Stepfamilies have real problems too often misunderstood or ignored by the local church. Here’s what stepfamilies around you are facing and feeling and how your congregation can help them.
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By Jeff and Judi Parziale
John and Stephanie were married about two years before they started attending a nearby church. Each brought two children into the marriage. Stephanie’s children were with her full time; her former spouse had left the state and had almost no contact with his children. John shared custody with his former spouse, Pam. Every week their two sons transitioned from one house to the other.
Stephanie struggled with Pam’s interference in their family. She wanted John to take a stronger stand against Pam’s negative comments, because she felt Pam was poisoning the boys toward her.
John’s boys were having a hard time adjusting to his home, because it was more structured than their mom’s house. In addition, it had become increasingly evident that John and Stephanie had very dissimilar views of parenting. John and Stephanie were attending church, hoping to find community, help, and healing.
Stepfamilies like John and Stephanie’s represent a growing population in our churches. The question is how to effectively minister to the unique and often complex challenges of these families, both inside and outside the church.
In the past, the need for ministering to this family type was not as evident, so church leaders knew very little about stepfamilies. In other churches, leaders struggled with the theological issues surrounding divorce and remarriage, making it less likely for them to reach out. The result was a mixed bag for stepfamilies. Some were welcomed, while others felt misunderstood, marginalized, or even unwelcome. Fortunately, today more churches are welcoming stepfamilies and attempting to meet them at their point of need.
What’s Going On in the Typical Stepfamily?
Stepfamilies are born out of loss, so most family members are grieving. Grieving can take many forms: depression, withdrawal, even anger and acting out. Stepfamilies are complex, and that complexity can cause a good deal of stress, especially in the first few years when stepfamilies attempt to sort out a variety of differences.
Some experts consider the stress of remarriage to be greater than that of a death or divorce, especially for children. Conflicts about children, parenting, or former spouses can play havoc on a new marriage, often causing a great deal of marital discord.
Children who act out as they struggle to adjust can overwhelm the new couple. Former spouses can have a powerful influence on a new stepfamily trying to blend sometimes vastly different traditions, rituals, values, and roles.
John and Stephanie were struggling with a variety of issues that were tearing apart their marriage. Problem areas included John’s former spouse, their different parenting styles, his sons’ acting out, and the sons’ difficultly accepting Stephanie as a stepmom.
They were looking for a church that would accept them without judgment, opportunities to connect and serve, and a safe place to get some help with their marriage.
Unfortunately, stepfamilies aren’t always aware of how best to integrate into a new church. The following scenarios highlight the various outcomes a family like John and Stephanie’s might encounter at church.
What Might They Experience at Church?
A common scenario for a new stepfamily attending church is for them to stay on the fringe or to present themselves as a nuclear family. They might behave this way out of a desire to “fit in” or to shield themselves from possible shame and embarrassment over current struggles.
It may be tough for a new stepcouple who had experienced divorce to realize they are struggling in their new marriage. Fears, like rejection, can keep them invisible and unintentionally marginalized by a church that does not know about them and therefore cannot speak into their lives.
A typical church scenario is one in which the staff, and to some degree the congregation, is unaware or insensitive to the challenges stepfamilies face. In this case, John and Stephanie might attend men’s or women’s groups or classes on marriage and parenting that never mention issues relevant to stepfamilies or stepparenting .
While they might seek counsel from the pastoral staff, there might be little effective assistance offered because staff members have little knowledge or experience with stepfamilies. In this case, families can feel frustrated or demeaned, leading them to conclude they are “on their own.” Consequently, they choose to deal with their issues alone, seek help elsewhere, or leave the church.
It’s also possible John and Stephanie may be attending a church that is beginning to search for ways to minster to stepfamilies. Although classes and groups may still be directed toward nuclear families, most at least mention topics relevant to stepfamilies. Children and youth workers in these churches are sensitive to divorce and remarriage issues, and leaders of men’s and women’s programs understand and support the unique positions of stepparents or parents who do not have custody of their children. Mother’s and Father’s Day celebrations, for example, also honor stepparents.
Finally, there are a growing number of churches that have become well-versed in the needs of single parents and stepfamilies. They provide special classes for stepfamilies and single parents, they offer marriage and premarital classes that are directed at remarriage. Staff members have a working knowledge of stepfamily issues and are available for counseling. They also have a referral base of counselors who specialize in remarriage and stepfamilies.
