A Message to the Church: Ministering to Stepfamilies
Ron L. Deal
Get a copy of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family by Ron L. Deal on Amazon today.
A Message to the Church
Stepfamily ministry represents the next big challenge for American churches. Blended families are a field ripe for harvest, but the workers are few. When the first edition of this book came out in 2002 most of the ministry to stepfamilies around the country and the world was a grassroots effort. In other words, the ministry being done in most churches was being done by the stepfamilies themselves. At that time, very few ministers and church leaders put stepfamily ministry on their list of priorities. I’m pleased to say that today church leaders, senior pastors, and marriage ministry leaders are beginning to join in the fight against redivorce. In addition, FamilyLife™, a global marriage and family ministry provider and publisher, partnered with my organization, Smart Stepfamilies®, in 2012 to begin a major initiative to blended families. Much has happened in the field of stepfamily ministry, but we still have a long way to go.
To the stepfamilies reading this book: You are part of the church. And as members of God’s family, you have an opportunity to serve in his kingdom. As members of his church, you have a responsibility to be involved in ministry. My prayer is that this chapter will encourage you to initiate a local stepfamily educational group. Begin, perhaps, by sharing this chapter (or entire book) with your minister, and then find resources for launching your local ministry at smartstepfamilies.com. Believing that some ministry leaders will read this chapter first, I have repeated some information from other sections of the book, hoping that they, too, will catch a vision for stepfamily ministry.
To the ministers reading this book: Stepfamilies, if they do not already, will soon comprise a significant population of your ministry audience. The need is real, and you can help. Please read on to find out how.
Ministering to Stepfamilies
Please respond if you can help. I’m not sure what to do. I have been married two times and have one son by each marriage. My current wife has been growing increasingly hostile toward my first son. Just yesterday she complained that I am spending too much time with him and not enough with our son. She’s bitter, jealous, and possessive (she even wants him written out of my will), and I’m caught in the middle. No matter what I do, somebody loses. I know it doesn’t help that my first son’s mother shows up my current wife (they’re always competing)—and once again, I’m stuck in the middle. Any suggestions you might have would be greatly appreciated.
Ministering to stepfamilies will be one of the greatest challenges of the new millennium. Clearly, the relational and spiritual issues of stepfamily members are opportunities for the church to touch people’s lives with the power of the gospel. However, the church is far behind in its understanding of stepfamily life and has been slow to offer assistance. As a result, Satan and his forces are having their way with generations of people. Adults and children are discouraged, disillusioned, and therefore, distracted from active service in God’s kingdom and divorce and redivorce are having their way with generations of families.
One of the ways to prevent divorce in the next generation is by preventing redivorce in this generation. Giving children a healthy marriage model and strong stepfamily environment increases the odds they will have more successful marriages when they grow up.[end sidebar]
Satan’s best line of attack is (and always has been) against the home. If he can prevent a stepfamily from integrating successfully, for example, he can take captive multiple generations. Depression, anxiety, drug use, and other unhealthy attachments (to food, work, porn, etc.) become temporary coping mechanisms for adults and adolescents who suffer from unhealthy family circumstances. Unhealthy behaviors then sabotage and take the place of healthy, intimate family relationships. In addition, children experience conditional love as they witness their parents engaging in serial Velcro marriage (stick and peel at will). What results for children is a cynical view of marriage and a tendency toward distrust when they do become married. Not all stepfamilies are unhealthy, but most could benefit greatly from practical education and a solid support system. The church is perfectly positioned to provide both.
I should, of course, remind us that Satan’s efforts to hamstring families and stepfamilies are not new. I do receive countless e-mails from stepfamilies throughout the world, but the “e-mail” at the beginning of this chapter is not an e-mail at all. It is, in fact, a fictional retelling of the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar found in Genesis 16 and 21. In contrast to the modern day stepfamily, their “expanded family” included a man with two wives instead of a wife and ex-wife, but the dynamics are the same as those in modern-day stepfamilies. Truly, the church must find a way to prevent stepfamily divorce or the next generation will unnecessarily repeat the same mistakes of their parents.
FAMILY LIFE MINISTRY
Churches have long supported the family as the primary vehicle for spiritual formation in children (see Psalm 78; Deuteronomy 6) and spiritual maturity in adults, but our ministry of discipleship through families has not kept up with the changing structure of families. More specifically, stepfamilies, while encompassing a large number of children and adults in America, continue to be overlooked by most church family ministries.
