Life in the Blender: Ministering to the Needs of Blended Families
By Don R. Partridge
Ready or not, here they come — stepfamilies and single-parent families. These families represent the most significant cultural change in your church today. They are now your business. They are a critical concern in your ministry. These systems have impacted just about everyone you know, possibly even your family.
The issues these families experience are enormous. In this article I speak to some of the more serious issues and offer solutions. You will learn things you may not have known, and I will present biblical applications. But with this article comes a challenge. Are you ready for some reorientation?
You know the statistics: Half of all adults today are single, single-again, or single parents. The other half are married, and half of those married are in stepfamilies. Divorce statistics suggest that about 43 percent of first marriages and over 60 percent of stepfamilies fail. Given the fact stepfamilies have such a high turnover, second, third, and even fourth marriages are ever more frequent. Regardless of the reasons, single parents and stepfamilies are gaining statistical ground.
Why will working with stepfamilies and single parents become a predominant ministry in your church? When you reach into your community, you get what is there — and a growing part is single parents and stepfamilies.
The Head of the Church said: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (Isaiah 61:1,2, KJV). Few more closely fit the bill of being brokenhearted and continually bruised as single parents and members of stepfamilies.
So, let us meet a couple visiting your church. This story is true, except for names and locations.
After going through an agonizing divorce, Barbara, who lived in Wichita, Kansas, planned to take her two daughters and move as far away as possible. She contracted to work in Seattle, Washington, using relocation money to finance her move. Just before she was ready to leave, the children’s father took Barbara to court and barred her from taking their children out of state. So Barbara went west alone. As soon as her yearlong contract was fulfilled, she moved back to Wichita.
Her relationship with her daughters is currently strained due to her absence and because the father has been speaking against Barbara to the children. The daughters live with their father, but Barbara is determined to have them come back and live with her, something the father is opposing. Litigation is looming.
Now add this. While in Seattle, Barbara met and married Jacob, who has moved back to Wichita with her. Barbara and Jacob are already having difficulties over Barbara’s kids. He wants her to be more of a disciplinarian, something Barbara refuses to do. She is trying to reestablish closeness with her daughters and is afraid of alienating them completely.
Can things get worse?
Jacob has had two previous marriages and has three children: the first wife lives in New York with two children; the second in Seattle with one son. Jacob has not spoken with his children for months. Both ex-wives have turned his children against him. When he calls his kids in New York, they hang up on him. And now he has moved away from his son in Seattle.
Barbara and Jacob are sitting in your church Sunday morning. They look good and are great to talk to. Yet, a glimpse of their inner lives reveals enormous complexities and heartaches. They need your help. But how can you help them?
First, you can assist this couple by what you say Sunday morning. You can get across to them you understand, are concerned, and in your church they can find direction and advice. This couple can become a center of health and stability for themselves, for their children, and for other single parents and stepfamilies.
This is the Isaiah ministry Jesus was referring to. Would you like to be a lighthouse for couples like Barbara and Jacob and watch your church grow? If so, here we go.
The Danger of Sudden Relief
It is important to understand the principal reason many single parents rush into dating and marrying. Barbara and Jacob were divorced single parents living in Seattle. Look at the dating practices that led to their decision to marry. This will help you understand what happened early in their relationship.
The Bible describes divorce in gruesome detail. Since in the union of a couple they become one flesh, separation is the wholesale tearing of that one flesh into two parts, leaving gaping holes and body parts lying around. Divorce is the commission of violent and horrendous acts of treachery and physical damage by one or both partners against the other.
Now add court issues, child custody and visitation issues, financial problems, being forced to live apart from children, having a life partner as a hostile ex-spouse, having former friends and relatives turn against you. These make up the ingredients that produce extremely vulnerable individuals.
In their environment of heartbreak and emotional damage, imagine what took place when Barbara and Jacob met. Suddenly they experienced adult kindness and companionship. Emotions that had been crushed down for so long were suddenly awakened. These emotions caught Barbara and Jacob off guard.
Such a sudden radical change in environment can be overwhelming. Neither Barbara nor Jacob realized their intense feelings for one another were largely the result of this sudden change. Their emotional intoxication was just about impossible to manage.
