OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — At the Overland Park Church of Christ on a recent Saturday, there were no crew cuts, no camouflaged fatigues, no training in how to fire an M-16 assault rifle.
But there was
a different kind of boot camp.
The 1,000-member congregation in this Kansas City suburb opened its doors to an all-day seminar for women — and a few men — going through a divorce. Most attendees came from the community, not the church.
Overland Park member Suzy Brown, author of the book “Radical Recovery — Transforming the Despair of Your Divorce Into An Unexpected Good,” organized the divorce recovery boot camp.
“I don’t want you to think you’re in a war with your ex-husband, but you are in a war for your own survival,” Brown told dozens of divorced and soon-to-be-divorced women who filled a church classroom.
Down the hall, two divorced men showed up for a separate boot camp with Brown’s second husband, Terry.
Like Overland Park, Churches of Christ across the nation increasingly find ways to reach out and serve divorced people and their children, ministers and counselors told The Christian Chronicle.
“I think we are more willing than in the past to talk about this and to minister to divorced people,” said Danny Dodd, minister of the Gateway Church of Christ in Pensacola, Fla., who said his first wife left him in 1994.
Beth Wade, a counselor and family life educator with the Memorial Church of Christ in Houston, agreed: “I think that as a whole, churches are more open to providing help for members affected by divorce than in previous years.”
In Nashville, Tenn., therapists with AGAPE, a counseling ministry associated with Churches of Christ, run divorce recovery support groups for adults and children.
“Fortunately, more and more Churches of Christ are trying to serve people who are going through the difficult and painful adjustment after a divorce,” said Terry Casey, AGAPE clinical director.
But he said many congregations “still seem uncomfortable sponsoring a ministry that would help people who are in this situation.”
Historically, Churches of Christ have been reluctant — or even unwilling — to minister to divorced people because of disagreements on what the Bible teaches about divorce and remarriage, church leaders told the Chronicle.
“Many congregations are in no place to minister to the divorced because their theology offers no hope, only judgment for the divorced,” said Bruce Wadzeck, a minister and elder at the Princeton Church. He started a weekly support group for divorced people 20 years ago.
But other leaders said Christians have an obligation to love and care for those devastated by divorce, regardless of one’s position on remarriage.
After Dodd and his wife divorced in 1995, most members at the Skyway Hills Church of Christ in Jackson, Miss., surrounded the preacher and his 11-year-old daughter with love and support, he said.
“Of course, I have heard and know of horror stories about how churches have reacted to divorced people and divorced ministers, and I just thank and praise God that this has not ever really been my experience,” said Dodd, who married his second wife, Terri, in 2000. HATING DIVORCE, LOVING DIVORCEES
At the Overland Park church, elder Ron Like and his wife, Jean, lead a Wednesday night divorce recovery class.
“We’re not encouraging or promoting divorce,” Jean Like said. “These people are in the broken relationship, period. And that’s not going to change. What we’re doing is caring about them and helping them get through a rough time.”
Ron Like said: “I think the church needs to be more intentional about strengthening marriages. But when marriages fail, we ought to wrap our loving arms around the people who are suffering.”
The Likes speak from experience. They formed a blended family when they married 24 years ago.
Ron Like said his children were 8, 11 and 13 when he came home from work one day and found his first wife had left with another man. Likewise, Jean Like — who had two children at home — said she divorced after learning her first husband was having an affair.
They said their past helps them identify and sympathize with the divorce recovery class, where it’s stressed that everyone’s comments must be kept confidential.
“I would say the church is becoming more understanding of people in that circumstance, although we have had some people in our group that were divorced 20 years ago and still feel like they’ve never been fully accepted by the church,” Ron Like said.
Before a church embarks on a divorce recovery ministry, it’s crucial that the leadership be united and supportive of the effort, said Dan Knight, Overland Park’s minister of church life.
“That’s just as true of almost anything, but it’s especially true for this,” Knight said. ‘WE WERE WHERE YOU ARE’
Brown, who organized the divorce boot camp, was divorced in 2000 after 33 years of marriage.
She said her husband would not end his relationship with another woman, so after three-plus years of trying to fix the marriage, she filed for divorce.
“I was devastated on so many levels that I can’t even describe them all,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m a Christian; I don’t believe in divorce; God can’t be allowing this to happen to my family.’”
Eventually, she started a support group in her neighborhood called RADICAL women — for “Rising Above Divorce In Confidence and Love.” Later, she launched a Web site at www.midlifedivorcerecovery.com
and started offering divorce boot camps.
Besides expert advice on dealing with the disorder and chaos of divorce, the camps urge divorcees to network and form support groups. At the recent seminar, a panel of women who had attended a previous camp talked about how far they had come by developing friendships with each other.
“We were where you are,” a woman named Mary, who said her husband left her after 28 years, told the attendees.
Brown, who remarried three years ago, said she never intended to become a divorce recovery advocate. Nonetheless, she said she has experienced tremendous spiritual growth through her ordeal.
“I just definitely think God is using what I went through to help other people,” she said. “My biggest fear was that I would have no use to God. I mean, how could he use a middle-aged divorced woman?”
Now, she’s on a mission: To tell churches that the body of Christ is called to “comfort the brokenhearted.”
In her view, a person is never more brokenhearted than in the midst of an unwanted divorce.
But she assures divorcees there is hope.
“When you think about it, as hard as I struggled against divorce, I think God has just blessed me in incredible ways that I never would have imagined,” she told the Chronicle
. “And I want to tell women that.
“They think their life is over, but in reality, it may be God’s new beginning to do something special for him.”
“I see that the African-American congregations do a much better job of supporting divorced members than many other cultures within the body of Christ. Until the church returns back to the love and mercy of Jesus Christ and avoids extreme legalisms … then divorced members, the innocent ones, will have a tough Christian walk within the Churches of Christ. And, no, I am not divorced.”
KEVIN BETHEA, minister,
East Baltimore Church of Christ
“When congregations begin reaching out to those in the community who are affected by divorce, it changes the community’s perceptions about the church in a positive way. We need to simply focus on helping people who are in need. It is an opportunity to positively affect lives immediately as well as in the long run and can even bring people into a relationship with God.”
TERRY CASEY, clinical director,
AGAPE, Nashville, Tenn.
“Many congregations may be reluctant to provide divorce recovery support, but I have not experienced that at all. Most families have been touched by divorce, and most elders, ministers and other church leaders want to help people live spiritually pure, productive lives following divorce. … I have found that if we are able to help the parents, most parents can help their children. Once God’s perfect plan is forsaken, part of successful adjustment is establishing realistic expectations.”
BETH WADE, counselor and family life
educator, Memorial Church of Christ, Houston