Who gets the church … when a couple divorces?

June 8, 2011 | Feature | Number 12
By Donita Wiebe-Neufeld | Alberta Correspondent

When a couple divorces, lawyers help decide how jointly held possessions are divided. There are many things, however, such as church attendance, that the couple are left to negotiate on their own.

One divorcee, when asked who gets the church, replies vehemently, “Who wants it?” In spite of continued committed involvement in her congregation, she is candid about the immense difficulties separated couples and their families encounter there. “I hated it,” she says. “There seems to be an assumption that now you will start working on [your marriage], but you’ve done so much soul-searching already. It’s so painful to get to that place. You are judging yourself. . . . I knew I was being judged.”

Another person in a similar situation admits, “I felt ashamed, even humiliated, in church. I felt like I was not a good Christian, even though it was not my conscious choice for my marriage to end. I felt like people might not understand, that I might be judged and condemned. For a few months I stopped attending church.”

How to be a healing place

For a variety of reasons, it is difficult—if not impossible—for separated or divorced couples to continue attending church at all, much less the same congregation. The concluding paragraph in the “Family, Singleness and Marriage” clause of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective states: “As the family of God, the church is called to be a sanctuary offering hope and healing for families.”

But the reality is that separated and divorced people often do not find support in the church as they struggle with the feelings of pain, failure, anger, grief and betrayal that are the tenacious companions of relationship breakdown.

How exactly to be a healing place for families in the throes of separation is often unclear to even the most well-meaning congregations. Hoyt Hickman writes in Ritual in a New Day, “At precisely the time when individuals are most lonely and need to establish links of communication with others, members of the Christian community know least how to respond, and the person is usually met with silence, embarrassment and whispered conversations that end abruptly when the person enters a room.”

Divorce in historical perspective

Just over 40 years ago, divorce and remarriage was the “hot” issue for the General Conference Mennonite Church in Canada. Aldred Neufeldt, now moderator of the Mennonite Church of Eastern Canada, was a young adult on the Board of Christian Service at the 1969 assembly in Saskatoon, Sask. He remembers the official discussions about the issues of divorce, remarriage and church participation. A recommendation made by the Board of Christian Service chair resolved to provide resources for marriages and families, and commit to ongoing study of the issues.

“Up to that point, there was reluctance to talk about divorce and strong opposition from some quarters,” Neufeldt recalls. “My memory of it was to even adopt what seems innocuous to us now, the opponents wanted outright condemnation. It was a critical issue in those days. More study and resources for congregations was contentious, according to the vocal opponents, but the motion was overwhelmingly accepted by the floor.”

The issue of divorce and remarriage largely dropped out of national church discussions after 1979. “By that time, there was scarcely a congregation without personal experience,” Neufeldt notes. “People knew these were good people caught up in difficult situations.”

Minutes from the 1978 assembly in Gretna, Man., note that “there appears to be no unanimity in terms of approach taken by various congregations.”

While there is greater understanding and acceptance of divorced people in Mennonite churches in 2011, practices and experiences still vary widely in and among congregations.

“Divorce seems to have lost some of its stigma in our church,” says a Mennonite pastor, adding that some individuals struggle with the idea of a divorcee in a position of leadership or teaching. Side-taking and application of double stand-ards—acceptance of divorce in a person’s own family, but not in others—causes further problems. The muddle of issues led to one divorced church member leaving the congregation when his volunteer gifts were not accepted by a few vocal critics.


When children are involved

The difficulties in separations are most poignant when children are involved. Separated parents agonize over what is best, but may disagree with what to do about the faith practice of their children. The church often does not know how to be of help in these situations.

One pastor emphasizes the importance of showing children their parents are cared for during their struggles. “While it is difficult for both parents to share the same worship space, and the children are aware of the tensions that come with this, we need to be examples that both people are cared for and loved,” he says. “This is an area where our church failed. . . .

Children are more aware of what happens to others than we sometimes give them credit for.”

When children perceive that a parent is not treated well by the church, they are unlikely to want to continue their involvement.

Arrangements for children to remain attending their home church vary. Some may alternate between the two churches their parents attend, while others may always attend their church but with only one of the parents.

Author Elizabeth Marquardt grew up as a child of divorced parents. Although her parents had an amicable separation, and she is successful and accomplished, Marquardt writes with great sorrow about the experiences of children of divorce.

In Between Two Worlds, Marquardt examines the effects of the split lives children lead as they struggle to bridge the gap between parents while living in two worlds: “[I]t can be bewildering to children of divorce when neither parent is doing anything wrong, but their rules and habits are simply different.”

A parent whose child alternates churches each week says, “There are two value systems . . . different sets of norms. . . . I don’t know of any upsides to going to two churches.” She wishes it were possible for her child to regularly attend one church, especially at times like Christmas, when concert practices and performances don’t line up in a doable manner for the families involved.

