Invisible in Church? Here’s my story

file-1This past Sunday, I had someone email me because my post “Me, the Invisible Woman in the Church Pew” struck a chord with her and she wanted to know the end of the story. What did I do? What have I done? The post was written several years ago–2013, to be precise–so naturally, she was curious.

Is there an end to this story?

Short answer: Not really.

Long answer: It’s complicated.

Here’s where I was in December 2013: My family was attending a megachurch (5000+ members), and my husband and I were visiting various adult Sunday school classes to find the right place to fit. After three different classes, including one where we stayed for 2-3 months of faithful weekly attendance, we still felt invisible. No one knew us. That week, my mom ran into an acquaintance from her church. This younger woman and her family now attended this megachurch; she recommended her class. My husband and I did like the class and felt more connected. (Yay!) Unfortunately, some doctrinal issues arose and we didn’t feel that we could continue attending a church where these things were taught. (Sigh.)

At the same time, we had transferred our elementary aged daughters to a new school and were moving to a different area of the county. It was a good point to try the churches in this new area. My mom ran into a woman from one church we’d visited in the past, but had felt was too far from our then-current home, and that woman said the church would love to have us, as we were now close to the building the church had bought. (Yes, my mother talks to many people.)

I visited other churches but ultimately, we did end up back at that church.

Now, this church has many things in its favor. Good children’s and youth ministries. Solid, excellent preaching. Godly leaders who are trying to learn from the mistakes that other churches have made. A willingness to address tough issues. A desire to reach out to the community. A desire to help people assimilate and connect within the church. These are all things that we appreciate, and that work in its favor.

Me “fitting in” is not one of them. After months, I still felt invisible. I didn’t “fit” with the women. Or the men, either, for that matter. (They were mostly electrical/mechanical/aerospace engineers, who have many lovely and valuable characteristics–I’m married to a rocket scientist–but tolerance for minority opinions isn’t one of them. They also tend to marry nurses or teachers, though I haven’t figured out why. Me? I’m neither of those. And I’m definitely not a tech person.)

The other problem was that the ways the church presented for “fitting in” were all things that have been disasters or near-disasters for me in the past.

  • Ladies’ Bible studies: I’ve never had a positive experience with one.
  • Small groups: I’ve had mixed results.
  • Ministry opportunities: I had no interest in nursery duty (I got sick from the little sweeties’ germs); children’s ministries (ditto); youth ministry (my teen told me that she absolutely, positively, please-mom-don’t-you’re-embarrassing-me!! did NOT want me there); hospitality (not my gift); or greeting (ditto). Not only did I not have interest in these things, I had no energy for them, either.

My husband and I agreed that he and the girls should continue going there and I should explore other churches in the area. Which I did. Once.

Different megachurch. Same issues.

At that point, I decided that there were three options:

  1. Quit church. 
  2. Visit more churches. 
  3. Stay at our current church. 

file-3Let’s take option #1. Many Christians have “quit church.” They’re frustrated, they’re hurt, they’re angered by theology or people or both, so they quit attending church, or perhaps make only sporadic appearances at church.

While I understand why individuals might choose this option and sympathize, this isn’t for me. (I wrote a post in 2012 about why I haven’t quit church, and it still applies now.) It goes against my theological bent and my personality. Say what you like about me, but I’m too darned stubborn to give up on something that matters to me. (This same stubborn streak–you can call it “grit” or perseverance–got me through college and has kept me writing, even when I’d rather give up.)

I also think that this sets a poor example for my daughters. What does it tell them about persevering through difficult circumstances or learning to accept and love others even when they aren’t like me?

file-2On to option #2: visit other churches. That takes energy. Unfortunately, that is one thing I don’t have. I’ve never been a high-energy person; even my “manic” episodes are low(er)-key compared with other people’s. This has worsened over the past year.

(We’re fairly certain that I have chronic fatigue syndrome, which has to be the most unfortunately-named disease around. “Fatigue” is nothing like what I’m feeling now. It doesn’t describe the joint pain, muscle aches, mental fog, the exhaustion that any exertion exacerbates and no amount of rest alleviates. Oh, and by the way, a lot of people dismiss it as “all in my head” or “laziness.” Mm-hm. Yeah. So please don’t tell me that you’re tired, too.)

