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At Belmont Evangelical Church in Chicago, where my wife and I first began in singles ministry sixteen years ago, we felt it important to provide child care for single parents attending our weekly meetings. That baby-sitting service was greatly appreciated by the parents-but not by the nursery workers.
One baby sitter after another would come up to me after a meeting and say, "That does it! Those kids are so undisciplined and rebellious that I just can't take it. I'm afraid you're going to have to find someone else to take care of those kids." We tried volunteers. We tried paying attendants. It didn't matter. Most of them quit before long. The children of divorce were just uncontrollable.
It's not surprising. Think of the pain these kids have endured. They feel lost. Often their parents are struggling with emotional pains of their own, plus substandard housing or transportation or employment. We realized that when we minister to parents with broken marriages, we have to take into account the children as well. Unless both the parent and the child are healed, the family will never be healthy.
It was as if God were saying to us, "Why limit yourselves to providing nursery care? These kids need ministry, too." From that point on, we've taken an active interest in the children of the singles in our ministry, and we've seen great things happen.
If finding mere baby sitters was so hard, where were we to find people interested in ministering to children of divorce? We discovered they weren't easy to find, but they were there.
A bulletin announcement is almost useless for such recruiting. We've learned to hand-pick helpers. Sensitivity to the plight of the children is our first criterion. When we expose potential workers to the needs of these kids, the ones with a heart for the ministry emerge. There are few things as compelling as a needy child, and to those who demonstrate a heart for the children, we're ready to suggest ways to minister.
In our experience, previously divorced couples who have worked through their own pain often make good workers. They have an awareness of the needs. Teenagers have done a fine job for us, as have remarried couples with stepchildren. Others who have never been touched by divorce can work effectively if they have a special desire to minister to these hurting kids.
What we don't want are those unable to get inside the hearts of these children, or people so rigid that they can't get over the fact that divorce caused the problems. Also, those who have been hurt by divorce but haven't worked it through are not yet ready to give to others.
Often we encourage untested recruits to care for the children during a weekend singles' retreat. Those who are right for the job come back sky-high. It takes just one needy kid jumping into their laps in search of a mother- or father-image, and this kind is hooked.
Commitment is a key component. We have to know the workers will stick with the kids. The greatest disappointment for children of divorce has been the loss of an adult they dearly loved. So at first they approach adult workers with distrust: Will they leave me, too? That's one reason the children initially can be so difficult. They don't respect the leaders, because they fear these adults will do exactly what a beloved parent apparently did: desert them. It takes time on the part of the workers to bridge the distrust gap.
After we gathered a small team of willing and qualified workers, we needed to round up the singles and their children. The best way we've found to do this is to hold a well-publicized singles' seminar to draw in potential participants. The first time at Belmont, we held ours on a Friday night and Saturday. The singles brought their kids, and we provided baby-sitting. We ended up with about 120.
Such a seminar can be billed as a divorce recovery clinic. Bringing in a speaker with name recognition is another way to approach the event. The idea is to gather the people, who will certainly bring their children-and their needs-with them. Toward the end of the seminar, we circulated a questionnaire asking, among other things, if the participants would be interested in a support group, what evenings would be most convenient, and how many evenings a month would they want to meet.
We were pleased when many signed up. But then came the first meeting, and all of four showed up. In my car after the meeting I thought, Lord, have I missed your will? I've put so much energy into this-and four people came! Then it was as if the Lord spoke to me: "Jim, before I can trust you with four hundred, I've got to be able to trust you with four." So I stuck with the four, and before long the four became eight, then sixteen, then many more. Word of mouth proved the best publicity. Faithfulness to the few began opening doors to others.
My wife, Barb, and I now try to meet individually with each of the registrants before the program starts. We want to get to know them, determine where they are on the divorce cycle, see if it's possible to put their marriages back together, and, if that's not possible, figure out with them what their families' particular needs are. Sometimes this initial meeting is impossible, especially when the numbers get greater, but it helps us be more sensitive.
The next step is to hold an orientation session in which we try to tell the single parents what to expect out of our subsequent sessions with them and their children. We lay out the subject matter of the various sessions and talk through the issues we'll address. (Children's workbooks with lessons for each class session are available through Calvary Assembly, 1199 Clay Street, Winter Park, Florida 32789, phone 305-644-1199.)
We express our desire to help heal them as well as their children. Both parent and child cover basically the same material, but on different levels. That way, as the parents know what to expect for their children, they can help them between sessions. The family grows toward health together.
The workshop sessions cover a unit a week for thirteen weeks. Everybody gathers at the beginning for a brief time of worship, and then we break for the separate workshops. The singles meet together, and we provide a nursery for babies and separate classes for preschoolers (2 through 6), children in primary school (7 through 12), and teens. We try to keep the children's workshops in groups of ten to fifteen with two workers.
