Eleven scholars, pastors, and opinion leaders react to "Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?"
Eleven pastors, scholars and opinion leaders from across the country respond to the report titled Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? Challenging Churches to Confront the Impact of Family Change, funded by the Lilly Endowment and published by the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.
Each writer brings a unique perspective that builds on elements of the report's argument and recommendations, pinpoints gaps, critiques all or part of the report's thesis, or makes suggestions for further study.
William (Beau) Weston is the John M. and Louise Van Winkle Professor of Sociology, Chair of Anthropology/Sociology Program at Centre College. Click here to follow his blog, “Gruntles Society: Exploring Happy Society.”
Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? is a fine and rich compendium of research on how divorce tends to disrupt the religious faith of children. As a sociologist, the report led me to connect this disruption to wider and wider circles of social connections, the whole web of group affiliations that children grow in and are shaped by.
The study by Uecker and Ellison starts from the previous finding that while children of divorce most commonly become less religious, some become more religious. The researchers rightly argue that the dynamics that make for each process are different, and should be studied differently. In a broad sense, though, I can see a point of similarity.
Children from intact families tend to reproduce their parents' faith and reproduce the network of institutional connections their parents raised them in – including their religious institution. Divorce disrupts that network of connections. Children are likely to lose their taken-for-granted ideas of faith, their emotional associations of faith, and their social networks of faith. This is the existential effect that Andrew Root is talking about in another book cited in this report. It makes sense to me that children's most common response to all this disruption is to simply give up on the whole institution of religion, even if the spiritual yearning remains. But some divorced kids, by extra effort (and probably by other people reaching out to them) make their own religious ties. These new ties may even be stronger than the faith they might have inherited had their parents stayed together.
The disruption to the "domestic church" that divorce produces points to a larger social loss. Researchers have long noted that many divorced kids not only lose all connection with their fathers, but also with their father's whole side of the family. The keenest loss is of their paternal grandparents, who are usually a huge part of a child's support network. In the same way, if children lose their religious community in the divorce, they lose one of the richest sources of general support that our society offers. They not only lose the small number of people in the church they might have had close personal ties to; divorced kids often lose the much larger network of weak ties that a congregation gives them, the adults who take some interest in their lives and connect them to many other networks of information and support.
Finally, I can see an even larger coherent network that divorce might disrupt in divorced kids' lives and worldviews: their civil religion. It is natural, I think, for children to accept that the faith and practice of their family, their congregation, their community, and their nation all fit together and support one another. If, as this report shows, divorce is likely to pull up the roots of a child's "domestic church" and their "church church," it seems likely that divorce similarly uproots their taken-for-granted faith in their "national church." A study of the effects of divorce on children's civil religion is beyond what this study set out to explore. That is a project for another day.
Still, the upshot of "Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?" seems to be that divorce dis-embeds children from their coherent network of faith in their family, their coherent network of faith in their congregation, and, I expect, their coherent network of faith in the other institutions of their society.
Laura Phillips is Associate Minister, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Baton Rouge, LA; a Bethany Fellow; and is an editor and contributor of the newly published “Fellowship of Prayer,” by Chalice Press.
The church needs to change its approach to family ministries. Period.
This overall theme of the recently published Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? report, published by The Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values, is something churches have been discussing for years, but have still failed to do well, if at all. Divorce has become a social disturbance at best, plaguing our nation, and this report by Elizabeth Marquardt, Amy Ziettlow and Charles E. Stokes appropriately demands a look at the trauma it is causing congregants, specifically children, in regards to their faith and experience in a faith community.
For too long the American Church, both Catholic and Protestant, has been operating on a 1950's style of community, requiring people to come to the church building in order to be a part of the community and, although subtly, requiring a traditional-style family in order to thrive within the church family. Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? does a great job of reminding faith leaders that their communities of faith must change family ministry models if they intend to speak to a country of many faithful people who have been touched by divorce. Amy Ziettlow's "Plan for Congregations – A Mainline Protestant Pastor's Reflections" offers a tremendous starting point for congregations looking to reach out to youth and young adults affected by divorce. However, one shortfall of this report is that the "Plan for Congregations," could equally be matched by a plan of action for the adult children in their thirties and forties who are still dealing with ramifications from their parents' divorce years ago, or by a plan for reaching out to those who are going through these divorces right now.
This report is one of the first of its kind in that it acknowledges fractured families are a significant part of our congregations, without demonstrating the judgment that so often accompanies the situation. The Bible is full of non-traditional and "fractured families," but when The Church speaks about divorce it often sweeps that part of our faithful stories under the rug, insisting that one marriage, between one man and one woman is the only way God intended families to operate. Rape, incest, polygamy, adultery, and children out of wedlock are just a few examples of sacred stories that we celebrate on Sunday mornings (or Saturday, or Wednesday evenings) but at best punish, or forget altogether when we are offering counseling for those considering or going through divorce, or considering our models of family ministry. While an intact and loving marriage between two parents may prove one of the most successful predictors of a strong faith life of children later in their lives, it is simply not the norm. The Church must quit pretending that this family arrangement is the only way to encourage a strong faith and spirituality or it will lose the near majority affected by alternative family arrangements, especially those that include divorce.
