By Laura Petherbridge
I hear this statement (or some form of it) at least once a month:
“My spouse and I just came from a counseling session with our pastor. We love him, and he’s a great pastor. The advice he gave us contradicts what I’m reading in Christian-based stepfamily resources. I’m confused.”
This pastor likely wasn’t intentionally contradicting the Christian blended family experts. Typically, church leaders’ intentions are good and godly. They just don’t know—what they don’t know.
According to research compiled by blended family expert Ron Deal:
- Approximately one-third of all weddings in America today form stepfamilies.
- 42% of adults have a blended family relationship (with a stepparent, a step or half sibling, or a stepchild).
- Of those who get divorced, 75% will remarry, and 65% will bring children from a previous union.
I’m an adult child of divorce. I grew up with two different stepmoms and one stepdad. Plus, I’m a stepmom of 33 years.
As an author and speaker on this subject, and as a child who grew up surrounded by stepfamily dynamics, here are a few things I believe church leaders should keep in mind regarding these families in their congregations.
1. The stepfamily is birthed on loss.
A death, divorce, or break up of the biological family resides beneath the newly formed family. It may be a fresh start for the couple, but the new marriage is built on top of the previous union.
Anger, grief, loss and regret are just a few of the emotions often brewing beneath this newly-formed family. The adults, teens, and children are lugging numerous negative emotions and pain that isn’t present in a first marriage.
2. It takes the kids longer to grieve.
Kids, at any age, are devastated by the loss of their biological family. We falsely assume they will recover quickly; in reality their emotions are merely stuffed beneath the surface.
To the child, even an adult child, the new marriage is often viewed as a wound. It’s the death of their dream of an intact family. It’s the final nail in the biological family coffin.
3. A stepfamily should form slowly.
The pain of death or divorce is so intense and unyielding that many people rush into a new marriage to numb the loss. It’s the prominent mistake stepfamily couples make. Everyone needs time to process the changes.
Consider this: After the death or divorce, the kids emotionally moved from the back seat to the front seat of the parent’s life. When a remarriage occurs, it is exceedingly difficult for a mom or dad to then move them back into second place so the marriage can be first.
4. The parenting dynamic is radically different.
At least for the first few years, the biological parent must remain the primary disciplinarian or boundary setter in their home with the stepparent alongside him/her as a helper.
Therefore, the advice given in typical church parenting class frequently doesn’t work, and often backfires in a blended family.
5. The marriage preparation is radically different.
Very few couples understand or prepare for the merging of the two families. This is especially true of Christian marriages because they assume that with Jesus as their center, they won’t encounter the same problems.
Unlike first marriages, before the couple can move onto subjects like love, intimacy, needs and respect, they need to have conversations about the former spouse and his/her influence on their union.
These conversations should include: visitation schedules, insecurities about the former marriage, whether the spouse is parenting out of guilt, how will they cope with the kids having two sets of rules, whether they will they bring another baby into the mix, resentment or anger about financial commitments to the other home, and future court appearances.
None of those issues are present in a first marriage, and yet they are the key reasons the second marriage fails.
6. Stepfamilies sometimes feel the “need” to hide in the church.
The shame and stigma of a divorce, second marriage, or blended family often keeps the stepfamily in silence about their family dynamics.
Blended families can sometimes feel pressured to pretend they’re a biological family. That is, until the day when someone at church says to a child, “Your mom brought the cookies today, isn’t that nice?” Then the child screams, “She’s not my mother!”
And then everyone has a red face.
How can church leaders help?
Here are a few suggestions:
- Use stepfamily language. If the leadership—particularly the senior pastor—includes stepfamilies in his messages or teachings, it will become safer for others to talk about it. For example: On Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, include stepparents in the celebration.
- Use illustrations of stepfamilies in the congregation when promoting a ministry, mission trip, or seminar. This lets other stepfamilies in the congregation know they aren’t the only ones.
- Have a separate or additional class for those getting married who already have children. Use Bible-based stepfamily resources to help the couple to learn about the unique dynamics associated with formation of a stepfamily. Tackle the common challenges they may face before the wedding.
- Personally, if I were the person officiating a remarriage after a divorce, I would require the divorced person to attend a divorce recovery class and professional counseling, if they haven’t already. Many people sincerely think they’ve healed and forgiven the former spouse, but haven’t.
- Launch a ministry to stepfamilies. When I became a stepmom in 1985 there was no church resource to help me. Thankfully, that has changed. Good, biblical resources are now available that speak to the specific issues of stepfamily life.
- Use the stepfamilies in the Bible to teach. God’s Word is jam-packed with stepfamily stories of hope, redemption, forgiveness, and consequences.