The small groups gather in a circle first to pray and then to talk about what they've worked on in the past week. We give them a lesson each week to complete at home, coloring for the little ones and something more substantive for the older. Then we talk with them about what's going on in their hearts. Many, especially the younger ones, have a hard time explaining it, but they can point to a picture of a happy face or a sad face to make their point. We try to keep it relaxed and open, a chance to vent their feelings and needs.
Following a break with snacks, the children come back to discuss the subject matter of that particular unit-such things as depression, rejection, and self-esteem. The job of the workers is to remain sensitive to the needs of individual kids and to help steer the conversation to meet those needs.
The adults follow basically the same process, but it's much more intense. Some are becoming well readjusted; others are so devastated they can hardly get through the class. The key is to help the strong ones minister to the weak. Everybody benefits in that kind of setting.
At the completion of each set of workshops, we hold a graduation banquet. We invite an outside speaker and make the evening a festive occasion. That gives the program a sense of closure and is seen as a new beginning for the single-parented families. They are working toward health, and now they have some of the tools they need to make it.
The biggest needs we try to meet are emotional-gaining self-worth, feeling accepted once again, defeating bitterness. The bottom has dropped out of their world, and we want to give them some stability. Of course, healing comes ultimately through Christ and his acceptance and worth-giving, but initially, participants will see it in Christ's people placed there to meet their needs.
Not everything can be accomplished within our workshops. When we find serious problems such as acute emotional needs or child abuse, we will often refer people to professional counseling. Our program is not a cure-all.
And not all the needs are emotional. Some stand out as plain as padlocked gas meters and empty cupboards and hand-me-down clothes. Single parents often have precious little to give their children (69 percent of fathers don't pay support). I've found empty refrigerators in homes, and starkly bare Christmas trees. It's one thing to say "Jesus loves you," but when children's stomachs are empty, we've got to do something tangible. In a small church, funds are limited, but even then, paying a light bill or making sure that each child has at least one Christmas present is usually possible. That makes real the love and acceptance we talk about.
I wish the program were simple, but it's not. Along with the rewards come some difficulties.
One of the hardest is the tendency of singles to back off from facing their difficult emotions, taking their children with them. After about three weeks of the workshops, the adults and sometimes even the children will complain about feeling worse. "I thought we were going to feel better in your program," they tell us, "but we feel awful after dredging up all our old feelings."
The answer is encouraging them to stick it out. We say, "Of course you're going to feel bad. We touch some painful areas. But without that hard work, you'll never really heal." That's one of the reasons we talk over the program with the singles before they start. We tell them they can expect cold feet at one point or another.
A second factor that encourages them to remain in the program is the $25 registration fee. The fee at Belmont actually helped make the program available, but now at Calvary we don't actually need the registration fees to operate the program. We've discovered, however, that if we make the workshop free, people are tempted to skip units. But if they've made an investment in it, they'll be there no matter what. We do, of course, make arrangements for those who cannot afford even the $25.
Some people initially wonder if a program such as ours isn't "coddling the divorced, making it too easy for them, condoning their sin." When we ran into that complaint, we'd say, "Let's look at how Jesus dealt with divorced people." Then we'd examine the Bible stories of the woman caught in adultery and the woman at the well. In both cases, Jesus didn't offer any approval of their sins, but he gave them a way to start a new life.
We try to employ Jesus' "recovery technique" rather than fall into the judgment technique. We, like Jesus, want to be more interested in their recovery than we are in the denunciation of their brokenness. We're not afraid to push them to uphold Christ's demands for sexual purity, but what has happened has happened. And besides, the children cannot be denied help because of their parents' mistakes.
In a way, a program like ours can sound pat, but that's because the administration is relatively easy compared to the continual weight of caring for broken people. Dealing with single parents and their children is wearing-their great needs, their deep sense of loss, the bitterness and fear, the financial difficulties. It's a lesson in frustration management.
Were we not called to such a ministry, I know we would not have spent a dozen years mending those wounds. But Barbara and I were called, and so are many other Christians. This ministry requires not necessarily trained professionals, but rather sensitized and committed care givers.
This was brought home to me about five years ago through my son's best buddy, Michael, himself the product of a broken home. One Sunday as I passed through the church basement between services, Jimmy, my son, came running up to me, jumped into my arms, and gave me a big hug. As I, in turn, squeezed him tight to me, I heard a loud noise. It was Michael throwing a temper tantrum. He knocked over a chair, tossed a book, and made quite a scene.
His mother got to him at the same time I did, and I asked her at the first opportunity, "What's wrong?"
"Didn't you notice?" she asked. "Michael was with Jimmy, and when he saw Jimmy jump into your arms, he threw the tantrum. He hasn't seen his dad in months."
Michael wasn't a spoiled brat. He needed someone's arms to jump into, someone to hold him and call him special. And when we open our arms, God takes care of the rest.
- James Dycus
Calvary Assembly of God
Winter Park, Florida
Copyright © 1989 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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