Me, the invisible woman in the church pew

Lately, I’ve run across a situation at church that baffles me. I don’t know if this is a problem in Christian churches overall, but here it goes.

People don’t want to be friends.

After our previous church split, we stuck around for several months until finally admitting that we were all miserable: we’d lost all our friends, the leaders made several decisions that didn’t work well for our family, and, worse, our children complained that they were bored and hated church. That is definitely not what a parent wants to hear.

So in January 2013, we started visiting churches. This is the Bible Belt, remember, so there are lots of churches to try. To date, we’ve visited six churches. Big churches, small churches, ones with lots of older people, ones with lots of younger people, ones that have multi-million dollar building facilities, ones that meet in elementary schools, even a house church.

We’re not church hoppers; we’re actively trying to find a home church. We’ve settled on a large church in our area, and our children have adjusted and even made friends. So far, so good. We’re okay with the music, the preaching, and most (but not all) of the theology. We don’t want to change churches again; our kids need consistency.

But the adults aren’t as welcoming to me and my husband. We’ve been in three Sunday school classes at this particular church, and no one’s displayed any interest in us. They ask three things:

What’s your name? (Laura.)

How long have you been in this area? (Twenty-five years.)

Can you fill out a visitor information card? (Yes.)

That’s it. Occasionally, they’ll ask where my husband works. (No one at any church we’ve tried has asked what I do. We went to one particular class for two-and-a-half months, including a couple of social events, and no one knew that I’m a writer.)

To a curious degree, they exhibit a curious lack of curiosity about us as people. I find this absolutely bizarre. I mean, if you meet someone new, aren’t you at all interested in knowing about that person?

This isn’t a “Very Large Church” issue. It happened to us at the small churches, too. Initially, they were extremely welcoming, did a little happy dance at getting visitors, all that sort of thing. We got more questions, usually directed at my husband about work and job-related things, and the marketing and sales pitch for the church. But as time passed and we continued to attend, the members went back to their familiar friends, and we sat alone and unnoticed on the church pews. People were friendly, but they didn’t want to be our friends.

I’ll note that it was typically the MEN talking. The women stayed quiet or stuck to their groups of female friends. The times when I tried to engage a particular woman in conversation, she answered in monosyllables and never bounced the conversational ball back into my court. Don’t tell me that she must be an introvert; as soon as her friends came along, she was a chatterbox.

I had women, including teacher’s wives, who never made eye contact with me—ever. We spent over two months in one class, and I don’t think there was a single woman in there who knew my first name, much less anything about my life.

Yesterday, I tried to talk to a lady near us in Sunday School Class #3. She was willing to talk about her kids, but never asked me anything about my daughters, even when I mentioned them. It’s as if the women are all “friended-up” and don’t want to meet anyone new.

Look, I realize that I’m an introvert and shy and socially anxious and bipolar. I’m not an easy person to befriend or be friends with. I get that. Still, I can carry on a conversation with reasonable proficiency when given the chance. But I can’t carry on a conversation alone. That’s a monologue, and I’d prefer to leave those up to the likes of Hamlet and Macbeth, thank you very much. It just baffles me that church people think it’s okay to ignore visitors or behave with only surface-level friendliness toward other attenders.

I feel like I’m the invisible woman. Believe me, invisibility isn’t a superpower I want to display at church. It emotionally drains me to go through this week after week. I’d rather curl up in the church library with a book than put myself out there yet another time.

Forget about fitting in at church: I know that’s not going to happen in a city as totally devoted to technology as mine is. There’s simply too many engineer-types for an artsy person to truly feel comfortable here. But it would be nice to have my fellow Christians show some interest in me, especially when I try very hard to take interest in them.

Is this something that other people have experienced?

