This is the third and final of three parts, click to read part one which dealt with the effects of divorce. Part two was a focus on the theology of the topic, and today we look at practical suggestions for the church to minister to teens of divorce.
Jeff Snow has spent the last two decades working in youth and young adult ministry in Canada, both in the context of a local church and a parachurch organization. The three articles are taken from his masters thesis on the impact of divorce on middle-school, high-school and college youth.
by Jeff Snow
In the first of our articles on the effects of divorce on teens, we explored the findings of many studies that pointed to the fact that divorce is not a benign event in the lives of teenagers. It should not be seen as a “cold” that knocks a young person for a loop for a time but which they eventually get over. Rather, it should be seen as a chronic illness, with many effects that will be flare up at various stages in life. These effects do not have to define the young person or doom them to a difficult life, but they must be understood and managed, like any chronic condition.
In our second article, we focused on some less tangible effects that are characterized by a sense of loss. Teens of divorce deal with a sense of loss of community, loss of identity, loss of a positive view of God as Father, loss of a family structure within which to safely develop morals and values. These multiplied losses lead to an anxiety which negatively impacts a young person’s life. We ended by suggesting that God has provided the church as a reflection of divine community that can come alongside teens and help them deal with loss and anxiety.
The effects of divorce are far-reaching, and with almost half of the students in an average student ministry dealing with those effects, it is important for youth pastors and leaders to be aware of the particular needs of these students and develop characteristics within their youth ministry that will minister to these needs.
Every youth pastor works to build strong bonds of unity within their youth group, unity that goes beyond simple friendship. A strong youth ministry will have a sense of being united in the Spirit (Eph. 4:3), of being a safe community where students are drawn together by God’s love and presence as well as by their natural kinship. While this atmosphere is important for every teen, it is that much more important for teens of divorce.
Douglas Adams, in his book Children, Divorce, and the Church, for teens of divorce, “what they lack in life is a caring community around them. They need help in dealing with past and present pain in their lives. Most need restoration of their self-esteem. The local church is one place where young people from divorced families should be able to find a supportive, loving community.”
What I am advocating as part of ministry to teens of divorce in this area is not so much a distinct program of ministry to them. In fact, very little of what we will discuss points to a specific program that would single out teens of divorce from the group. Rather what is needed is a heightened focus on the importance of nurturing a supportive community within one’s youth ministry, with the equally heightened awareness of the importance of that supportive community in the life of a teen of parental divorce.
The good news is that there already exists in many churches at least the beginnings of this community in the youth groups and youth Sunday school classes that are in place. The goal of the youth pastor is to work to intentionally foster community within these already existing structures so that teens of divorce can know they are not alone and begin to find a community that will help replace what has been lost in the dissolution of their family community.
Andrew Root, in his book The Children of Divorce: The Loss of Family as The Loss of Being, proposes five practices that should be part of any church community that ministers to teens of divorce. The first is accompaniment. This simply means that peers and adult leaders in the church are willing to walk alongside teens through their journey through divorce, regardless of how long it takes, or how painful and messy it can become.
The second practice is the provision of sanctuary. A youth ministry needs to be a place where a teen suffocating in the throes of familial upheaval can simply come and breathe. It needs to be a place where they know they belong, and where they know they are safe.
The third practice of community is convening. The youth ministry will provide contexts for people, youth and adult leaders, to get together, form community and build relationship. Practically speaking, this means the youth pastor must avoid the temptation to over-program and leave youth as mere spectators. Give the teens and adult leaders the opportunity to hang out together and see what kind of community the Holy Spirit develops.
Fourth is connecting. It is important for teens of divorce who have lost so much adult influence in their lives to make meaningful connections with the adult leaders of the youth ministry. This is where the youth pastor must train and surround herself with adults who love Jesus and love teens, and who are willing to make connections with teens when the community gathers.
Root contends that a big part of the youth pastor’s job is to “convene spaces for intergenerational conversations to occur.” This is why, though I firmly believe that youth need a weekly gathering to call their own, I am not a believer in a parallel youth church that meets on Sunday mornings, or that in any other way takes the youth away from opportunities to convene and connect with Christians from other generations. Teens of divorce, in particular, need the influence of and connection with older, more mature believers.
