Finding Belonging When You Don’t Fit the Mold

Out of Place – Katelyn’s Story

Since the fall of 2016, I have been extensively traveling. At 27 years old, with the ink barely dry on my master’s degree, I quit my full-time job to spend time living in unfamiliar places. 

Don’t worry–it wasn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds. And since we’re all friends here, full disclosure: none of my jobs have paid more than $28,000 USD a year at most (before taxes) so you have an idea of the kind of big money I was walking away from. 

Since then, I’ve lived and worked near national parks in the American West, extensively explored eastern Canada, spent a year in New Zealand, and most recently walked across Spain on a medieval pilgrimage route called “El Camino del Norte.”

The Camino was going to be the last big trip for a while. I was going to return to the USA, stay with my parents for a few months while I found a full-time job related to my master’s degree and relocate to a place with bigger mountains. 

Then COVID-19 happened. And I am still living with my parents, still working multiple part-time jobs, still back in the same town I grew up in. I feel like I’ve taken 1,000 steps backwards. 

Coming back “home” has made me feel more out of place than ever before. 

Not Big on Box-Checking

I am 31. I am a Christian woman. I have never been married, never had children, never owned a home, never had a meaningful career, never spent more than three years in one place as an adult. It feels like most people in Christian circles–especially other women–measure me now by what I lack.

I often find myself feeling shame (or feeling like I should feel shame) for not fitting into a culturally prescribed mold of what a Christian woman should look like by my age. Rather than being able to celebrate differences, I end up having to defend myself….a task that is extremely taxing on this introvert. 

But I’ve done some pretty cool things. At least I think they are cool. 

I have visited 12 countries and 42 American states, took my first multi-day backpacking trip on the world renowned Milford Track in New Zealand, and learned the art of being resourceful when plans change at the last second (among other things).

Where I Came From 

My parents decided to homeschool me and my younger sister when I was in 5th grade after a stint in both public and private schools. While I loved my homeschooled friends, I never felt like I could not truly be myself around them.  I hoped college would open new doors to belonging, but as a transfer student coming from community college to a small liberal arts school, I felt like I had missed out on formative freshman friendships. 

After graduation, the friends I had painstakingly curated slowly dissipated. Wedding invitations and pregnancy announcements become bittersweet signs of a friendship’s imminent demise. 

Meanwhile, I did not even date (or “court” as I would have labeled it at the time) until I was out of college. After two brief but intense relationships, I started to doubt if I would ever meet someone who I would actually enjoy living life with.

Then I met him–the proverbial “one.” I was always skeptical of people who talked about “just knowing” when they met their spouse, but meeting him made me wonder if there was some truth to that after all. Obviously, it didn’t work out. I was left extremely depressed and obsessively wondering why and how things ended the way they did–and if there wasn’t some way it might all eventually work out. 

Is a Single Woman Still a Real Woman?

Most of the time, I am honestly happy being alone. I love being single and without the added complications that come with the blessings of family. I have done so much that I could not have done if I had married at 23, had three children and a mortgage–and I believe that is something to be celebrated. 

Even though St. Paul himself recommends the single life, I was told by many preachers and teachers that this was an uncommon road for a select few. But I always saw myself becoming the kind of adult who could live happily ever after single or married. 

My homeschooled Christian community didn’t encourage young women to pursue futures that included anything other than being a wife and mother or a single career missionary. While my parents did not hold these views, most of my peers did. 

For the record, I have zero problem with being a wife and mother or a career missionary. What I took issue with was the lack of options, and the presentation of this brand of Christian womanhood as the ultimate marker of true female believers.

Trying to fit myself into this mold felt like trying to fit my disproportionately large size nine feet into a pair of size seven shoes. I had lots of things I wanted to do. When and how was I supposed to travel between college, marriage, and family? 

Over the years, I began to realize that I was seeing one side to a diverse religion. There were many strong Christians beyond my sphere who loved Jesus but were not so narrow in their definitions of godly femininity. 

In all the questioning that ensued with the end of that last relationship, one thing was absolutely clear: I needed to leave. 

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost

I’ve met several folks during my travels who were running away from something; but not all travelers are–some of us are running toward something. 

Choosing travel was the most healing and life-giving thing I could have done. I learned to hold the tension between mourning the end of a significant relationship while embracing the opportunities its end created. 

Transitioning into the “dirtbag” backpacker life was like slipping into a comfy pair of socks. I was made for this life. 

But once I was fully immersed in the backpacker community, I noticed a few things: 

  1. There were very few Americans (totally fine)
  2. There were few backpackers over 25
  3. There were even fewer Christians

In fact, during my year in New Zealand, I met zero Christian backpackers.

I found myself living out my faith on the margins of a group that understood my need for a time of nomadic living, but could not understand the Jesus I loved, and why my life looked different because of Him.

I am thankful to the churches that welcomed me for a season during my travels. But I am sad that there have been few believers who can relate to my love of wandering alone.

A Way Forward

While I always want travel to be a part of my life, I’m ok with it no longer taking center stage. Settling in a new place for a time would be a welcomed opportunity to grow in a specific church community…and would probably help with the whole career thing.

I’ve visited more churches than I can count of just about every denomination, and I can’t say I’ve felt unwelcome in any. But I have absolutely felt like I did not belong in several. 

Unfortunately, most Christian churches are not structured with single adults in mind–particularly the never-married singles. Sermons of abstinence until marriage are not preached to high school students with the caveat that they might arrive at age 30 or 40 and still not have a spouse. The Church doesn’t know what to do with us.

We are not the divorced, the widowed, or the college-age crowd–we do not have a place

We have heard the same sermons and Sunday School series on marriage and relationships a hundred times, but rarely anything about what it looks like to live out Christian singleness over the long term, or how to create and maintain strong friendships with married people. I would love to see this change. 

Wherever I go from here, I pray that the Lord will use me to help create a space for the single believers in His Church, and to honor the different paths that have led us to the same place. 

If you’ve ever felt like you don’t belong, this series is for you! Every Monday, we’ll hear from someone who has also struggled to belong. Be sure to subscribe below to get The Scoop so you never miss a post! As a thank you, you’ll receive access to belonging-themed scripture cards and adult coloring pages in the free for you library!

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Meet Katelyn Quinley

Katelyn dares to call herself a writer and adventurer. She is a nerd at heart with degrees in English and technical communication. One of her quarantine projects has been to redesign, rebrand, and relaunch her modest blog, which you can check out here. She is passionate about instilling confidence in women to get outdoors and adventure, whether at home or abroad. Fueled by strong coffee, you can find her running or hiking mountains, attempting to improve her abysmal fiddling skills, or reading no less than ten books at one time. She would love to connect with you via her website, blog, or Instagram.    

*Feature Photo by KaLisa Veer on Unsplash

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Sarah K. Butterfield is an author, speaker, and ministry leader who has a heart for empowering women to grow in their faith and be intentional with their time. She and her husband and two boys live in San Diego, where she writes about pursuing a deeper relationship with God in the midst of motherhood.

2 thoughts on “Finding Belonging When You Don’t Fit the Mold

  1. I can relate to having the church not know what to do with single adults. I think we have somehow held marriage in such high esteem (and am not against that) that we have most people beyond a certain age just rushing into it to fit the mold. Thank you for sharing your story, Katelyn.


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