by Trent Wheeler
Guilt, shame and depression were just a few of the emotions I experienced after suffering the heartache of divorce. Eighteen years of marriage, two beautiful children and a lifetime of ministry all seemed to be hanging the balance. You can’t address the challenges of the blended family without first understanding the devastating effect of divorce. No matter how many times someone may say, “that is behind me,” you always carry a scarlet “D” on your chest as you struggle to reclaim a working role in the kingdom of God.
While divorce is another topic all together, it impacts the challenges that blended families face. For the purposes of this article, there are three key elements I wish to address: 1.) the baggage that you bring with you into a second marriage; 2.) the challenges in being a step-parent and creating a sense of “family” with children; and 3.) re-establishing a working role in the local church.
Everyone carries the weight of their life experiences—everyone. My wife and I thought we were extremely well-adjusted and had moved past much of the heartache of divorce, only to learn that past experiences have an unpleasant and ugly effect on the present. The challenges and struggles of marriage are tough enough, but when you measure your spouse’s behavior based on experiences from a previous marriage, trouble is brewing. You may find yourself reminding your mate, “I am not the person you were married to before. Don’t judge my actions or motives based on how they behaved.” Doubt, suspicion and past hurts are very hard to forget.
The second challenge is being a step-parent. There are so many different levels of interaction in a blended family that it multiplies the difficulty ten-fold. Consider just a few of the struggles and then multiply:
- There are the challenges between the two parents as it pertains to household rules and their approach to discipline. We have had more struggles over the topic of, “I feel there are different rules for your children and my children,” than any other topic.
- There is task of teaching your children to respect the decisions and authority of the step-parent, even if they are not a biological parent.
- There are the perceptions of the children concerning how they are treated. Without exception the step-child (on either side) feels they are not treated as fairly as the parent’s biological child.
- There are the “non-custodial parents” who may not share the rules or values you have for the children, causing greater complications. Every parent and step-parent has heard, “I don’t have to do that at mom’s house.”
- There is the challenge of teaching your children to embrace the idea of “family. ” We do not use the term step-mom or step-brother. We have tried to foster the idea that we are a family. We function a little differently, but we are family. Along those lines, our four children simply use the terms, “brother and sister” to describe all their siblings. As for the relationship between “step-parent and “step-children,” I have always referred to all four of ours as my children. We have allowed the children to find their own ways to describe their relationship to us. Just recently I have started to be referred to as “PA.”
Finally, there is the challenge of finding your place in the work of the kingdom. Over the past decade, I have seen churches become more accepting of those with blended families, but it hasn’t always been that way. I studied with a brother a few years ago who had been wayward from service for over 20 years. Even though he was scripturally divorced and remarried, the local church would not allow him to lead singing. He had become discouraged and drifted away, but thankfully found his way back to faithful service.
I believe with all my heart that the statements made from our pulpits and Bible classes are done with pure intent, but at times are still misguided. I love church, but have cringed at times when teachers or well-intended brethren make statements like these:
- “I know what the Bible says about divorce, but there are two sides to every story and we can’t ever be sure what really happened.”
- “I know there are scriptural grounds for divorce, but it is probably wiser not to use that person in a public setting.”
After suffering the shame and humiliation of divorce, it is hard enough to even attend services, much less get up the nerve to lead. It becomes almost impossible when, as a divorced individual, you feel as though you are illegal aliens who long for citizenship in the kingdom of God. Here are few suggestions for church leaders on dealing with divorce and blended family situations:
- When a new family comes and it is clear there is divorce in the past, try this approach. Rather than ask for a biography of their history, share a few of the relevant passages on divorce with the couple and ask them, “Based on the Scriptures, do you believe you have a right to be married in God’s eyes?” Now the situation stands between them and God. Unless you have a compelling reason or evidence to the contrary, take them at their word. We do this with liars, thieves, covetous, and almost every other sin. If they say they repented, accept it and move on.
- Tell them right up front that they are welcome members of the family, and you are eager for them to get involved. You might even express that you are sensitive to the fact they are a blended family, but that allows them to serve in areas others will never understand.
- Be sensitive to the unique needs of blended families. I consider myself to be a pretty strong Christian (as is my wife), but we have really struggled at times. Not just disagreements, but genuine, life-impacting, “don’t know if we will make it” kind of challenges. Two things have gotten us this far: our commitment to the covenant of marriage, and leaning heavily on God and prayer when the bottom falls out.
Being part of a blended family is hard work, but I am thankful that through the trials and struggles God has seen fit to find a place for me to serve. I pray you will help your blended families find their place in the kingdom.