I looked online at other churches. It was mostly more of the same. Nothing piqued my interest enough to offset the energy it would take to get me there.

file-4Option #3: Stay at the same church.

This is the one I chose.  The Sunday I visited megachurch #2, my husband and one of the elders, a friend of his, talked about my situation. The elder mentioned that his wife didn’t feel like she fit in, either. As a result of this conversation, we’ve been to their house for dinner and had a great time. They’re coming to our house for dinner tonight, which I hope will also be fun.

It makes a tremendous difference to have 2 people who I know and who know me. Attending church feels easier, and I don’t feel quite as invisible as before.

Remember that this church has many things working in its favor. It’s a relatively healthy church and I had seen them make positive steps toward inclusion of women in leadership. I respect the leaders and teachers. There are a few doctrinal issues where I differ from them, but they’re tolerable for me.

Many of those who have commented or emailed me about that original post are not in healthy churches. They’re in toxic ones. So my choice may not be an option for everyone.

file

But if you’re feeling invisible at church, don’t lose hope. In Genesis, Hagar names God “El Roi”: the God who sees. No one is invisible to him. He cares. There are probably other people sitting in your sanctuary, sharing your pews, singing the same songs, who feel like you do. The hard part is finding them. It’s hard, yes, but not hopeless.

Persevere, my friend. Keep going.


A long post, yes, but if you simply can’t get enough of my writing on this subject, here’s some related posts: 

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29 thoughts on “Invisible in Church? Here’s my story

  1. I especially identify with that brief section on “ministry opportunities.” At the church that I attend now, the pastor continually encourages people to serve the church. He says we each have a spiritual gift, and we need to serve, not just take. This church is big enough that I probably will not be challenged for not serving, but part of me wants to do the “right” thing. The problem is that I cannot think of anything offered that I want to do. Becoming a greeter entails undertaking a huge training and orientation program. I have degrees, so one might think I could be a teacher of a class, but those positions are filled, plus I would be too heretical to be accepted as a teacher. I have thought of showing up early to help set up chairs. I may e-mail the church to see if I can do that. I miss the small Presbyterian church that I attended when I lived in New York: I read the liturgy when my turn came. At least I was making a contribution! I suppose I can visit small churches, but I’m gravitating towards large churches now because I somewhat like the anonymity, as opposed to being quizzed over my life.

    Anyway, that’s my long rambling comment. Thank you for this post, Laura.

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    1. The lack of ministry opportunities is one that most churches (I think) don’t realize is an issue. The leadership looks at “open” positions–such as what you could do at your large church–and wonders why more people don’t step up and fill those. But perhaps those who are willing aren’t necessarily gifted in those areas. For me, I feel that my gift and my passion is creative writing, but no church I’ve attended has a use for that. I can’t think of a use this would be in this particular church; I don’t think the leaders can, either!

      I’ve often heard the lament that 10% of the people do 90% of the work. That may be true. But I wonder if the “problem” needs to be reframed somehow. Is it that the other 90% don’t WANT to do these jobs? Are they not gifted in those areas? Do they know what their gifts are? (Many people don’t. I’m still not entirely certain of mine.) Do they even know that those tasks are available? (Communication can be an issue.) Is it that the 10% is “hogging” the jobs (or perceived as such)? Are we not thinking creatively about how everyone can be plugged into a ministry? Hmm.

      Good comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I miss your posts, Laura! It’s great to see you “back” – although I don’t attend church I found this post fascinating all the same. (((Hugs))) to you from your devoted cheerleader. 😉

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    1. Thanks for reading, Dyane! I’m glad you enjoyed it, even as a non-church-attendee. Church has always been such a huge part of my life that it’s hard to imagine not going, honestly; it’s also such a huge part of Alabama culture that it’s hard to find someone who isn’t affiliated with a church, either currently or in the past. I imagine that this is unique to the Bible Belt and things are verrrrrrry different elsewhere. 🙂 I appreciate all your cheerleading!

