My parents just celebrated their 41st anniversary, so for myself growing up, I had a very traditional family. On top of that, looking back, I would estimate that 80% of my friends’ families came from similar family systems.
But, the reality today is the students that we work with do not all come from traditional family systems like the one I grew up in. As I consider the students in our youth group right now, I would fathom that 1/3rd come from traditional family systems, another 1/3rd come from families that have experienced divorce and remarriage and the other 1/3rd come from family systems where marriage is not a premium value or where at least one of their parents has relationships which appear to have less commitment than those who are married.
Having come from a very traditional family system and building my own traditional family system, I feel a sense of disconnect from students who don’t come from the family system that I am most familiar with. Now, I hope that as I contrast family systems I don’t come across as an elitist. I readily recognize that every family has its own dysfunction and incongruities.
As I think on the variety of families that I get to serve and partner with, there are a number of things I’ve learned
Lesson 1 – All students and their families regardless of their family system need solid resources and have issues that they are wrestling with.
Lesson 2 – In working with students who have two sets of parents, it might be realistic to never meet one of those sets of parents. This can present a host of communication issues that a youth worker will need to figure out. As well, it is quite possible that one set of parents will value your ministry to their child and the other could care less or actually object to your ministry.
A practical example for me would be that one set of parents endorses confirmation classes and the other set of parents puts little value on it.
Another practical example from my ministry settings would be that one set of parents was well aware of their child’s plans to attend camp and the other had no clue.
Lesson 3 – Some students who come from non-traditional homes do not find their family system to be strange but consider it to be normal. The reality is that two sets of parents are all they have ever known and anything other would be abnormal to them.
Lesson 4 – In some of the family systems that I work with in which these families have layers of divorce, separation, two sets of parents and other features that would be ascribed to non-traditional families, one of the teaching themes I hope I can impart to students is to lovingly communicate God’s thoughts about marriage. My hope is that as we as a church teach about God’s thoughts, perhaps we can see the fruits from that as we see this generational cycle of divorce and marriage broken.
Lesson 5 – Of the lessons I’m naming, this might be the one that causes the most objection. Let me share a quick case study. I’ve worked with multiple students whose parents got remarried. And while I would love to be able to care for both of those families, the reality is that quite often some of our churches might be too small to take on that role without experiencing those tensions and without having to take sides.
Lesson 6 – There is incredible value in sharing your family with students.
Lesson 7 – Love every student unconditionally and ask them questions while communicating concern and care. This is especially important as we watch families experience separation and as parents get divorced in real time.
Lesson 8 – Communicate to the students from broken homes that this is not their fault and that they are not second-class individuals and that you are available to them as they grieve for the loss of their family system.
Lesson 9 – Be prepared not to take sides during a divorce, and be ready to love parents who go through divorce while recognizing that parents who go through divorce might no longer feel welcomed/as comfortable attending worship services. In those moments, assure parents that you hope that they will continue to worship with your church and remain a part of its family.
Lesson 10 – No family is immune from the threat of divorce. At the same time, a word that should go hand in hand with divorce is the word “surprise”. I am surprised when a family that appeared to be healthy suddenly announces that they are separated or getting divorced. I am surprised the more and more I get to know people, when they reveal to me that they experienced divorce 10-20 years beforehand.
Lesson 11 – God’s grace can ALWAYS be greater than any of the brokenness that our students and their families experience through divorce.
There are numerous scriptures that speak to God’s thoughts about divorce and while those will be incredibly helpful to the persons considering divorce and anyone who gets to counsel that couple, for me as I speak into the lives of students, I quite often take them to John chapter 4.
John 4 tells the story of the woman at the well and in it we see God’s heart to bring redemption to a woman who had experienced divorce and brokenness.
That same restoration and hope is available to our students.
What lessons have you learned?
What am I missing?
Thanks for taking a few moments to process this challenging reality that exists in the lives of so many of the students we serve.
If you want to study this topic more, I recommend, “Student Ministry and Divorce” by Ronald Long. You can purchase it online at http://www.amazon.com/Student-Ministry-Divorce-Hurting-Families-ebook/dp/B00L5PB2XI.
Rev. Mark Johannesen is pastor at Word of Life Lutheran Brethren Church in LeSueur, Minnesota.