I believe the church must always hold up as the standard for marriage God’s design that one man and one woman be married for life. Nothing should replace this standard. But for those who find themselves in a stepfamily, the church must provide healing from brokenness or loss and equipping so that their family is a place of grace and discipleship. Said another way, we must be just as serious about preventing divorce in second and third marriages as we are in preventing a first marriage divorce. Consider these compelling statistics about American stepfamilies:
- Stepfamilies, sometimes called blended families, are quickly becoming the new traditional family in America. According to 2002 data only 23% of U.S. households consist of a first marriage couple with their biological children, what is commonly referred to as the “traditional family”. By contrast stepfamilies, whether formed after the death of a spouse, divorce, or an out-of-wedlock birth, comprise around 40% of households with children in the US. The percentage in many other countries is approaching this same rate (e.g., Canada, UK, New Zealand, and Australia).
- Approximately 30% of all weddings create stepfamilies (many believe this is a conservative estimate).
- Today 100 million Americans have a steprelationship of some kind (a stepparent, stepsibling, or stepchild) and it is predicted that one of two Americans will have a steprelationship at some point in their lifetime.
- The rate of divorce for remarriages with stepchildren is 50 percent higher than in those without.
- Approximately one-third of all children under the age of eighteen are living in a marital or cohabiting stepfamily home.
- Some estimate the remarriage divorce rate to be at 60 percent.
- Fifty percent of U.S. children will witness their parents divorce and half of those children will see at least one parent divorce a second time.
Despite the prevalence of stepfamilies and the remarriage divorce rate, stepfamilies remain one of the most neglected groups in churches today. I’m thankful, however, that churches and faith-based organizational “sleeping giants” are beginning to awaken to the incredible opportunities for stepfamily ministry and community outreach. Stepfamilies lack a clear, coherent Christ-centered image of the 3-D family puzzle they find themselves trying 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, for the churched and unchurched alike, are remarkable. But many barriers still exist.
BARRIERS TO STEPFAMILY MINISTRY
Church Leaders Don’t Perceive the Need
The first barrier is that most church leaders don’t perceive the need. We can’t begin to address stepfamily concerns until we realize and acknowledge they exist. Despite the vast number of stepfamilies in the general population, they remain invisible to many church leaders for a number of reasons.
Churches Often Have Fewer Stepfamilies Than Society
First, churches have fewer stepfamilies. While good research on the number of stepfamilies in the average US church is not available, over 15 years of church consulting tells me that the number is lower than the 40% of families in the general population. The problem, then, is that church leaders sometimes do not interact with the congregational or community stepfamilies enough to notice their increasing numbers or experience their struggles. And even when they do, finding practical, biblically centered resources to aid in pastoral care or small group education has been difficult (until now). Further, stepfamily couples who feel outnumbered by first marriage households may not assertively ask their leaders for help. In other words, we may have more stepfamilies in churches than the numbers suggest due to an underreporting by the stepfamily couples themselves.
“Closet stepfamilies,” as I have come to call them, sit in our pews every Sunday, refusing to be identified as a stepfamily. They fear judgment for the past and reminders of their differentness. Many years ago, the leader of our stepfamily support group and I attended a conference on stepfamilies. I asked him how many stepfamilies he knew of in our church. In addition to those well known to me, he listed six couples that I had no idea were remarried couples. I was stunned. Even in a church that openly welcomed and ministered to stepfamilies, we had stepfamily couples who feared their past becoming known. Truly, shame and a sense of unworthiness are among our greatest barriers to effective stepfamily ministry. Churches must begin to program stepfamily educational opportunities, but more important, we must convey a message of acceptance and grace, or few will take advantage of the programs offered.
Stepfamilies Can Be Spiritually Marginalized
A second barrier to stepfamily ministry, and incidentally, another reason there are fewer stepfamilies in local congregations, is spiritual marginalization. This comes about for a variety of reasons. The first is personal spiritual shame and guilt from divorce or past sin. The same shame or fear that drives some into the closet drives others away from God and the church altogether. 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 might 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.
In addition, some divorced and remarried persons are marginalized due to being socially shunned or spiritually judged by the church. A perfect example is the couple I mentioned in chapter 3 who were 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.” Obviously this pastor was direct in his effort to marginalize the family, but other times what families experience is much more subtle and inadvertent. One friend told me she shared during a women’s Bible study that she struggled with loving her stepdaughter. The women looked with disbelief at her honest confession, not understanding her feelings or how to respond. She felt completely rejected and awkward and made a clear decision never to entrust her stepfamily struggles to the women of her church again. 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.
