We recognize that this is an unusual and even unprecedented time to be doing ministry. This post pertains to more normal times, and you may not find it relevant in the next few weeks. However, we are also aware that, with many of us working from home, some people may have more time to read blog posts now than they usually do. We hope that you will be able to read this now and use its guidance at such a time as our activities return to normal.
When the structure of a family in your ministry changes due to divorce, it can be hard to know how to be helpful. Data shows that the regular church-attendee comes to worship only about twice per month. Mix in a changing child custody schedule and attendance may be even less regular, but that doesn’t mean these families don’t still want to be connected to what’s happening in your ministry, and your church. As a ministry leader, it’s good to have a baseline of strategies and awareness for how to help support families, especially as they begin to transition to a new reality.
Before I delve in, a quick word about what you’ll read next: this is a HUGE topic. My aim here is not to ask you to drink from a firehose, but to give a surface-level awareness of what you can do to walk alongside families during a divorce transition. I’ll focus specifically on things you can do—what you can control. Obviously, this won’t encompass everything, so I’ll include some other helpful links at the bottom for further reading.
When you become aware that a family is navigating a divorce, it’s a good idea to offer a gentle check-in. Though we are generally conditioned to say, “I’m so sorry to hear of your divorce,” know that divorces aren’t always a “bad” thing. It could be that the home environment wasn’t healthy for anyone in the context of a marriage, so this move to being separate is positive and healthy. On the other hand, abuse, infidelity, addiction, and other factors may indeed make this transition very painful, so be aware of those possibilities as well. In either case, a simple, “I understand your family is going through a significant transition. How can I be a source of support for you?” is saying enough. Acknowledging and offering support is a gentle way of saying “I see you, and I offer my help.” This simple invitation affords the family the opportunity to share with you what they want to share and gives the occasion for a conversation about what they might need specifically from you, the ministry leader.
It’s more than likely that in your conversation, the family will have no idea what they need or want from you, or the church, during this time, other than love and support. Of course they should have these things. Support from you can (and should) look like . . .
- Good communication: ensure you have both parents’ email addresses and that both parents are receiving information from you.
- Affirming language: this might be a good time to check yourself (and your volunteers, curriculum, and other sources) for affirming language. Families come in all shapes, colors, sizes, etc., so be sure your language reflects this reality. You’ll help normalize the situation, especially for the children involved.
- Connection: no matter their attendance, do your best to make sure the child/ren still feel connected to what’s happening in your ministry. If they miss a significant lesson or a special event, contact the parents to see if you can send materials home. When you do see the child/ren, make a concerted effort to welcome them by name. It is not necessary to point out their absence, but simply to celebrate their presence now.
- Awareness: divorce is stressful, and little bodies handle this stress differently. It is a good idea to make your volunteer staff aware of the situation in an appropriate manner. Give your staff appropriate tools to help children who are struggling. (The American Academy of Pediatrics has great age-specific information on their website. I’ve linked to it below.)
- Important note: You should never offer information to others that the family does not want shared; but be aware that each divorce is different and there may be custody restrictions. If this is the case, the people responsible for the child/ren should be informed of what they need to know to keep the child safe.
No effort at support in situations of divorce is ever wrong. These are painful transitions for families no matter the reason for the divorce. Your congregation’s and your ministry’s love and support are valuable beyond measure. Be gentle and genuine, and you will show your families the Kingdom grace of God.
A few helpful links:
American Academy of Pediatrics: https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/138/6/e20163020
Helping Children Adjust to Divorce: A Guide For Teachers: https://extension2.missouri.edu/gh6611
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy: https://www.aamft.org/Consumer_Updates/Children_and_Divorce.aspx