Did you know that there is a mission field in your own backyard? It’s true. You don’t need to travel to third world countries, tsunami-struck areas, or the 10/40 window. Just open your front door.
The overlooked mission field in America today consists of widows (widowers) and orphans devastated by the trauma of divorce.
The term widow refers to more than those who have lost a spouse through death. Webster’s definition also uses the phrase “Grass Widow,” which includes a woman that is divorced or separated. Larry Burkett’s Single Parent Manual, co-authored by Brenda Armstrong states, “The Bible uses the same definition for widow in James 1:27. The word “Chera” (Khay-rah) means “grass widow” which is interpreted as the idea of deficiency; a widow (as lacking a husband), literal or figurative.” (Footnote 1) For years the Church has been unaware or unwilling to reach out to this forlorn group. I hope to change that.
During divorce men and women often seek out a church when they would not have at any other time? In desperation they look for a place that can assist them to stabilize their unpredictable emotions and help parent children who are struggling with abandonment and trauma. The question becomes, will the church welcome and provide for them?
Unfortunately, I am well acquainted with the devastation of divorce.
I was almost nine years old when my parents divorced. I have no memory of the day we moved away, except one brief flashback. The following months are also a blur. I have one vague recollection of a teacher praising my schoolwork, but she has no name or face.
In contrast, I can remember the smallest details about our apartment before the separation. I have a vivid recollection of the gray swirled wallpaper in my bedroom, my brother’s crib down to the teeth marks, and my treasured chalkboard where I would “teach” school to my dolls. The Tide box was stored on the bathroom windowsill and our brown sofa was plaid.
Twenty-three years later I found myself weeping in my pastor’s office. I had been working for a difficult boss, one who was impossible to please. I finally quit, but instead of experiencing relief I was overwhelmed with despair. When my pastor asked why I was so upset I replied, “I don’t know. All I know is that I’m eight years old again and I can’t do one thing right.” I was as perplexed as he was to hear those words come out of my mouth. Why did I say that? As the conversation unfolded it became painfully clear that this little girl with a memory loss believed she was the reason for her parents’ divorce. The torture of that conviction was too burdensome for my mind to endure, so I forgot.
In the early 1970’s our society believed divorce didn’t have much of an effect on children.
But Judith Wallerstein’s 25-year study clearly reveals the opposite. In her book The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce she divulges that a child’s life is profoundly altered by the experience. I can say this is certainly true of my own life.
Growing up I had one goal for my life. I wasn’t concerned about obtaining an excellent education, making money, or becoming famous. With unwavering determination, I was absolutely certain of one thing, “I will NEVER be divorced.” However, there was one crucial point I hadn’t factored into the equation. It takes two people to get married but only one to get divorced. And herein lies the problem. Even though I was a new Christian when I married, I quickly learned that God wasn’t going to shackle my husband to the couch when he decided to leave.
The grief, loss, and fear I experienced during my divorce devastated me. In my journal I wrote, “It’s amazing that Jesus hasn’t left my side even though I am so unworthy…Dear God, please give me a purpose for living. I feel so empty, so useless…Please help me God, I’m so wretched and ugly.”
Thoughts of suicide danced through my head during that horrific season. Yet I was one of the blessed ones. My church didn’t abandon me too. They showed me compassion and love, which drew me closer to Christ. Although I believed my forehead was stamped with a giant “R” for reject, the pastors, deacons and other leaders never treated me like as outcast.
I’m so grateful they saw me as redeemed, not rejected. My church family took the time to gain God’s perspective of me. They were able to witness Jesus radiating through my shattered, trampled heart.
Sadly, I’ve met numerous people who have had opposite experiences. He or she attended a church where showing kindness to a divorcing person, regardless of the circumstances, portrayed being “soft on divorce.”
In almost every situation I’ve encountered where the church unjustly spurned a divorcing man or woman, this rejection was almost as devastating as the situation itself. Often these wounded souls run away from the one place that should provide hope. Instead, they frantically dash into bars or secular singles groups that welcome them with open arms, and they never returned to the church.
Let me state clearly that I detest divorce; the destruction involved is horrible. I firmly believe it should be avoided if at all possible. I would be thrilled if a “going out of business” sign could be hung on my divorce recovery ministry. But I know that in this world people make poor choices and cause pain to themselves and others. My job is to reach out to the brokenhearted and point them toward healing.
Why do some people have such a bad image of a divorced person? I believe fear of divorcing themselves is somewhat responsible. But judgment also plays a part. If I had a dollar for every Christian who has arrogantly said or implied, “Divorce will never happen to me,” I’d be a wealthy woman.
Those same people would never think of saying, “Cancer will never happen to me,” or “Rape will never happen to me.” Of course we hope and pray none of these ever happen, but there are no guarantees. Such is the case with divorce.
