Kids and divorce: crisis of faith
By Deborah Potter
Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Jen Thompson looks at family pictures, the memories are still painful.
Her parents divorced when she was 14, and with the sense of loss came a crisis of faith.
"My father was emotionally just barren," she says. "... So I came across as thinking that my father was just impossible to please. And that definitely carried over into my relationship with God ... that I was, in God's eyes, unforgivable and unlovable."
A recent national survey of adults who were kids when their parents divorced found Thompson's experience is not unusual, that the separation had a major impact on their spiritual lives. They were, for example, much less likely to go to church or to call themselves religious than those adults whose parents stayed married.
"One extraordinary finding in our study was that of those grown children of divorce who were active in a church at the time of their parents' divorce, two-thirds say that no one in the clergy or congregation reached out to them," said Elizabeth Marquardt, the author of "Between Two Worlds," a study of children and divorce.
Her study found that adults often feel the church abandoned them as children when their parents were divorcing and that their pastors were no better than anyone else in helping them cope.
"At the time of divorce," Marquardt said, "people ... don't know what to say; they don't want to offend the parents. They're afraid they might upset the child, so they don't reach out."
Jeff Williams, a leader of the Association of Marriage and Family Ministries, was 10 when his parents divorced. He says no one seemed to notice the cataclysm that was taking place in his life.
"We went to church, and the older ladies were complaining about the temperature of the sanctuary, and the ushers, the people who served, went on with their rituals, and nothing seemed to change there, while my life had radically changed.
"And I know now they didn't know what to say," Williams said. "But it's like you have had a leg blown off or you've had a wound and it's terrible and nobody sees it."
Linda Ranson Jacobs, executive director of Divorce Care for Kids, or DC4K, says her group's program, which has been adopted by some 2,000 congregations — including some in the Puget Sound area — argues that divorce affects every area of a child's life — emotionally, spiritually and intellectually.
"We wanted to put together a program to teach churches what the children are experiencing, the grief that they're going through, the stress that they're under, and bring them into the church family," Jacobs said.
"You know, what better place for a child who's lost their earthly family to be than in a church family," she said.
Training videos by DC4K feature children wrestling with common divorce-related problems, such as being torn between the parents' two homes and their two churches.
"I think the biggest accomplishment is just keeping God in front of those children, changing how they look at a father image or a parent image," Jacobs said.
According to Marquardt, some children of divorce become more religious after their parents' breakup, but they do so in a different way. More than 40 percent of those adult children of divorce who are members of a faith community describe themselves as born again. Marquardt theorizes that they are drawn to the theology found in evangelical churches, "where you have a more direct personal relationship with God as father through the son, Jesus Christ.
"For instance, they're much more likely to agree that God became the loving father or parent [they] never had in real life," she said. "So they are turning to God and the faith for something they didn't have in their own lives. And in the midst of that healing, in the midst of finding wholeness, there's also a very poignant story of loss."
Williams agrees. "I'm interested in looking at God not as ... what he can do for me but what I can do for him — appreciating life, even being thankful for the experiences," Williams said. "The compassion born of sorrow has allowed me to feel deeply and minister deeply to the children of divorce and parents who are going through divorce."