Ministering to Students in Broken Homes
My parents just celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary, and growing up, I had a very traditional family. Looking back, I would estimate that 80 percent of my friends came from similar family systems.
But the reality today is that the students we work with don’t all come from traditional family systems like the one I grew up in. As I consider the students in my youth group right now, I would guess that a third come from traditional family systems, another third come from families that have experienced divorce and remarriage, and the final third come from family systems in which marriage isn’t considered important or at least one of the parents has a relationship that appears to be less committed.
Because I come from a very traditional family and because I’m building my own traditional family, I feel somewhat disconnected from students who don’t come from the family system I’m most familiar with. (I hope that as I contrast family systems, I don’t come across as elitist—I readily recognize that every family has its own dysfunction and incongruities.)
As I think on the variety of families I get to serve and partner with, there are a number of lessons I’ve learned:
All students and their families—regardless of their family systems—need solid resources. All have issues they’re wrestling with.
When you work with students who have two sets of parents, you may never even meet one of those sets of parents. This can present a host of communication issues a youth worker will need to figure out. It’s also quite possible that while one set of parents values your ministry to their child, the other couldn’t care less or might even object to your ministry. I’ve had a situation in which one set of parents endorsed confirmation classes and the other set put little value on it. And I’ve had a situation in which one set of parents was well aware of their child’s plans to attend camp while the other had no clue.
Some students who come from nontraditional homes don’t find their family system to be strange—they may even consider it normal. The reality is that two sets of parents is what they know, and anything else would be abnormal to them.
When you work with families that have layers of divorce, separation, two sets of parents, and other features ascribed to nontraditional families, it’s important that you lovingly impart to students God’s thoughts about marriage. My hope is that when we as a church teach about God’s thoughts on this, perhaps we can see the generational cycle of divorce and remarriage broken.
Of the lessons I’m sharing, this might be the one that causes the most objection. 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 some of our churches might be too small to take on that role without experiencing tensions and having to take sides.
There’s incredible value in sharing your family with students.
Love every student unconditionally, and ask them questions while communicating concern and care. This is especially important as you watch families experience separation and divorce.
Communicate to the students from broken homes that this isn’t their fault and that they aren’t second-class individuals. Let them know you’re available to them as they grieve for the loss of their family system.
Be prepared not to take sides during a divorce, and be ready to love parents who go through divorce. Recognize that parents who go through a divorce might no longer feel welcome or as comfortable attending worship services. Assure these parents that you hope they’ll continue to worship with your church and remain a part of its family.
No family is immune from the threat of divorce—at the same time, a word that should go hand in hand with divorce is surprise. I’m surprised when a family that appeared to be healthy suddenly announces they’re separating or getting divorced. I’m surprised that the more people I get to know, the more people reveal to me that they experienced divorce 10 to 20 years ago.
God’s grace can always be greater than any of the brokenness your students and their families experience through divorce.
There are numerous Scriptures that speak to God’s thoughts about divorce. While those verses will be incredibly helpful to people considering divorce and to anyone who gets to counsel that couple, as I speak into the lives of students, I quite often take them to John 4. John 4 tells of the woman at the well. In that story 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 your students.
What lessons have you learned?
What am I missing?
Thanks for taking a few moments to process this challenging reality that exists for so many of the students we serve.
If you want to study more on this topic, I recommend Student Ministry and Divorce by Ronald Long.
Mark Johannesen has been working with students and their families for about twenty years. He is a part of the Church of the Lutheran Brethren which offers a high view of Gods Word, a strong emphasis on world missions, a strong emphasis on having a personal relationship with Christ with a simple low-church style of worship in a law-gospel context. He received a Bachelors Degree in Youth Ministries from Northwestern University in St Paul MN and following that a Masters of Theological Studies at Bethel Seminary in St Paul MN and a Masters of Divinity from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary in Fergus Falls MN. He has served four churches in Minnesota, Washington State and Pennsylvania in positions ranging from youth director to associate pastor to senior pastor. He grew up in NJ and came to faith at an early age. He and his wife have been married for over ten years and have one child. In addition to his pastoral position he is a part of his denominational youth conventions planning team, he leads borderlessmidwest (a multi church Mexico mission trip partnership) and he serves is denomination networking youth workers and as a blogger. He also loves being with his family, 80’s Rock, travel, baseball, NY pizza, slurpees and youth ministry.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.