 

 

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Categories: Christianity, friendship | Tags: , , , | 32 Comments

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32 thoughts on “Me, the invisible woman in the church pew

  1. Paul Lanier

    I’ve noted this phenomenon too, and I think its a variation of “we’ve got our clique,” and it seems one more person to include is difficult for most people to do. I really don’t know what to do about this, since some people seem to be able to break in and others find it really difficult to do so. Personally, I slowly connect to people around me, as I find out their interests and attend several social events with them; and I make a concerted effort to keep connected to people and try to include new people in my group of friends. But, the old high-school phenomenon of “just us few” seem to keep turning up. The best remedy I’ve found is to be open to people, not to push them, and to keep going to social events of the church and trying to plug into the church and do ministry. Still, it’s not a perfect remedy and I don’t think it always works. However, my bet is that if one surveys the church scene over time, one will notice people who don’t seem to fit into the usual cliques and who are more like oneself (for instance, artsy rather than engineer) and one can start to build friendships with these people more easily than the ones who are “already friend-ed up.” And, I hate to say this, though, but cliques are stubborn habits, that humans find difficult to give up, even church people who know better from the example Jesus made in intentionally crossing group lines to befriend and help people.

    Blessings,
    Paul Lanier

    • Thanks for sharing, Paul. I think cliques are a huge issue in churches, both big and small. (I’ve noticed this a lot in women’s Bible studies, unfortunately.) I’d love to find some more artsy people at this church (with 5000+ members, there should be at least one other artsy person!) but I’m afraid that with that size crowd, I’ll never find that person. I’ll keep trying.

  2. Oh my gosh, yes! We moved to another state and left a church where we had and still have close friends. We were in our late 20s. Many joined at the same time we did when the relatively new church went through it’s first membership boom. We raised our kids together, has small groups together, went out to eat and camping together, all that good friend stuff.

    I didn’t think it would be so hard to make friends at another church. We get involved in service, not just show up and go away. Our first church in our new state was small and most people it seems were members of a few key families. All the women did things together but never included me. There was no formal women’s ministry. The men did a few things so hubby had some social time. Maybe because we were a little older than some of the couples but younger than the seniors. I didn’t know, After four years we left. No one ever called.

    Then we tried a larger church that I passed on the way to work. Four weeks and the only person that talked to us was a greeter. And a pastor approached us after service once. We had the opportunity to talk to the senior pastor (It was a multi-campus church) and told him about our experience and what we hoped for. He told us in a few weeks they were switching to TV like the other campuses except the main one where he spoke. That was it for us.

    Now we’re at another very small church that is trying to rebuild after a devastating scandal with the former pastor. We’ve been there for 2 1/2 years. People talk to each other, but there are the families and friends groups that we can’t seem to penetrate. It’s better than the other two, but I don’t have friends there that I do other things with. I made my friends from writer’s groups I joined. We’re not young or cute or wealthy. Hubby has a head injury and most men don’t know how to get to know him–they seem to move fast and leave him in the dust. I tried to arrange meals for an attender dying of cancer, and it was really hard. People don’t share a lot, like they’re hiding things we could be praying for with them. We could look for another church but I’m progressive and hubby is traditional and we feel it’s important to worship together.

    I’m an introvert too and often want to take a nap even after a 75 minute service and a little chatting if any.It shouldn’t be that hard to communicate with our brothers and sisters in Christ. I didn’t really appreciate what we had before we moved.

    In my series of novels I find my main character, a middle age woman, having difficulty making friends in her churches. I also address a few other church issues probably more our of personal frustration than anything else. The situation you describe sounds like the place my MC is currently at.

    If churches don’t address this, they will die. People don’t need one more place to be, we need connection.

    So here’s my blog post for your blog post, Laura. You’re not alone. God bless you, sister!

    • Thanks so much for sharing your story! I’m glad that I’m not alone on this. Churches have to address this. To a certain extent, our current church has (see my reply to Laura), but the regular members (non-greeters, non-staff people) seem to feel that it’s someone else’s job to help newcomers assimilate. The one Sunday school class we attended for 2 months had a lot of visitors. I noticed that besides my husband and I, the only people who would talk to the visitors were the Sunday school teachers. How ironic is that? I’m new to the church and I’m greeting people who have been to church there only one less Sunday than myself.

