I was a lonely believer. Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it? With Jesus as my best friend, how could I be lonely? But I needed a God-touch from someone with skin on. A newlywed and seminary wife far from family and friends, I felt isolated. God understood. What I could not orchestrate, He did. He appointed a beautiful ensemble of older women in accordance with Titus 2:4 to tuck me under their wings and love me.
Since that time 34 years ago, I have had other lonely moments, the most recent being my transition to the empty nest. My experience as a lonely woman along with feedback from others who have tasted isolation has taught me some things about why women feel alone even in a church full of people, and how to combat that loneliness.
Alone in the Pew
Out of a survey I conducted with church women aged 30 and up, approximately 50% thought that the Church as a whole was not fulfilling Christ's mandate to love one another, resulting in a feeling of isolation among many. Some feel isolated because they are not reaching out to those around them. They prefer to remain alone because it takes too much time and energy to commit to relationship. Paula admits, "I feel alone mostly due to my own scheduling conflicts and family situation." Catherine is brutally honest, confessing, "Yes, I feel alone, but I choose much of my isolation, preferring my own comfort rather than glorifying God."
Martha Furman, pastor's wife and licensed professional counselor, believes many women choose isolation because it's too intimidating to get close. They compare themselves to other women all the time, creating a see-saw effect. They either become prideful over their accomplishments or they lose self-esteem, feeling as though they will never measure up to that other woman.
Still others may feel alone because there is genuine isolation from other church members. Focus is on programs and activities rather than on relationships. Sandra, fed up with so much involvement, pulled out of many activities in order to develop one-on-one relationships, but ended up frustrated because everyone else was still so busy.
Connection Starts with Me
Scripture plainly teaches that relationships are key to a healthy church. Galatians 6:2 encourages us to "carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ." The law of Christ is simply to love others. My survey revealed three main outlets that can help women feel more connected in their local churches.
Out of those surveyed, small group involvement within the context of a larger church body was the primary format for feeling a greater connection. Small groups could take place either at church, in homes, restaurants, or parks. The important thing to these survey participants was that women are getting together outside the church building for fellowship, fun, and sharing on a more intimate level. Building trust and friendship were key elements, so that members had a familiar face to turn to in times of adversity.
God has used my ladies' group to help me feel validated in my church, transition me through trying times, and provide camaraderie as I listen to their "wife and motherhood" stories and pray with them. Out of that group, I have developed a one-on-one discipleship relationship with a new believer.
The next highest consideration among my survey participants was involvement in ministry. Women surveyed felt it crucial to choose at least one area of outreach, whether it be music, teaching, serving, or giving. Members should be encouraged to identify their spiritual gifts in keeping with Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, and Ephesians 4:11-13 and then use them.
Sometimes a woman may feel isolated because she is hurting and not sharing. She needs to understand that she is most vulnerable to feelings of isolation when life changes occur, whether good or bad. New believers, new brides, new mothers, those who have experienced loss, as through death, divorce, miscarriage, or the empty nest, experience felt needs that require a caring touch. It will help others around her know how to respond if she is honest about what is going on in her life.
The third highest consideration among those surveyed was simply inviting women over for desserts, coffee, or a meal. Participants felt that hospitality opened the door for greater possibilities for connection. Other forms of hospitality mentioned were cards, calls, help with housework, car repair, and rides to appointments.
God gave me some good teachers of hospitality when, as a new wife, an older lady from our congregation took me under her wing and into her home. I cooked right alongside her and picked up household tips, like sticking straight pins in ivory soap to sharpen them.
Martha visited a 100-year-old woman in her final days. She asked the wise lady, "Why do you think everyone is so busy?" The lady replied, "Because of selfishness." She explained that women are selfish when they do not take some time out for themselves to just play with other women. And women are selfish when they are overly busy, thinking they are doing what they do for others, when in reality, they may be only thinking of themselves.
In their book, The Power of Hospitality, Chuck and Kathie Crismier site statistics that 70% of all people come to Christ through personal relationships. Hospitality can cut through racial, family, societal, and denominational barriers.
If you are a woman who is feeling isolated, you're not alone. Perhaps connection begins with you. Take Christ's mandate to love your sister seriously. This Sunday reach out to that woman beside you with a handshake or a smile. Maybe even invite her over for lunch. Who knows? That person may just be feeling alone in the pew, too.
Eileen Hinkle Rife is the author of the Born for India trilogy (OakTara). She and her husband, Chuck, conduct marriage seminars in the States and overseas. She is currently working on a gift book of cute kid quips inspired by her six grandchildren. www.eileenrife.com