Kimberly Kirkland’s husband arrived home from work one evening in 1999 and announced, “I hate my life. I hate my wife. I hate my career. And, by the way, I don’t want kids.“ She was dumbstruck. “We were both involved in full-time ministry,“ says Kirkland.
“I trusted God for a miracle, hoping that any day my husband would change his mind.“ But after three years of going to counseling alone and watching her husband become involved with another woman, she knew it was time to file for divorce. She didn’t realize that along with saying good-bye to her husband, she’d also be losing her church.
“There were people in my church who blamed me for the divorce,“ says Kirkland. Disillusioned with God and the church, she began to seek solace in alcohol and unhealthy relationships.
Gradually, Kirkland realized it was only through Christ that she would find forgiveness and healing, but searching for a new church was difficult after her bitter experiences. Her journey back came through a local divorce recovery ministry hosted by a nearby church.
“I felt like I belonged in this church,“ she says. “They didn’t care where I’d been. They were more interested in where I was going.“ She got involved in the children’s ministry there and now serves as a facilitator in the church’s DivorceCare program.
Kirkland’s story resembles that of many committed Christians across the country. Scarred by rejection, struggling to manage as single parents and sometimes embarrassed by their post-divorce lifestyles, these men and women want healing, acceptance and to be defined by more than their marital status. Their needs represent an acute challenge for churches across the country. They also represent an opportunity—because above all else, hurting people often long for spiritual direction. And for those who have never known Christ, divorce recovery ministry can be a safe haven and an introduction to faith.
A MODERN EPIDEMIC
According to the 1990 U.S. Census (the 2000 census didn’t ask about marital status), at least 52% of all first marriages will end in divorce. Among those who have been divorced, 75% will remarry. And 60% of those remarriages will end in divorce. Christianity is no panacea for the divorce epidemic, either. While 25% of all adults in America have experienced at least one divorce, 27% of Christians will split up. Evangelical Christians appear to fare even worse: Members of nondenominational Protestant and Baptist churches experience the nation’s highest divorce rates at 34% and 29%, respectively.
“Divorce recovery is an opportunity to come alongside and help people who don’t even know if they can get out of bed the next day,“ says Steve Arterburn, founder and chairman of New Life Ministries (newlife.com), the nation’s largest faith-based broadcast, counseling and treatment ministry. “When I went through a divorce, I wanted to crawl into a hole and come out once a year. But I was fortunate to have some really good church people around me who invited me to a divorce care group and helped heal that wound.“
According to Arterburn, chances are pretty good that most newly divorced people will receive little nurturing if churches don’t provide it.
“There aren’t a lot of New Age divorce recovery groups,“ Arterburn says. “The Church seems to be the place you go to for divorce recovery.“
Unfortunately, not all churches are receptive of divorced people. “Sometimes, churches feel like if they open their arms to divorced people, that somehow it means they’re taking a weaker stand on marriage,“ says author and speaker Bill Butterworth, whose new book, New Life After Divorce (WaterBrook) provides helpful insight gleaned from his own divorce experience. “If churches feel this way, it’s the divorced population that gets the short end of the stick.“
He believes it’s critical for churches to take a strong stand on marriage, but to also have an open arm of compassion and acceptance. Because for those suffering from the breakdown of a marriage, it’s very possible that churches may be the only ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak picture. Rev. Max Holt, church growth pastor of Hilldale Baptist Church in Clarksville, Tenn. (hilldale.org), estimates that 70% of his congregation’s divorce recovery program participants don’t attend church anywhere else and are searching for acceptance and healing.
“Divorce is a traumatic time in these people’s lives,” Holt says. “It’s a time when they stop and reassess who they are and, just as important, who they are not. Most of them are not spiritually connected, and they need help dealing with the pain.”
Butterworth agrees, adding that the pain, which often feels nearly unbearable to the divorced, is what churches must counteract. “It’s very common for divorced people in the church to use expressions like ‘You know, I feel like a second-class citizen,’ ‘I feel like damaged goods,’ ‘I feel like an add-on or a fifth wheel,’ ” he says. “The Church has got to change that.”
Hilldale turns away no one, Holt says, not even those who express no interest in learning about Christ. The church is also careful not to overemphasize biblical principles. Experience has taught him and his facilitators that those who attend their workshops will be more likely to explore Christianity if they’re not bludgeoned with it. At least 25% of Hilldale’s unchurched divorce recovery participants go on to accept Christ as a result of their experience.
Bill Flanagan, Divorce Recovery Workshop director at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, Calif. (standrewspres.org), also warns of the temptation to turn outreach into exploitation when ministering to divorced people.
“We don’t use this workshop as an opportunity to exploit the vulnerability of people,” he says.
“We’re not going to manipulate the participants’ presence for purposes other than divorce recovery, or they will lose all trust.” Having said that, Flanagan expects that at least some of the unchurched participants at his workshops will follow up with spiritual instruction at his or other Christian congregations.
“When people feel that we’re serious about what we do, they’ll say, ‘Tell me about your church.’ A lot of people come to St. Andrew’s because they see something authentic here. They see genuine caring and love, and they want to be a part of that.”
COMPASSION AND ACCEPTANCE
If the prevalence of divorce is so great, and the need so under-served, why don’t more churches step up to fill the gap? The answer too often is a fear that accepting divorced people will be interpreted as condoning divorce.