  3. Laura I sooooo get it and relate to your post! I’ve blogged on this issue many times on my own blog, taking different approaches on it. I guess I hope that sharing in different ways will eventually make the point or help people get it! Sigh.

    I could elaborate on so many aspects. “It just baffles me that church people think it’s okay to ignore visitors or behave with only surface-level friendliness toward other attenders.” – Me too!! Totally baffles me.

    Yes, people seem all friended-up with no room for anyone new in their life.

    You state that no one displays any interest. Some people (who don’t get it) will say you have the problem – you are demanding, expecting everyone to be friendly to you! Sigh. But you have made the effort to attend, even Sunday school, and have tried approaching people.

    We are believers. Although this leaves us frustrated, I think sadly of unbelievers or nominal believers who are ignored like this.

    Here is another post of mine , you might relate to. http://lightenough.wordpress.com/2012/05/25/does-your-church-make-people-jump-through-hoops-stop-it/

    • Laura,
      I, too, share your concern for the unbelievers who encounter this. It’s not enough to invite people to church in hopes that they’ll “get saved”; we’ve got to develop relationships with them before and after they come to church (or even if they never come to church!) The interesting/ironic part is that our current church is actually really good with the first impression: there are friendly people in the parking lot helping visitors get inside, people to help newcomers find classes, a pastor called us the Monday after we visited, and we got a package of information about the church within a week. (Some of the smaller churches did, too.) But once we started being “regular attenders”, we were just one of the crowd. And even the greeters didn’t really try to get to know us. And the regular church people (non-greeters, non-staff) seemed to think it was someone else’s job to help visitors feel welcome. Strange.

  4. stacie

    I feel like you are writing my story! We have been going to the same church for several years now. I know several people by name…very few of them know mine. The ones I “know” well share a only a superficial relationship at best with me. I pray often that things will change. I don’t like feeling like an outsider in a place you are supposed to feel wanted, supported and loved.

    • Stacie,
      I’m sorry you’re going through this, too. You’re right: we should feel wanted, supported and loved at church. But so often, we don’t. Thanks for sharing and letting me know that I’m not alone!

  5. Yes, I’ve seen it, experienced it. Churches aren’t necessarily as conducive to relationships as people on the outside would expect. Despite having spent years in leadership at our last church, I don’t know the answer. Sorry not to be more encouraging, Laura.

    On the other hand, this post is excellent and it’s going out on my twitter feed immediately.

    • Thanks, Tim. It’s encouraging to know that I’m not alone in experiencing this. After visiting 6 churches and experiencing the same issue in each, I was starting to wonder if it was just me! Thanks for sending this out on Twitter; I appreciate it!

  6. Laura, I wish we were in the same town. I would love to chat to you at church.

  7. Fascinated by this post. I’ve seen versions of this in different places, but nothing so systematic as what you’re describing, which is part of what makes it so interesting You say you’re in the Bible belt, and in a technologically-oriented town, but you aren’t more specific than that. This is my first time to your blog (I saw Tim tweet about the article), so I went to your “about” page and there’s still no indication of where you are.

    • Huntsville, Alabama, otherwise known as the “Rocket City”: lots of engineers. As my husband, a rocket scientist himself, says, “You can’t swing a dead cat around here without hitting an engineer!” Lots of Ph.Ds around here, too. Thanks for coming by and reading.

  8. That was my first guess! (Austin, TX, and Raleigh-Durham my 2nd and 3rd). I’m in Tuscaloosa, BTW.

  9. Frances Akridge

    Gee Laura…I wish it was different for you

  10. This is definitely not a small issue. It is everywhere. I have seen the same thing. It is sad. We move quite a bit, being a military family, but now that we are in the Huntsville area, we actually plan on retiring here. I’ve visited a couple churches around the area, but I just don’t get that welcoming feeling. And frankly I’m not too anxious to join one. I’ve been burned by “church people” in the past. One particular time, there were serious issues going on. My daughter was being harrassed by a church member (even at work) and I was being lied about. When I brought my concerns to the pastor – well – I was shockingly given the “you’re not one of us” response. I read and re-read the letter, thinking that I had to be misreading it. But no.