“Stepfamilies need to feel like they are important in the eyes of the church. They live with regret and are sometimes vilified by the church as sinners....we are all sinners. Our sin is just more public. We need to be treated just like people who have only married once.”
Occasionally stepfamilies looking for a church home will visit a congregation and find subtle messages in church language and programming that separate them from other couples. For example, the advice given in parent education courses 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. For years I’ve heard stepcouples give feedback about marriage enrichment groups and conferences they attend. It goes something like this, “The material and speaker were wonderful, but I kept having to translate the material into our language.” For pre-stepfamily couples it goes like this, “We went to our pastor for premarital counseling. I think he went through the same things with us that he does with a young first-time marriage couple. We don’t need to talk about not borrowing money from our parents, we needed help with parenting our kids.” As I’ll explain in more detail later, stepfamilies swim in a different ocean. They need help learning to swim together in their ocean, not the ocean of first-marriage. General marriage and family training is helpful, but if it isn’t tailored to the unique dynamics of stepfamilies we send an inadvertent and unfortunate message, “You don’t belong here,” and stepfamilies hear it loud and clear. As one woman said, “I got so discouraged going to my church, because no one listened to my pleas for assistance. It was as if my family were unimportant.”
The antidote to all this internal and externally imposed shame and fear in that marginalizes stepfamilies is, of course, grace. Churches must communicate messages of grace in order to build bridges of hope that stepfamilies can then cross in order to come “out of the closet” and out of their shame. After attending my Building a Successful Stepfamily conference, a remarried father told one of his elders, “I’m so glad I came this weekend. I never thought I could step foot in a church again.” He obviously felt unworthy and unacceptable. By hosting the seminar, that church made a statement: “God’s grace is available here—if you feel you’re unworthy of God’s forgiveness—come join our club.” Churches who have vibrant stepfamily ministries work hard at communicating these messages throughout the year from the pulpit, in Bible classes and small groups, and personal dialogue with couples.
Churches Who Don’t Want to Know
A third barrier to developing a stepfamily ministry is when churches don’t want to perceive the need. know as a full-time family life minister that local church ministry is a tough, stressful profession. Ministers are coping with ever-changing technology; differing generational leadership styles; preaching to a postmodern audience; shifting worship preferences; and 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 is 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, at a minimum, 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.
I know you are busy. But when you can, extend encouragement, a ministry leader to provide oversight, and a small budget to the stepfamilies in your church. Educate yourself and others when you can, but be sure to bless a local ministry efforts. Use this book and my video Ministering to Stepfamilies to learn the basics of working with blended families and use curriculum like The Smart Stepfamily Small Group DVD series to teach couples how to beat the odds of divorce and strengthen their home (I’ll say more about small groups later). It doesn’t take much to get started, but you do have to make it a priority or it will never make it on to your to-do list.
The fourth key barrier to stepfamily ministry pertains to theological struggles with marriage and divorce. It is beyond the scope of this book to address marriage, divorce, and remarriage from a scriptural standpoint. Suffice it to say that each minister and church needs to study carefully the biblical text in order to arrive at a doctrinal position. I have not answered all of my own questions. Just when I think I’ve got it all figured out, another question arises that is not easily answered by Scripture. 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.
And something else is very clear to me. Ministering to stepfamilies does not mean we are pro-divorce or pro-adultery any more than believing in hospitals makes one pro-illness. Stepfamily ministry is not about condoning someone’s past or lowering God’s standard for marriage. God’s standard is that people honor their marriage covenants.
The “married for life” nuclear family is God’s design for the home—it’s Plan A—and it truly is the most optimum environment for intimate marriage and child-rearing. There is no question about that—and we should encourage marital reconciliation of a first marriage whenever possible. But the reality of God’s people from the beginning has included plenty of Plan B homes. Abraham’s home did not meet God’s ideal. He had multiple wives who stepparented his children by other women (with resentment and jealousy, I should add), as did Jacob, David, and many other heroes of the faith. Their homes were not “as they should be” but God extended grace to these less-than-ideal people and families. He even used them for his purposes. When Jesus met the woman at the well in John 4 she was a cohabiting five-time divorcee. In a matter of minutes, he not only affirmed her acceptability to God and importance (something no one else offered her unless it was accompanied by a marriage proposal), he turned her into an evangelist. The next thing we see is her returning to town and telling everyone that grace is available no matter what your family story. And people came to Jesus!
