Our second question asks more specifically about preaching in the context of divorce in the congregation.
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:
- 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.
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.
As always, if you have questions you would like the Matriarchs to address, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.