The report does not excuse the actions of parents, however, reminding faith leaders "that the greatest predictor of the religious lives of youth remains the religious lives of their parents." Filled with the statistics to support this claim, the papers included in the report insist that the religious lives of children affected by divorce will most certainly change. However, it is not always a negative change and this is where churches can make sure to reach out to every member of the family, specifically children and youth. Some children and youth turn to their relationship with God as an alternative to an absent parent, or to the suffering God in Jesus Christ as a way to cope with their own suffering. Both situations lead to a strengthening of their faith and spirituality.
Again, the Church cannot rely on the understanding of community in which they require a traditional family unit to come visit the church building as it strives to reach out. Instead, mainline churches must renew their emphasis on family ministries of all kinds, acknowledging the many ways in which God celebrates community, and reaching out to families of all arrangements. As evidenced in the vignettes provided in the "Plan for Congregations," proper support and understanding by church leaders toward these family situations can drastically change (for the better) the outcome of youth and children affected by divorce. Intentional ministry that refuses to assume traditional families are the norm and directly faces the difficult ministries of fractured families will not only speak to the thousands who struggle with their faith in light of divorce, but will also more authentically reflect the accepting, forgiving and reconciling love of God-With-Us that we worship every week.
Catherine Pakaluk, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Economics, Ave Maria University and Faculty Research Fellow, Stein Center for Social Research. Her most recent publication is Nontraditional Families and Childhood Progress Through School: A Comment on Rosenfeld.
Trends in family formation and dissolution change the composition of churches and faith communities. Since religious participation is strongly correlated with nearly every measure of human flourishing – the findings in the new Institute for American Values’s report, Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? , pose a challenge for all people concerned with the human project.
For churches in particular, however, it may seem discouraging to know that the causal arrow runs so much from families to churches. What can be done? Here are two concrete suggestions inspired by Matthew 4:23 "Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people." (NIV) Teaching is the most basic form of pastoral work available to churches. And yet most churches are missing the mark.
Churches should clarify what they teach about marriage and family.
What is marriage? What is God's plan for marriage? Is marriage permanent, or is divorce sometimes/never/always acceptable? If divorce is sometimes acceptable, what are the conditions under which it is so? What is the meaning of human sexuality? What is the relationship of children to marriage? Is cohabitation sometimes/never/always acceptable?
Churches should frequently clarify their answers to these and related questions about family life. This has benefits for the community itself, since the articulation and development of doctrine provides a basis for renewed unity of belief. But equally important, church members have a desperate need for clear, concise answers. The reason is two-fold: first, clarity is a pre-requisite for communicating anything. Churches will be crippled as teachers if they are unclear. And they cannot afford to be misunderstood when choices about family life are on the line. People need working moral guidelines: do this, don't do that. Second, secular society is saturated with ideas about marriage and family, some explicit and many more implicit, which are inconsistent with the basic tenets of many churches. Since secular society communicates these premises so effectively, through entertainment and other media, churches must be especially clear in order to correct mistakes and misconceptions.
Take divorce for example – while most churches agree that divorce is sometimes acceptable, very few churches have published guidelines about the conditions under which divorce is okay. Similarly, few churches have clear published teachings about the nature of marriage and the meaning of human sexuality. Of course congregations will not agree about all of the answers – but each should strive to be very clear about what they believe. Clarity alone can go a long way. Clarity will also help churches find points of agreement around which they can be unified.
Examples of this sort of refinement and clarity can be found in the 1981 pastoral letter of Pope John Paul II, On the Christian Family in the Modern World, and the 1995 statement by the LDS church, The Family: A Proclamation to the World.
Churches should aim to improve how they teach about marriage and family.
Teaching itself can have a powerful effect on people's lives; it equips them to make sound moral choices which can be supported in the faith community – this is essentially the process of conversion. I have a dear friend, for example, who recommitted to the faith of her childhood almost solely on account of reading the 1981 pastoral letter on the family mentioned above. For her, the ideals presented by the Pope were so beautiful that she wished to embody that vision in her own marriage and family.
But most Catholics will never read this letter, because the Church hasn't figured out how to reach adult Catholics with messages longer than 140 characters. The Catholic Church isn't alone. Collectively, churches in America are doing a miserable job teaching people what it is that they believe. My own research suggests that less than 10 percent of Catholics or Christians in representative samples can answer very basic questions about theological concepts. Churches will need to do better than this in teaching about marriage and family – because so very much depends upon it.
One idea is for churches to consider the sabbatical rule: six active to one contemplative. Suppose members spend an average of 60 hours a year in liturgical services – then 10 hours might be spent in study of the faith. This is a simple weekend, or two 5-hour days. Imagine if all church members spent one weekend per year studying the sacred writings of their tradition, great works of spirituality, and pastoral guidelines on marriage, family, and social life? Over the 25-year span in which adults are forming and making the most significant family choices, this would constitute 250 hours of study, equivalent to several college courses. Executed well, such a plan would have tremendous power to transform lives and families.
