How Churches Can Better Minister to Men Struggling with Unwanted Divorce
- Chris Bolinger Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2019 8 Jul
It happened again this past weekend: I had a conversation with a man who felt abandoned by his church when he went through a divorce.
The man – let’s call him “Joe” – didn’t start the conversation by talking about his own situation. Instead, Joe spoke about his friend – let’s call him “Rick” – who told his wife to move out because she refused to stop cheating on him.
Even though the woman remained unrepentant and stopped going to church, people from that church treated her very sympathetically and showed virtually no support to Rick.
Joe then shared that he had the same experience in his church. He was ostracized for months until people at his church realized that his wife was having an affair. The collective cold shoulder from his church did a lot of lasting damage to Joe.
Two churches. Two communities. Same lack of support for the man in a failed, or failing, marriage.
I could treat these as coincidental, isolated incidents if I didn’t hear these stories again. And again. And again.
Church, we have a problem. We’re shooting our own wounded.
Not “good” enough.
According to U.S. surveys, of all current U.S. adults who have ever been married, about 45 percent have been through at least one divorce. The divorce rate among evangelical and mainline Protestants is about the same as the national average, while the divorce rate among Catholics is only a little lower, at around 37 percent.
With U.S. women initiating seven of 10 divorces, many men are caught off guard when their wives announce that the marriage is over. Because they typically have few or no friends who have been through a divorce, Christian men whose marriages have failed look to their churches for help…but often find little help there.
Part of the problem, according to divorced men, is the expectations that many churches place on married men. A “good husband” is expected to love his wife as Christ loved the church – an incredibly high standard that no man can meet. When a marriage fails, the immediate assumption among many in the church is that the husband was not a good husband…at least, not good enough.
The result? Three in four divorced Christian men leave the churches that they have attended.
Tragically, about 30 percent of these men never find another church home.
To change the tide, your church needs to identify and equip leaders – male leaders – to help men in your church whose marriages have failed. I consulted with Martha Flemming, a licensed professional clinical counselor with New Source Counseling, to arrive at these recommendations:
1. Reach out.
When a man goes through a divorce, it’s like a bomb has exploded in his life. Everything is affected, including:
- His hopes, dreams, and plans
- A large part of his identity
- His children, his role as a father, and other roles in his extended family
- His relationships with family members, friends, co-workers, fellow churchgoers, and others
- His finances
- His health
- His self-esteem, confidence, emotional well-being, and ability to focus at work and elsewhere
Worst of all, the divorce breaks the covenant bond with his wife, the one who was to be his partner for life. In many cases, the one who was his trusted teammate now is his opponent.
His life is a mess, and he suddenly is on his own. He would like to talk with someone about his situation but, in most cases, he has no idea whom to contact. He probably doesn’t have a counselor – except maybe a marriage counselor whom he saw with his wife – and he is not comfortable baring his soul to a complete stranger.
He can’t expose himself at work. His extended family members may be several states away. And all of his male “church friends” are married, probably to women who are friends with his wife.
Even if he is not in this exact situation, he probably won’t reach out to you, or anyone else, for one simple reason: he’s embarrassed and feels like a failure. After all, he’s a Christian man going through a divorce.
That’s why you need to be proactive and reach out to him. Send him a message to say that you’re thinking about him and praying for him. Invite him to breakfast. Invite him to an activity that he’s likely to enjoy. If he doesn’t respond to your first attempt, then try a few more times.
2. Be available.
Once you connect with him and he expresses an interest in speaking with you, try to be as flexible as possible on how and when those conversations will occur. Sure, you’re busy. But he doesn’t care. He feels like someone who just got thrown into the ocean in the middle of a raging storm. He’s angry, confused, disoriented, and fearful. The stresses in your life are pebbles; his are boulders.
It may take him days to reply to a text message from you. When he does reply, it may be at 3 in the morning. If you schedule a breakfast meeting, then he may show up 15 minutes early, 30 minutes late, or not at all. When he talks to you, he may go on a meandering monologue for 15 minutes or clam up and stare at the floor for a loooong time.
Hang in there with him. He’s drowning, and you’ve thrown him a lifeline. He’ll grab on…eventually.
3. Let him take the wheel.
Most of us men are problem-solvers. We pride ourselves on being able to analyze a situation and determine the best course forward.
A man whose marriage is failing may ask you for advice on what to do. And if you offer some, then he may try to guide the conversation in such a way as to optimize your ability to analyze his situation and make good recommendations for him.
Your goal is not to solve his problems. It’s to help him through this difficult time in his life. He will tell you what he needs, if you let him set the tone and drive the conversation. He may need to vent. He may need to grapple with what he has lost. Or he may want you to distract him so that he doesn’t have to deal with his situation for an hour.
Sometimes, it may seem like you’re not accomplishing a lot. But you are. You are being a steady, caring friend. And that’s what he needs you to be.