A final practice in building a community that will minister to teens of divorce if that of blessing. A teen of divorce needs to know that they are wanted and accepted by the church and youth group. They need to feel that they belong, and that the community is glad that they are there.
Besides clergy, there are four types of people in a youth ministry that can be of benefit to teens of divorce. The first is their peers. Teens, especially teens of divorce themselves, need to be encouraged to reach out to each other to provide support.
A second group can be termed an “adult friend”. This is someone who is willing to welcome a teen of divorce into their life and spend time with them, both in the context of the church and youth group, and beyond. The home life of a teen of divorce can be difficult. It may not feel like home anymore. Families within the church can develop a relationship with a teen where their home can become a refuge where the teen can be invited to help them to get away from it all for a while.
The third group is the adult role model. This includes spiritual modelling, giving the teen of divorce someone to guide them through their development of godly morals and values. Though teaching in a youth ministry is essential and important, teens will often learn more from observing how Christianity works in the real life of a real person.
Modelling for teens of divorce is also very important in the area of marriage and relationships. In my ministry, I have two young couples who have dated, become engaged, and are now married with small children, all while serving as leaders in the youth ministry. Their example is invaluable in terms of modelling God’s plan for relationships, dating and marriage. Teens of divorce need to know that what they have seen in their families is not the only way to live. Providing them with role models who demonstrate healthy relationships is very important.
A final category of adult-teen ministry would be a mentor. This is a more intentional and intensive coming alongside of a teen by one adult who is willing to walk with them through the divorce years. Douglas Adams describes a mentor as someone who “took the time and, in some cases, made the sacrifice to help these children of divorce see a better tomorrow.” Teens of divorce need to see hope that things can be different.
These relationships are very important in ministry to teens of divorce, yet in today’s world, it must be acknowledged that this type of relational ministry is becoming increasingly difficult. Some churches and youth ministries simply don’t do this kind of ministry anymore because of the potential risks. Others have put good policies in place to make it work. I believe churches must do all they can to do formulate structures that will allow for safe ministry between adults and teens, especially teens of divorce, who need an adult influence in their lives. Teens will be looking for that support and influence regardless of what we do, and if we don’t provide safe people to be part of their lives, they will find that support and influence in the very people that our policies are trying to protect them from.
These relationships between adult leaders and teens of divorce must not be forced or assigned. They must happen naturally. This is where the youth pastor can use discernment and the context of “convening” events to observe the connections between particular youth and adult leaders, and gently nudge them together.
Teaching is an essential part of any youth ministry. For teens of divorce, it would be important to focus some teaching on issues of identity. Divorce strikes at the heart of a teen’s identity, exacerbating low self-worth and complicating the already difficult search for who they are. In community and through teaching, youth ministries can help teens re-discover their real selves, help them see the image of God in themselves, and come to know that they are worthy of love, both from their fellow humans and from God. A series such as “Who I am in Christ?” can help teens of divorce begin to define themselves less and less by the divorce, and more by their relationship with Christ.
Another important area of teaching is in basic morals and values, helping teens distinguish between right and wrong. We have said that teens of divorce are left to forge their own values independent of their parents. This provides a great opportunity for ministry. I have found that teens of divorce are much more spiritually inquisitive than many teens who have grown up in the church in intact families. We have the opportunity to answer their questions and teach them God’s direction for their lives.
A third area of teaching is in dating and preparation for marriage. This is a standard topic in the youth pastor’s tool kit, but it is all the more important for teens of divorce, who are more sexually active as teens and get divorced more as adults than teens from intact families. The “sleeper effect” of divorce shows itself when teens and young adults begin to develop their own romantic relationships. Youth ministries can provide teaching as early as mid-adolescence that will help teens of divorce prepare for healthy relationships.