The critical point: churches need to get the causal arrow going in the other direction. While they cannot entirely repair the damage done to today's church from prior generations, they may yet be able to make a claim on tomorrow's church simply by exercising visionary leadership on basic moral teaching.
Sociologists like Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone) and Mark Chaves (American Religion: Contemporary Trends) have called our collective attention to the dissolution of the ties that used to bind us. Mainstays of 1950s America like denominational loyalty and that felt pressure to join the Rotary Club have fallen victim to the cult of the self. So in this climate where that which binds us seems to pale in comparison to that which divides, it should come as no surprise that American marriages are not in good shape.
So why hasn't this been on my radar?
It probably should be. I'm in the midst of planting a church whose target demographic just happens to include the first generation of adults to grow up in this post-sexual revolution "culture of divorce." At Root and Branch Christian Church in Chicago, we are tackling the theological work of translating the good news into an idiom that hits home with that demographic. We believe the good news should actually sound like good news.
That's why this report is important for my ministry. The children of divorce described in this study have grown up to be many of the adults in our church. And if the church is in the business of proclaiming good news, then the onus is on us to get to know the deep pain that dwells in the hearts of this generation and longs for redemption.
The central claim of this report is a bold one: when children experience their parents' divorce, their lives of faith do not go on unchanged. It's bold because a lot of armchair psychology implies otherwise. As a youth minister, I heard it all the time. So long as parents carry out their divorce amicably, their children will be fine. So long as the parents are happier after the divorce, their children will be happier too.
But by the lights of empirical research, this appears to be a myth. As the report puts it: "While a good divorce is better than a bad divorce, it still is not good." No matter how you slice it, switching from one home to two homes is a big deal. Watching the union that brought you into the world disintegrate before your eyes is necessarily traumatic. And missing out on youth group to spend a weekend at your dad's house across town has a serious, destabilizing effect on young people.
This being the case, the authors of this study do us all a favor by resisting the urge to moralize. Their goal is not to affix a millstone of guilt around the necks of divorcées. But they do believe that everyone considering divorce should be aware of the real impact of their decision on the spiritual lives of their children. So instead of the usual religious finger wagging, this study chooses to empower parents to make their own moral decisions by disabusing us all of the myth of the good divorce. While there are certainly times when divorce is the best decision, this decision should not be one we make under false consciousness.
But what positive steps can we take as a church to prevent divorce before it starts?
Part of living a faithful life of discipleship is to risk engaging our fellow sojourners on the messiest, most fundamental parts of our lives. Practically, this means asking people out for coffee and checking in on the health of their marriage. It also means being willing to share stories of the trials, tribulations and redemption of our own relationships.
What the authors of this report are recommending is sorely needed in American Protestantism: a more robust application of Christian love. Liberal Protestants have focused on Christian love as "radical hospitality" in the last few decades – and we are, no doubt, the better for it. Generally speaking, these churches are more welcoming than they were 40 years ago. Showing others the extravagant welcome of Christ is a powerful first-step towards loving them.
But if we stop at welcome then what started as Christian love can degenerate into merely polite toleration. his creates a culture that shudders when anyone dares to hold another person accountable to his or her commitments. To be questioned by a church member on the way we raise our children or the way we relate to our partners feels to us like an impolite impingement on our own personal affairs.
But Jesus wasn't overly concerned about politeness. Not long after he radically welcomed his followers to come and follow him, he began to make disciples of them. He loved them enough to have expectations, to hold them accountable, and thereby to form them into a particular vision of what it means to live a good and faithful life. And then he told the church to go and make more disciples.
Bourgeois niceness tells us that the moral and personal lives of others are none of our business. But as this study rightly suggests, Christian love demands that we make it our business.
It is our business because something theological is at stake in the well-being of our marriages. Healthy marriages are the best environment in which to pass on religious practices and beliefs to our children. And marriages are healthiest when they are surrounded by a community who dares to love across the polite boundaries of suburban propriety.
In sum, what Marquardt, Ziettlow, and Stokes are asking of us is to try out an authentically Christian love, the kind of love that calls others to a higher standard, that cares enough to take notice when other families are suffering, and to risk the kind of holy, intimate, vulnerable interactions that make the church the church and not a social club.
Leah Misch is an RN, BSN and owns Independent Nursing Services. She also serves as an American Red Cross Disaster Relief/National Health Service Volunteer and was a Houston County Divorce Panel Spokesperson.
Though I grew up "churched" every Sunday, I was never centered in my faith. I felt distant from the church after my parents' divorce, questioning God's existence and feeling what the report, Does The Shape of Families Shape Faith?, refers to as the "second silent schism." My biggest question being: how could the church say it was wrong for my mother to leave an abusive relationship? In parental battles and trying to find social acceptance amongst my peers at thirteen, I felt isolated and alone. I don't recall the church reaching out to me at this time, but even so, I would have been reluctant in accepting help, not feeling open to confiding in anyone in this sector.