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  3. I appreciate your post, as always, Laura. I’ve been going to my current church for 10 years and still find it challenging to connect meaningfully. Because of our kids’ special needs, my husband and I often find we need to spend all our time at church looking out for our kids rather than having any conversations with people beyond a fleeting hello. For myself, I attend 2 women’s small groups: one that meets one morning a week, and one that meets in the evening every second week. I joined them for the express purpose of trying to meet more women in my church, and I’m finding myself slowly gravitating toward certain women whom I click with. But for me it takes a lot of time. (And I’m not even talking about the challenges, as have been alluded to here, of theological differences and questions, personal hurts, etc.) I’m glad you’ve shared this update on where you’re at; I think it’s an encouragement to everyone for whom church can be difficult.

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    1. Thanks, Jeannie. I know from talking with a woman who has a severely disabled son–his disease is degenerative and requires 24/7 skilled nursing care–that families with special needs kids often go unseen in church. Whether it’s because they can’t make it to the service (as she often can’t) or because the kids need special “looking out for” (as you mentioned your do), it can be hard to fit or even be seen by the regular attendees unless they’re on the lookout for those people.

      I should mention here that this particular church has helped this lady and her family somewhat. It helps that one of the pastors has a grown son with autism, so he’s been through some of these struggles and is more attuned to the needs of those walking that particular path.

      I’m glad that you’ve got your two ladies’ groups; that is wonderful! I hope your friendships with them continue to grow and flourish.

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  4. After I pressed “send” on my plea to you to share the end of your story, I waited to hear back that your life was wonderful and you had found the church where “everybody knows your name!” Smiling here, thinking that could be a good thing or a bad thing. Thank you for being transparent and taking the time to share your story. It is helpful to know I don’t struggle alone and encourages me to keep on going. After attending a small church for 30 years we have moved to a different state and are starting over. The big church where my son and DIL attend has great teaching, great singing, is where we are at doctrinally but my husband and I joke about it being akin to going to Walmart. Most people do not look at you when you pass them in the hall or the aisles. I don’t necessarily want a conversation but a nod of the head, a smile, some kind of acknowledgement that I’m not invisible would be great. This quote from CS Lewis is encouraging to me and helps me realize my longings are not to be fulfilled this side of eternity. “If I find in myself desires which nothing in the world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” I have been studying ways to combat shyness and being an introvert and am ready to tackle another Sunday. It is hard work! Thank you again!

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    1. What a great metaphor: Walmart and the church! As someone who regularly shops at Walmart, I think it’s a fitting comparison. (Though I’ve found that the workers are friendlier at 6 a.m. on Saturdays. A little strange!) It has all that we’d want and lacks a human touch. And if we’re really dissatisfied, there’s always Target or some other big box store, just like there’s always another church to try . . .

      I’m glad this was encouraging to you. I’m an introvert and shy, too; it is difficult to meet people, especially when so many people seem extroverted yet overlook us. (In this regard, I’m fortunate at this church. Engineers tend to be introverted types. My husband jokes that you can tell an engineer is an extrovert if he looks at your shoes and not his own. So I’m not alone in my quiet nature.)

      I hope you and your husband can find friends at this church. Keep pressing on. 🙂

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  5. Fitting in can be overrated, I think, at least putting effort into trying to find a fit at some churches can be. Then again the older I get the more I allow my natural introversion express itself through the choices I make.

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    1. True. I just often feel like I’m the only person who is willing to be different from everyone else, that everyone else likes to conform (probably so they don’t rock the boat) and that can be a lonely space. I think some people have mistaken “uniformity in church” for “unity in church”, and anything (or anyone) that doesn’t fit their expectations is guilty of disrupting the church unity.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I love the way you phrase things. I have similar problems (including with women’s ministry: it often others me, as I’m nothing like a traditional woman nor do I believe most gender differences are inborn). It’s encouraging to hear someone else is going through the same thing. I hope you find a place to belong ❤

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    1. Thanks, Liz! I’m not sure why a lot of churches have “mens” ministries and “womens” ministries at all; for every person who seem to benefit/enjoy/get something out of it, there are others who don’t. My husband has never done the “men’s retreat” or activities (usually golfing, hunting, paintball, things like that, none of which he enjoys), and while I like artsy-craftsy things, I don’t really want to do a craft night with other women and end up with a product that looks exactly like everyone else’s. I do think there is value in gendered accountability groups, but for activities? I’d rather have a mix of people. 🙂

