Guiding Stepfamilies Through Wilderness Wanderings
Ron L. Deal, M.MFT., Originally published by Church & Family, Summer, 1999.
"I'm sorry. Your background and past might infect everyone else so we can't have you at our church."
How defeating! But that's exactly what the preacher said once he discovered John and Diane were remarried. Apparently the church they had been attending didn't have room for persons in need of healing--persons with a less-than-perfect history. And John and Diane were, indeed, less than perfect. Each had experienced the devastation of divorce and for a while turned their backs on the Lord. But now, while attempting to combine a new stepfamily, they were once again trying to accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Only their church wouldn't accept them.
"I'm sorry. I wish I could help. Why don't you try Southwest."
So they did. But this time, they found a church ready to serve. They discovered a stepfamily ministry that taught them how to deal with their unique day-to-day struggles, and a body of believers willing to extend hands of mercy and forgiveness. Today, John and Diane are faithful followers of Jesus Christ and leaders in a dynamic stepfamily support group that is touching lives every day. "The Step-by-Step group has meant a great deal to my family and me," says John, "more than I could ever describe to you in words."
"We Don't Want You Here"
For nearly three decades America has suffered under a plague of divorce and out-of-wedlock births. Later, when these same individuals marry and bring children with them, a stepfamily is born. Currently, one out of every three Americans is a stepparent, stepchild, a stepsibling, or some other member of a stepfamily.1 And while soon there will be more stepfamilies in America than any other family type2, it's not uncommon to find local churches with a population of just 6% or less3. Certainly there are many reasons for this wide variation, but the most disconcerting is typified by the experience of John and Diane. Many churches, either overtly or subtly, marginalize Christian stepfamilies in spiritual shame. Socially, divorced and remarried persons often don't fit in a church culture of traditional marriage, nor do typical marriage enrichment programs meet their relational needs. Whether intentional or inadvertent, the message "we don't want you here" comes through loud and clear. In addition, unchurched stepfamilies find themselves lost, isolated from society, and looking for congregations who care, only to receive spiritual judgment and social awkwardness.
Looking For A Compass In The Wilderness
I liken the experience of stepfamilies to the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites. Stepfamilies enter remarriage with the dream of finally reaching the Promised Land. Leaving the horrible oppression of divorce, they embark on a journey, only to discover that the trip is filled with uncertainty. Direction seems to be lacking, children and heavy baggage slow their progress, and it takes much longer to arrive than they ever imagined. Discouragement, grumbling, and complaining abound. Perhaps that's why 60% of remarriages end in divorce. But it is time churches start handing out compasses so that stepfamilies can find the Promised Land in faith. Education, support groups, an attitude of acceptance by the congregation and church leadership--all of these things combine to form a spiritual compass that guides the stepfamily journey.
For example, I tell stepfamilies that in order to reach the Promised Land they must:
- STEP Up - to discover a redemptive God who loves, forgives, and provides strength and direction for their journey.
- STEP Down - their expectations. Combining two families takes the average stepfamily seven years (most divorce before year three)! Determination is vital.
- STEP Through - the wilderness with perseverance, dedication, knowledge, humor, and faith.
- Side STEP - the pitfalls common to stepfamilies. For example, one common fatal error occurs when stepparents punish their stepchildren too quickly, destroying any opportunity for relationship.
- Two STEP - The marital bond is critical to stepfamily success, but often becomes lost in the stepfamily forest.
- STEP In Line - with the other adults (including ex-spouses) making up the parenting coalition. Cooperating with the other household is essential to the psychological health of children. All of these aspects are important so that eventually the stepfamily can...
- STEP Over - into the Promised Land of marital fulfillment, interpersonal connectedness, child well-being, and spiritual redemption.
A Message of Redemption
Ministry to stepfamilies is not about condoning their past or lowering God's standard for marriage. We must and will always uphold God's intention for one man and one woman for life (and any remarried person will agree that God's ideal is best). Rather, stepfamily ministry is about preventing the pressures and peculiarities of the stepfamily home from holding people back from their Lord. Satan's best line of attack is against the home. He would love for stepfamily adults and children to be distracted, discouraged, and defeated--and preventing a stepfamily from integrating will certainly accomplish just that. Yet we have a message that can crush Satan's attack on the stepfamily home: God forgives the imperfect people in stepfamilies just as He does the imperfect people in traditional families. It is time for the church to articulate that message of redemption.
I feel that God has forgiven me of my sins from my past years and accepted me as a Christian servant of His. Only since my renewed Christian life...have I understood and accepted God's unfathomable grace.
Teaching resources for stepfamilies (c) Ron L. Deal, for local church use only.
"As For Me And My House" Seminars,
- Larson, J. (1992). Understanding Stepfamilies. American Demographics, 14, 360
- Visher, E.B. & Visher, J.S., "Stepparents: The Forgotten Family Member," Second World Congress on Family Law and The Rights of Children and Youth, June, 1997.
- Yankeelov, P. A. & Garland, D. R. (1998). The Families in Our Congregations: Initial Research Findings, Family Ministry, 12, 3, 23-45.
Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.