Parent Ministry Outside the Lines: Single Parents and Blended Families

Tony Toth
October 4th, 2009

When I started writing this article, I initially called it “Parent Ministry in Unusual Circumstances.” After mulling it over, it became apparent that the family variations we see in our ministries aren’t all that unusual these days. In fact, there are days when it feels unusual to be dealing with “traditional” families.

Jenny is 14 and lives with her mom’s ex-boyfriend. When he and her mom broke up six months ago, Jenny’s mom disappeared. Her bio-dad remarried 10 years ago and her step mom has never wanted her around. The ex is pretty messed up, and he’s got a new girlfriend. But it’s the only place she’s got right now, and she’s just glad to have a roof over her head.

Bob is 15, and his parents were both killed in a plane crash two years ago. It was really tough on all three kids in the family, and there were a lot of opinions on where he should live. A few months ago he moved in with his brother and sister-in-law who’ve been married just over a year. They’re finding it really tough to be parents to this teenager.

Justine is 12 and lives with her mom. Things have been really tough financially but they get along great and are really working hard to make a go of it. It’s difficult though, because her mom works two shifts and it seems like she’s always either at work or sleeping. Her mom feels extremely guilty that she has so little time for Justine.

Cindy is 13 and just got moved into the foster home of a great family from her church. She couldn’t stay at home anymore, because her father had sexually abused her for the last six years, and Children’s Aid just found out. She’s an angry kid, and her foster parents are having a hard time connecting with her. She only comes to the youth group when she’s forced to.

Families can be complex. We’re well aware that many of the students in our ministries live in family circumstances that don’t fit the traditional mold. Working with parents who are living as husband and wife and lovingly raising their children together is a relatively straightforward process. Standard ministry strategies tend to work much more easily in those circumstances.

Let’s remember that, regardless of the family situation, the basic principles remain the same.

  • Parents (or guardians) are still ultimately responsible for their children.
  • In each case our priority is to support and equip parents and guardians in their roles.
  • Ministry will always be built on mutual trust and respect—and it’ll take time.

The two most common variations of family that we’re likely to encounter in our ministries are single parents and blended families. It’s important for us to recognize the practical implications of making our ministry to these folks meaningful and effective.

Ministry with Single Parents

In the majority of cases, single parenthood is the result of a divorce or marital breakdown. In some cases, a parent will be left behind after the death of a spouse. A single person also might have a child through birth or adoption and never establish a permanent relationship with a partner. In spite of the noble efforts of single parents to make the best of their circumstances, most of these situations involve some level of disruption and relational trauma—for both the single parent and the children.

Here are some thoughts for you as you work with single parents:

Be careful that you don’t make their singleness the primary point of their identity. While their single status may distinguish them from some other parents you work with, it’s by no means the essence of who they are; to treat them that way is inappropriate and unproductive. Such narrowly defined labels always create more restrictions than freedoms.

In most cases it won’t be helpful to establish single parent support groups. It just makes them feel abnormal and ostracized. If you feel that a single parent needs support from another single parent, help facilitate a mentoring friendship—or even better, involve them in parent support groups that are made up of both singles and couples.

Make every effort to integrate single parents with couples naturally and without awkwardness. Even something as simple as setting tables or establishing discussion groups with an odd number of people makes it easier for them to feel welcome. Getting together in groups of 5-7 people leaves room for a single person to join in without making them feel that they’re throwing off the balance.

Be sensitive to the pain associated with the circumstances that created their singleness. Death, separation, divorce, abandonment, and the other realities that often exist in the background of single parents will have an impact on who they are. There may be issues of trust, shame, anger, bitterness, loneliness, fear, etc. that will play out in your relationship with them. Don’t pry for the details. Be patient. Be kind.

Recognize that most single parents face unusual financial pressures as a result of their singleness. Do whatever you can to relieve this pressure through scholarships, fund raisers, and sponsorships. Never offer financial help in a patronizing way. Most single parents—indeed, most people—find cheesy sympathy to be repugnant.

Be careful in your use of concepts like father/son, mother/daughter, couples night, etc. in planning activities. You can accomplish the same thing with events you call “Guys Night Out,” “Flicks for Chicks,” or some other generic name. Encourage the parents who come to these events to unobtrusively take a parentless child under their wings for the evening, inviting them along and then including them in the activities. Be extremely sensitive to kids who are parentless at intergenerational events. Don’t single them out or say things that make them feel like leftovers or inconveniences… “Jason, you don’t have a dad so you might as well join in with Bobby and his dad—you guys don’t mind an extra person do you?” Ouch!

