Last Thursday, we dedicated the entire hour of our bi-weekly Kidmin Volunteer Radio show to talking about ministering to children of divorce (you can listen to an archive of the show by clicking on the link). I was joined on the panel by fellow writers from Kidmin1124 including Wendy Douglas, Jared Massey and Bill Gunter. Despite spending 60 minutes on the topic, we barely scratched the surface of the issue. So, next Thursday, April 21 from 9:00 – 10:00 PM EST, our panel is getting back together to continue this important discussion. In anticipation of that, I thought it made sense to summarize our discussion from the prior show. Below I have included the questions as well as paraphrased answers from each of our guests. I hope that you will take the time to read it, add your input in the comments section below, and tune in a week from today to continue the conversation.
I have abbreviated names of panelists as follows:
- WS: That’s me, Wayne Stocks
- WD: Wendy Douglas
- JM: Jared Massey
- BG: Bill Gunter
I started the show by citing some statistics about divorce from this article. I then shared the following quote to set the tone for the show:
“Unlike bereavement or other stressful events, it is almost unique to divorcing families that as children experience the onset of this life change, usual and customary support systems tend to dissolve, though the ignorance or unwillingness of adults to actively seek out this support for children.”
From there, we started with questions for the panel:
QUESTION #1: I want to talk for a minute about divorce in general because I believe it is a topic that many churches today shy away from. The Bible is clear that divorce is a sin in all but very limited and specific circumstances. Despite that, statistics show that divorce amongst professing Christian is at the same rate as the rest of society. I will say that studies that take that question further (in regards to whether professing Christians actually practice their faith) show that divorce among practicing Christians is actually much lower than the general population. So, I want to start by asking, why do you think that divorce has become so commonplace in the church today and why do many churches just look the opposite way rather than addressing the issue head on?
JM: It’s becoming more and more accepted by organizations. As humans, we want what we’re doing to feel right, and we seek out people who will tell us it is right. It’s become some commonplace in culture that it’s crept into the church. The church doesn’t know how to address it. Church is afraid if they address it head on that they will lose people. People not finding acceptance leaving the church.
BG: Marriage is a symbol of Christ and the church. That’s not taught well.
WD: There is a shame factor when it comes to marriages failing. It’s a taboo topic. Who do you go to? Who do you trust? Failing people in our church going through this because we are not offering the help they need. We’re not making it easy for them to approach someone and say they need help. People are very vulnerable in that situation. There isn’t enough building into the marriages today and giving married people and outlet to talk to someone about the problems they are having. Consequently, they are leaving the church.
WS: That’s really the flip side of what JM was saying. The issue is living in the extremes. Either the church is afraid to address it at all, or we expect the people in the church to be perfect. We have to find a way to marry those two and address the issue head on, but do it gracefully.
QUESTION #2: Statistics show that one half of all children in America will live through the break-up of their parents marriages. Nearly half of those will also see the dissolution of their parents’ second marriages as well. That means in most families and in a church of any size, you are likely to deal with the issue of divorce. I want to give our panelists a chance to talk about their own personal experience with the issue of divorce.
BG: I’m fortunate. My parents not divorced, and I am not divorced. I have seen the horrors of divorce. My daughter is getting divorced. It’s painful to see that. Parents aren’t seeking help for their kids. It’s tough to approach people because you don’t know all of the details without intruding too much.
JM: I’m fortunate enough not to have it directly impact me. We have had close family members and friends go through. The process itself is difficult. I’ve seen the heartbreak and the aftermath in kids’ lives years later. I don’t have a super personal connection, but I have seen it.
WD: I have firsthand experience. I am a product of a divorced family. My parents separated while I was in the fifth grade. It was a very messy divorce and didn’t get finalized until I was sophomore in High School. I lived in a very small town, so my parent’s divorce was the talk of the town. There was that added shame. I can tell you my experience was that up until 5th grade, my parents argued, but I had a carefree existence. Once we were told they were divorcing, my world became complicated. That would be the one word that would describe what I went through. It became a world of visitation and court dates. Who was I going to see for holidays? Which parent was going to come to parent-teacher conferences? Who was going to come to my conferences? It was very complicated and emotional. I was very fortunate to have a pastor in my life at that time to speak into my life. He is the reason I accepted Christ. Because of the situation with my parents, I had a disconnected view of what a heavenly father actually was. This Pastor spent the time and showed me Jesus. I fell in love with Jesus and accepted him into my life. I also have the experience with my girls at church who are going through it as well.