Grace has the audacity of grabbing you where you are and then nurtures you back to faithful living. First it redeems, then it transforms. But then, smart churches have known this for years and have designed ministries to facilitate and communicate God’s redemptive power to people from a variety of backgrounds. They offer divorce recovery programs knowing that it doesn’t condone divorce; they offer post-abortion and ex-gay ministries and walk people out of darkness into light and hope. In fact, churches across America are celebrating recovery on a weekly basis without ever believing they are celebrating addiction! Can’t we have the same attitude about stepfamily ministry, especially for those formed after sinful divorce? Not all stepfamilies are formed by personal transgression—many are formed after the death of a spouse—but for those born from sinful choices, stepfamily ministry offers healing, grace, redemptive hope for the future, and practical tools for faithful living.
Stepfamily ministry, then, is about divorce prevention. It is also about reducing the pressures of stepfamily life that hold people back from serving in God’s kingdom and prevent parents from raising children to know the Lord. Furthermore, when the body of Christ extends itself as a supportive community, stepfamilies will find direction and courage to continue through their wilderness wanderings toward the Promised Land. The church has a message that can crush Satan’s attack on the stepfamily home: First, God forgives the imperfect people in stepfamilies just as he does the imperfect people in traditional, biological families; and second, God’s strength and healing are available to any who come to him in faithfulness. It is time for the church to articulate that message of redemption and hope and to become a spiritual extended family for stepfamilies.
The “How Do We Help?” Barrier
Once we have opened our eyes and noticed the prevalence of stepfamilies in both our church and larger community, have worked through any theological questions that may have arisen, and decided to overcome any marginalization that may be taking place, what is a church supposed to do then? What do we teach, how do we teach it, and how do we structure ministry in a local church to help? Just a few years ago resources and training to answer these questions didn’t exist. But now they do.
Smart Stepfamilies, in conjunction with Bethany House Publishers and the international ministry of FamilyLife, are making practical resources available (you’ll learn more about some of them in the section below) and is functioning as a clearinghouse for stepfamily resources. You now have available to you “plug and play” video curriculum, conferences, training tools for your lay leaders, and web-based training resources. The “What?” and “How?” are no longer unanswered questions. You only need the desire to start. Below are a few practical suggestions to help you think through a local ministry.
PRACTICAL MINISTRY SUGGESTIONS
I am very excited about the seminar. I am really looking forward to the insight the seminar will provide. We have programs to deal with first time marriages but nothing to address the needs of second marriages. So many couples are so ill prepared to handle the unique issues of stepfamilies. We went into our marriage knowing we were doing things right in God’s eyes but were and still can be totally overwhelmed by the issues that arise. I have seen so many friends not make it the second time around because we, the church, have not had the tools to help them.
The following are some practical ways your church can begin to minister to stepfamilies.
- First and foremost, become educated about the unique dynamics of stepfamily living and learn the essential elements of blended family ministry. Suggested resource: Ministering to Stepfamilies DVD, Ron Deal, available at SmartStepfamilies.com.
- 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. Even if you only have a few stepfamilies in your congregation, 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 small group or Bible class for stepfamilies. Recruit one or two stepfamily couples, and perhaps a non-stepfamily ministry couple, to co-lead the group. Equip them with The Smart Stepfamily DVD Small Group Resource (Ron Deal) and The Remarriage Checkup small group curriculum (Ron Deal & David Olson) to study with the group (these two resources complement each other very well) and then add your ministry to our stepfamily ministry registry at FamilyLife.com so we can refer local couples into your group.
A Cry for Ministry
“Get the word out! We stepfamilies are marginalized in the church community which is a huge, huge mistake. Embrace stepparents and you may have some very active servants who are seeking to please God and lean on Him in all they do. Many of us have been broken and humbled by marriages that ended unexpectedly and know better than most our need to lean on Christ each day for strength, hope, and guidance.”
Can stepcouples benefit from attending your standard marriage enrichment and parenting classes or events? Yes, they can. But a few things demand that they also have specific training opportunities designed just for stepfamilies. First, stepcouples have a high need for fellowship with others “who get their story”. Even with other married couples, stepcouples occasionally report feeling like an outsider; getting them together with others who share a similar experience and have similar challenges bolsters their courage. Second, a typical marriage enrichment course or premarital counseling, for example, is about half of what they need. Why? Because stepcouples swim in a different ocean than first-marriage couples. But you kind-of already knew that not all couples swim in the same ocean, right? Older couples swim in a different ocean than young couples with no kids, and couples with teenagers swim in dangerous, unpredictable waters. And all couples have storms that disrupt the calm seas, but some couples have tsunamis that forever change their life.