There is truth in 'that in which does not kill you makes you stronger'. In adversity the lack of a crutch can make the weak strong and learn to stand on their own, and thus maybe one of the greatest gifts my parents could have given me. My parents financial instability came as a result of their divorce; living in two separate homes and thirteen years of court battles. I learned at an early age the value of a dollar and hard work to succeed. A desire to make a better life for myself, I decided to go to college. I juggled working three jobs to support myself through school to become a nurse. Because of the chaotic work and school schedule I felt no time to continue my Sunday Church routine. I knew of God, but lacked a relationship with Him; whom I could have used in the near days ahead.
After graduating college, slowly my days became dark and I found myself in an abusive relationship similar to the one in which my mother divorced my father. I swore to myself I would never walk down that same path, but with little experience of dating and no true relationship role model, it subconsciously seemed normal that abuse was involved in a relationship. Slowly my light was being put out, but in the struggle of darkness I saw light. In the report it states "grown children of divorce might turn to congregational life from a place of loneliness or suffering". I was losing everything and didn't know myself if I would survive. Through positive role models reaching out and deep self reflection I took a terrifying risk to break away. I looked at my life and how lost I was, and formed my bucket list, what I wanted out of life to make that light shine again. It was in that time of despair I began to hear God's voice through a voiceless child.
By the course of unexplainable events I was brought into a family's life to work with a special needs child who cannot speak. I learned the family's journey of faith, being brought to their knees in the grace of their child. It was here I found God's word in a family who became my faith mentor. For my 24th birthday I received a bible from the family. Through conversations and invitations to church, I discovered God in a new light. I was able to question, search, struggle, and find my own grace in God, and then not just knowing God, but having a relationship with God in everyday life.
Having a faith role model filled with words of God helped me through the darkness and was vital in making it through more dark days ahead. Within the next year and a half I would encounter two life threatening accidents with multitudes of critical injuries. With a broken back, punctured lung, broken ribs, whiplashed neck, injured hip, and artistic road rash my physical body hurt. But I had a strengthening spirit of something I never felt before, God. It was through comforting words and prayers that peace was brought in my heart.
They could have given up on me so many times but didn't; emphasizing the vital role faith mentors have in and out of the congregation. So in addition to the importance of the faith role model's task "...to create a safe environment (for children of divorce ) to doubt, question, search, pray, struggle, and find hope, grace and truth on their own terms. If you cannot listen openly and entertain the questions of a young person, then you will most likely fail." But equally important; know the only time you fail, is the last time you try.
Through the concept of 'not giving up' I have come to learn from my faith mentors. Though both coming from previous marriages, they found faith and centered their lives within it. In their marriage I have seen what it is like to struggle, but I have also seen what happens when faith is kept centered; one can make it through anything. Which gives me hope someday I may find the same in marriage.
In terms of giving voice to children of divorce, I found my own voice as a speaker on the Houston County Divorce panel. I offered insight to parents of the tribulations in my experience growing up in a 'broken home'. I always brought forth the notion to place themselves in my shoes by questioning, "Instead children's lives being divided between two homes, why don't the parents go back and forth between the children's home"? I knew economically this was not going to fly with adults, but it offered insight on children's need for stability.
In disrupting a young child's normal environment it leaves children with a sense of emptiness and loss that can be traumatizing. In my firsthand experience of working with children traumatized by natural disasters it was vital to engage stability through familiar activities such as art and play. Likewise, art and play can be used as a form of therapy by counselors to gain insight in children by opening windows to express feelings after experiencing significant loss such as divorce.
In my experience with teenage children it is important for children who have experienced loss to engage in civil society. Stability and a sense of belonging for children who are statistically now more at risk for emotional and social problems can be found in civil society by surrounded one's self in a positive social environment with role models to instill positive moral values and faith for those coping with divorce. While volunteering in civil society I began to see the world in a whole new color after my parents' divorce. By engaging in volunteer organizations in civil society I learned to give the gift of grace while I received the gift of grace. Putting a faith based value, 'Love they neighbor as thy self,' into action. Through stewardship in civil society I began to see a ripple effect of positive social change in reaching out to those through who struggled with loss themselves.
While incorporating faith into children's lives is important, equally are the people set to do this task. If instilling faith back into the lives of people is important, take note; never underestimate the power of listening and actively living as a faith mentor within civil society. In my experience volunteering as a nurse in Disaster Relief Operations for the American Red Cross, in the depths of despair sometimes the most important thing anyone can do is to be silent, just listen. But listen with a gentle compassionate understanding of feeling their pain. It is when you can relate to someone that trust can be built in each unique story. It was through a compassionate listener in how I found my faith after one of my deepest times of struggle. Children of divorce may search for a deeper meaning in faith through their struggle, but it may need to be heard by the right compassionate person. One will never know when that time may be, so live your life in faith.
Two striking statistics on today's young adults: One in four has experienced a parental divorce, and one in four does not affiliate with a religion.
According to sociologist Charles E. Stokes, co-author of Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?, a timely new report that examines the spiritual and religious lives of young adults of divorced families:
"Over the latter half of the 20th century two of the most monumental societal transformations in the United States are the significant increase in the number children growing up with divorced parents and the decline in religious participation among adults."
