is a deleted chapter from The
Smart Stepfamily Revised and Expanded Edition by Ron L. Deal (Bethany House Publishers, 2014). Used with permission.
All rights reserved.
Get a copy of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a
and the DVD series (with Participant's Guide) by Ron L. Deal on Amazon today.
“A Message to the
Church: Ministering to Stepfamilies”
Ron L. Deal
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
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.
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.
from a father
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
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
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
estimate the remarriage divorce rate to be at 60 percent.
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.
Find statistics regarding marriage,
family, divorce, and stepfamilies at smartstepfamilies.com/view/statistics.[end sidebar]
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.
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
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.
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
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”
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.” [end sidebar]
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
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. I 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
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
Raymond, Second Baptist Church, Houston
The following are
some practical ways your church can begin to minister to stepfamilies.
1. 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.
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
3. 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.
4. 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
[sidebar]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.”[end sidebar]
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.
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.
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:
marriage couple satisfaction is closely tied to dyadic factors, that is, couple
after the wedding couple satisfaction is increasingly tied to triadic factors,
that is, the stepfamily ocean around them.
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).
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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. Student ministries
need to be sensitive as well.
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
with Losses (children & adults)
& Unrealistic Expectations
To Cook A Stepfamily" - how bonding takes place
the Couple Relationship After Remarriage
& Stepparenting Roles
eX-FILES: Co-Parenting Issues After Divorce"
Traditions and Rituals
1) Stepfamily adults
and children together to discuss expectations, roles, authority, and how
children will refer to their stepparent;
2) An ex-spouse session
to negotiate co-parenting responsibilities;
3) Scheduling 6-month
and 12-month follow-up sessions to gauge their progress and coach them through
discussion of pre-stepfamily counseling can be found online at smartstepfamilies.com/view/counselor).
10. 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.
11. 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.
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?
be clear, I am not suggesting that stepfamilies are mistakes. They are not. The
mistakes come in how people manage stepfamily dynamics.
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.
M. Hetherington and J. Kelly, For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered.
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.
am grateful to Dr. Susan Gamache for sharing this analogy with me.
L. Townsend, Pastoral Care With Stepfamilies: Mapping the Wilderness
(St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000).