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  7. I have been going to this church for 6 months and decided to become a member, then be introduced to the congregation. the people in my class were introduced excluding me. after service I approached the pastor’s wife and she said we didn’t know that you were here (I sit in the front row). The pastor said that he would introduce me to the congregation next week. Never happened. I feel very much out of place. Anyone who is anyone in the church has never introduced themselves, including the pastor who told me to introduce myself to him. I am heart broken about this. I came from a church in PA where we made ALL people feel welcome. Our pastors discouraged cliques. When it came to new members our head pastor taught the class in which he got to know God’s people and in turn they got to know him. When I bought two full boxes of food to the pantry two women looked at me like they were disgusted instead of being happy to put food on the somewhat empty shelves. I don’t know if I should leave or try again next week. Help

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    1. What an awful situation, Karen. I feel heartbroken for you. To go from a wonderful welcoming church to one where people don’t bother to introduce themselves must be horrible. I don’t know what advice to give to you.

      My thoughts are this: this church’s leadership appear to be neither observant nor friendly. For the pastor and his wife to overlook someone on the front row appears odd, IMO (unless he wasn’t preaching or was ill or something). And while I can understand if the pastor forgot that he needed to introduce someone to the congregation the next week (if, say, his week had been extremely stressful and busy), I’d think that someone who wanted people to feel welcomed would make an effort to remember. Post a note, send himself a text reminder, ask an associate minister to remind him, something. So either he’s forgetful, or doesn’t care to make others welcome, or socially clueless, or–and this could be it–he doesn’t know HOW to help his congregation be a more welcoming place. I’ve heard church leaders express frustration with this very problem in their congregation, and they don’t know how to create a more welcoming environment.

      If you think this last one is the case, and if you have had others introduce themselves (just not the leaders), and want to work to make a difference in this church, then you could try again. If non-leader church members have been friendly, then they may feel frustrated with the situation, too, and would welcome your input on how to change the congregation. The pastor may benefit from a frank, private discussion about the issue. If you sense that the entire congregation isn’t welcoming, then you should probably look for a different church. But please, please pray hard and listen to God. He knows the hearts and minds of all these people, and he’s the only one who can change them.

      Let me know what you decide and how things go. I’ll be praying.

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  8. I think the church building is full of people who are really not the church. It is a social club for most. So they have their little cliques. I think this is because the church has embraced the world. We are to look different from the world. You will know them by their love for one another. If there is no love then they are probably not part of God’s kingdom.

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    1. This is so true, Sherri. There’s a huge difference between the real Church (God’s people) and the groups of people we term “the church” (people in a particular congregation’s building). And unfortunately, the latter is mistaken for the former by too many in the world. So the real church gets a poor reputation both inside and outside. Sad.

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  9. Oh wow! I have been struggling with this whole invisible in church thing for several years now and it helps to know that I am not alone. My husband walked away from God & church 5 or 6 years ago so now the kids & I attend alone. Church is by far the loneliest place I go all week. We live in a fairly small town in the Midwest so we don’t have tons of choices for churches. In the past 3 & 1/2 years I have visited 4 churches – bigger congregations & smaller congregations and it is always the same. The church I am attending now is at least “friendly” in that people say “hi”. That’s a step up from the others. I have gone to this church of about 200 people for 9 months now and nobody knows my name or even cares. The enemy of my soul tells me that I am not worth getting to know. I know that’s just one of his lies but it gets harder & harder to hear the Voice of Truth especially when the church seems to be confirming this lie. Yesterday, I actually came home & cried. Today, God let me find your blog & showed me I am not alone in this. Thank you for your honesty & openness in sharing your story, Laura & all of you who shared your stories in the comments.

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    1. Tina, thank you for sharing your story. This sounds like a really challenging place to be; in my experience, churches don’t really know what to do with members who don’t fit the target demographic of couple-with-kids. Sad. (My husband was a single man until age 31–when I came along–and he can tell you that’s true!)