I no longer count the number of pastors, pastor’s wives, deacons, elders, and choir members, that have found themselves in the midst of a divorce. Often their heads are spinning as they cry, “ I believed since I am a Christian and so is my spouse this would never happen.” But marriage involves the choices of two people and you can only control your own.
When I inquire if a church has a divorce recovery program the leadership often responds, “No, we believe that would communicate an endorsement of divorce.”
But this couldn’t be farther from the truth, and the evil one knows it. Satan understands what a powerful outreach this ministry can be. Therefore, he perpetuates the lie within the church. A healthy program can help the brokenhearted, while maintaining the sanctity of marriage. Proper leadership is the key.
Fortunately, God is faithful to change hearts. I knew an elder who was short on mercy with divorcing people. He attended a support session because the church was in need of another divorce recovery facilitator. After the first meeting this man went away with wide eyes and a transformed heart. He humbly stated, “I had no idea these people were in so much pain. God forgive me.”
Does that imply all divorce recovery support groups are healthy? No. I’ve observed some that promote bitterness and unforgiveness, bashing of the opposite gender, and giving unwise tips on dating. The use of excellent Biblical divorce recovery resources (such as www.divorcecare.org), and proper training for facilitators, is essential to resolve these issues.
Is divorce recovery ministry complex and draining? Absolutely. It’s an “emergency room” filled with needy, emotionally bleeding people. Many of whom need a tourniquet of love and an IV of counseling. Is it worth it? Listen to my experience and decide for yourself.
Fifteen years after my divorce I traveled back to my home church in New York. This was the place where God had used my pain to implement a divorce recovery ministry. That particular Sunday service was filled with baptisms. I wept uncontrollably while watching one young adult after another walk into the water and profess Jesus as Lord. Although I didn’t know them well, I knew their parents. Many had come to Christ through divorce recovery.
I am hard pressed to think of a more glorious day in my life. The Lord allowed me to see precious fruit of my labor—the blessing passing to the next generation. He revealed that my work in this ministry would touch and save lives that I will never know until heaven.
So what can we do to help these hurting ones?
There are several good programs a church can implement. But before reaching out to those who are separated or divorcing it would be wise to understand certain guidelines:
- Even though God hates divorce, he LOVES divorced people.
- Avoid Judging. You do not know all of the circumstances of both parties, even if you think you do.
- You can love the sinner without embracing or ignoring the sin.
- Acknowledge that divorce isn’t a bigger sin than others. The blood of Jesus forgives all sin.
- Just because a sin has occurred doesn’t mean both parties have sinned.
- The person filing for the divorce might not be the one who broke the covenant. There are a number of reasons why this might be necessary.
- If you can’t speak the truth in love without condemnation, then ask God to send someone else who can.
- Be patient. When a person is divorcing, his or her emotions are on a high-speed roller coaster and they make impulsive decisions.
- Attend a healthy divorce recovery group. It will reveal the need and the complexities.
- Resist the urge to preach. “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Jesus typically showed people kindness before sharing truth.
- Meet practical and immediate needs first. This builds a bridge of trust and shows you care, giving permission to share about Christ.
- Refrain from using Christian lingo. A non-Christian doesn’t understand words such as sanctification, redemption, salvation, and evangelism. To them it’s a foreign language.
- Be prepared for needy people. Have a resource list of excellent counselors that work with adults and children.
- Teach how to become a stable single parent. Avoid encouraging a second marriage as a way to be a “normal” family. Singleness isn’t synonymous with failure.
- Implement a program specifically geared for the children of divorce on the same night as the adult program.
- Research excellent programs available for couples desiring to restore their marriage. The most common mistake the church makes is attempting reconciliation without addressing the root issues that destroyed the marriage. This sets the stage for a second failure.
By reaching the modern day widows (widowers) and orphans of today, we have the potential to change their tomorrow. Won’t you join in the mission?
Crown Financial Ministries, Single Parent Ministry Training Manual, p.13.
- Percentage of the population that is married: 59% (down from 62% in 1990 and 72% in 1970)
- Median age at first divorce: Males 30.5, Females 29
- Median age at second divorce: Males 39.3, Females 37
- Median duration of first marriages that end in divorce: 7.9 years
- Median duration of second marriages that end in divorce: Males 7.3 years, Females 6.8 years
- Percentage of marriages that ended in divorce in 1997: 50%
- Percentage of remarriages that ended in divorce in 1997: 60%
- Drop in standard of living of females after divorce (2000): 45%
- Estimated number of children involved in divorce (1997): 1, 075,000
- Children under 18 living with one parent (1998): 20 million (28%)
Sources: www.divorcemagazine.com including US Census Bureau.
DivorceCare, and DivorceCare for Kids (DC4K), www.divorcecare.org 1-800-489-7788
Tom Whiteman, Bob Burns, The Fresh Start Divorce Recovery Workbook
New Start 4 Moms, www.newstart4moms.org , Diane Strack, 407 248 0300
Kids Hope, www.kidshope.org, Gary Sprague,1-8
© by Laura Petherbridge