    As a military family, this is something that I have seen often. People know you aren’t a “local” and that some day you will leave, so they don’t feel the need to invest in you. Heck, one church I was part of for 7 years!

    There is a song by Casting Crowns that reminds me so much of this – “Stain Glass Maquerade.” Listen to the words. It’s a sad state that we are in. I would really rather have honest fellowship over coffee with another believer, iron sharpening iron, than sit in a building full of plastic people.

    • Constance,

      Thanks for sharing. I’m so sorry that you’re going through this, too. I’ve been through three church splits, and had an ex-boyfriend harass me at church for a while (though the problem was adequately dealt with by a pastor at a parachurch organization the ex and I attended), so I identified with your story. It’s hard to keep wanting to attend church or join one when I’ve been burned by the other members.

      We’re still going to the big church that our kids like, but we’re trying different adult classes. We found out (purely by accident) about another adult class and when we tried it, people were actually friendly. (Shocking! And yet it shouldn’t be shocking at all: it should be normal for Christians to welcome others into our fellowship!)

      I’ll definitely look for that Casting Crowns song.

      Sorry it took me so long to reply. My husband had surgery this past week and our daughters are starting a new school on Monday, so things have been hectic around here!

    • Hi Constance,
      People have done some awful things in the name of Christ, and this is a hang up for many people that I’ve talked with over the years. I hope that people will remember me for being loving and kind and being a true reflection of Jesus. That’s just my hope…gotta long way to go!

  11. Well, in the UK, we might call this class prejudice or regional prejudice, and I suppose many other things too. Yes, slightly beside the point I know, but it has the same connotations: you are not part of the clique or somehow you don’t fit in, therefore people keep you at a distance. In life, this is part and parcel of the way things sadly are, but in church it should not be any part of the proceedings. It is only in my mid-40s that I have actually started to attend church, because in the UK there is a strong perception amongst Christians and non-Christians that the organised churches and churches in general are rather respectable, rather Middle class and should I say rather superior in their outlook, and they are not welcoming to ordinary people, or people with problems, or people who are socially awkward or perhaps poor people, unemployed people and people who aren’t smiley and perfect and ‘have it all together.’ Christianity, however, is not a social club or an exclusive clique that ‘belongs’ to this group or that group, it is a calling on our lives from Jesus. In some cases in the UK, church going and even being a Christian are just markers of respectability or part of being the acceptable respectable folk or family tradition, which often has little if anything to do with taking Jesus as our Saviour and Guide.

    When I first started going to a church a few months ago, they welcomed me and I felt accepted immediately. It is a church 12 step recovery program, I have no shame in admitting this, for people struggling with issues and addictions and emotional problems of all kinds; I have a number of issues I am getting help with. Like you, I suffer with depression, and I also have low self worth and issues about being accepted and perhaps I am socially awkward as well. But, I am university educated, articulate, well read, cultured and creative to the max, and like you pursue a writing career. Because many of the people at the church struggle with various issues, they are welcoming and friendly and open too. I sometimes struggle with the way prejudices operate in the US, because although you say you are ‘artsy’ and they are more engineers and so on, you are obviously Middle class and from a successful family. In the UK, these things pan out differently somewhat. Class is often related to accent, where you live, what job your parents did, how much money you have got and many other nitpicking things which enable some people to look down on you and feel superior.

    It is not you who is in the wrong, it is anyone who doesn’t accept another Christian. Even non Christians can be more accepting of other people than some supposed Christians.

    ’10 Now while he was at table in the house it happened that a number of tax collectors and sinners came to sit at the table with Jesus and his disciples.

    11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?’

