In situations where families do not stay together, church members need to know how to help rather than create additional injury. Sadly, 47 percent of divorced persons leave the church they previously attended.* How can we stop this pattern?

When separation or divorce happens, many people go through a period of lessened church attendance. If their former spouse attends, obviously it may be uncomfortable. Additionally, the embarrassment of publicizing a personal failure may keep them away. There is a very high percentage of married couples at church and that can be painful to observe when you are still trying to figure out where you fit in with your new (and undesired) single status. Church attendance does not necessarily correlate with spiritual life, but it can help.

During the long separation preceding my divorce, my children and I were met with many disturbing circumstances which served to alienate me and make regular church attendance impossible. What happened to me is not uncommon. Divorce is a terrible event that opens the most intimate part of your life to public viewing—no matter who is or is not at fault.

Please Avoid…

As a Christian, I know divorce is not God’s Plan A. Admitting my marriage was over at church made me feel like a bad Adventist, but admitting it at work was worse. There I had hoped to be a witness. Now I was showing them being an Adventist was nothing special. My co-workers assumed my church would surround me with love during this time, and I did not feel comfortable telling them the truth. Isolation was my new norm. While most people in church were not malicious, they were often hurtful in their helpfulness. As I talked to other divorcees, it became apparent the following experiences are all too common.

1. Inappropriate questions. In their shock, many people immediately ask, “Why?” While it’s best to give divorcing friends the opportunity to talk, don’t demand answers. This topic may be too sensitive for the church foyer. They may very much need someone to talk to later. Assure them you will keep it to yourself, if in fact you will.

A related question is, “Do you have biblical reasons?” No matter how one answers this question, you will implicate either yourself or your ex-spouse. In all the years I was in a troubled marriage no one ever expressed concern about my salvation. Suddenly during my divorce, many people felt the need to remind me of the only acceptable reasons for divorce. This is likely a poor question to ask unless you have a close relationship.

Countless times when I stunned people with the revelation of my divorce I was met with, “But you were the perfect couple/family!” People making this statement show their own fears and grief while putting the separated or divorced person in a position of comforting the person who made the statement. Including the children in the illusion of “perfection” is even more damaging as it inflicts an added painful statement that the children are now marred by this event and they are no longer a “good” family. That is a thought they are all already struggling with. They need support, not confirmation of their fears.

Many people said, “I’ll pray for you both,” or its cousin statement, “I still love you both.” While prayer and love are extremely needed, this statement implies you believe both parties are equally at fault, which is rarely the case. It can also imply you will be praying they get back together. If they do not get back together, have they failed? Has God?

2. Unsolicited advice. At times I was exhorted to try to work it out because of the kids or finances. While both are important, often they keep a person in a bad situation far too long. This advice implies the person you are speaking to is either too selfish or ignorant to consider the consequences. Likely your friend has put much thought into this and is fearful about these very things.

At times I was advised to “find friends in my same situation—of the same sex.” This is a wonderful idea and will happen slowly over time. However, as a single mother working to support four children, I did not have time to foster new friendships.
When it comes to dating, advice is best given only when asked. This is a very personal area—tread lightly.

3. Gossiping. There were rumors my children were on my ex’s “side” because they were more frequently seen in public with him. Please do not drag the children’s loyalties into gossip; they are already hurting enough.

And please do not make the assumption that someone is on the prowl for a date if
s/he suddenly loses weight, gets new clothes, or changes hairstyles. They may have lost their appetite due to stress. Or maybe they are finally able to focus on self-care. If they are looking for a new mate, pray they find happiness according to God’s plan.

How Can You Help?

1. Show kindness. Listen. Let us know you care. Find out what we need. What may be hurtful to one person, may be helpful to another. Mow the lawn. Fix a clogged drain. Send a card. Give a gift card. Invite us over or take us out to eat. Single parents often have needs for socialization and finances. Do these things as a couple, or women with women and men with men.

2. Stay connected. If at all possible, continue to allow us a position in the church. This will help us feel connected as well as give an extra push to come. We may not be able to be a church elder or some other position that has a requirement of an intact family. It may not be wise to have us on the platform as this might interfere with others’ worship experience. However, could we type the bulletin? Run the sound system? Coordinate children’s stories? Taking all our jobs away can have the devastating effect of causing us to feel like God’s garbage.

If the case involves adultery or abuse, it may be best for the offending spouse to take a break from church jobs until they show true sorrow and a repentant heart. This is especially important if children are involved, as they need to know there are real consequences for unacceptable behavior. However, please do not abandon anyone. If church attendance is lessening, do not let us slip away unnoticed! It is appropriate to ask (while not demanding an answer) why we are not attending. Inviting us to be part of a small group may be the deciding factor in our continued membership. This can keep us connected while we take a break from church and allow our wounds to heal.

3. Be patient. Keep in mind we may be unsure of our identity. It takes time to mentally think of yourself as single. Suggesting a singles group (while possibly appropriate) may feel as if you have suggested joining a leper colony. Single may still be new and painful. We need time to figure out for ourselves where we fit.

A Time for Healing

There were many friends who were awesome during this painful time in my life, but two stand out because of the unique things they did. The day my divorce was finalized my friend, Sharon, went with me to the hearing—without judgment of either of us—and took me to breakfast afterward. Later that day my daughters’ friend, Kim, brought pizza and ice cream and just hung out with us. Both were exactly the right thing to do at the right time.

Remember, divorced families are in the process of healing. The “brokenness” may not have been visible before, but it has been going on for a long time. My personal statement has become “We are not a broken family. We are a healing family.”