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Thursday, October 01, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - Dealing with Divorce in the Church Family

We recently received two different questions on the same difficult topic, and I thought it would be good to discuss them both together.

A couple in our church (and their elementary age children) are in the middle of a difficult marriage that is very likely going to end in divorce in the near-ish future. So far, I have been approached by the wife for pastoral support, although that hasn't happened yet due to her schedule issues. I am aware that the husband is receiving personal and spiritual support from a wise (male) saint of our church, and for that I am grateful. If that is where he is comfortable and that is where the Spirit leads him, I have no "ownership" over how and through whom ministry takes place. I do have the feeling once I am brought little more into the loop a little more officially that I should touch base with him to let him know I am available for support, too. So far what I know I have gleaned through the vibes I have felt between them this summer, the pending appointment with the wife, and very basic information passed on by the husband's chosen confidant, with his permission.
We are a medium-size church of about 250, so this will be known and felt by many. This is a very active couple in our congregation. We have recently experienced another family going through a divorce, but they are not as active in leadership roles, and the wife has been more active than the husband throughout their entire relationship with the church. It hasn't been as visible, and the wife has been much more receptive to pastoral care than the husband. I have offered myself to both, and it seems to have gone smoothly. It has not seemed as difficult of a situation.
Things I anticipate needing to be aware of, but am not sure how to put into action:
1. Not taking sides, or appearing to take sides
2. Ministering to the kids
3. Dealing with "talk" or questions posed to me from others in the church
4. Helping other families talk to their kids about divorce if asked (I know this will be my first conversation with my own kids about divorce even though my own parents divorced when I was a child!)
5. Making sure both still feel included and welcome in the church
I have no idea if there is infidelity involved in this situation, if that matters. I am 99.9999% sure if it is, it doesn't involve anyone in the congregation.

Our second question asks more specifically about preaching in the context of divorce in the congregation.


So, A couple that has been absent from our congregation is getting a divorce. His work responsibilities have taken him out on Sundays. I am fairly close to the husband and he informed me that his wife has left him, but doesn't want me to let the others in the congregation know OR talk to her about it. He told me this in confidence.
Meanwhile, his wife has begun attending church again without him. I don't think she knows I know - and I have no idea if anyone else knows.
And so I sit down to start my lectionary reading this morning and I'm hit with the scriptures about divorce from Mark.
Do I preach them? Or avoid them? Do I ignore the fact that I know at least one side of the story in that relationship?

Matriarch Sunday's Coming shares her hard-won wisdom:


Ok – this is a very personal response because when I was going through a marriage break up & then divorce there were so many possible ways to get hurt or helped – and it wasn’t always people in the church who did the helping! So this is very much from the ‘person’s’ rather than the ‘pastor’s’ point of view:

  1. I needed people to talk to about what I was going through. I didn’t want to burden my parents, I didn’t want my child to know what was happening until there was something definite to say. When I tried to talk to one person I trusted in the church the answer was a very curt “I’m sure you’ll work thing out” - looking back maybe her own marriage wasn’t so sure at the time & she just couldn’t handle the issue. I turned to my (non-church as it happened) friends – they were brilliant, they never said “You ought to stay together” or “ you ought to split up” they said things like “that sounds tough” and “anytime you need to talk” and “come and have a drink!”.

2. When finally we decided to split up we talked to our daughter together. We tried to answer all her questions, but also to be honest about not really knowing why our marriage hadn’t worked “we just can’t live happily in the same house anymore” - but we reassured her “this is not your fault – it is mummy and daddy’s problem” and “we both still love you and we will always be your mummy and daddy even when we live in different houses and you will see each of us and have TWO bedrooms” (she was 6 at the time). When people at church talked to me about ‘the situation’ in front of my daughter I made sure I included her in the conversation and used the same kind of language “her daddy is looking for a different place for him to live and she will be at his house some of the week and at my house some of the week”.

3. I did NOT appreciate people saying to me, when I announced the divorce ‘this is terribly sad’ - actually it was really painful living through the breakdown of the marriage (something church people did not want to talk about) but having made the decision, the divorce was actually the best option for us. I wanted to hear “can we help make it easier?” not “oh dear, what a pity...”.

