My husband and I walked in the door to a foyer teeming with children. We entered the sanctuary and sat down in the back, where I began counting the number of pregnant women in the pews around us.
We had just moved to a new town and were visiting a church. My husband had to drag me there because I didn’t want to go. I thought it would be painful to be surrounded by what I wanted desperately, but God had not yet given.
My assumptions proved correct. As I flipped through the bulletin, I noticed ministries for singles, newly marrieds, families with kids, empty nesters — but nothing for childless, not-wedded-yesterday couples.
I was already feeling rejected by God. Now, I felt left out of His church.
Left Out of the Club
Over the years I have found biblical comfort and hope. I’ve discovered that God is committed to redeem the sorrows in our lives through the death and resurrection of His Son. But couples who struggle with infertility can feel forgotten and isolated as I did – especially in environments like church that emphasize families and childrearing.
As the leader of an infertility support ministry, I’ve heard from women describing upsetting circumstances when someone at church inferred their infertility was caused by sin. This assumption adds to the shame those dealing with infertility already face, and it makes them feel excluded from fellowship in the body of Christ.
One woman in an online support group describes her loneliness this way:
I find church the hardest place to be at the moment. The lack of understanding has floored me. I can’t bear more hurt by other believers.
In my experience, most insensitive comments about infertility stem from ignorance about the subject. It’s hard to understand what you haven’t personally suffered.
As with other rarely discussed health issues, many people aren’t aware of the ramifications of infertility.
They don’t know infertility affects one in eight couples. They haven’t felt the embarrassment of being the only couple in church without kids to send to Sunday school. They aren’t experiencing the month-to-month roller coaster of emotional and sometimes physical pain, only to be told by someone in Bible study the well-meaning but hurtful advice: “You just need to trust God and relax.”
Instead of perpetuating unwitting insensitivity, the church can seek better understanding about infertility to build one another up in unity of faith.
Infertility is a life crisis which entails a grieving process.
Bearing One Another’s Burdens
Armed with greater knowledge and empathy, we can help carry the burdens of those who are suffering this type of disappointment. Working together, we can create an environment of compassion, rather than exclusion from the baby club.
Scripture tells us children are a blessing (Psalm 127:3-5). We are familiar with the command to “be fruitful and multiply,” though some of us miss the context and construe it as an assurance of reproductive ability. But how many churches have spent time expounding upon the many accounts of delayed fertility recorded in the Bible?
In miraculous displays backing up His declaration in Genesis 18:14, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”, God enables seven women whom the Bible describes as “barren” to conceive for His divine purposes: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, Hannah, the Shunammite woman in 2 Kings and Elizabeth.
If you’re a pastor or ministry leader, you can preach sermons and offer Bible studies examining these stories. Don’t offer these women as a prescription for fertility success but to demonstrate God’s attentiveness to His children who are longing for a blessing.
2. Recognize appropriately.
Mother’s Day is painful for women experiencing infertility and miscarriage. Having to stay seated while most every other woman in the congregation stands for applause or receives a rose cuts like a dagger to the heart of a woman who desires but hasn’t yet been given children.
While you can honor moms on that Sunday, you can also acknowledge the sorrow this day stirs for those who’ve lost a baby or haven’t been able to conceive. Rather than making an ostentatious display showing the haves and have-nots, make it a point from the pulpit to commend all women who do important work “mothering” others in practical and spiritual ways and affirm the value of every believing woman as a daughter of Christ.
Apart from Mother’s Day, consider planning an annual service honoring the losses associated with miscarriage and infertility, such as Tish Warren’s Service of Memorial and Lament. Similarly, just as churches hold infant dedications or baptism services, provide prayer times for couples waiting for children, petitioning the Lord for healing, peace and wisdom on behalf of those undergoing medical tests and treatments or who are pursuing adoption.
3. Adjust your focus.
Churches have traditionally emphasized marriage and motherhood as worthy aspirations, and for good reasons. Yet somewhere along the way, we propped up the role of mother as the ultimate calling for all women, to the point that some women’s ministries are structured solely around mom life activities and events.
Though well-intended, an overemphasis can devalue women who don’t have the label of “mother” and dismiss the vital role all women play in the church.
To better serve and utilize the giftings of women, those who are in church leadership can broaden its focus on the Kingdom callings of women to include motherhood and other areas of service, such as administration, outreach, teaching, organization, communication and many other facets that are all needed to keep a church alive and thriving as one body growing up in Christ (Ephesians 4:15-16).
4. Support these families.
Infertility is a life crisis which entails a grieving process. To serve people in the congregation as well as reach out to your community, you can host or help individuals start support groups, providing safe places for people to share their struggles and comfort one another with the comfort God supplies (2 Corinthians 1:4). If you offer a resource library, stock it with books written for those facing infertility, infant loss and childlessness. Thanks to increasing awareness, we have more faith-based resources addressing these issues at our disposal today than we did 10 years ago, but we need more still.
God remembers couples experiencing infertility by keeping His promise to work for the good of all His children. Everyone in the church, from pastor to parishioner, can love those who are suffering in our midst by encouraging those who are aching for a child and pointing to Christ as our ultimate hope for a fulfilling life.