Remarried and stepfamily couples also swim in a different ocean. Their ocean has a cooler water temperature (trusting a partner can be a challenge after you’ve nearly been drowned before), different under-currents (most everyone in the stepfamily has experienced a loss that is always just under the surface, influencing everyday interactions), a few more sharks (ex-spouses, co-parenting issues, and the stress of integrating often fit in that category), and the water is less clear (stepfamily life can be murky: What is the role of a stepparent? Do we combine our assets or leave them separate? How do we combine traditions & holidays? How do I balance my children’s needs with those of my new spouse? Do we take the kids to my ex-in-laws for Christmas or don’t we?). Clearly, stepcouples swim in a different ocean.
To successfully swim in these waters, stepcouples must understand what’s going on and how it impacts their couple relationship. There are two parts: what happens between the couple and what happens around them. Research David Olson and I conducted for our book The Remarriage Checkup found that:
- Before marriage couple satisfaction is closely tied to dyadic factors, that is, couple interaction.
- However, after the wedding couple satisfaction is increasingly tied to triadic factors, that is, the stepfamily ocean around them.
Most couples just can’t see this coming until they’re already in the ocean. What happens at that point is disillusionment; stepfamily couples, who naively thought they were going out for a nice swim in the ocean of marriage, discover cooler waters, unforeseen undercurrents, sharks, and murky waters that make swimming together hazardous for two-thirds of them (yes, the divorce rate for stepcouples is about two-thirds).
To help them beat the odds, then, you and I must help them learn all they can about the ocean in which they swim. We have to help them to become stepfamily smart which makes the swim, at first, manageable and eventually quite enjoyable.
- When a stepfamily visits your congregation: a) Educate your welcome team not to ask too many questions about why their last names are different. Asking probing questions may feel like an "inquisition" and may lead to more spiritual guilt and shame over a past they cannot change. Without confidence that they can be trusted, most stepfamilies come to church already leery of judgment; don’t call out their past without first proving your church has a posture of grace. b) If you have a discussion group, let them know about it once they offer information about their stepfamily, but don't require that they attend. Many will find it a comfort to connect with other stepfamilies, others will not want to be pigeonholed. Initially, let them "hide their past" if they need to.
- 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). Other Mother’s Day encourage stepmoms in their role and sympathize with their struggles. Most stepmoms will tell you Mother’s Day is the worst day of the year for them to attend church because of the anxiety around their role (to be honest, most skip it!). Use language from the pulpit on Mother’s Day that acknowledges stepmothers. For example, when you welcome everyone say something like, “Of course today is Mother’s Day and we welcome all our moms. If you are a mom, a stepmom, a foster mother, an adoptive mother, a grandmother, or a woman who is mentoring a child not her own, please stand so we can thank you for all you do.” This goes a long way to acknowledging the presence of different family types and affirms the role these people play in the lives of children. Finally, because some parents coordinate visitation exchange at church, 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.
Student 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. (See Appendix XX for a consent for medical treatment form.)
- If traveling with youth, chaperones should carry phone numbers to both sets of parents (i.e., both households) in case of emergency, not just the church member parent.
- 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. I’ve found that “sidebars” as I like to call them are an effective method of speaking to the diverse family situations that all of us experience these days. A sidebar is when you pause your regular presentation and speak for a few brief moments to a particular subgroup within your audience, usually to point out how the principle you just shared works differently for the subgroup. For example, when speaking to couples about how a strong marital commitment helps to stabilize their home and provides a backbone for parenting, you might sidebar and say, “For those of you in stepfamilies, please know that in the early years of your marriage expressing marital commitment to your spouse, hugging them in front of the children, or even going on a date actually increases insecurities in your children because they may feel pushed out. They’ve already had a number of losses in their life and your marital commitment to a new spouse may feel like another loss them. Besides, they aren’t as invested in your new marriage being successful as you are, not in the beginning, at least. Despite these reactions in your children, however, a strong commitment to your marriage is very important. You just need to expect some resistance to it. Long-term there is a reward, though. While it might not start out this way, eventually most children do come to appreciate your commitment to your spouse.” This quick sidebar recalibrates the principle you just taught for the stepfamily couples attending allowing you to then go back to your general marriage teaching.