Laura Petherbridge, author of When Your Marriage Dies: Answers to Questions About Separation and Divorce (Life Journey), believes the surest way for church leaders to overcome the notion that divorce recovery groups actually encourage divorce is to attend a meeting. “No one wants to be in this group,” she says. “The people in divorce recovery didn’t want their marriages to end. They would’ve preferred to work things out. They are a bunch of grieving people who are trying to make the best of things.”
The last thing they need, says Petherbridge, is rejection. Instead, caring congregations must be willing to offer unwavering love and a listening ear without passing judgment. “Divorce is a death that’s much worse than physical death because it’s a chosen death,” explains Petherbridge. “People who go through divorce lose their friends, their children, their health care, their income, their house, their in-laws and sometimes, their families and their churches.”
She suggests that church members who have never experienced the pain of divorce firsthand take their first step toward ministry by empathizing, accepting and expressing compassion. If a divorced person feels accepted from others, they are more quickly able to begin regaining their own self-acceptance —one of the biggest issues involved in divorce recovery, says Butterworth.
“Accepting yourself when you’re happily married is tough enough,” he explains. “But then your spouse walks away, and you’re suddenly at square one with all the questions. ‘Will I ever meet anyone else?’ ‘Do I deserve to meet anyone again?’ ”
Flanagan began his divorce recovery ministry in 1977, structuring his workshops on the watershed lecturer/facilitator model still in use today: An expert speaker or counselor begins each session with the evening’s topic, and small groups of roughly 10 adults break up for detailed discussion under the guidance of a facilitator. The model’s strength lies in the expertise of the facilitators, who have themselves experienced divorce, and in the camaraderie that develops between peers.
Holt recalls his certainty in 1995 that Hilldale Baptist needed to develop a divorce recovery program. But as a happily married man, he was also certain that he was not the one to lead it. “I don’t know what it’s like to lie awake at 3 a.m. and feel the world crashing down around me,” says Holt. “It’s extremely important that leaders have experience in their field, and I knew as a married man to stay away from leading a divorce recovery program if it was to have credibility.”
Part of that credibility is also offering a divorced parent the chance to support another divorced parent, says Butterworth. “Think about all the help needed from your spouse and friends to drive kids to school or to pick them up from Little League. Or to go to the grocery store,” he explains. “You can’t imagine suddenly having to do it all on your own if you haven’t had to do it.” And often for those who have had to do it, a form of psychological reversal depletes their energy.
“You think, ‘OK, now I’m divorced. I’m going to do this all by myself. I don’t want any sermons. I don’t need anybody’s help. I’m just fine,’ ” Butterworth says. “But actually, that’s when you need the most help, because you’re absolutely and completely overwhelmed and you’re going to end up with either a physical or emotional breakdown.”
Locating enough caring, engaged facilitators, all of who have been divorced, including some divorced with children, can be one of the greatest challenges a church faces when implementing a successful program. Leaders agree that a group facilitator must be prepared to listen compassionately to heart-wrenching stories night after night, to urge involvement from all group members, to build group cohesiveness, and in some cases, to accept phone calls late at night. And these same facilitators must be sufficiently healed from their own divorces that sensitive topics won’t reopen their wounds.
HELP BEYOND MEETINGS
Another challenge to building a successful divorce recovery program lies in ministering to its youngest casualties. An estimated 32% of American youngsters live in single-parent or blended-family households. “We aim to teach our children two things in our children’s divorce recovery program: It’s not your fault. And you’re not alone,” says Rev. Mark Skalberg, singles pastor at Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colo. (woodmenvalley.org). “Those things seem obvious to adults, but all children feel they’re at fault, and that there’s no one else like them.”
Many churches that begin offering divorce recovery to adults quickly recognize the peripheral effects of the split on children. And it generally isn’t long before they add a children’s program.
Woodmen Valley’s children’s recovery program openly discusses divorce. But the church believes there’s also value in simply offering a safe, quiet place for youngsters to get away from a sometimes volatile or stress-laden home environment. Games and craft projects that may appear inconsequential to outsiders can powerfully impact children, who relish the interaction with similarly situated peers in a calm and loving environment.
“We usually have kids who don’t want to leave at the end of our six-week program,” says Skalberg. “They’ll sometimes even cry when the session is over.” Additional means of support to newly divorced adults can include physical and material resources: furniture, emergency housing and sometimes professional, financial or legal expertise.
“Some of our people need money, legal help, some are clinically depressed, some have abusive husbands and need emergency housing,” says Michael Baggett, singles pastor at Bayside Church in Granite Bay, Calif. (baysideonline.com) To meet those needs, the church has established a benevolence account and has secured partnerships with counselors and attorneys.
Churches unable to meet physical needs can still assist by serving as a clearinghouse for support group members. For example, members might discover that the division of their household has left some with too much furniture, and others with too little. Trades might similarly be made with childcare assistance, automotive repair or other household projects.
But many newly divorced people feel that what they need most is an understanding ear and assurances that they are still worthwhile and lovable. “Divorce is a crucial point in life,” says Butterworth. “People finally come to grips with the spiritual side of their life, often saying, ‘You know what? I thought I didn’t need God, but I’ve come to the end of my rope.’ And they have a wonderful spiritual awakening.”
And it’s these awakenings that are energizing divorce recovery ministries all over.
“People often ask me why, at this stage in my life, I continue to lead divorce recovery workshops all over the country and the world,” says Flanagan, who recently retired from a full-time staff position at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian. “And I always tell them the same thing: It’s hard to get tired of watching people heal before your very eyes. They feel hope; they feel they have a future; they feel wholeness.”
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