WS: God laid this issue on my heart a couple of years ago. I’m not divorced. My parents aren’t divorced. Plenty of people in my extended family are divorced. I’m not sure why he’s laid this issue on my heart. I was doing research and came across a finding that the psychological impact on children of divorce are worse than those who lose a parent. I have suffered through that. My mother died when I was six, and the idea that so many children are suffering worse than that is tragic.
QUESTION #3: I want to start with a single question. What is the most important thing you can do for children of divorce?
WD: Love and listen. Love them through it, and listen to them. Give them an outlet to talk about what they’re going through. Some of them might not have that outlet besides you. Be there and be consistent. Be that stable part of their lives where they know they can come to you.
BG: The obvious thing is prayer. Be there for them. Their world is falling apart. One of the people they care about the most is leaving by choice. Let them know that somebody cares. You can’t replace their parents, but you can give them someone to talk to and open up and not have to hold it in.
JM: Love them the same as you would as if their parents weren’t going through a divorce. They need a sense of normalcy and stability in their life. Keep things as normal as possible for them. Their going to need extra love, attention and support. You want that stability when their whole world is shaking. They can still rely on God.
WS: It all about the relationship. It’s the same as any other kids, except how you go about developing that relationship may be different because of what they are going through.
QUESTION #4: Question from chat room from Barbara. How do you minister effectively to these kids without making them feel singled out?
BG: You don’t single them out. Keep things as normal as you can in the ministry. If they open up and share, talk to them as you can.
WD: The extra attention might be outside of Sunday. Offer the outlet to them to talk. It really depends on the age. For 3rd, 4th and 5th graders I gave them my cell and home phone and told them to call if they ever wanted to talk. I do think it’s important not to single them out, but they might need extra attention outside of Sunday.
JM: Important to take hard look at facility and way you do ministry. Does the way your ministry is set up single these kids out? For example, Sunday School attendance charts that show a child is only there every other week. Those small details can single those kids out. Take someone from that background and ask them how your practices would impact their lives.
WS: We need to be really cognizant of those things. We need to learn to look through their eyes.
QUESTION #5: How do you relate to children of divorce when you have never experienced it yourself?
JM: First of all, we all know someone who’s gone through it. We all have a connection to that. It’s about being intentional about thinking about it. Put yourself in that situation and really think through it. It’s important to take some time and think it through.
BG: We’ve all experienced hurt in one way or another. Even if you have been through divorce, you still can’t relate personally. Reassure children that it’s not their fault and they didn’t cause it. It’s trying to relate in the best way you can.
WS: We can’t relate to the specific situation. But, no matter what we’re facing, we always come back to Christ.
WD: I think having the conversations and asking the questions is important. Too often, we shy away from those conversations. Ask the divorced parent, how can I serve you and your family? Open the door so those conversations can happen.
QUESTION #6: Another question from Barbara, if you have the opportunity to meet with the child outside of Sunday, how do you do that without getting into the “good parent/bad parent” conversation especially in situations where it obvious that one parent has done something wrong?
WD: I am currently walking through this with a few girls outside of Sunday. Our conversations aren’t about what the parents are experiencing. It’s about how they feel and how they perceive things. A lot times, they just need someone to hear how they feel about it. I do a lot of listening. The girls going through this only know that Mom and Dad don’t live together and they miss Dad or the miss Mom. They don’t want to talk about the actual divorce issue. Instead, they want to talk about what they’re going through because of it – separation, loneliness and anxiety. It’s a huge opportunity to pray with them.
QUESTION #7: How do you reach out and help kids and families going through divorce without giving the impression that divorce is ok? How do you walk that line? Is it a line that needs to be walked?
JM: I’m torn here. I believe strongly in unconditional love and grace and forgiveness. Those are powerful messages of the gospel. Another powerful message of the gospel is that we need love and grace and forgiveness because of sin. I think the church shies away from sin (all sins) a lot of times. It is important to show them unconditional love but recognizing that this is a sin. We don’t agree with what’s happening, but we love you the way God loves you.
BG: It’s hard. People sin. People make choices and don’t think about the consequences. Sometimes the consequence is divorce. Love them through it, and try to get them past what they need to get past as the path they have before them. There comes a point where reconciliation isn’t an option. Try to keep them on path with God.
WD: In my experience, the accusation of sin kept my mother from going to anybody in the church, and she left the church for many years after that because of the experience she had. They didn’t minister to her. It’s a very fine line. I do believe we need to address the sin of it, but should that be the main point? Anybody going through a divorce who is a Christian knows it’s a sin. They know what they are going through isn’t God’s design. In addressing the sin, we can lose sight of the opportunity to minister and heal. That is a real concern when we talk about addressing the sin. I just don’t want us, in addressing that, to lose sight of an opportunity to heal a family.
