Influence

 the shape of leadership

When the Home Breaks

Ministering to children of divorce

Brian Dollar on November 22, 2021

Divorce.

That word strikes fear into the hearts of both adults and children. Divorce alters the course of a family forever. No matter the circumstances, divorce hurts.

I’ve worked with kids for nearly 30 years, and I have seen how the news of divorce shatters a child’s world. Virtually everything that was stable and dependable vanishes in an instant.

There may have been major issues in the parents’ relationship for years, or one of them may have been suddenly shocked to discover a history of infidelity. Whether the process of making this decision was long or short, it devastates everyone involved.

About half of first marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Pew Research Center reports that the U.S. has the world’s highest rate of single parenthood, with nearly a quarter of children under the age of 18 living in single-parent households.

Divorce is not God’s plan. His desire is for marriages to thrive and last (Matthew 19:6). For that matter, I don’t think divorce is anyone’s plan. Nobody gets married thinking, I can’t wait to divorce this person one day. But sadly, divorce happens. When it does, kids need the support of a loving faith community.

Unfortunately, many churches are not prepared to deal with the emotional and spiritual toll divorce takes on children and families. Rather than stepping in to provide care, church leaders who feel unequipped to minister to families of divorce may hesitate to get involved. Not knowing what to say or do, they do nothing at all. As a result, families slip through the cracks and disappear from church life. At the very moment they need the church the most, the church is essentially absent.

Many families end up leaving their churches during or after a divorce. Some leave because of a move. Others leave because of shame. Regardless of the reason, too many people end up completely disconnecting from the body of Christ during one of the most critical seasons of their lives.

James 1:27 says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

Single parents and their children have many of the same emotional and spiritual needs as widows and orphans. In fact, the process of healing from a divorce mirrors the stages of grieving the death of a loved one.

Ministering to hurting people must be a priority for church leaders. Lack of confidence or training is not an acceptable excuse for ignoring the distress families of divorce are experiencing. Church leaders must become educated and prepared to offer hope and healing.

Divorce and Kids

I’ve seen the pain of divorce in the faces of children. They are often confused, resentful, discouraged, and even depressed. The emotional turmoil can take a toll on every part of children’s lives, from their academic performances to their physical health.

Ministering to families affected by divorce can feel overwhelming and intimidating, but your church truly can be a place of acceptance and stability to families walking this difficult path.

Some common results of divorce include the following:

Stress rises. No matter what age children are when parents announce the breakup of their home, kids are never emotionally prepared for the shock. Stress shows up in many ways — relationally, emotionally and physically.

Feelings of stability decline. Divorce shakes a child’s sense of security. People are relational by design, and the home is the first and foremost place of rest, comfort and security. When that is disrupted, children naturally question the validity and reliability of everything and everyone. In addition, many kids must divide their time between the homes of their parents, which makes it difficult to ever feel settled.

Trust erodes. When their security crumbles, children may put up walls and refuse to trust anyone, even the most stable, loving people in their lives. They may also trust too much, putting their faith in untrustworthy people in the hope someone will make them feel safe again.

Behavior changes in negative ways. In the wake of divorce, even normally responsible and compliant children may begin to wonder, What’s the use? They may suddenly neglect homework, chores and hygiene. They may lash out verbally at authority figures or refuse to obey classroom rules.

How to Help

Here are four ways your children’s ministry can help kids whose parents are going through a divorce:

Remind them it’s not their fault. They don’t always voice their feelings of guilt, but children frequently blame themselves for the breakup. Even young kids have a sense of justice that leads them to believe someone is at fault. However, because children often aren’t mature enough to assign responsibility appropriately, they take it upon themselves.

Communicate in clear terms that divorce is an adult decision and has nothing to do with anything they did. Isolina Ricci, author of Mom’s House, Dad’s House for Kids, offers a suggestion on how to word the explanation: “Sometimes things happen with mommies and daddies. We’re really sorry that it happened, but it’s not anything you’ve done.”

Plan lessons with children of divorce in mind. In cases of shared custody, children often miss church every other weekend. If you teach a series, it may be difficult for children to keep up. Build in recaps of the previous week’s lesson so kids who missed can stay on the learning journey. Spend more than one week promoting special events so shared-custody children don’t miss the announcement.

Start a recovery program for children of divorce. The wounds of divorce run deep. Healing takes time, and it won’t happen properly on its own. Consider offering a class, such as Divorce Care 4 Kids (DC4K.org), a 13-week course that teaches children how to process and share the feelings and disappointments associated with divorce.

Point kids to their consistent Heavenly Father. The collapse of stability can be difficult for children to understand. Holidays are different. Weekends are different. Daily life may never be the same. These changes affect many of their closest relationships. It can also affect their faith.

Children need to hear that — amid the inconsistency of schedules, routines and visits — they have a consistent Heavenly Father who is with them wherever they go. He “does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). God will always be there for them, and He will always hear them when they pray to Him.

Ministering to families affected by divorce can feel overwhelming and intimidating, but your church truly can be a place of acceptance and stability to families walking this difficult path. As you point children to their Heavenly Father, reminding them that His love for them never changes, you can help begin the process of healing and restoration.

This article appears in the Fall 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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