Another divorcee who attends the same church as an ex says, “We do attend, but it is difficult. A commitment to respect and politeness is necessary for me. At this point, it does not honestly seem desirable for me, but it is good for our child.”

Andrew Root, another child of divorce, describes the problem in his book The Children of Divorce: “I contend that what children of divorce need most is not strategies for thinking correctly, but a place to belong, a community in which their humanity is upheld.” He suggests the church can be an anchor for the members of a broken family. “[F]inding a community that suffers with and for us can assure us that we are real, that our suffering is embraced concretely by these people called church, who witness to God in Jesus Christ who bears our brokenness,” he writes.

In order to be there for these families, church programs must be flexible so children with two homes can participate. Youth programs, kids clubs and mentorship programs can provide a sense of connectedness for children who can’t attend every Sunday. At a time when grief is raw—often during the initial separation—things like scheduled play dates for children, an offer of a meal, a non-judgmental ear or a card can be meaningful and provide encouragement for them to stay connected to the community.


Being—or becoming—a welcoming place

In all the turmoil of divorce, the church can be a place of healing as couples divide up their lives, or just another profound loss. In many divorces, at least one partner stands to lose his or her community of faith and support.

For those who manage to continue attending their church, the support of friends and family is crucial.

“The only thing [that kept me coming] was that my parents went there,” a divorced woman says. “The minister spent time with one and not the other.”

Although it aided her, the presence of extended family was one reason her ex found it too painful to continue his attendance.

Another divorcee, with no extended family in the congregation, says, “For me, the patience, love, understanding and acceptance by both clergy and laity has been the strongest factor in healing.”

A pastor currently helping a family through separation says, “Anything appropriate to care for the grieving is appropriate now.”

A divorcee remembers with gratitude, the “thing that helped me most was [someone) who came and helped me move and unpack. That’s all she did. That’s how people can help.”

Other divorced people within a congregation are important connections, as they are uniquely able to provide an understanding ear and help the newly separated feel less alone in their struggle.

Clergy and care teams, including deacons or elders, can shape an “official” church response, whether that simply means ensuring a private visit occurs and counsel is offered, or by helping the couple to communicate with the congregation. Each situation is best treated on its own terms, in consultation with those involved. Speaking about the hard parts of life must happen at church so that compassion, not condemnation, is a first response to people’s pain.

“We need to recognize in ourselves that we are imperfect people, subject to human nature and all of its failings,” says a pastor. “Healing comes from a place of understanding that we are all capable of doing what has happened in the break-up of a marriage.”

Says a divorcee, “The main thing is to talk openly about inclusivity and support for people in different stages in life, and being there for each other and saying those kinds of things . . . make a point of including people who have just been separated to things.”

The church can consciously work towards being a welcoming place by teaching there is no such thing as a perfect family.

In his Practices: Mennonite Worship and Witness, John D. Roth points out that the idea of mom, dad and two kids in a single family dwelling is a recent, not biblical, image of family. “[T]o the extent that the ideal family has come to be defined in narrow and exclusive terms and as a refuge of intense privacy, the biblical family may be a source of liberating news,” he writes.

One only has to look at Jesus’ lineage in the gospels to see many forms of family and various “colourful” individuals represented. Roth suggests that Christians “might practise our commitment to porous family boundaries by reshuffling our seating arrangements in worship. . . .

[W]e would do this . . . as a reminder that family connectedness is not the only relevant category for congregational involvement and identity.”

Setting for odd numbers at church potlucks, consciously intermingling seating during worship and other church functions, and involving singles in public leadership all move the church to function more as a faith family than a collection of genetically related groupings. This helps create welcoming spaces for those who need a place to belong.

One pastor sums up her comments on divorce and the church this way: “We need to be able to share this information [pain of divorce] with the congregation as a whole and pray publicly for persons who carry the weight of this grief. Just as we have special services for remembering those who have died, maybe we could have a public worship ritual of lament for all who carry the weight of struggling or broken relationships, named or unnamed.

“We need to name [with the permission of the couple] for the benefit of the congregation practical ways that people can be supportive. We need to give people permission to call, have coffee, offer a meal and otherwise check in with persons who carry this profound grief. We need to preach and teach and demonstrate forgiveness and the power of new hope provided by the resurrected Christ, who brings life to the dead.”

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Thank you for sharing. Your story exemplies the difficulty and pain I heard from many divorced people as I worked on the article about divorce and the church. I heard a few others, divorced/single women, say the same thing you do; that they have felt other women treat them with suspicion. I'm glad you've named that issue, perhaps it will help build some awareness and compassion.

You mentioned you feel God is telling you to seek Him and not a congregation.Is there another way to find the community you need right now without having to expose yourself to the difficulties of attending a worship service where you feel sidelined? Some churches offer women's Bible study groups or even divorce support groups that provide a small faith group setting that is personal and supportive.

I pray for God's blessing for you and courage as you search for a welcoming faith family.


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