This article, which was first published in the March/April issue of K! Magazine addresses the issue of how the church should address children of divorce and children from single-parent families in the context of family ministry. Welcome to part two of our series on family ministry and children of divorce. Last time we looked at the move towards family ministry in the church today. Today we will examine what that means for children of divorce and children from single parent families, and next time we will look at what the church can do to ensure these kids do not fall through the cracks.
Last time, we left off with the need for the church to stand in the gap for children of divorce and children from single parent homes.
The Problem of Children and Divorce
Before filling this role, we must have an adequate understanding of the magnitude of the problem. Consider the following statistics.
Since 1972, roughly 1,000,000 children each year have witnessed the divorce of their parents. In 2008, an additional 1.7 million children were born into single parent families. Other studies show that roughly one-half of all children in the United States will see the break-up of their parents’ marriage. Half of those will also see the breakup of a parent’s second marriage. Additionally, research from the Barna Group indicates that the divorce rate amongst born again Christians is as high as the rate for the population as a whole.
A 2010 government study shows that only 60.3% of kids currently live with their married biological parents. 3.1% live with unmarried biological parents while 5.4% live in step families and 27.1% live with a single or cohabiting parent. Another 4.1% live with grandparents, other relatives or elsewhere. That means that in a small group of ten kids in your ministry, at least four of them likely to be from “non-traditional” families.
Rates of cohabitation are also on the rise leaving a situation where children from divorced and single parent homes are on a constant carousel of new people coming into and out of their “family.” Add in stepsiblings, “new” grandparents and “friends” of mom or dad, and a child’s life can become a hopelessly complicated morass of people dictated by their parents’ relationship status.
Children of Divorce and The Church
If, as the church, we mean to embrace the idea of family ministry, we must define the term family, and any definition we use must be broad enough to include children living in single parent homes (by way of divorce or birth), stepfamilies, with other relatives, and nine of the above. Our approach to family ministry must be broad enough to ensure that these kids are not excluded from our ministries because of the choices of their parents.
All too often the church, many times without even realizing it, focuses on the “traditional” two married parent family model in our ministry to children and families.
Adult children of divorce often cite incidents during their childhood where people in the church, including paid staff, ignored them and their families when their parents’ got divorced. Worse yet, many recall that the people in their churches made them feel unwelcome in the church which eventually led to their ceasing coming to church all together.
In a survey I am currently conducting of adults whose parents divorced when they were children (http://divorceministry4kids.com/divorce/), this sentiment was echoed over and over again. One woman wrote of her experience in church following her parents’ divorce,
“I always felt left out. I did not fit in because I was not a regular anywhere.”
Another woman wrote:
YES! In the [NAME REDACTED] church you feel like you are somehow tainted when your parents are divorced. It completely changed the lens through which I understood and saw all Biblical truth and church doctrine.
Yet another responded,
“…the pastors wouldn’t talk to us. Some of them ignored us.”
Another woman, when asked if she felt judged at church gave an even more haunting response:
Not at the church I attended. They didn’t get involved in people’s lives. You didn’t really know anyone except your own friends or school mates.
In her groundbreaking book Between Two Worlds, Elizabeth Marquardt studied the impacts of divorce by interviewing hundreds of grown children of divorce. She writes,
In perhaps the most poignant finding of the study, of those young adults who were regularly attending a church or synagogue at the time of their parents’ divorce, two-thirds say that NO ONE – neither from clergy nor from the congregation – reached out to them during that critical time in their lives, while only one-quarter remember either a member of clergy or a person from the congregation doing so. [Emphasis added]
Let’s think about that. Of those children attending church at the time of their parents’ divorce, not one person from the church reached out to these kids in their time of greatest need. For those of us who work with children, that statistic alone should break our hearts and, more importantly, spur us on to action. The church as a whole, and those of us who minister to children in particular, have to stand up and speak for these kids, and these families, that are falling through the cracks in our churches.