      I’m so glad that God led you to my blog at a time when you needed to read it. Your words were encouraging to me, too; church continues to be a difficult place for me, even with one or two friends within the congregation. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of believing the lies that we’re not worth being friends with. But God says that we’re valuable and beloved, no matter what other people inside and outside the church walls say! Hang in there, Tina. I’ll pray that you find friends who value you and your family.

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    2. Tina, I was the one that emailed Laura in tears a couple of months ago feeling invisible. Her last sentence “Persevere, my friend, keep going” is what I would encourage you to do, too. Satan would love for you and your children to be defeated and leave church completely. My situation hasn’t changed but I am working on keeping my focus on the Lord and knowing that He will give me the desires of my heart some day. Maybe it won’t be on this side of eternity? am I okay with that? Yes! This life is temporary and I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me. I am working at putting myself out there and talking to people, commenting on their shoes, or something else equally shallow in hopes of starting some conversations. 🙂 Persevere, my friend, keep going!!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, and here’s a PS. Our pastor recently announced that beginning in January he was going to start a preaching series on Hospitality. That seems like a step in the right direction for his church. One of the deacons told my husband, “I could set myself on fire in the foyer and no one would notice.” This is a man that has gone to the church for 20 years. A very sad picture.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Karleen, thanks for adding your thoughts to this. I had to laugh about the commenting on shoes: I’ve done the same thing! Anything that I can see that I genuinely like, I’ll compliment the person on. 🙂

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  10. Laura & Karleen, thank you so much for your prayers & kind words of encouragement. That is huge!

    I totally get that whole compliment them on whatever little thing in hopes of conversation (which may even lead to friendship). Been there, done that! 😉

    I have had the thought lately that maybe, just maybe God has me in this “invisible phase” so that I will press hard into Jesus and know that He IS enough. Mentally I know He is enough & that I do have value & I’m loved but maybe our Lord wants this concept to sink down deep into my heart as well as my mind. So, I will press on, but this Sunday will be different because I now know I have a couple “cyber friends” out there who understand. 😊

    Blessings & prayers to both of you!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Laura, regarding your health symptoms, have you considered lyme disease? I ask because I’ve had it and the symptoms are very similar to what you write. It can be difficult to get a firm diagnosis as the tests are notoriously unreliable. I’m now on the board of a local lyme disease support group and try to educate folks about LD.

    BTW, the support group is more of a church than church 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment, Bella. I’ve looked at lyme disease, but I’m not certain that my symptoms quite line up with it. There’s a big overlap, though, and doctors are still doing testing. I’ve had so much blood drawn that it’s crazy. Plus, with the medications I have to take for my bipolar disorder, there’s a possibility that one or all of them are affecting my energy levels. But thanks for asking. It’s interesting that the support group is more church-like than your actual churches. Sad, isn’t it?

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  12. Dear Laura,
    I completely understand your feelings of loneliness. The people at the church I attend are friendly, but don’t seem to want friends. I have lived in this area for 12 yrs, moving to a smaller township where people seem to have established friendships long ago. My daughter and I have found friendships in each other since we cannot make friends at church or even elsewhere. We are very outgoing and do our best, but at times it drags us down. We continue to pray and hope…. God did not mean for us to be alone, for when he sent the apostles out to witness they went two-by-two, there to sharpen and lift each other up. I pray that you too will find a sister in Christ.
    In the meantime, your gift sounds like it could be utilized in the church. There are often holidays that the youth groups like to have plays for witness (Christmas plays, Easter plays). Why wouldn’t you be able to use your gift in that endeavor? Just a thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dora, sorry for the late reply! I thought I’d answered this comment already.

      You have no idea what a relief it is to know that even an outgoing person may struggle with this! Not to make light of your situation at all, but I often wonder if my introversion is the “problem” and not the church at large. I’m thankful that you and your daughter have each other.

      Thanks for the idea of writing plays for church. I have no idea how well I’d do at that–my material tends not to be “clean” and “church-friendly” when it deals with dark issues and some Christians would object to that in a church setting–but it’s an idea I’ve bounced around in my head over the years. Hmm.

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