By Allison Williams Correspondent
A pastor once joked that he’d rather preach about m-o-n-e-y than d-i-v-o-r-c-e.
But churches cannot ignore the statistics: Married couples are outnumbered for the first time in American history. More women in the United States are living without a husband than with one. And the country’s highest divorce rates are right here in the South, the presumed Bible belt.
As marriages crumble, many relationships with church and God fall apart, too, just when people need spiritual support the most.
All of a sudden, says John Spiesberger, who has run a divorce support group for 11 years, you feel out of place in your own congregation. “You don’t fit in the couples class, and you don’t fit in the singles class.”
Pastors might find it difficult to help. “The couple attends church, and here’s the minister who is friends with both people,” said Linda Ranson Jacobs, who was a single parent for two years. “What do they do? Ministers really get caught in the middle.”
If adults leave the church, oftentimes so do the people who have no say-so in the matter. Children.
“Many churches still don’t realize the importance of reaching the children,” Jacobs said. “These children are our next generation. Divorce is cyclical. Unless you can get some help along the way, we always do what our parents do, (and) people continue to divorce.”
Jacobs moved from Oklahoma to North Carolina to start a national program that provides help. Divorce Care for Kids is the children’s version of a popular program for adults. With Divorce Care groups across the U.S. and the world, parents began demanding a program for their children. Jacobs moved to Wake Forest and launched the program she calls DC4K. On the day they released the program, in 2004, DC4K already had 700 orders.
For many years, divorce carried a stigma in the church, and some branches of Christianity still frown upon it today. Even in denominations where divorce is accepted for their members — and pastors, too — it’s still a topic rarely mentioned in the pulpit. But the Bible talks about it, and so did Jesus. Mark describes Herod’s fears that Jesus was actually John the Baptist returned from the dead. After Herod and Herodias planned together to “put aside” (divorce) their respective spouses and marry each other, John the Baptist told Herod his actions were sinful. When the Pharisees tried to bring Jesus into the debate — the Bible describes it as “tempting” Jesus — Jesus talked about marriage in a verse that has since been used in countless weddings, “What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put
The Rev. Dan Alger, pastor of The Church of the Apostles in Hope Mills, says pastors could do something about divorce if they approached it before a couple even picked out rings. “I think where a lot of divorces start is in engagement,” he said. “People call me and say, ‘We’re going to get married in a month; will you do it?’ My policy is I require marital counseling for six months before I’ll do a wedding. They say, ‘Thanks and goodbye, I’ll find someone else.’ The epidemic of divorce rests on the shoulders of pastors who don’t do their jobs.”
And if a couple is considering divorce, Alger said, pastors and congregations can do their part to see whether reconciliation is possible. “We have been given the ministry of reconciliation with one another. If we look to Jesus Christ, there’s always, always hope for reconciliation.”
Divorce definitely irked Jesus. And Malachi says plainly, “the Lord God of Israel says that he hates divorce.”
So do divorced people.
“Divorce really stinks; there’s no way around it,” said Andrea Leffew, even though she says her divorce was the best solution for everyone, and she is now happily remarried. She did what many people do when separated or newly divorced: She left her church. She had to force herself to search for a new congregation.
“I came in there with a scarlet letter, in my opinion,” she said.
Later, she realized that the church didn’t shun her because of her divorce, but the divorce left her feeling exposed. Leffew says churches need to help people through divorce, but people have to be willing to ask for that help. Her previous church didn’t lend support, she said, but it didn’t mean, “God isn’t any good, or church isn’t any good. You have to keep looking.”
“You are so hurt,” said Jacobs, who went through a divorce herself. “I tell church leaders, it’s the person’s perception. There were times I had the perception I was not welcome in the church, but that was just my perception.”
Leffew stuck with it, for the sake of her three daughters. Now, she says, “I can’t imagine going through divorce without God. Divorce is really what made me realize how important God is.”
She found Divorce Care at Snyder Memorial Baptist Church, a group run by John Spiesberger. Spiesberger is twice divorced, but before his first marriage, he said, he did not have a strong relationship with Christ. Leading Divorce Care for 11 years is the way Spiesberger said he tries to give back to God and his church. “It’s my mission.”
After witnessing the pain people go through during a divorce, Spiesberger said, he cannot imagine how parents counsel their children about divorce without help. “You’re scared, mad, hurt,” he said. “How can you encourage a child?”
Divorce Care for Kids puts children of all ages together with adults of all ages to talk, play and make crafts with an emphasis on providing a place where kids can heal. Those adults have time and energy to spare at a time when parents feel overwhelmed.
“My poor children were on their own because I was so hurt,” Jacobs said. “DC4K can become a family.”
There are many churches in Fayetteville equipped to provide Divorce Care, but no congregation currently offers DC4K. Spiesberger says there’s a need for it.
He hopes to find a willing parent to lead DC4K at Snyder Memorial. “As a society,” he said, “we’re just growing more people for whom divorce is an acceptable option.”
Studies seem to show that the number of divorces is on the rise. The National Center for Health Statistics says there were 3.6 divorces per 1,000 people in 2005, the most recent data available. That same year, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey revealed that married couples became a minority of all American households for the first time. And the number of American women actually living with a spouse fell to 57.5 million, compared with the 59.9 million who were single or whose husbands were not living at home when the survey was taken.
Of course, some factors affect the statistics: More women are marrying later, living longer as widows or opting to stay single after divorce. And many couples choose to live together and not get married. Some of the highest numbers of unmarried couples were recorded in the South.
It’s not necessarily a sign that marriage is in trouble — the total number of married couples is higher than ever — but divorce is something churches have been forced to face.
But that doesn’t mean churches should stand by, idle, says the Rev. Allen McLauchlin, president of the Fayetteville-Cumberland County Ministerial Council.
“Churches can stop the cycle.”