    12 When he heard this he replied, ‘It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick.

    13 Go and learn the meaning of the words: Mercy is what pleases me, not sacrifice. And indeed I came to call not the upright, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9 NJB)

    ’25 And now a lawyer stood up and, to test him, asked, ‘Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’

    26 He said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? What is your reading of it?’

    27 He replied, ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.’

    28 Jesus said to him, ‘You have answered right, do this and life is yours.’

    29 But the man was anxious to justify himself and said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’

    30 In answer Jesus said, ‘A man was once on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of bandits; they stripped him, beat him and then made off, leaving him half dead.

    31 Now a priest happened to be travelling down the same road, but when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.

    32 In the same way a Levite who came to the place saw him, and passed by on the other side.

    33 But a Samaritan traveller who came on him was moved with compassion when he saw him.

    34 He went up to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. He then lifted him onto his own mount and took him to an inn and looked after him.

    35 Next day, he took out two denarii and handed them to the innkeeper and said, “Look after him, and on my way back I will make good any extra expense you have.”

    36 Which of these three, do you think, proved himself a neighbour to the man who fell into the bandits’ hands?’

    37 He replied, ‘The one who showed pity towards him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go, and do the same yourself.’ (Luke 10:25-37 NJB)

    Those who haven’t shown you warmth, acceptance and love may not have the love of the Creator in them. Perhaps they are Christians in name only, or those who are part of a religious clique, and not much else.

    • Great thoughts, Tim. I’m always interested in hearing about how things are different in the UK. The class structure is different. Here, I can walk around in my middle class “bubble”–most of the people I’m around on a daily basis are middle class, like me–but every once in a while, I’ll be around people who are extremely poor (by American standards) or extremely rich, and feel uncomfortable in my own skin! I’m also in the Bible Belt, which is a really strange part of the country where practically everyone goes to church (at least once in a while) and can recite Bible verses and act “Christian-y” while at church. Yet, as you note, they may only be part of a religious clique.

      Sorry it took me a while to respond to your comment. My husband had surgery this week–he’s doing fine now–but things have been hectic around here this week!

      • I hope he’s better now Laura. You will find a church that accepts you as you are, sooner or later.

  12. jamesbradfordpate

    Reblogged this on James’ Ramblings.

  13. Oh, no, I hate that so many of you are going through this lonely pew experience. Our church family has made it one of our focuses to be welcoming to our visitors. I’m really outgoing, so it’s a little easier for me to meet and greet. We have a potluck every single Sunday so that we can feed our guests and meet them on a more casual basis. We also try to have a new ladies’ get-together once a quarter or so.

    Trust me, I’ve been worshiping with our Madison, AL church family for 15 years, and I wouldn’t be friended-up. I love meeting new friends!

    In our area of the country, people are constantly moving in. We were all newbies at one time…well, most of us under age 25. There aren’t many Huntsville “natives.”

    Anyway, I feel so strongly about this, and pray that God will lead you all to a loving, encouraging, welcoming church home.

    -Stephanie
    http://www.thewritesteph.com

    • Thanks so much for the encouraging words, Stephanie. My husband and I have finally found a Sunday School class where we feel welcomed (and where people actually know my name!) I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you; I’ve been sick in bed. (These “snow days” for my kids have been a blessing because I don’t have to drive them to and from school when I feel yucky. :) I’ll email you sometime soon.

      • I’m so glad that you’ve found a good niche for your family! I hope that you’ll be feeling better soon. Yes, I’m glad for the snow days, but I’m totally frustrated that we haven’t had any snow today…so far.

  14. If LOVE is absent from a church, Jesus is absent too, and there’s no sense going. It’s cheaper to sit at home instead of paying bus fare or burning your gas to go back to a dead icy tomb where nobody cares if you live or die. I Cor.13 teaches that without love your so-called service to God is useless.

  15. Unfortunately cliquishness is absolutely a hallmark of every church I’ve even been. Every. Single. One. Seriously, what in the world is the deal with that!?

    • I don’t know! I guess the best (or at least one) idea for dealing with it is to make sure that we ourselves aren’t cliquish. :)

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