BG: I agree. In the situation we’re dealing with with a family we know, the one spouse knows it’s wrong, but they don’t feel like they have a recourse because it’s beyond the point of reconciliation. At that point, we need to love on them in the situation they’re in and try to be understanding. Otherwise, you lose them and they walk away from God.
WS: I’m big on sin. I think the church has largely deemphasized sin. I think sin is an important part of the Gospel presentation. But, I think in these situations we need to lead with love. You got to love the person through the situation. If they ask, yes divorce is a sin. When they’re in that situation it’s not about convincing them that what they’re doing is sin. I don’t think you win people to Christ by standing on a street corner and yelling them that they’re sinners and going to Hell, and I don’t think you help people going through a divorce (adults or children) by focusing on the sin side of it.
QUESTION #8: What impact does the divorce of their parents have on kids when it comes to accepting biblical proclamations from God like “Never will I leave you. Never will I forsake you?” How do we help them overcome that?
WD: I think it looks different for each kid. If the father becomes an absentee father, they can have a slanted idea of God. I think divorce affects your view of everything. As children’s leaders and churches, we have the opportunity to repair that frame and be their extended family and love them through it.
BG: We always refer to God as a loving father, and there are so many kids out there who can’t relate to that. The best thing to do is have another male role model in their lives. I started going to their games and sporting events. Very conscientious not to promise, because I don’t want to be another male in their life who lets them down. We can model God’s love through what we do.
QUESTION #9: I want to talk about what I have dubbed “The Myth of Divorce.” I have to tell you, and I don’t want to offend anyone with this, but when I hear people tell me that “The kids are better off with divorced parent than parents living together who can’t get along,” that really gets under my skin. If a parent approached you and shared this theory and that they were considering a divorce, what would you say to them and how would you counsel them?
JM: First, I would ask if there is any hope. If they’ve confronted it head on, they are probably resolved. I would try to stay in scripture as much as possible and work with them through the process. I am here for them, loving them, and want to do whatever I can to serve them.
BG: I work with a guy who is sticking it out for the kids. He’s not a Christian. But, both parents are there. It’s showing the kids a commitment. You try to counsel them. Is there any chance for reconciliation? A divorce is not always the best thing. You can’t always do it for the kids. Be there for them and try to help and support them.
WD: I have a big issue with the better for the kids answer. My answer would be, “why is that your only option?” I just think that divorce has become the easy option – the out. Why does that have to be the answer? It needs to be talked about – how it’s going to impact their kids. It just shouldn’t be an option. Too often, because people are unhappy they think divorce is that answer rather than working on their marriages. I think if people put as much effort into working on their marriages as they do into divorce, then we would have a whole lot fewer divorces. It’s just too easy. I don’t have a problem giving people that opinion in love. Let’s think of another option other than divorce.
WS: Part of it is speaking the truth in love, and that’s not always going to be what they want to hear. You can say it in a loving way, but we have to get away from the black and white of it’s either stay together and be miserable or get a divorce. God’s design is neither. His design is to stay together and have a fulfilling marriage that bring Him glory. There is another statistic that shows that, of those people who avoided divorce, 8 out of 10 were happily married five years later. It really is about redefining the question. It’s not A or B, there really is an option C which is God’s design.
QUESTION #10: Despite everything that we’ve talked about tonight, there is no one standard way to help kids of divorce. Each child is an individual, and each child will process a divorce in his or her own way. How do we, as children’s ministry workers, determine how the child is dealing with it and help them on the path?
JM: I think we‘ve said it a lot – relationships. It boils down to having a solid relationship with the kid and some sort of relationship with at least one of the parents. Having that relationship with the parent will allow you to understand where they are in the process. Also, educate yourself on the topic. Pay attention to signs and signals kid is giving. It all boils down to that relationship.
BG: I would agree it comes back to relationships. It’s about having a relationship and looking for those signs. Be there and listen.
WD: I agree. It’s all based on relationships. It will open the door for a lot of things we need to do to minister to the families.
That concluded our show from last week. We hope you will join us this coming week as we talk about the more practical side of ministering to these kids. What issues do they face, and what can you do in your children’s ministry to minister to them? What shouldn’t you do? What resources are available to help? We hope to answer these questions and more as the discussion continues. If you have any responses to the questions posed above or questions for the coming show, we hope that you will leave them in the comment section below.
You can listen to the entire broadcast below.