Pre-stepfamily counseling should educate couples and children about stepfamily dynamics. Notice I included
children in the process. To educate just the couple and not the children is to short-change the effectiveness of the
premarital program. Essentially couples need to know that “coupleness” does not necessarily equal “familyness.”
These are two separate dynamics with two separate trajectories that must be attended to (this is discussed in depth
in my book Dating and the Single Parent, which is a wonderful book to have couples read before and during
dating, and during engagement) and children need perspective on how life will change when a stepparent (and perhaps
stepsiblings) move into the house. Just some of the topics to address 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;
- An ex-spouse session to negotiate co-parenting responsibilities;
- Scheduling 6-month and 12-month follow-up sessions to gauge their progress and coach them through difficulties.
(A complete discussion of pre-stepfamily counseling can be found here).
- Sponsor a community event. Host a stepfamily conference, sponsor a stepfamily retreat, or offer a short-course for stepfamily adults. This communicates your awareness of stepfamilies in the community and extends a welcome to them.
- Offer competent pastoral counseling. When couples are hurting they will seek out help from their local church. For years I have had to undo a lot of poor counsel from well-intentioned pastors who didn’t do their homework on stepfamily dynamics. In order to be helpful you must be able to provide good information related to their presenting problems. This requires a good understanding of stepfamily dynamics. To get started in understanding stepfamilies, I suggest after reading this book that you read my books for stepmoms, stepdads, and The Remarriage Checkup, which is based on the largest survey of couples creating stepfamilies ever conducted and outlines what predicts great stepfamily marriages and how couples can build strength into their marriage. If you lack adequate training in counseling, find a competent marriage and family therapist in your area and make a referral. Keep in mind that most therapists have no specific training in stepfamily therapy and may cause more harm than good. Ask a few questions to see if they have had any training in stepfamily therapy. If not, you can always refer couples to me for a marital therapy intensive. See SmartStepfamilies.com for details.
A CALL TO MINISTRY
What would you say to someone who suggested that you could not minister to or evangelize half of your community’s population? Let’s just say someone told you to be insensitive to the needs of all the women in your community (approximately half the population). Would you embrace that restriction? Perhaps you would feel better if you were told to ignore the men. My guess is, either way, you would not feel good about neglecting half the population of your community.
Half of people in America will have a steprelationship at some point in their lifetime. It may be as a stepparent, stepchild, stepsibling, or stepgrandparent relationship, but 50 percent of us will swim in the stepfamily ocean to some degree. Can you imagine neglecting all those people and feeling good about it? Probably not. Stepfamily ministry is a tremendous opportunity for churches across America and throughout the world. But it must begin with a willingness to re-tool yourself and expand your ministry to expanded families.
The great-grandchildren of the stepfamilies in your church and community need you to be faithful in the task of strengthening their ancestors. Indeed, stepfamily couple education and stepfamily enrichment are necessary and vital aspects of ministry in this new millenium. The only question is, when will you begin?
To be clear, I am not suggesting that stepfamilies are mistakes. They are not. The mistakes come in how people manage stepfamily dynamics
 Karney, B.R., Garvan, C.W., & Thomas, M.S. (2003). Published report by the University of Florida: Family Formation in Florida: 2003 Baseline Survey of Attitudes, Beliefs, and Demographics Relating to Marriage and Family Formation. These findings were replicated in two other state representative samples. In Karney’s findings at least one partner had a child from a previous relationship before marriage (his includes full and part-time residential stepfamilies and those with children under and/or over the age of 18). The percentage of all married couple households is 35%.
 Deal, Ron L. (2013). Composite approximation considering the remarriage rate (38% of all weddings) and the number of post-divorce remarriages that include children from previous relationships (75%); when widows who remarry; and the out-of-wedlock rate (40% of all children are born out of wedlock) resulting in first marriages that form stepfamilies if the mother marries someone other than the biological father.
 Parker, K. (Jan 13, 2011). A Portrait of Stepfamilies. Pew Research Center report, accessed online May 2013 at http://pewsocialtrends.org/2011/01/13/a-portrait-of-stepfamilies/.
E. M. Hetherington and J. Kelly, For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered
L. L. Bumpass, R. K. Raley, and J. A. Sweet, “The Changing Character of Stepfamilies: Implications of cohabitation and nonmarital childbearing,” Demography 32 (1995): 425–36. Best estimates suggest that 25 percent of stepfamilies are actually cohabiting couples
I am grateful to Dr. Susan Gamache for sharing this analogy with me.
L. L. Townsend, Pastoral Care With Stepfamilies: Mapping the Wilderness (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000).