Some scholars suggest that the decline in marriage correlates with the decline in religious involvement. Nonetheless, a significant gap exists in our empirical knowledge of the subject. Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?, authored by Elizabeth Marquardt, Amy Ziettlow, and Charles Stokes begins to fill that gap.
A key finding emerges from the new research: family structure matters, and it matters a lot. The experience of growing up with parents who are married, divorced, cohabiting, or never-married is significantly associated with religiosity and spirituality in young adulthood. Such a finding is consistent with decades of social science research that shows a strong correlation between family structure and children's well-being, ranging from physical and emotion health to problem and risk behaviors, to educational achievement and economic security. For some outcomes, the association is enduring, extending into adulthood. As the report notes, because divorce has been prevalent for decades, researchers are finally able to examine its longer-term impact on the broader population.
Several specific findings from the report are worth reemphasizing:
"In a striking turn of events, the divorce rate for married couples with children returned almost to the levels we saw before the divorce revolution kicked in during the 1970s. Nevertheless, family instability is on the rise for American children as a whole, in part because more couples are having children in cohabiting unions, which are very unstable."
By age 12, about one in four children born to married parents will experience a parental divorce or separation; however, four in ten children will have lived in a cohabiting household. This underscores the need for researchers, people of faith, society at large, and even "bystanders" to understand not just how divorce impacts children, but also children's outcomes are shaped when they do not live with two married parents.
While the home is where children first form their religious identity, beliefs, and practices, and parents are their first religious teachers, other spheres and individuals matter, too. Extended family, friends, local religious congregations, and even the broader culture can all influence the spiritual and religious lives of children of divorce. The local congregations, for example, can become a place of refuge, nurture, and healing. Children affected by family instability are not adverse to faith, but they may be skeptical of institutional religion; some have even left it altogether, but not necessarily God. So, the challenge and call is for people of faith to understand how family breakups affect children's spiritual and religious lives and use that knowledge to help restore broken bonds, not just within the family but also with God and communities of faith. In the second half of Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?, Rev. Amy Ziettlow recommends four broad and practical principles – life story matters, adult role model matters, being genuine matters, and holy space matters – for working with youth ministry and children of divorce. Her advice and insights are well worth heeding.
The most compelling finding from the report, Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?, is this: the role of fathers in the faith practices of their children matter. As a husband and a father of three, it is very important that we fathers understand that we make a difference in our children's lives, regardless of the shape of our family. Not merely by what we actively do, but simply by being present to them. In the last year, I attended funerals, several months apart, of two very important men who were also widely respected civic leaders. At both services, the adult children who eulogized their fathers spoke nothing of national awards, community recognition, or public accolades. What they remember instead about their respective father were they ways he helped with homework; how he was there to get them out of a jam; how he simply could be counted on.
Moreover, as a pastor who's served as senior minister of three different congregations, it is also compelling that we fathers matter when it comes to the faith of our children. We cannot allow the stereotype to be self-fulfilling that mothers and grandmothers are to be the purveyors of faith for the next generation. The report, Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?, convinces us that this is simply not true. Our children are watching us too, dads. They are persuaded by the religious choices we make (or don't make) as well.
Fortunately, we have a great role model in the figure of Joseph and the role he played in the nativity of Jesus. He was engaged to Mary. Shortly before the wedding (in contemporary terms, after all the invitations had been mailed and deposits on band, DJ and reception hall paid) he found out, from a stranger no less, that Mary was pregnant with someone else's child. How many guys would want to trade places with Joseph? Wouldn't Joseph be justified if he canceled the wedding and went to find a partner he could more fully trust? To masculine ears, there is something quite disempowering in the way that Joseph is portrayed for us. If Joseph did do what he could have done, we would likely not even bat an eye. Joseph is known for what he does not do. He did not run away. He did not abandon Mary and Jesus. He chose instead to be present in Jesus' life and to be the father that both Mary and this son would need. Not only is there great power in what Joseph chose not to do, the story of salvation could not be told without him. Long before Jesus saved any of our lives, Joseph saved Jesus's. When King Herod ordered that the infant Jesus be killed, Joseph was the one who sheltered and protected Jesus until things were safe. This he could only do because he chose to be present to his family.
Joseph stood by a child that wasn't even his. I wonder how closely we fathers are willing to stand by to the children that are ours? And I wonder how much the church today is challenging fathers to do so?
This doesn't mean that a father isn't justified in wanting to kick back on Sunday morning and watch the NFL pre-game on ESPN; or go hunting with the guys every weekend in the Fall; or to the gym, because he's in a better mood when he works out and that ultimately benefits the whole family; or work extra hours on the weekend, because that will allow him to provide more fully for his family. As an avid distance runner, I make time to run every day of the week. But we should not make these choices at the expense of being present to our children and modeling for them what an active faith life looks like. And if we make the choice to have family, we must make the choice thereafter to balance time spent at work with time spent with family.
If we fathers want children who are expert marksmen when they are 30, we should take them hunting every chance we get. If we want them to be championship weightlifters when they are 30, we should hit the gym every time the doors open. But if we want them to be believers when they are 30 – committed to a faith community and enjoying the incredible gifts that come from it – we need to set the example of being active in a religious community with them now.
