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Ron L. Deal, M.MFT., President, Smart Stepfamilies

The need is real. And the call for help is coming from every side. Most recently it came to me from a church elder with a question I've heard many times before, "What do we do? How do we help these people?" Prior to sitting down with this caring church leader, my secretary had informed me that he was from New Mexico and needed help with a stepfamily in crisis. "But this is Arkansas," I thought to myself, "what's he doing here?" Apparently, a trusted friend had told him about a specific ministry I have developed to stepfamilies and since he had relatives in the area, he decided to come by and talk. "This couple is separated," he continued. "He complains that she is too tough on his kids, while she feels that his children are a greater priority to him than she is and that he doesn't discipline them enough. We don't know what to tell them. How do we help?"

His question strikes a familial cord for church leaders and family ministers who don't understand the needs, dynamics, and challenges of stepfamily life. But they're not the only ones. Stepfamilies themselves are notorious for entering stepfamily life with one set of expectations, only to discover that a stepfamily can't function like a biological family. Roles change, rules for how to interact vary, and loyalties are stretched to the limit, not to mention the challenges of cooperating with another household regarding child visitation, discipline, and family events (band concerts, graduations, weddings, etc.). It gets extremely complicated and stepfamily individuals and church leaders, alike, get lost in a hurry. Indeed, stepfamilies don't have a family tree, they have a family forest!

The Challenge

I liken the challenges of stepfamily living to putting together a 3-D jig-saw puzzle without instructions and without a picture on the box to show what the final product should look like, while blind-folded! Perhaps that's why about two-thirds of second marriages end in divorce (the rate is even higher for third and subsequent marriages). We've got to do something. Consider the following statistics:

  • 40 of every 100 marriages today is a remarriage for one or both spouses.
  • By the year 2010 there will be more stepfamilies in the U.S. than any other type of family.
  • 1 out of 3 Americas is now a stepparent, stepchild, stepsibling, or some other member of a stepfamily, and 1 out of 2 of us will have a steprelationship at some point in our lives.

Despite these realities, stepfamilies remain one of the most neglected groups in churches today. In fact, I'm not sure we even know there's a problem. But we better hurry to respond or we'll find ourselves on the outside looking in. Recently one prominent stepfamily educator said, "If churches don't start responding to the needs of stepfamilies, they won't have anybody in their churches." I'm not sure it's quite that serious, but the point is well made. One of the strengths of family life ministry has been it's appeal to the unchurched and unfaithful. Now more than ever, stepfamilies, in particular, are looking for 1) educational programs to equip them for successful living; and 2) churches that show care and a redemptive spirit. They need help and want to belong. And you can help.

  • Learn all you can about stepfamilies. Go here for a path to begin your stepfamily ministry.
  • Talk with stepfamilies in your church and community. Listen to their stories and felt needs. Ask them to help you start and coordinate a support group or class effort.
  • Modify your pre-remarriage counseling programs to address the hidden challenges of stepfamily life. Couples need to know what lies ahead. Even when couples are "scripturally free" to remarry, we ought to make it difficult for them to form a stepfamily, especially when wearing a second set of rose colored glasses.
  • Sponsor or support a "Building A Smart Stepfamily" conference in your community. This weekend event has many purposes: 1) it sends a message of "welcome" to stepfamilies and is an excellent bridge event to your community; 2) it provides practical information on successful stepfamily living; 3) participants develop a Personal Integration Plan and gain resources in the seminar manual; 4) churches can launch a support ministry following the seminar; and 5) it equips church leaders to better shepherd and minister to stepfamilies.

We cannot ignore the call for help anymore. Even before attending a stepfamily seminar in her area, one woman wrote me a thank you note. She includes this statement, "Thank you so much for addressing such a needy and neglected population of our spiritual brethren. We need help so desperately!"

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.