4. On the subject of announcing the divorce, I know it’s a bit different when you’re the minister, but I think it helps the church to be told something definite – a wise friend helped me put together a statement which I took to the elders’ meeting, and then to the whole church, That way everyone knows the basics and there’s no need for speculation.

5. Please can we preach something a bit more subtle than ‘marriage is good’ . Good marriage is good. Bad marriage is not good. Though I still believe in love and still am happy to marry people. It just doesn’t always work out & we can make divorced people feel 100 times worse by heaping on the guilt.


Matriarch Jennifer writes:

Navigating a good pastoral course through the choppy waters of divorce within a close-knit congregation can be very challenging. Thinking about the Word proclaimed when it feels all too relevant is challenging, too, regardless of the topic!

With respect to the preacher (the question regarding avoiding or embracing the lectionary), I think Mark 10’s teaching (or the Hebrew Scripture lectionary passage for next Sunday from Job) is stern stuff whether or not one is aware of a particular sensitivity in the congregation. In other words, I would expect that this would be a challenging passage anytime, despite your knowledge of a difficult situation in the congregation. Not knowing whether you seek to preach on the gospel lectionary passage only each week, or if you seek to address all of the lectionary passages, surely there’s a way to preach a word of hope and good news, challenging as that may be. (I am finding the Feasting on the Word series of commentaries to be exceedingly helpful with respect to challenging passages or very familiar ones.) Trust your instincts. You know your congregation, and know whether Mark 10:2-16 would be good for them to reflect upon—or if it would be better to shine a little light on Job, the psalm, or the passage from Hebrews!

About the pastor’s role regarding the family seeking pastoral care surrounding a possible divorce, I think it’s important to contact both spouses very soon to express your concern. I think it’s very appropriate to say to each that you’re not there to take sides, but to be supportive of each one at a difficult time. Let them share with you what form that pastoral care might take. You may find that one spouse seeks a prayer partner, while the other wishes to talk. It would be very appropriate to express your concern for their children, which may be one of the best offers you can extend. (See below for another best practice!) Have good referrals available for licensed counselors, should they express that need for themselves or their children. Be cautious about seeking to provide a lot of counseling, unless your training and time allow you to do so. Be a good listener, and take your cues from them. Ask them if you can check in with them periodically (then do it!) and if you think they have a concern about the “talk” that you anticipate others will engage in, determine, with their help, what you have permission to share with others. In all things, whatever the struggle or challenge, respond to questions with a statement like…. “I’m permitted to share this about the _______________ (insert situation here—with permission.) or, assuming that they’re asking because they want to be helpful say, “Gee, Suzie/Sam, I know you’re concerned about _________, but I don’t know that I have his/her/their permission to share right now. When and if I’m given the green light, I’ll be happy to let you know how you can best be helpful.” Do recognize that finding a path for both spouses to stay involved in the same congregation during or after a divorce is exceptionally rare, unless it’s a very large congregation. While it may or may not be the best outcome to have both partners remain, should the couple decide that it’s not possible for both to worship in the same congregation, you can play a really wonderful and healing role in helping one or both find a way to engage with a new church home that’s sensitive and supportive.

Thank you to both Matriarchs for sharing their really insightful thoughts about a very tough situation. What about the rest of you? You may have dealt with this issue from multiple sides - as a pastor, as a child of parents who divorced, as a person going through a divorce. What is your counsel for pastors wanting to minister with compassion, both to the family involved and to the wider church family. Share your thoughts!

As always, if you have questions you would like the Matriarchs to address, please send an email to askthematriarch@gmail.com.

12 comments:

  1. I would just echo that it's almost impossible for both parties to stay in the same church, so don't worry that you've failed when one moves on. And don't let others get caught in that either. It's just another way for church folks to beat themselves up.

    As you offer your support to both, be aware that in some situations, one party may see your offer to the other as taking sides, depending on how bitter or wronged they're feeling. Be careful. You can't expect people to be rational.