True power, as Joseph shows us, is choosing not to do something, even though we may be fully capable and justified in doing it, because it's not what's called for at the moment. When Jesus was arrested the night before his death, he said to the arresting soldiers, "Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?" He could have saved himself. He didn't "deserve" to die. He would have been justified in retaliating. But it wasn't called for at the moment. And because Jesus didn't do what he could have done, he exercised a power so great that it offered salvation to the whole world. Who knows? Maybe he learned this from Joseph, who set a similar example as his father years earlier.
Linda Ranson Jacobs is the Creator and Ambassador of DivorceCare4Kids. DC4K is a 13-week program that provides an opportunity for your church to encompass the child of divorce with the loving arms of a church family and demonstrate God’s love. Ms. Jacobs has also created resources for divorced or single parents available at the ParentZone.
How does a church, which focuses on traditional family ministry, minister to the child of divorce? This seems to be the question many churches are wrestling with as they try to define exactly what family ministry looks like. Divorcing families have indeed changed the landscape of what families look like within the church.
In 43 years of ministering to children of divorce, I have personally observed many of the issues researched in the report, Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? I'm beginning to think it is not so much the "shape" of family, while that has a lot to do with influencing children's faith, but it is the shape of the church surrounding the family.
In my observation, many divorcing parents who are emotionally absent, in shock, or spend hours working to support their family, may not have the physical energy to take their children to church. If they take them to church they may not have the spiritual stamina to disciple their children in the home.
One component that needs to be addressed in this discussion is how children's ministry leaders and volunteers need to be educated and trained to work with and accommodate the child of divorce. Ministering to children of divorce isn't like traditional children's ministry. In a series of articles on Divorce Ministry 4 Kids (www.divorceministry4kids.com) Wayne Stocks, who is a children's minister, and I have written about the culture shock children's ministers have when working with the child of divorce. These kids bring many issues with them; the biggest one being the chaos that follows them to church classes. Addressing behavior issues, helping the child fit in, and knowing how to work with the single parent are critical if we want to keep the kids coming to church.
Churches and understanding leaders can bridge the gap between the child and their relationship with a heavenly Father by coming alongside the child. A church can replicate a loving family who can step up to the plate to assist and co-partner with the single parent to provide spiritual teaching and training to the children.
For almost ten years we have watched a shift in how many children are processing the divorce of their parents divorce through a program called DivorceCare for Kids. (www.dc4k.org) This program, which was released in the summer of 2004, is designed specifically for churches. It is non denominational in nature and reaches across a wide spectrum of issues.
Currently almost 70,000 elementary age children from kindergarten through fifth grade have been equipped with the DC4K materials. Over 3,000 churches worldwide have been supplied with the DC4K kit which includes children's DVD dramas, music CDs, hand held feelings puppet, storybook, and many other tools to help children process their parent's divorce. The kit also equips leaders with training DVDs, extensive lesson plans and a Leader's Guide educating leaders about how to successfully minister to the child of divorce.
In these small groups relationships have been formed, scriptures have been introduced and Christian principals have been set forth. While most of us don't like to think of young children being in a support group, that is exactly what they need and what churches can provide for them through DC4K.
We have children who were twelve and thirteen years of age when they first went through DC4K and are now young adults. While they aren't fully into their adult years with families of their own, we are seeing how they are staying connected to the Lord in their faith walk. We are seeing sixteen- and seventeen-year-old teenagers come back to DC4K as teen leaders. They want to reach out to the younger children and help them as they themselves have been helped. And we've had countless adult children of divorce share with us how much they have grown in their faith walk and relationship with a heavenly Father by leading DC4K.
We don't know yet but believe that the majority of the children who experience DC4K will have better outcomes overall. We do know that the door has been opened wider than ever before for these kids to stay connected to a religious community.
After having worked in a Southern California school system; run my own therapeutic childcare for over 20 years in Oklahoma; trained as well as educated thousands of teachers, childcare staff and church leaders about the child of divorce; created the DC4K curriculum and raised my own two children in a divorced family; I know first hand how important the church is in shaping children's faith. Churches must accept the challenge to confront the issue of divorce and they must do it head on and do it now before we lose another generation to divorce.
Mark Diebel is Pastor at Christ Episcopal Church in Greenville, New York.
In sum: children of divorce have something important to say to churches. This report challenges some accepted practices and beliefs that have shaped how faith communities have thought about and responded to divorce. I want to focus on two particular practices that shape families and that should also challenge the responses of faith communities: donor conception and adoption. This report is unique in raising donor conception practice to the attention of religious bodies in general, especially in a context of offspring experiences. The Episcopal Church has virtually ignored the subject.
First, I want to point out two ways parent/child relationships are described in the report, one bodily and the other, relationally, through interactions. Julie Rubio develops a body theology. Marriage represents a spiritual bond between parents who become one flesh – with the child as the issue. The report states, "Even more so than in sexual intimacy, in which spouses become one flesh for a short time and then part (even as their feelings of unity may endure), when a child is conceived the child is a one-flesh union of his or her parents that cannot break in two." The child may experience his or her relationship to both parents on a unitary – bodily – level.