What did John and Stephanie find? They found a church willing to embrace them at the point of their need—a church that did not judge or run from their struggles. They became involved and soon had a voice in how to best weave single-parent and stepfamily issues into current classes. They also lead a group of stepcouples where it is safe to talk about remarriage challenges and grief.
What Can You Do?
Churches that want to reach out to stepfamilies have several options.
First, learn all you can about stepfamilies. Christian books and resources on the subject have become plentiful. One of the best is The Smart Stepfamily by Ron Deal (see www.smartstepfamilies.com).
Invite a group of stepfamilies to meet with your church staff, elders, and leaders, and share their stories. Ask how you can serve stepfamilies better and how they may have felt marginalized.
Another way to become knowledgeable is to attend a conference that addresses stepfamily issues, such as the FamilyLife Blended conference. Organizations like FamilyLife Blended and Focus on the Family have begun to catalog and develop stepfamily resources.
Be sure to provide up-to-date resources and opportunities to learn, grow, and heal. One of the most common complaints from stepfamilies is that there are no resources, classes, or groups at their church. Therefore, become knowledgeable about resources in your area; create a library of recent remarriage and stepfamily books and DVDs.
Even if you have no specific classes for stepfamilies, you can still weave stepfamily information into your current marriage and family programs. Simply insert ideas relevant to stepfamilies into a topic, such as marriage or parenting. Review your materials to make sure they are not biased against single parents or stepfamilies. Be sure to ask stepfamily members in your congregation to provide input. Gaining stepfamily input regarding the things that need to be added to current programs or activities provides a “win” for both stepfamilies and the church.
Another thing to review is marriage preparation. Churches and ministers must do a better job of preparing people for marriage and remarriage. The average couple, whether in a first-time marriage or remarriage, is at risk in the first two years. How will your church be prepared to come alongside struggling families and help provide real solutions and supportive communities? Divorce prevention, covenant marriage, and the biblical model of family must be conveyed to remarrying couples.
If your church has life groups, consider starting one for stepcouples. You can lead even if you are not in a stepfamily. Couples in the first few years of remarriage need a safe place to be heard, and most remarry without much accurate information about stepfamily life. Identify mature stepfamily couples who have a passion for sharing their experiences and a desire to mentor new stepcouples.
If you work with children or youth, become familiar with relevant information on the needs of children of divorce and remarriage. There is a large body of literature on the struggles of these children. Chances are you’ve already encountered children in these situations.
A great resource is Linda Ransom Jacobs, who developed Divorce Care for Kids (DC4K) and now blogs and speaks on the needs of single parents and children of divorce (blog.dc4k.org). The DivorceCare program for adults can be offered along with DC4K. If your church does not have these programs, start them (go to churchinitiative.org). Let those experiencing this painful event know that your church cares about them. Much like Celebrate Recovery and other such programs, the message of DivorceCare is, “We care about people in pain and we don’t shoot our wounded.”
Finally, consider developing mentors for the children of divorced couples in your church. In Between Two Worlds, family scholar Elizabeth Marquardt notes that few from the church or clergy are present when children’s families break up. You can make a difference in the life of a child of divorce.
On a personal level, get to know the single parents and stepfamilies in your circle of friends and families. Approximately 50 percent of all Americans have a connection to a stepfamily. And get to know the divorced singles and stepfamilies in your congregation. How many have children? What are their needs? Listen to their stories.
How might you do this? Consider hosting a stepfamily seminar in your community and/or offer a short course on a vital area of stepfamily life, such as stepparenting, communication, or strengthening the couple relationship. Bring in a speaker from your area who is knowledgeable about stepfamily life. Communicate this around your city. Be sure your staff attends.
If you are interested in developing a more visible ministry to stepfamilies, obtain a copy of InStep Ministries’ workbook, Thirsty People Sitting at Wells (www.instepministries.com).
As you seek opportunities to minister to stepfamilies, remember these families are struggling to find real solutions and supportive communities. Stepfamilies face stresses and strains we never dreamed of a generation ago.
The most important thing you can do is to think differently about stepfamilies and then find a way to get involved, even if it as simple as inviting a family home for dinner. Stepfamilies are real families that are looking for acceptance and real connections. Will they find it at your church?
Jeff Parziale is a former staff pastor at Pantano Christian Church in Tucson, Arizona. Judi Parziale formerly worked as a research psychologist with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Together, Jeff and Judi lead InStep Ministries, a ministry dedicated to serving stepfamilies and assisting the churches that minister to them. They reside in Loveland, Colorado, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.