A final area of teaching is focusing on the nature of God, helping to correct the misconceptions of God teens of divorce develop because of their experiences. We need to teach them that God is a confidant they can talk to about their pain; that He is a source of stability and a comforter; that He is a true Father who is sovereign and has all things under control, even when it seems like all is falling apart. The teen of divorce needs to hear that they are safely in the palm of God’s hand, that He loves them and protects them.
How can youth ministries speak specifically to the spiritual lives of teens of divorce? We said last time that many teens of divorce, while losing interest in organized religion, still have deep spiritual interest. They define themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” This has two positive implications for youth ministry. First, the less formal, less “churchy” nature of most youth ministry can be attractive to teens of divorce in particular. Secondly, we recognize that teens of divorce have not given up on their spiritual journey. They are full of questions. They want to connect with God. They may not like the church, but they are willing to pursue knowledge of God and Jesus. Youth pastors need to not be turned off by their disinterest in the organized church, but rather encourage and nurture the deep spiritual hunger that they have.
We pointed out one study last time that found that divorce often drives committed teens away from the church in anger and disillusionment, while drawing fringe youth closer to God and the church as a means of coping. The youth pastor needs to be aware of these possible reactions. Youth leaders must be OK with the questions and anger and even rejection these committed students may display towards God and their parents, and gently walk beside them on their journey away from a faith that relied on their parents, and towards a faith that will hopefully be stronger and their own. Youth pastors also need to pay attention to the students on the fringes of the youth group whose experience of divorce will heighten their desire to find a coping mechanism in faith in God, and come alongside them in their walk towards God.
In both cases, youth leaders need to realize that the window of opportunity for ministry may be small as deepening family conflict and parental moves may take the teen out of the group.
We haven’t discussed support groups much yet. They can be an important part of ministry to teens of divorce as they find healing through shared experience. But one must be careful that such a group does not label or isolate the teen from the rest of the group. The church must also caution against any mindset that a 12 week course will solve all the teens’ problems and that the presence of the group does not discourage others from getting involved. A support group must be seen as part of an overall ministry to teens of divorce, not as an end in itself.
One support group curriculum for teens that seems effective is “Spectrum”, produced by an organization called Rainbows. The curriculum has a faith-based component for use in churches, and one for use in schools if a youth ministry finds itself with an open door to reach into the school system.
In my research, I have noticed one common theme that arises again and again as an important element in ministry to teens of divorce: The importance of listening to them. This may seem rather simplistic, but it is something that is essential and astonishingly neglected and overlooked.
The most disturbing statistic I found in my research pertaining to ministry to teens of divorce was found in Elizabeth Marquardt’s book, Between Two Worlds. She writes, “of those young adults who were regularly attending a church or synagogue at the time of their parents’ divorce, two-thirds say that no one – neither from the clergy nor from the congregation – reached out to them during that critical time in their lives, while only one-quarter remember either a member of the clergy or a person from the congregation doing so.”
Let that sink in. This is not a survey of people outside the church, nor is it referring to teens of divorce where the divorce happened to them as a child. For teens who are regularly in the church and who are in the midst of experiencing a divorce, 66% of them said no one paid any attention to them. This is a sobering statistic for youth pastors and the church as a whole. The church needs to be aware of the teens involved in a divorce and needs to find ways to reach out to them. And the simplest way to begin to do that is to listen to them, because having someone who will listen is at the core what these teens are missing. No one asked them if they wanted to live through a divorce. Most of the decisions made in the divorce are made without consulting them, yet they severely impact their lives.
Those involved in youth ministry have the opportunity to create a safe place for teens to talk about their experiences, and assure them that they will be listened to. When that is done, they are valued and deemed important. They are shown their worth in God’s eyes.
The key to awareness of the needs of teens of divorce, and as a result the key to ministry to them, is quite simply to listen to them, not just for a short time, but over the long haul, for divorce is a long and difficult journey for a teen. As youth ministers listen and gain knowledge of the pain and needs of teens of divorce, they will be more equipped to meet those needs in their ministries, and to share with the broader church community what can be done, and what needs to be done, in order to help these adolescents grow into the person God created them to be.
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