Chris Kiesling discusses attachments between a child and a parent. Attachment is conceived through a series of "interactions" between a parent, usually a mother, and the child, that strengthen the forming of a "bond" – which in turn holds a large meaning (larger than the sum of its parts) for the child, becoming a "representational meaning." These two views, both arising from historical realities, emphasize different aspects of a child's more or less conscious sense of relationship to his or her parent(s). Rubio's is based in conception; Kiesling's is based on historical interactions, where conception and birth are not discussed. These realities of conception and historical interactions are essential to keep in mind as we turn to donor conception and adoption practices and the role they play in shaping a family.
A next step for work in the spirit of the report would be to ask questions of adoptees and donor conceived – as for children of divorce. Donor conception is a practice in the United States existing since the nineteenth century. It has evolved into a very visible practice in the U.S. I estimate there may be between six and twenty thousand donor conceived adults between the ages of 18 and 45 in the Episcopal Church. With gay and lesbian families growing in the Episcopal Church, there will likely be an increasing number of children who are donor conceived.
Adoption practice, which is ancient, took a curious turn after the first third of the twentieth century. The relinquishment of a child, the history of his or her life prior to adoption and a child's race quickly became socially irrelevant. Children, in general, were denied the right to question the past in order to process their relinquishment and losses. Likewise, donor conceived children's losses were denied reality. Work such as Rubio’s and Kiesling’s challenge these views with respect to historical reality. Historical realities like conception and early interactions need to be connected to adoptees and donor conceived persons, each in different ways.
Finally, I want to rework a couple of the recommendations in order to make clear how they might apply to adoptee and donor conceived persons.
The recommendation for Pastors, Youth Ministers and Youth Sponsors, item 5) Adoption and Donor Conception shapes the life story of a person and so should be addressed when writing a confession of faith or discussing a person's life story. Comment: Pastors and youth leaders in general do not think of the reality that either adoption or donor conception are for the children. The same sort of research found in this report could be helpful in the cases of adoption and donor conception.
The recommendation for Children of Divorce, item 2) The Church cares about you and your family. However, know that the church will not allow your adoption or donor conception define who you are. The church will strive to be a place where you can be defined by faith and not by what happens to you in life. Comment: In the past the church did this by ignoring the real history of particular adoptions and donor conceptions. In the future, the church should do this by consciously affirming historical realities of conception and other historical interactions, and then helping children work in faith towards a more comprehensive identity.
Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? is a unique contribution to bringing the life of children to the fore in discussing faith formation and the role of the church.
Chap Clark is Associate Provost and Professor of Youth, Family, and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. Clark's extensive publication of books, articles, and videos focus primarily on relationships. Most recently, he published Hurt 2.0 and also coauthored Sticky Faith with Fuller's Kara Powell. Click here to follow him on Twitter.
The report, Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? is a long overdue, comprehensive, and academically solid report that will certainly enhance and deepen the conversation regarding the impact of divorce on kids for years to come. The scholarship is first rate, and the care the editors took to ensure that the report was accessible to the layperson while still being thoroughly grounded in solid academic methodology is especially appreciated.
As a researcher who continues to study adolescents in their context, and who has devoted much of my academic life in the service of these very questions, as I read this study I have come away with a full agenda of responses and questions. For the purposes of this blog/review, however, I will limit my comments to what we at Fuller Seminary and our "Hurt" study team have been processing and wrestling with as they relate to this report, and offer the following three thoughts:
First, the study could communicate, particularly for the layperson, that there are relatively clear distinctions between the child or adolescent from an "intact" family and one from a divorced family. I do believe that in general the authors worked hard to avoid reporting, even implicitly, beyond what they actually studied, but I do wonder if some readers may come away believing that kids from "intact" families are really as qualitatively different than their peers from divorced families. In my research, it is not nearly that clean, or, frankly, that markedly different.
In my experience, as adults our response to understanding and dealing with children and adolescents, especially in the church, is to label and "box" kids into categories that help us feel like we have a good handle on who they are, what they think and how they feel. I am not saying the authors succumbed to this tendency, but I do believe that a superficial reading could encourage this type of response, especially as the study is boiled down into neat bullet points that summarize the study's conclusions. As I analyze the landscape of adolescent development, both in my own research and the summation of literature to date, the distinctions are far less clear, the dynamics far more complex, and therefore the response we offer kids of divorce must be intensely contextual grounded in an attitude of humility and open teachability. Yes, many of the things mentioned in this study, on a macro level, highlight how generally kids from divorced families experience and respond to their circumstance. But on the other hand, each family, and each child, is unique, and must be treated accordingly. In applying any response to kids of divorce, we must take great care with each individual child.
Secondly, I wholeheartedly agree, and greatly appreciate, the affirmation from a long and rich history of research that tells us that the single greatest measurable and external influence on a child's faith journey is the lived-out faith of their parents. That said, however – and this may be obvious but easily lost to desperate parents and faith communities – it is important to note that even this does not predict much–less promise–a child will follow in their parents' faith footsteps. Faith, to be personally owned, must ultimately become "individuative-reflective." This takes an adult decision that comes from within the child. While we can measure and program toward what we know are factors that seem to provide a greater opportunity for owned faith, the choice to follow Jesus Christ is ultimately up to the child.
