CARY, N.C., Sept. 13 (RNS)--Heartbroken and depressed over the breakup of her engagement, Tina Lunde of Cary needed the help of her church more than at any other time in her life.

But there was just one problem: She was pregnant, and as a single womanshe assumed her church would have nothing to do with her.

"I knew there were churches, especially in the South, that would kick meout," said Lunde, 26, a hairdresser. "They would have looked at me like Iwas disgraceful."

But to her amazement, the Cary Church of God welcomed her with open arms.Members called to see how she was doing, organized a baby shower, and tuckedenvelopes with cash in her hands.

Two years later, the church is still there. Lunde gets practical help andencouragement in a bimonthly support group for single mothers. And on Sundaymornings, the men of the church make her son, Joshua, feel special--huggingand holding him before and after services.

Lunde is lucky. Across the country, churches are only just now beginningto explore ways to help single parents. Once shunned as irresponsible orbranded as sinners, single parents as a group are now getting more of thechurch's attention.

With divorce rates as high among the faithful as in therest of society, and with government championing church initiatives to helpmothers on welfare find work, many religious leaders are recasting singleparents in a new light.

No longer symbols of disintegrating family values,single mothers and their children are now seen as today's version of thewidows and orphans of biblical days.

"We see ministry to single parents as a mandate to take care of those inneed," said Brenda Armstrong, the director of single parents ministry atChristian Financial Concepts, an evangelical organization based inGainesville, Ga. "We see this as being obedient to the word of God."

Although churches have come a long way in ministering to all kinds ofminority groups, including people with AIDS, there has been no systematicoutreach to single parents.

There's no denying the need. About 26% of all families in theUnited States are headed by single parents, according to census figures. Themajority of children with single parents--85%--live with theirmothers. But while most single mothers work outside the home, their medianincome in 1998 was only $18,000 a year, barely above the poverty level.

Traditionally, churches help out in a pinch with emergency funding for asingle parent who has lost a job or a home. Now many congregations arelaunching a range of programs intended to offer more consistent support.

Some churches are helping single parents with quarterly car-careministries, in which church members perform an oil change or a maintenancecheck free of charge. Others are starting housing ministries to help singleparents repair a washing machine or a broken doorknob. Still others offer helpwith financial planning.

And many churches, like the Cary Church of God, a congregation of bothblack and white members, offer support groups for single mothers.

"The biggest problem single people face is isolation and feeling likethey're the only ones this is happening to," said Skippy Clark of Raleigh,who leads one of the single mothers' support groups at Cary Church of God."We've got to break that cycle. The church is here to help."

Many of the single mothers in the group said they felt a tremendous senseof relief in being able to share their problems, offer advice, and pray for oneanother.

"You're so used to just staying by yourself and going to God on your ownand battling it out and sitting in a room and crying," said Rose MarieRomanelli of Cary, a single mother with an 11-year-old son.

"We need to recondition ourselves to know it's not a bother to call eachother. It's OK to call someone and say, 'Listen, I'm having a bad time.'"

But the majority of single parents never find a support group in church,and few even attend services.

According to Armstrong, only 5% of single parents go to churchregularly.

"Most of them leave the church because their needs aren't met," shesaid. "They don't want to be known as a needy family. There's an issue ofpride. They've been wounded, and it's hard for them to ask for help."

Part of the problem is that single parents require so much help--fromfinding affordable day care to job training and career development.

Many pastors say they are vaguely aware of those needs but in the pasthave been reluctant to help simply because they didn't want to appearcondescending.

"We didn't want to insult them, so we didn't ask them what they need helpwith," said the Rev. Eddie Thompson, pastor of Fairview Baptist Church inApex, N.C. Thompson's church now plans to launch what he called a "full-blownsingles ministry" for about 20 single parents in his church.