Hey Clergy! Yes, You Should Help Congregants Through Divorce

When I was working on Splitopia, I spoke to many religious people who struggled with their faith during divorce, or found themselves feeling judged or ignored at church or synagogue.  Others had trouble keeping their kids in Sunday school because they swapped weekend parenting time with a less religious co-parent.

Amy Ziettlow, an ordained Evangelical Lutheran pastor in Central Illinois, thinks faith communities should do a better job reaching out to people facing divorce.  An Affiliate Scholar at the Institute for American Values, Ziettlow has written extensively about how faith communities can support parents and their children in divorce.  She recently completed a three-year fellowship to study Generation-X caregiving and grief.

 I caught up with Ziettlow to find out what churches and communities can do better. 

Wendy Paris: Why do you think clergy and religious communities aren’t doing a good enough job supporting families in divorce?

Amy Ziettlow: What really convinced me that we’re not doing a good enough job was working on the research of Elizabeth Marquardt and Norval Glenn for a report titled, Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? Challenging the Churches to Confront the Impact of Family Change They surveyed 750 adults whose parents divorced during their childhood.  Three-quarters of them didn’t remember anyone in their faith community talking to them about the divorce.  That data made me re-think how well I’m supporting children and couples going through and living with divorce.

Wendy Paris: What do you want faith leaders to do better?

I really want to challenge other faith leaders to make more of an effort to connect with young people and families who have experienced divorce.  You don’t have to say, “I’m so sorry!  You must be so sad!”  Most of the kids would say, “Whatever, I’m just living.”  But at least ask how they are, in the same way you might ask if someone lost a job, or has moved.  “How are you doing with that? How are you adjusting?”  Simply noting that the divorce has happened can open the door for future conversations.

Wendy Paris: What are some specific challenges you’ve seen at church when couples divorce?

AZ: A dear friend of mine, who is in church work in Texas, describes in a poignant way what happens to people who divorce in a congregation.  She went through her own divorce about 10 years ago.  She explained to me that when a death happens, everyone in the congregation takes a step closer to the people going through that loss.  

But, when a couple divorces, everyone takes a step away.  She would have liked her church family to step closer and ask how she was doing.

Her divorce was amicable and was the best thing for her family, but she still felt a wide range of emotions personally as well as worry about how her children were handling the ensuing changes.

On a practical level, there are often scheduling challenges for the children of the divorced couple. As clergy and youth sponsors, we have to be mindful when scheduling rehearsals for a church play or pageant. A person may not make every rehearsal because one parent doesn’t bring him to church on weekends.  Or they may have to miss the lock-in because of a custody arrangement.  Lock-in for a 7th grader is a moment of high drama!   Often the child or teenager is forced to keep track of his or her own custody schedule, and it’s helpful if the youth sponsors and pastor can work with the parents to help take some of the scheduling pressure off the young person.  We need to raise our sensitivity to the challenges of those schedules.

Also, sometimes their other parent is of a different faith, denomination, or none, and the child is navigating what they will be.  They may feel pressure believe or practice in the same way as one parent.  The young people I’ve worked with have been very sensitive to the feelings of their parents and have not wanted to hurt one parent for not resonating with his or her particular beliefs or practices.  If we can bring the families together and talk about why each member feels passionately about his or her faith or tradition, it usually works.  I really believe that parents want the best for the kids, but sometimes it takes someone from the outside to walk them through articulating that for their children.  On their own, they’re too close.  I have seen it be helpful to have an outside person facilitating the conversation. 

The teen years are especially stressful since that is when all the "coming of age" rituals happen.  There are many liminal moments for teenagers, such as baptism or confirmation or the bar mitzvah to secular rites of passage such as prom or moving away from home to attend college. There are these moments of in-between-ness that we mark as faith communities.  Pastors need to be mindful of the families of a young person are connected or not connected, how far different members are from the center, who is the young person. Following a divorce, a young person becomes an integral part of two different family systems in which he or she may play different roles and must abide by different rules and values.  

In the ceremonies and parties that surround a rite of passage, all of a sudden these two universes are all together under one roof.  The young person can be feeling pressure to hold everyone together.

Clergy and caring faith mentors as well as extended family can help a young person navigate these unique times.

Wendy Paris: Some religious denominations see divorce as a sin or at least a failing.  I imagine this makes it hard for clergy to reach out and ask kids and adults how they’re doing.  Like, maybe they’ll feel their “approving” of divorce by offering basic human decency to someone going through a tough time or that they should try to stop the divorce.

AZ: Theologically (I am Christian with an Evangelical Lutheran lens), I am not a clergy person who condemns divorce.  However, divorce is a conscious and legal decision made by two people to break the covenant they’ve made to each other.  A broken covenant is always an occasion to grieve.  When couples come to the church to process what they are going through, my role is to help them see how God is companioning them through this time and equipping them for the future.  To be honest, couples tend not to talk to me before they divorce.  I tend to inherit the decision, so at that point I focus my attention on their children and on helping them be good co-parents.  I am mindful that this teenager didn’t choose for his mom and dad to marry, let alone divorce.  Our job is to help them deal with the reality, not the whys and hows, which we can’t control.  It’s like with death.  A life is not about figuring out how to never die.  But we do need to figure out how we can respond in healthy ways to endings.  

Our goal as a faith community is to help you have the healthiest, most life-giving, grace-filled response.

Wendy Paris: How can congregants and lay leaders support kids in divorce?

AZ: When young people are going through those liminal times, such as baptism preparation or confirmation classes, they often have an adult mentor.  I aim to challenge those lay people who are mentors to allow the young people to make sense of the divorce of their parents as part of mapping their life-long faith journey. It’s just as valid a part of their lives as is the fact that they play baseball or love Minecraft.  It’s not taboo; it’s part of their story.  If it’s not traumatic, let’s talk about it.  If it is traumatic, trauma is not something to be held onto.  Let’s talk about it so we can move forward.  People don’t want to be nosy and might hesitate to bring up a topic that can be sensitive.  If this child’s dad died, the community would rush around that child. With divorce, often they won’t say anything.  

If adult mentors don’t ask about divorce, then they’ve missed a chance for the young person to see that God is with them through every experience in life.

I find the quieter I am when asking vulnerable questions, the better.  After their share their story, I try to follow up with questions that help them name sources of resilience, such as, “When have you felt this way in the past?  What was helpful?” Allowing them to discover how they’re going to move forward and to name it. Then just sitting and allowing them to say it.  They always say something I never would have suggested.  And it’s better than what I would have advised.

Wendy Paris: When you talk to adults whose parents divorced when they were children, what do they say about that experience now?

AZ: I know for some of the Gen X congregants I serve (folks in their 30-50’s), seeing their parents get divorced in their childhood has made them much more intentional about what they want from marriage and who they choose as a partner.  For some, it’s actually been a good thing, because they’ve been far more studied or tempered in terms of waiting to marry and choosing a mate wisely.  Or, some say, “I’m the person I am because I had to do certain things in my childhood that I wouldn’t have had to do if my parents hadn’t divorced.  And I’m thankful for that.”  For the Gen X adults Naomi Cahn and I interviewed for a project on caregiving and loss, those adults who had experienced the divorce of their parents drew on how they coped after the divorce to help them cope after a parent or stepparent died.

Wendy Paris: Thank you. It’s always so nice to speak to you. 


Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is an advocate for family law reform. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.