With these two in mind, then, I believe that the practical encouragements that close the study are helpful for churches, youth workers, parents and adults in general as they seek to care for kids from divorced families. The advice for parents, and for the children themselves, is, to me, solid and encouraging. While the suggestions for pastors, youth ministers, and youth sponsors are also helpful and important, the final one, "Know that acknowledging the trauma or wound of divorce in a young person's life is a prophetic role that opens a space for healing and hope," moves into important but emotionally dangerous ground. For the well-trained and experienced youth minister or sponsor, this can be a powerful step in healing deep wounds and helping a kid to move through the trauma of divorce. But the sensitivity required to enter into this level of intimacy with a child or adolescent demands the utmost of care, training, and accountability. To enter into the sacred space of an adolescent's pain without a clear and honest invitation is one of the most potentially hazardous ministry practices. We must tread lightly as we lead our kids to work through their experience of divorce.
Again, I greatly appreciate this study, and the conversations that will come from it. With all the good of this study to highlight the reality of how divorce impacts the faith journey of children and adolescents, my caution is for those who directly serve these children is to treat each one with great respect and honor, to come alongside each one, affirming each unique story, and enter into the sacred place of pain, fear and heartache with tenderness, gentleness and compassion.
Helen M. Alvaré is an Associate Professor of Law who, prior to joining the George Mason faculty, was an Associate Professor at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law. Professor Alvaré chaired the commission investigating clerical abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and is an advisor to Pope Benedict XVI’s Pontifical Council for the Laity, as well as an ABC News consultant.
"It's never just about him. It's never just about her. It's never even just about him and her together. Rather, it's always, also about the children he and she could make, or have made together, as indispensable co-creators with God."
As a family law professor, as a person of faith, and as an American, this is the message I am more and more coming to believe is an essential part today, of any discussion, any lawmaking, any ministering, to men and women in a romantic partnership. This report on the intersection between family structure and faith seems to me to join a plethora of related studies pointing out that unless men and women understand their romantic lives to be linked with the remarkable fact that their sexual intimacy co-creates children, they will too easily succumb to the temptation to treat their partner as a means to an end, and to sever the partnership when the partner disappoints.
Imagine if the sexual relationship was understood, in part but always, to connote "making a father and a mother" from the intimate pair. Of course, it also bonds the couple in important ways; but even the gigantic numbers of "unintended" and non-marital births, all by themselves, counsel the importance of remembering the mysterious decision by our Maker to pair sex with the conception of a genetically-related child who needs rather intensive nurturing for decades to come.
It's too late to begin such a conversation when a couple is about to marry. By that time (and given historically high ages at first marriage in the U.S.), men and women in the United States have been instructed over and over and over again that sex is one thing and children are entirely another ... a rather "problematic" thing if one is to believe what the government and some self-described "women's rights" groups are saying. They say: "Unprotected sex makes babies. It also makes sexually transmitted diseases." That's right, a failure – of technology, or will, or practical skill – is how children, and diseases, come to be, according to the relentless messaging of both these sources.
Without "re-orienting" (early and often) what is most celebrated in American culture about what men and women do together (sex, romantic love) – away from the couple themselves, and their individual and joint happiness –how are we to get to the place where children's interests are privileged? In the earliest discussions of sex and life skills and vocations, then, schools and churches and families, need to link the relationships between men and women to children. They need to be honest about what the data shows about the link between children's flourishing, and stable marital families. Obviously, the information should never be wielded as a weapon to hurt, but in the fashion of a hard truth which will, in the end, help more than it hurts.
State and federal governments have, in recent decades, put some effort toward emphasizing the need to keep children's interests front and center in discussions about marriage. But not nearly enough. Certainly not enough to counter the loud and long message (particularly over the last two years) that women's freedom is synonymous with the freedom to avoid children, via government-ordered "free" birth control. If this is freedom, how might freedom also include entering into a mutually interdependent, lifelong commitment with a person of the opposite sex, oriented in large part to the care of children? It couldn't. The law is not the only player here; it can't "make men and women moral." But at the very least, it can stop sending the completely wrong message. Then the good messages will make sense.
Churches, too, of course, have a massive role to play. It is a bit shocking, in fact, they have not played it to the hilt by this time in our nation's marriage crisis. Judeo-Christian traditions after all, explicitly teach that humans can come to "glimpse" God via the experience of a loving marriage. They need to take seriously the duty this implies to minister quite actively to marriage, to divorced couples, and to the children of both. "Nuclear families" are part of church and geographic communities, not self-sufficient fortresses whose boundaries may never be breached. Marriage is both a private and a public reality. Churches have the scriptures and the theology to grasp the "public" aspect better than most secular institutions today. Nothing is holding them back from acting on their understanding. The report, Does the Shape of FamiliesShape Faith?, is another, and an important call to action.