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  2. i think the matriarchs have given you wise, wise words! on both parties staying in the same church... it can happen... when i was called, there was a very active couple, 5 children (young adult-elementary age), messy, nasty divorce. both are still active members... it is a small town... but the community, the body of Christ, the people can make all the difference in welcoming, caring for and loving both parties where they are, for who they are...

    in fact when i went thru my divorce here, that couple... both husband & wife, were some of the first to reach out to me with "hey, what can we do for you pastor?"

    i was tempted to avoid mark 10 this sunday... but i'm not. i think often we preach, and the sermon hits close to home for someone in the pew (whether we know it or not)... i think tha's the holy spirit workin'. i'm sure as you work out the sermon, you'll be thoughtful, including plenty of hope and grace...

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  3. I agree that this Gospel reading is, or should be if we are paying attention, a difficult one regardless of whether we know someone in the congregation is struggling over divorce or not.

    I am concerned about the "ignore it and preach on something else" strategy as a way to spare people pain. If it is liturgically proclaimed as the Word of God this implicitly endorses everything it says and to leave it unmentioned/challenged/clarified--at least briefly if not as the focus of the sermon--means the preacher is implicitly endorsing it as well. I have been frustrated and angered when the same well-meaning but problematic solution was chosen with sexist passages and would hate for the same thing to happen to someone sensitive about divorce.

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  4. the Rev. Dr. Wil GafneyOctober 1, 2009 at 10:18 AM

    To Preach or Not To Preach (the lectionary Gospel)
    How frequently do you vary the text? If you always preach the assigned texts, then do so now.
    If you do wind up preaching the Gospel make clear that these passages are assigned for the day. You may need to say at several points something like "In the texts assigned for today;" "the texts most of the Church is reading in common today," etc.
    And, if you have stories, from your childhood or distant experience use them to talk about how painful the reality is. Maybe admit your struggle whether or not to preach that text.
    It will be hard. But choosing not to preach a Gospel because you know it applies (painfully) to someone's circumstances is at odds with the Gospels themselves.
    Blessings on both questioners!

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  5. Day1 has a sermon by Will Willimon on the Mark 10:2-6 passage. fwiw

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  6. Sophia, in many Protestant traditions (non-Anglican), we read only the texts from which we will be preaching. I'm not on this week, but my colleague is preaching from Hebrews and the Psalm and those are the only texts we will read. I agree that in traditions where all four texts are read regardless of preaching emphasis, reading this gospel lesson with no reflection poses a problem.
    I am divorced and did preach on this text in the past. It's an important example of the need for historical context and a reminder that there are many times we would just as soon look away from the scripture rather than toward it. It's an opportunity to lift up the dangers of literalism, and also to raise up the grief we feel when our lives don't turn out the way we planned.
    On the topic of how churches relate to those who are getting divorced, I had an immense amount of support from two of the pastors on staff at the large church where I was a member and also from the pastor at my Field Ed setting (I was in seminary when my husband left me). My estranged husband had been a church member, but he essentially yielded that field to me, coming back when the children sang in worship, and on other such occasions. Our friends in the church offered deep compassion, particularly since the separation occured in the aftermath of a severe postpartum depression and hospitalization for me. I felt loved and supported by my age peers and by the dear friends in the choir as well. My children went on in their church involvement as if nothing had happened. They felt normal at church, and that was a gift. When I had a preschooler unhappy about being left, the volunteers worked hard to make it possible for me to go to choir, and when I eventually gave that up and taught her Sunday School class, the choir continued to welcome me back whenever I could be with them. We really received the best kind of Christian love from our church family, and it is in large measure due to their full court press of kindness that I returned to seminary and went on to be ordained. God bless them.
    There were definitely awkward moments where well-meaning ladies said weird stuff. They thought it was affirming to tell me I could have had those wonderful children all by myself, they were so like me! I took kindness as kindness and refused to be offended by odd comments along the way. My Bible Study group, in particular, always made me feel welcomed and loved, even though I'm sure the breakup of a marriage in their midst felt challenging and even threatening.
    I'm sorry for the length of this comment. My children and my ex-husband (yes, weird as that is) read my blog, and I really don't write about my divorce there. For me it was spiritually catastrophic. I had to reinvent my relationship with God and my sense of self. I felt unloved and unlovable and unworthy. I cannot say enough about how dear those people are to me still who represented God's love and acceptance until I finally believed I could walk into those arms again without fear of rejection.

