Who Gets Custody of the Congregation?

Many couples assume that when a marriage ends, their membership in their faith community must end as well.  This need not be the case.  You can share custody of a congregation. However, there are several questions to consider in negotiating how to stay connected to a faith community after a divorce.

1. Are divorced families welcome?

A divorced couple may want to stay connected to their congregation, but the community of faith itself may present challenges.  The age-old anti-divorce position of certain religions can still hover around a congregation, making the newly divorced uncomfortable, if not actually ostracized.  

Divorce would have ended affiliation with some groups in the past; the Catholic church, for example, once ex-communicated parishioners who divorced.  This is no longer true today, though the Catholic Church does require an annulment of a previous marriage in order to remarry. (Read how the Catholic Church views divorce here.)  A Mormon today might find that her faith’s focus on marriage for life and afterlife is too much to take in divorce, or too upsetting or confusing for the children.  Also, remarrying someone of a different faith could make attending your old church or synagogue feel uncomfortable.   

But the fact is, many mainstream Christian and Jewish communities today do accept the reality of divorce, and see their role as companions through it and beyond.  

I have served as a pastor in Lutheran congregations in Illinois and Louisiana for the last fifteen years. Evangelical Lutherans in America believe that while “God’s intention for marriage is permanence,” divorce does happen.  The church is meant to be a “community of care and hope for those who divorce, rather than blaming, ostracizing, or being indifferent to their needs.”  This is the position adopted by the Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America in 1996 and still held today.

The Lutheran church also celebrates and supports remarriage. This open, accepting view means I have seen many married couples who divorce remain active participants in their worshipping community, either alone or as now-divorced members. Many other Protestant Christian denominations, such as Presbyterian and Methodist, share a similar view of divorce and remarriage.

Read our article about how clergy can do a better job supporting congregants through divorce. 

Still, despite the fact that your church or synagogue of mosque may well continue to welcome you openly, one thing is certain about divorce: it will likely affect your faith.

2. How has divorce changed your religious expression and spirituality?

The end of a marriage marks a period of change.  Any time of change can ripple into two distinct areas of a person’s faith life: Religious expression, often defined as worship attendance or involvement in leadership roles in a congregation; and Spirituality, often defined as feeling close to the Holy or as feeling that an understanding of the Divine is woven into your sense of self and every day life.

Divorce may make you more, or less, religious. In a 2012 study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, sociologist Melinda Lundquist Denton found that times of stress or major change tend to make people become either more or less religiously expressive or spiritual.  Divorce, in particular, was associated with religious change, “but the type of religious change was not unidirectional.”

While you’re going through your divorce, and resettling your life afterward, you may find that you want to attend worship services more than usual.  Or less than usual. You may feel that your relationship to God becomes closer, or more distant. Both are normal.

If you were in an interfaith marriage, divorce may be a step toward reconnecting with your faith of origin. For some, this time of transition is a chance to try a new faith tradition.

Pay attention to whether your worship attendance, frequency of prayer, or sense of the Holy in your day-to-day life is intensifying or ebbing, and accept whatever change you see.  You may want to analyze and discuss these patterns with your pastor, rabbi, or a trusted friend. Do they reflect how you would like to express your faith?

3. What are the spiritual needs of your dependents?

Maintaining a consistent connection to your faith community can be especially important for dependent children as they adjust to the changes that follow a divorce. There may be aspects of your divorce, and of life in general, that your child may want to talk about with another adult who isn’t you.  A congregational setting can be a prime place for a child to seek and find support from a wide array of mentors: the pastor, a Sunday School teacher, a youth minister or youth sponsor, grandparent-type members—even other children whose parents have divorced.

If you want your children to be connected to a faith community as adults, sticking with a worship routine now matters.  Researcher Kara Powell and the Sticky Faith initiative stress found that one commonality of people who are active in faith communities as adults is that they can name five adults, outside of family members, who supported them during their teenage years.  Providing this opportunity for your children through regular attendance at a house of worship can be invaluable.

Your congregation may also offer formal support groups for individuals and families experiencing divorce, such as DivorceCare for Kids, a 13-week, Biblically-based, Christian program to help kids understand divorce, and reassure them that there is a place in church for all families, created by Linda Jacobs, whose offers great advice for parents as they adjust to being single or becoming a blended family in the church.

4. Will you share custody of your congregation?

There are a lot of reasons for the assumption that divorce means breaking up with your congregation.  When you’ve joined a faith community as a married spouse, it may be difficult to imagine being single in the same place, let alone both being single there.

However, it is possible for a divorced couple to remain members of the same church. I met Paul and Susan* in the first congregation I served in southern Illinois. It was a small church, with about 150 worshipers on any given Sunday. We offered an 8am and 10:45am service.  

When I arrived, Paul and Susan were already divorced and both remarried. Susan attended the 8 am service with her new husband and their infant son. Paul often attended the later service with his new wife and her teenaged son, Liam, from a previous marriage.  Paul and Susan’s son, Jimmy, attended services with whichever parent had custody that week.

Paul and Susan both expressed affection for their church and were long-time members. Although they preferred to interact with each other as little as possible, they appreciated having a consistent church home for their son. Worshipping at different times helped them keep their distance.

A religious community can also help step-siblings, thrust together without having a say about it, find a way to connect on their own terms. Jimmy and his stepbrother, Liam, were both active members of the youth group, which helped them bond on neutral ground. I remember the end of one service trip to Chicago.  It was during our closing affirmation circle, when we take turns saying words of appreciation for each person on the trip. Jimmy said to Liam that he enjoyed getting to know him as real person by working alongside him rather than as a kid with whom he had to share a house. Susan and Paul’s commitment to staying connected to their church home, in part, made that growth in relationship possible.

Staying connected to your congregation may seem challenging during a divorce, but if religion is meaningful to you—or if you’re looking for new avenues of meaning or connection—there are many ways to connect to a faith community.   Divorce can feel all encompassing while you’re in it, but as a pastor, I’ve see again and again that divorce is simply one event in a person’s life. Your faith can help you gain valuable perspective on all the ups and downs of life, create safe space to grieve and learn from past mistakes or regrets, and ultimately see the potential for love and relationship in the future.

You are not defined by any one choice or experience in your life—including divorce.  If you feel that you are, it may be time to leave a faith community reiterating this feeling, and look for one that will welcome you and your family, as it is now, and ideally as it will be in the future. 

*Not their real names


Amy Ziettlow is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and she serves Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Decatur, IL. She previously served as COO of The Hospice of Baton Rouge, and is the co-author (with Naomi Cahn) of Homeward Bound: Family, Elder Care and Loss in the 21st-Century (2017, Oxford University Press).