Make sure you’re aware of custodial arrangements in these families. There may be legal issues related to access, and even the simple matter of which parent to call in the case of a medical emergency could become an issue.

As you affirm parents, be sure to acknowledge the extra work done by single parents. Applaud them publicly every chance you get. Say kind things about them to their kids. They don’t have another parent in their homes to make them look good to their kids. In fact, it may be just the opposite in many cases. Again, be careful not to patronize or make their singleness the issue. Just speak genuine affirmation into someone’s life who could sure use it.

Recognize your special ministry as an opposite gender adult in the life of the single parent family. As a male figure in the life of a fatherless boy or a female figure in the life of a motherless young girl, you have the opportunity to be a very significant voice in his or her development. Be faithful in modeling healthy maleness or femaleness so that these kids will have someone trustworthy to look up to as they try to sort out their own gender issues without the benefit of both parents. If you’re a married youth worker, be sure to understand the important role you have in modeling a healthy marriage. For many of the kids in your care, your marriage may be the one they see the closest.

Remember that single parents are often lonely and will want to talk with you about issues in the lives of their kids in ways that couples don’t need to. Be patient as they vent their emotions or seek your input. They don’t have spouses with whom to share the journey and want someone who’s genuinely interested in their sons or daughters to be part of the conversation. Your ministry as a sounding board may be far more important than you ever realize.

The most important part of your parent ministry strategy for single parents will be encouragement. You can never give them too much. A phone call, note, or e-mail can mean the world to parents who feel lonely and discouraged in their challenging jobs of raising adolescent kids.

Understand the concept of church as family. The promise of Scripture is that God will set the lonely in families (Psalm 68:6). Your church may be part of the family system that God is providing for some of the single parents in your care. Do everything in your power to make it a healthy family. Affirm the single parents you work with as legitimate, contributing members of that family.

Pray for single parents. I know it sounds like the right way to end a list of ideas like this, but this is more than a cliché—as will be evidenced by its use.

Ministry with Blended Families

Blended families are reconfigured family groups that are formed when two family units come together to form a new, redefined family unit. In most cases, they involve a single parent marrying a new spouse, with or without a family of his or her own. The combinations can take many forms. If both spouses have children, a new family of step-siblings is established. Children now relate to step-parents as well as biological parents, who also may be remarried with new blended families of their own. Living arrangements can be complex, with various custody and visitation agreements in place. Extended family relationships may involve groups of people who’ve been previously unknown. New cousins, grandparents, uncles, and aunts—it can be confusing at times, especially to the youth worker trying to sort through the various levels of relationships. Working with parents in blended family situations has some challenges for us.

Here are some thoughts to keep in mind when working with blended families:

Don’t assume that blended families are dysfunctional. Many blended families do very well—in spite of the hurdles they may face—in working out the details of the relationships. I’ve had plenty of kids tell me over the years that their step-dads were the first men in their lives they could really trust or that their step-moms were the first women who really cared about them. Do, however, assume that there are unique challenges faced by both children and parents in these reconfigured familial units.

Don’t assume same last names within a single family group. Many families choose to maintain the original last names for children even though new marriages may have changed the parents’ surnames.

Don’t assume that step-siblings feel or function like brothers or sisters (or sons or daughters for that matter.) The dynamics of sibling relationships in step-families are unique. Especially when families of teenagers are blended, they often go through the rest of their adolescence without bonding to the other children or parents.

Understand that there is tremendous pressure within blended families to make it work. Both parents and children may feel that they’re betraying their families if they talk about problems or tensions.

Don’t pressure kids or parents to give you all the details of the backgrounds of their reconfigurations. As trust grows and relationships are strengthened, the stories will emerge. Don’t ask questions merely to satisfy your curiosity.

Step-parents often feel a huge obligation to be accepted in their new roles. They often feel like failures in this capacity and need plenty of encouragement as they try to make the new arrangements work.

As in the case of single parents, it’s very important for the youth worker to be aware of custodial arrangements and any legal factors related to non-custodial parents.

Most people have opinions on blended families, both philosophically and theologically. Once a blended family is established, your opinion about its validity or appropriateness becomes irrelevant. Now you have an obligation to support and encourage the growth of this new family unit by applying all the principles of biblical love and all the components of a balanced parent ministry.

Tony Toth

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.