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  7. Many wise words here. My .02: the smaller the church, the tougher it is when a couple in that church divorce. I attended a very small church, we had both been active (although I was more so), and the divorce was quite ugly because of his infidelity and fighting over custody issues. The pastor was invaluable, the church members mostly shocked and uncomfortable because no one saw it coming (including me). My best help came from a therapist I worked with...there are limits to what even the best pastor can do, and something like this shakes many lay folks whose own marriages are troubled. I left, because I had to move to find a job. My new church family loved me when I was a basket case and loved me as I got better, and loved me when I met and married my wonderful husband. The pastor there was a great help, too, in so many ways.

    Reach out to them both, expect that one may find it difficult to take your offer. Keep confidences, refer out if it is beyond your skill level to counsel him/her/them. Make sure the children/youth pastor is aware so he or she can keep an eye out for the kids.

    As for the passage on divorce from Mark, I don't think it's really about divorce at all, contrarian that I am, so I don't see it as that much of a problem. And I usually discover that the stuff that makes me/us uncomfortable is fodder for a better sermon than the stuff I/we can accept easily...but that's just me.

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  8. On the lectionary question: as many have said, I'm of the "if you're going to read a hard text, then you have to talk about it" persuasion. I think you can speak in generalities about the pain of divorce without needing to get specific about a particular situation in the congregation. But reading it and then ignoring it is a bad plan.

    In my past experiences with divorce in the congregation, no two situations have been the same. Generally, I have offered my support and listening ear to both parties and let them take it from there. The advice to have a list of counselors at hand is really good.

    I also think it's important to include tough situations in the prayers of the people. Not by name, unless you have permission, and not necessarily right now in the heat of the problem, but in a few months - maybe a prayer petition like, "We hold in prayer all families experiencing divorce..." might be appropriate. I think it's one way the church can acknowledge real life, by verbalizing things in prayer.

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  9. Right, I forgot that, Songbird.

    So glad to hear that your church was so supportive when you went through that transition.

    I am glad and not at all surprised that you have preached on this Gospel. Two of the most powerful homilies I have heard on that passage have been from divorced people--a TEC priest and the lay pastor of our radical Catholic community in the Northwest.

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  10. we came to a close knit church family and found there were two couples who had divorced and all remarried. Once my Mother was sitting ready for worship when a woman came in and said, Oh hello Betty, would you mind moving down a little so I can sit there. No problem my mother said. The woman said..see that woman in the choir fourth seat over. Yes my mother said. I like to sit here so I can glare at her she took my husband away from me.

    It can be very difficult and where we were there weren't other congregations of any brand that was like ours.

    Good responses from others.

    I am not preaching on the lesson because it is world communion sunday and that seems to be more pressing for me.

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  11. About kids...I always keep in mind that 40 years ago, when my parents divorced, I didn't talk to a single person about it for 3 years. Not one. The flip side of that is that not one of the numerous adults in my life--Scout leaders, Sunday school teachers, parents of friends--talked to me about it. Divorce was less common and less public then, and I guess they just didn't know what to say or figured that it would be less painful for me not to think about it (yeah, right!).

    I don't consider myself permanently warped by this experience, but I ponder what changed inside me during those 3 years, how I might be a bit different if I hadn't held to myself that information for that long time. And as a result, when I hear of a parish or school (I'm also a school chaplain) family going through a divorce, I always ask if it's okay for me to mention it to the kids in an appropriate manner. I want those kids to know that at least one adult is willing to talk about it if they want to do so.

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  12. Thank you, everyone, for sharing so much wisdom from your experiences. I'm especially grateful to those of you willing to share from your pain. Thank you.

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