4. Grieve with him.
Singer/songwriter Jason Gray aptly describes a divorce as a “death without a funeral,” There’s no grave or headstone. No eulogies are offered. No songs are sung, no memories shared. But there has been a death. And all involved, especially the former husband and wife, may look down the road and fear that they never will feel closure or an ending to the hurt.
The marriage of your divorced Christian brother has died. He needs to grieve that death.
Don’t push him to grieve or try to steer conversations in that direction. But give him opportunities to mourn the end of his marriage. For example, rather than meeting in a public place every time, suggest that you go on a walk or hike. That will give him the privacy to grieve as he needs to.
5. Be trustworthy and steady.
Once a man starts to open up to you, he may start sharing some deeply personal stuff, including stuff that he has never shared with anyone else. It is critical that you keep this information completely confidential. Don’t share it with anyone else unless he is showing signs of being suicidal. Sharing someone’s personal information is a breach of trust that will damage your relationship with him and, worse, damage him.
Do your best to stay objective. As he talks about the actions of his wife/ex-wife, keep in mind that you are hearing only one side of the story. And as he describes the mistakes that he made in the marriage, remember that he may be beating himself up or blowing things out of proportion. Stay steady, and encouraging.
6. Be encouraging.
OK…so what does it mean to be encouraging? Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean:
- It’s not filling him with a bunch of patronizing platitudes – “Time heals all wounds,” “All you need is Jesus,” etc. – that you hope will make him feel better.
- It’s not telling him that his divorce is really a good thing.
- It’s not minimizing the divorce and its effects on him by telling him that there are a lot worse things going on in the world.
- It’s not empathizing with him by relating his situation to something that you went through.
- It’s not changing the subject to something more cheery.
Being encouraging is reminding him that, even when it seems like God is distant or absent, God is right there, supporting and loving him, and God will get him through this difficult time.
Find some Scripture passages that will encourage him. Start with the Psalms. Many Psalms share the gritty reality that life can be tough, even for a committed follower of God. For example, in Psalm 37, David states from experience that God’s followers sometimes fall: “The steps of a man are established by the LORD, when he delights in his way; though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the LORD upholds his hand.” (Ps. 37:23-24)
A man in your church has fallen, and the emotional wounds he has suffered may scar him for a long time. Even when he is able to “get back in the game”, he may not want to, because he could get knocked down again. But God is at his side and has softened his fall. God has kept him from going off the cliff, shielded from the jagged rocks, and kept him on the path. God will help him back to his feet and stay at his side the rest of his life.
7. Pray…and follow up.
He wants your prayers. He needs your prayers. So, pray for him, often, and with purpose. Whenever he communicates or meets with you, ask him for specific prayer requests. Pray those requests, right then – via text messages to him, over the phone, or in person. And repeat those requests to God during your personal prayer times.
In addition to praying for him, follow up on prayer requests. Text him for an update on something that he requested prayer on. Ask him for prayer updates when he calls and when you meet with him. Make prayer an ongoing and active demonstration that you are supporting him and submitting to God at every opportunity.
8. Be alert.
As you meet with him over a period of time, be on the lookout for two things: lack of progress and depression. Lack of progress should be pretty obvious. You’re not expecting everything to be all sunshine and roses overnight, but he should have a more positive outlook, at least in some areas, within a few months.
If he seems stuck, and if you hear a repetitiveness in what he discusses and how he describes things, then you may want to suggest that he start seeing a counselor.
Depression is a bigger deal. If you observe personality changes, such as persistent despondency or irritability, especially in a guy who used to be upbeat or even-tempered, then don’t just suggest counseling. Urge him to get some help, from his family doctor or a Christian counselor.
If you don’t know any Christian counselors, then recommend your church pastor or some other people who might be able to make a recommendation. Don’t identify the man with whom you are meeting unless he is sending clear signals that he is having thoughts of suicide.
9. Lead others to support him.
I’ve heard horror stories from guys who, before they got divorced, thought they had great friendships with other guys at church. As soon as they got divorced, however, they were abandoned by their church “brothers.”
With the first eight recommendations above, you are demonstrating to a divorced man in your church that, even if everyone else fails to support him, you will. But you can do more than that. You can lead other men to step up and lift up a battered and bruised brother.
Invite him to activities and events where other Christian men will gather. Go there with him and demonstrate by your actions that you are standing with him, just as you hope that others would stand with you if you were going through a rough time.
30 percent of Christian men drift away from the Christian faith after a divorce. Don’t let the divorced men in your church be among them.
If you want to share your thoughts on this topic, then please leave a comment, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Bolinger is the author of Daily Strength for Men, a 365-day daily devotional of encouragement from BroadStreet Publishing. The book is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Christian Book Distributors, DailyStrengthForMen.com, and other retailers.
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