A plea to church leaders from the invisible woman in the church pew

Let me be completely honest: I’m angry right now. It’s a dangerous thing to be angry while blogging, and I’ll probably wait an hour or two after writing before hitting the publish button, but I think this is something that needs to be said.

Ever since I first posted about feeling invisible in church, I’ve received emails and comments on that post and the subsequent ones on the same topic. So many people are hurting. They feel alone in church. They feel that no one cares, that they have no friendships, that they might be physically sitting on the church pews but no one sees them. This is sad.

What is sadder to me is that, in many of these stories, the people have tried to fit in at a particular church:

  • Bible studies.
  • Small groups.
  • Ministry involvement.

If these things weren’t available, often they tried to start them. Tried . . . and failed, for reasons too many to count. (Lack of leader support, not spiritually gifted in that area, etc.) Too many people have told me, “I thought I was the only one who felt like this!” And then they thank me for sharing because it’s helped to know that someone cares, even if it’s a total stranger in cyberspace.

Yet at many of the churches I’ve attended and visited, the majority claimed to be a caring body of believers. They urge people to join small groups or Bible studies or get involved in various ministries. These are the best ways to make you feel like you belong, I’ve been told.

But my blog readers have done all these things, and they haven’t worked. They’re still alone. Still hurting. Still invisible in the church pew. All these wonderful, promising things that are supposed to help us follow Christ together and share life and blah-blah-blah: they’re failing.

I’m sure there are people for who these groups and methods work. They’ve found close friends and feel totally accepted and loved at church. Terrific. But others are falling through the cracks.

People are asking me to pray, and I am. I’m heartbroken for them.

But at this point, I’m also frustrated. The one group of people I haven’t heard from on this topic are church leaders. (There have been a few. Thank you.)

I can’t imagine that they are entirely ignorant of this problem. (I think some leaders acknowledge that this happens at other churches, but convince themselves that their church is not like that. Maybe that’s true. Maybe not.)

Nor can I imagine that pastors, elders, and deacons don’t give a damn that people feel rejected and alone. I’m sure many or most do. (For example, when I told my psychiatrist that I’d had a negative experience visiting his church–I was totally ignored both times I attended–he nodded and said, “People come to the church through small groups, so they don’t feel the need to reach out to people in the pews. The leaders know this is a problem, but we don’t know what to do about it.”)

Nor can I imagine that the leaders want congregation members and visitors to suffer silently. (There would be exceptions; egotistical masochists end up in every profession, unfortunately. But surely most pastors desire to have a pastor’s heart: compassionate and merciful, shepherding people like Christ, the Good Shepherd, does. Imperfectly, to be sure, but longing to help and guide.)

So what’s the problem?

Why can’t leaders acknowledge that sometimes methods fail?

That includes

  • The join-a-small-group method:

(This seems to elicit more enthusiasm in my area than it deserves. Many involve the church putting the groups together, so you might end up with a group of people you don’t like or trust or even know, and somehow you’re supposed to “do life together” with weekly meetings that are heavy on food and fellowship and light on anything more substantial than coffee cake and sweet tea. It’s an introvert’s–and nutritionist’s–nightmare. Maybe the small group idea works better when you’re already friends and get to pick each other. But then how do outsiders join?)

  • The participate-in-a-Bible-study method: 

(A lecture-based group isn’t conducive to building friendships. And the discussion-based ones aren’t either, as it’s too easy for one or two people to dominate or derail the discussion, many people are too intimidated by public speaking or feel too ignorant to talk, and a lot of Bible studies are filled with fluffy material that doesn’t satisfy mature believers or educate and equip young ones.)

  • The get-involved-in-a-ministry method:

(Theoretically, this should work. Working alongside other people is a terrific way of getting to know others. But I’ve heard from people who said that they signed up to help in a particular area but were never contacted by the leaders. A variation on this situation is where there’s a small clique that owns that ministry and they don’t want to share the work, power, or glory. It’s “theirs.” Another variation: the same clique allows you to do the gruntwork but your ideas and concerns aren’t heard, and you’re never really accepted by the people who are involved. Your gifts are never fully utilized. You walk away frustrated.)

All three methods are things that I’ve been told by church leaders (and read in various places) are great ways to feel like I belong in church. I’ve tried all three. None of them are bad. All work for certain people in certain circumstances. (Praise God and give him glory!) But none work for everyone. And for some people, they don’t work at all, and those are the people writing to me. Pastors and leaders, why is this?

Please hear me: I’m not blaming the pastors. Often, they’re doing the best they can: preaching until they’re hoarse about loving others around us, trying to set a good example in their own lives, truly trying to reach the lonely among the members. But the congregation members are hardhearted. In that situation, I’m not sure there’s anything they can do besides pray.

I realize that the pastor’s role is difficult. I understand that. I understand they’re torn in 500 different directions, personal and professional, and feel overwhelmed and alone and frustrated. I understand the burnout rate is high, the depression rate is incredibly bad, and there’s often no one they can confide in within their church. I understand that there’s a thousand different aspects to that job that I’ll never understand because I’ve never done it. I get that. I don’t want to add a burden to their heavy load.

But I’d like to hear from church leaders about why some Christians might try so hard, do all the build-friendships-at-church methods, and still end up alone on Sunday morning. What is going wrong? How can we, as the body of Christ, move beyond mere methods to something more substantial? How can we stop having people fall through the cracks? What would you advise my lonely readers to do? 


(P.S.: I did wait a while to cool down and edit this. If you feel condemned by my words, I ask your forgiveness and please let me know so I can edit.) 

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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.

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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: