Ministering to Stepfamilies
By Ron L. Deal, M.MFT.
Originally published by Family Information Services, resources for parent and family educators, Minneapolis, MN, 800-852-8112.
Jig Saw Puzzles
At a recent Bible lectureship I asked five people to conduct a demonstration. After briefly showing them a jigsaw puzzle box, I asked them to put together a 3-D puzzle without talking, while blindfolded. Needless to say, they didn't make much progress and were pretty frustrated, especially after I told them the box cover I had showed them was to a different puzzle. Stepfamilies often find themselves trying to put all the pieces of their family together with no outside help and little family problem-solving abilities. In addition, the family image they are trying to create (the biological family) doesn't fit with the pieces they find. Frustration and confusion abounds.
Perhaps that's one key reason many stepfamilies end in divorce. Couples can become so disillusioned with the bonding process they give up. It actually becomes more attractive to once again divorce than to work through the crises that erupt. Consider these statistics:
- 46% of marriages today are remarriages for one or both partners (Stahmann & Hiebert, 1997);
- 1 out of 3 Americans is now a stepparent, a stepchild, a stepsibling, or some other member of a stepfamily (Larson, 1992);
- More than half of Americans living today will live in at least one step-situation during their lifetime (Larson, 1992);
- By the year 2010 it is predicted there will be more stepfamilies in the U.S. than any other type of family (Visher & Visher, 1997);
- The remarriage divorce rate continues around 65% (a specific divorce rate for stepfamily couples is unknown, but we believe they represent a large percentage of remarriage divorces). Put another way, 50% of U.S. children will see their parents divorce and 50% of those children will see at least one parent divorce a second time (source unknown).
Despite the prevalence of stepfamilies and the remarriage divorce rate, stepfamilies remain one of the most neglected groups in churches today. At the same time, churches and faith-based organizational "sleeping giants" are beginning to awaken to the incredible opportunities for ministry and community outreach. Stepfamilies lack a clear, coherent image of the 3-D puzzle they seek to build; churches can integrate scriptural principles with valuable research and give them the tools they need through practical training programs. Thus, the opportunities for familial and spiritual growth to the churched and unchurched alike are remarkable. But many barriers still exist.
Barriers to Stepfamily Ministry
The first barrier to mention is that church leaders don't perceive the need. You can't begin to address stepfamily
concerns until you realize and acknowledge they exist. Despite the vast number of stepfamilies in the general
population, they remain invisible to many church leaders for two key reasons: a) lower percentages of stepfamilies in
churches; and b) spiritual marginalization.
- It is not uncommon for the number of stepfamilies in a given congregation to number only 6% or less of the overall membership (see Yankeelov & Garland, 1998). This difference between church and societal populations should not surprise us as churches are more conscious about divorce prevention and marital enrichment than ever before. We should have less stepfamilies, especially those arising from divorce (alas, we're doing something right!). The problem, however, is that church leaders do not interact with stepfamilies enough to "notice" their rising numbers or experience their struggles. Furthermore, stepfamily couples who feel "outnumbered" by first marriage households, may not assertively ask the leadership for help.
A second reason for fewer stepfamilies is that frequently they are spiritually marginalized. This comes about for a variety of reasons. The first is, personal spiritual shame and guilt from divorce or past sin that drives people away from God and the church. One person said, "I am not sure if I am accepted by God in regard to remarriage. I am almost afraid to read the Bible because I'm not sure what I may find." This doubt and shame moves people away from God for fear of judgment and away from Christians they perceive as "better people" than they are.
In addition, many divorced and remarried persons are socially shunned or spiritually judged by the church. One stepfamily couple was told straight out by a minister, "I'm sorry. Your background and past might infect everyone else so we can't have you at our church." Stepfamilies are made to feel like unclean outsiders, second class Christians who don't fit socially or ideologically. This marginalizes remarried couples and gives them a strong sense of unworthiness.
But occasionally, stepfamilies will visit a congregation looking for a church home despite these pressures-and what do they find? Subtle messages in church language and programming that separate them from other couples. For example, the advice given to parents regarding childrearing often doesn't come close to addressing the daily struggles of stepparents, and questions regarding ex-spouses go unanswered because no one knows how to advise. The message becomes "you don't belong here" and stepfamilies hear it loud and clear.
- A second barrier to developing a stepfamily ministry is churches don't want to perceive the need. Ministry is a tough and stressful profession. Ministers are coping with ever-changing technology, rising baby-boomer leadership styles, shifting musical styles, polarized churches with some members holding out for the status quo while others are pushing for radical changes in ministry methodology. The list of challenges before ministers in endless. And now, in order to understand stepfamilies, church leaders are being asked to rethink their most commonly held notions of marriage and family life. This would require stepping back from standard family advice, retooling, and looking afresh at the ministry audience. On top of everything else ministers are trying to handle, that is a difficult challenge.
- The third key barrier to stepfamily ministry pertains to theological struggles with marriage and divorce. It is beyond the scope of this paper to address marriage, divorce, and remarriage from a scriptural position; suffice it here to say that each minister and church needs to study carefully the Biblical text in order to arrive at a doctrinal position. I, personally, have not answered all of my own questions. But I have determined that divorce is not the "unforgivable sin" and once remarried, no matter what their background, every couple should work to honor their vows. Stepfamily ministry is not about condoning someone's 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 the peculiarities of the stepfamily home from holding people back from serving 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 the church has a message that can crush Satan's attack on the stepfamily home: 1) God forgives the imperfect people in stepfamilies just as He does the imperfect people in traditional, biological families; and 2) God's strength and healing are available to any that come to Him in faithfulness. It is time for the church to articulate that message of redemption.
Practical Ministry Suggestions
- Communicate messages of hope and determination. The "wilderness wanderings" can be long and frightening, but there is a promised land of marital fulfillment, interpersonal connectedness, child well being, and spiritual redemption. Remind them not to give up (divorce) but to endure the journey in order to reach the promised land.
- Maintain an outreach (evangelistic) mentality. You may have only a few stepfamilies in your congregation, but you have a lot surrounding it. Educate your leadership and staff to consider stepfamily ministry as an outreach effort. Design your classes (titles, meeting times, etc.) with the unchurched in mind.
- Start a support group or Bible class for stepfamilies. While very few Christian resources exist (see the "Ministry and Educational Resources" listed below), more are becoming available. Recruit a well-adjusted stepfamily couple and a non-stepfamily ministry couple to lead the discussion group. Equip them with materials and support them however you can. The Stepfamily Association of America can help establish a local chapter offering resources and support to stepfamilies in your community.
- Sensitize your Bible class teachers to stepfamily complexities. For example, during Father's Day activities give children the option of making two cards for dad and stepdad (but only if the child wants to). Use language from the pulpit that acknowledges stepfathers; encourage their role and sympathize with their struggles. Also, find out who is authorized to pick up the kids after Bible class and who is not. The custodial parent should put this in writing for the teachers.
Youth ministries need to be sensitive as well.
- Medical releases should be signed by biological parents; stepparents generally do not have the legal right to provide consent for medical treatment.
- If traveling with youth, chaperones should carry phone numbers to both sets of parents in case of emergency.
- Class curriculum should include case studies that deal with common adolescent struggles. For example, how to "honor" stepparents in view of Ephesians 6:1-3, conflicts with stepsiblings, and uninvolved biological parents. Teens need a place to talk about such matters with youth leaders who understand their experiences.
- Youth staff should develop counseling skills to help custodial parents when their child leaves to live with the other parent. This happens frequently during the teen years and can bring much grief to the parents left behind.
- Discuss stepparenting and remarriage pressures when doing general marriage and family enrichment classes or sermons. Speak to their needs whenever possible. Also, examine common Biblical texts addressing family life to see how they apply (and don't apply) to stepfamily situations. (The third article in this series will address some of these texts.)
Pre-remarital counseling should educate couples about stepfamily dynamics. Topics need to include:
- Dealing with Losses (children & adults)
- Realistic & Unrealistic Expectations
- "How To Cook A Stepfamily" - how bonding takes place
- Establishing the Couple Relationship After Remarriage
- Parenting & Stepparenting Roles
- "The eX-FILES: Co-Parenting Issues After Divorce"
- Loyalty Issues
- Establishing Traditions and Rituals
Sessions might include:
- Stepfamily adults and children together to discuss expectations, roles, authority, and how children will refer to their stepparent;
- Ex-spouse session to negotiate co-parenting responsibilities;
- Schedule 6-month and 12-month follow-up sessions to gauge their progress and coach them through difficulties.
- Host a stepfamily seminar, sponsor a stepfamily retreat, or offer a short-course for stepfamily adults - but do something!
- Build a therapeutic alliance with both partners.
- Give good information related to their presenting problem-this requires a good understanding of stepfamily dynamics and family systems.
- If you lack adequate training in counseling, find a competent marriage and family therapist in your area and make a referral.
Deal, R. L. (July, 1998). God Loves Stepfamilies, Too! In Comeau, J.K. (Ed.) Family Information Services Professional Resource Materials, Family Information Services: Minneapolis, MN.
Stahmann, R. F. & Hiebert, W. (1997). Premarital and Remarital Counseling. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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: Empowering Through Faith, 12, 3, 23-56.
Ministry & Educational Resources:
Deal, Ron. "Building A Successful Stepfamily" Audio Seminar (8 hours) and 90-page Seminar Manual for Christian stepfamily adults and pre-remarriage couples. Contact Ron directly to order tapes (870-932-9254) or host a live seminar for your community. Web: www.betterlife.org/Stepfamily.htm
Deal, Ron. "Helping The Church Minister to Stepfamilies" (3 hours on audiocassette; recorded at Pepperdine University Lectures, Spring, 1999). Available from Gaylor Multi-Media (615-860-3230).
Dunn, Dick. Developing a Successful Stepfamily Ministry. Contact Dick Dunn at P.O. Box 1472, Roswell, GA 30077. Phone: 770-587-1691.
Dunn, Dick. New Faces in the Frame: A Guide to Marriage and Parenting in the Blended Family. Nashville: LifeWay Press, 1997. A 12-week workbook study for Bible classes and support groups. Call 1-800-458-2772 to order.
Jones, J. (Ed.). (1993). Life Support Leader's Handbook. Nashville: LifeWay Press. This manual is extremely helpful in training adults to lead Christ-centered support groups. A training video is also available. Call 1-800-458-2772 to order.
Pratt, Lonni Collins. Making Two Halves a Whole: Studies for Parents in Blended Families. Elgin, Ill: David C. Cook Publishing Co., 1995. A 13-week Bible study curriculum for adult groups.
Stepfamily Association of America (SAA): Web: www.stepfam.org. A national non-profit organization that assists in forming state chapters, publishes a quarterly newsletter, sponsors annual lay and professional conferences, and sells a variety of books and materials for families and professionals. Phone: 1-800-735-0329
Visher, E. B. & Visher, J. S. (1997). Stepping Together: Creating Strong Stepfamilies. Self-published manual for stepfamily couples. Order from the Stepfamily Association of America (1-800-735-0329).
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.