When I became a pastor (some 30 years ago), I was untested by realities that come with years of experience.
When I entered ministry, I looked forward to sharing the life-changing truths of Scripture with a congregation eager to learn. Thoughts of leading a Church into spiritual growth filled my heart and mind, but I was unaware of the complicated lives I would encounter. Ignorance was blissful — until reality became unavoidable!
The most challenging and unexpected experience of ministry has been the front row seat I’ve had to martial crisis. I quickly learned how complicated and painful life can be for those who endure failing marriages. When a marriage relationship deteriorates, it becomes a context for many destructive emotions and actions (anger, selfishness, manipulation, immaturity, irrationality, foolishness, dishonesty, betrayal, hatred and bitterness). Making matters worse, children are often caught in the mix of these behaviors. Helping a failing marriage is one thing; leading a family through it with the aim of protecting children is another.
Many who endure the unhappiness of a failing marriage see divorce as the only solution. Yet it must be clearly understood that while obtaining a legal divorce is relatively easy, it almost always creates an emotional bombshell. No matter how much anticipated or planned, divorce is more painful than most imagine.
On a personal level, it rouses guilt, anger and insecurity while shattering self-confidence. Socially, it complicates interpersonal relationships — especially when children are involved. Financially, it’s usually a lose-lose. Don’t be fooled. Divorce is never an easy solution to a troubled marriage. And, if divorce is difficult for marriage partners, it’s far worse for the children caught in the middle of it (see: An Unexpected legacy of divorce).
I do believe that in some cases, marital separation is necessary. This is especially the true in relation to patterns of abuse. I have observed this in the context of substance abuse, severe financial irresponsibility, unending emotional and/or verbal abuse, psychological breakdown and abrogation of marital commitments. Each case has its own set of circumstances and level of severity.
For church leaders, it’s often tedious and time consuming to discern the whole truth about the condition of a marriage. In most cases, meetings with both parties separately and together are essential for accurate assessment. This takes time—something those in crisis don’t feel they have and pastors struggle to find. Marital demise often involves extended patterns of neglect and alienation mixed with self-deception and selfish behavior. This fact, along with the high levels of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion, makes the road to reconciliation difficult.
Leaders must be aware of patterns of deceit and selfishness that often color individual perspectives on failing marriages. Seeking the truth requires time, patience and wisdom. When Couples are in crisis mode, they often expect help and answers immediately. Sometimes crisis intervention must come first. But leaders must not be drawn into hasty reactions or conclusions based on the desperate state of the marriage.
People often turn to Churches and pastors for help when life falls apart. When assisting troubled marriages pastors must resist the temptation of reacting in a way that is more concerned with their own image than with the marriage in need.
When trying to help troubled marriages in the Church family, misunderstandings will occur. Church members must be encouraged to respect the thoughtful process pastors apply when trying to handle matters wisely. Church members should pray for their leaders and avoid jumping to conclusions about the marriage. Hard and fast conclusions are not always immediately evident. Conclusions based merely on appearances or Church talk should be avoided.
The Church must also realize that while pastors help troubled marriages, they also carry many other responsibilities which cannot be neglected. Remember as well that Pastors are limited on what they can ethically share with other members of the congregation.
Sometimes when marriages reach crisis level, martial separation becomes necessary. I prefer to call this structured separation. This type of separation should involve at least seven components.
- A specific purpose statement for the separation (developed in relation to the problems in the marriage). This could also include a signed covenant.
- A set of specific and measurable goals.
- A projected time frame that does not allow for indefinite separation.
- A study on Biblical themes of forgiveness and reconciliation (see link below) and a Biblical vision for marriage.
- A reading assignment of“Hope for the Separated”by Gary Chapman and watching Choosing Wisely about Divorce.
- Accountability with Church leaders and/or a counselor/mentor.
- A small support team to pray for the marriage and offer tangible help.
For those dealing with divorce, I recommend the book: “When the Vow Breaks: A Survival and Recovery Guide for Christians Facing Divorce.”