When about 40 people gathered at a rustic conference center in north-central Florida in mid-March for a retreat called Solo Flight, they were seeking a different church "family."
Sponsored by Christ Church in Ponte Vedra, Florida, the retreat, held March 13-15, welcomed singles who sometimes feel left out in the normal church context, according to the Rev. Robert Morris, associate rector of Christ Church. "Singles often feel outside what is perceived as the family of the church," he said in an interview. "Solo Flight says there are people here like you, so they feel they belong."
The retreat included several inspirational talks, discussions of aspects of Christianity, explorations of personal spirituality, nature walks and socializing.
Solo Flight was founded in 1992 by Kay Collier McLaughlin, communications director for the Episcopal diocese of Lexington (Kentucky) as a national, inter-denominational ministry focused on "a theology of humanity that includes seasons of singleness as a normal part of the life span."
The ministry has spread around the country, McLaughlin said, primarily in large, multi-clergy Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian and some Roman Catholic churches. Her efforts are now focused on training diocesan-level Solo Flight leaders who can work with smaller churches to encourage the ministry.
Being single in a ‘coupled' church
At Christ Church, Solo Flight started in 2006, shortly after a parish survey revealed that more than 20 percent of its 6,000 members were single. Some were divorced or widowed, others had never married. Yet, as at many churches, activities were often geared to two-parent families with children or to couples.
Morris and a group of eleven parishioners met with McLaughlin to form a "biblically-based ministry" that recognized each person's "singular relationship with God," said Holly Scholl, one of the founders.
From 20 to 300 participants
From that small start, with about 20 active members, she said, "it took about 18 months to have people recognize that Solo Flight is a ministry, not a dating group. People can walk in, develop friendships, find people they feel comfortable with." Today, more than 300 people participate in one or more of the programs in Solo Flight's five "gateways:" worship, education, outreach, divorce recovery and social or recreational activities.
Over time, some demographic trends have emerged. Most participants are women, divorced or widowed, in the 40- to 70-year-old age range. Some enjoy the more active programs -- kayaking, serving breakfast on the second Sunday of each month -- while others attend the monthly luncheon series with speakers or the weekly "Singles, Singles" Christian Formation classes.
Although an energetic leadership team was planning programs for all interests, they discovered there was one group that was not participating -- single parents coping with busy schedules and lack of child care.
A new group: single parent families
"We were overlooking the needs of that group," said Walt O'Shea, a single parent with three children. In response, in January 2009 the group, called Single Parent Families, started meeting twice a month. One meeting, usually with a speaker, takes place on a Wednesday evening, when Christ Church serves family-style dinners and provides activities for all children, toddlers to teenagers. The second monthly meeting is a social or recreational activity that may include children or have child care provided.
"The best thing is that they all have a shared experience, one that a lot of other people can't relate to," said the Rev. Luke Jernigan, another associate rector at Christ Church, who helps lead the group.
Children are also benefiting from the new group. Often, they "feel unique," O'Shea said, but getting to know others "provides comfort and fellowship." And, he added, because "the church is a community of people who worship together, when you strengthen any subset, you strengthen the church."
Because strengthening both its own parish and others is part of Solo Flight's mission at Christ Church, several participants attended the diocesan convention in January 2009 to offer support in spreading the ministry.
"You all are a wonderful model of what a cardinal parish can do in reaching out to others," McLaughlin said. For the March retreat held amid the oaks, dogwoods and azaleas of the Cerveny Conference Center in Live Oak, the third annual event, the group invited people from other churches in the Diocese of Florida.
Finding grace through spiritual disciplines
The Rev. Chris Webb, president of Renovare, a spiritual renewal organization based in Englewood, Colorado, said that before he was asked to lead the 2009 retreat, "I didn't know there was an effort to draw together people who were single for different reasons."
But, he noted midway through the event, "it seems to work very well."
Presenting the retreat's theme, "Becoming Like Jesus: A Weekend of Experiencing God's Grace," Webb captivated the audience with humorous tales about his family, his beloved Wales and lively retellings of Gospel stories.
He encouraged spiritual disciplines -- in prayer, Scripture study, social justice and small-group explorations of spirituality -- that are "intentional ways to express our longing for grace," to "experience the presence of God here" and to "order our lives as one great expression of longing for God."
Webb, who is married with four children, has carried his message to Christian groups throughout the country -- including an audience of singles. "I speak in general terms about following Christ," he said. People may then "work it out in their own specific circumstances. Being unmarried is not the only defining thing about a person."
Solo Flight "Gateways"
Churches that participate in the Solo Flight program offer one or more of five so-called gateways. At Christ Episcopal Church in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, they include:
• The worship gateway invites singles to attend the church's 5:30 p.m. service on the first Sunday of each month, then gather for dinner at a local restaurant. Once a year, singles fill all lay roles -- as greeters, ushers, readers, presenters and Eucharistic ministers -- at the church's seven weekend services. The event "honors them" before the entire congregation, says the Rev. Robert Morris.
• In the educational gateway, singles hold a weekly Christian Formation class, led by a member of the Solo Flight leadership team. A monthly Sunday luncheon series offers speakers on subjects including nutrition, finances and fitness, geared to singles' interests.
• Solo Flight members use the outreach gateway to help build Habitat for Humanity homes, construct buildings at an orphanage in Bolivia and rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. After one such trip, several women spoke with pride of their newly learned tile-setting skills.
• For those who are divorced, periodic divorce recovery workshops staffed by professional counselors help members navigate the pain and confusion they may be experiencing.
• The social and recreational gateway covers a broad spectrum of activities -- kayaking, community theater performances or a Super Bowl party. Members also meet for a monthly "happy hour" at a local watering hole, and they cook and serve breakfast in the church's parish center on the second Sunday of each month.