less than half (58.4 million) had married couples in them, and less than half of those (22.1 million) had children under the age of fifteen in them. This means that less than one quarter of the households in the U.S. are what we might call a “traditional family.”

Yet, in the church, we still focus much of our programming and communication efforts on the traditional family, which can, if we are not careful, exclude and alienate three quarters of the people in our communities.

When we pause to think about the types of families that are present in our communities and churches, we begin to see the diversity of families: single people (of all ages), unmarried couples (both straight and gay), with and without children, single mothers, single fathers, blended families, grandparents or other relatives raising children, children who split time between divorced or separated parents, families with foster children, multiple generations living together, and the list goes on. We believe that God’s grace is for all people, but how do we communicate and live that out in our faith communities?

Watch Your Language

One of the most immediate ways that families discern your attitude toward their makeup is through your use of language; something as simple as the words you use can let a family know if they will be warmly welcomed at your church. Paying attention to your language is not about being politically correct and trying to keep from offending people; rather, it is about helping people feel accepted and loved, just as they are.

Next time you are in a worship service, listen for obvious and subtle ways family structures are referenced. You may be surprised by how often mothers and fathers are specifically mentioned, particularly to children. If a child is without a present and active mother or father (due to any number of factors, such as divorce, deployment, death, or having same-gender parents), repeated mention of that parent sends an unconscious message that this child is different than others. From there, it’s a short and easy leap to believing that he or she and their “different” family don’t belong in the worship service or congregation. There is nothing wrong with highlighting moms and dads as role models, but grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, older siblings, friends, stepparents and foster parents also serve and inspire – why not mix it up and use alternative or additional examples? You need not mention every relationship every time, but varying the familial references can go a long way in helping the congregation understand family in more inclusive terms.

Print and media materials provide another highly-visible opportunity to implicitly include or exclude various types of families. Do your publication pieces and website have pictures of all different types of households, or do you tend to use pictures of only one or two types? When you talk about involvement and membership, do you echo Article IV of the Constitution of the UMC, which says that all persons are eligible to participate in the life of the church? When you ask newcomers for their contact information or register children and youth for programs, do you say something open-ended like, “List individual family members and their information below (include yourself and everyone in your household),” or do you ask specifically for mother, father, and children? Is there room to list two physical addresses for kids who live with two families? Or do you assume that one child means one address, with a mom and a dad? How are children of divorced parents loaded into your database so that both parents are kept informed of ministry communications?

Name Wisely

The ways in which we talk about our ministries within the church are also important. Our church used to lump together all the programs and activities that were not age-specific into a category called “Family Ministry.” The intention was to include families of all types; instead, many folks assumed that “Family Ministry” meant families with children. Within the last few years, we have shifted our language to “All Church” or “Church-wide.” After the change of language surrounding our annual retreat, one of our older single adults stated something to the effect of, “I didn’t know that I was invited on the retreat. I don’t have a family. I am my family.” Since then, she has been involved in the leadership of the retreat. How many years did we miss out on her presence with us simply because of a misleading name?

Event names can also put up unintentional barriers. Consider the popular and traditional Daddy-Daughter Dance. If a child has no present father, she can likely find an uncle, grandfather, or family friend to escort her, but she is all too aware that she is different. She is the exception. The same issue applies with any gender-specific events, whether it’s Mother/Son, Mother/Daughter, Father/Son. Instead of zeroing in on specific familiar relationships, perhaps you could hold a “Small and Tall Ball” or a “She and Me Campout.” It may lose some of its alliterative allure, but it still gives children a chance to strengthen their bond with the important adults in their lives. By choosing language more carefully, more people, especially kids, can feel included and welcomed.

Plan Carefully

No matter what you call your congregation’s special events, care must be taken when scheduling and organizing your ministry. Children’s schedules vary dramatically with their ages, and the family’s availability is additionally dependent on the adults’ work schedules. Regularly holding church events at 7 p.m. or later will prevent families with young children from attending, as disregarding children’s sleep schedules can be disastrous for busy families! At the same time, only hosting daytime events excludes families with adults who work the traditional 9-5 workday. The best approach may be to offer a varied ministry schedule. No one program or schedule can meet everyone’s needs, but by offering several options, perhaps all families can participate in some way. Some kids will be able to attend both daytime and early evening programs, but even more kids are able to attend at least one of them.

It is especially important to think broadly when providing pastoral care to diverse families, especially in times of celebration or grief. Family-centric holidays like Mother’s and Father’s Days are important, but take care that they are honored in a way that doesn’t isolate some families. Having all the mothers in the congregation stand, for example, is like an arrow through the heart of a woman who is struggling with infertility. When new children do arrive, their family experiences a major transition, whether this is the first child or fifth, and regardless of how the child comes into the family. Adoptive families may have different needs than biological families, but they all need to be supported and celebrated. In times of deep sadness, refrain from making assumptions regarding the nature of particular relationships: the death of a grandparent can be a fairly minor trauma to a child who has only met him or her a few times, but it can be absolutely devastating to a child whose grandparent resides in the home. When celebrating marriage anniversaries, recognize that there may be couples in the congregation who are not (and perhaps cannot be) legally married but celebrate an anniversary special to them. Again, don’t assume that you know who might have these special dates—go ahead and ask.

Know Your Community

Beyond keeping your congregational life family-friendly, it is vital to know your neighbors well so that you can reach out to the community. Maybe there are families with young children who could use help with childcare, single parents of school-aged children who could use an afterschool program, or single adults who would benefit from events designed to foster meaningful relationships in a community of care. Basic demographic research will give you a good start, but get to know your community by spending time with them, especially those who might not already feel at home in your congregation. Ask yourself how the church can love and serve them, and if you don’t know how you can help, then simply ask them.

It is rarely, if ever, our intention to exclude people from the life of the church; but without intentional consideration of inclusion of all family types, we are bound to leave someone out. May we all continue to draw the circle wide, and wider still.

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