Non-parents are drawn into relationships; single parents are rammed into relationships. Non-parents take their time when dating and grow into relationships. Single parents fall in love over a meal. They can go from “Hi, how are you?” to “This is the person I want to spend the rest of my life with” within hours.
After their first date Barbara and Jacob believed they knew everything they needed to know about each other. They dismissed any problems they observed and deemed them to be of little concern in planning their life together. Proverbs 27:7 says: “A sated man loathes honey, but to a famished man every bitter thing is sweet” (NASB).1 They discounted the fact Jacob had been married twice before and was estranged from his kids, and Barbara was living away from her children. Everything in the relationship was sweet.
How can you as pastor help?
For single parents who can remarry, prior to their dating explain to them the powerful feelings brought on by such a contrast. Talk about the emotional intoxication that comes from such a sudden change in their environment. Explain to them that emotions can become nearly unmanageable. Tell them they will want their new relationship to move forward at lightning speed; that God will bodily appear in dreams, visions, and endless confirmations; that they will ignore judgment, forget who they are, glorify their partner, forget how to date, leave morality behind, and (during this time) forget their kids.
Teach them that marriage is only sustainable to those who are patient, willing to move slowly, and make wise preparation.
Knowing what to expect will help dating single parents to not be caught off guard, to manage their high emotions, and to alter their dating habits.
Just as quickly as stepfamilies join, they also deteriorate. Here is why. Genesis 2:24 says: “So shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall no longer be two but one flesh.”
Married couples are meant to be separate and independent, masters over their own households. Imagine the potential for problems when individuals marry without leaving the authority of their parents. Overlapping authorities and overlapping relationships can cause conflict. But contrast a first marriage with a stepfamily.
In first marriages, couples intentionally separate from outside relationships and authorities; in stepfamilies outside relationships and authorities intentionally overlap. First-marriage spouses are independent and bond exclusively to each other. From the day of marriage, stepfamilies are not independent from their children and therefore do not bond exclusively to their current partners.
Separation from all outside relationships brings peace. Overlapping relationships automatically create difficulty and hardship.
In a first marriage the husband and wife are “one flesh,” with their children sharing the same biological connection. Parents and children are one family unit.
In contrast, stepfamily members are both biologically and non-biologically related adults and children. And the other parents of the children and the other parents’ partners all have a voice in exercising control over the stepfamily. The complexities of these multiple relationships can be overwhelming. They can, and do, dismantle the best of families.
You see this evident throughout Scripture and throughout history as multiple wives and children not of the same father or mother feud between themselves and create endless turmoil — Sarah and Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac, Leah and Rachel, Jacob’s sons and their half-brother Joseph, the troubled offspring of King David, Gideon’s 70 sons, Jephthah and his half-brothers, Hannah and her trouble with Peninnah — to name a few. If relationships between half-brothers and sisters do not work that well, how can we expect non-biological relationships to work in stepfamilies?
Barbara and Jacob are in this kind of trouble. Jacob criticizes Barbara’s parenting style. The daughters have shown they do not want Jacob intruding into their lives. And Barbara and her daughters’ father are in conflict over where the daughters are going to live. Also, because Jacob has been absent for so long from his children, his ex-wives are turning their children’s hearts against him.
Is harmony possible in single-parent families and stepfamilies? Can Jacob and Barbara’s daughters develop a kind and caring relationship? Can you as pastor help? Absolutely. Here’s how.
The Bible tells us that children must honor their father and mother, that we are to love our enemies and do good to them who persecute us, offer our cheek for a second blow, and go the extra mile with someone who is controlling our time and energy. Therefore, we can and should do the following:
First, have parents clearly identify every relationship in the single-parent family or stepfamily. Unlike first marriages where every member shares the same biological connection, in single-parent families and stepfamilies every biological and non-biological connection needs to be clearly recognized.
Look at Barbara and Jacob. They have a total of nine separate key relationships in their family:  Barbara’s children with their father,  Barbara with her children,  Barbara and Jacob themselves,  Jacob with his children,  two of Jacob’s children with their mother in New York, and  Jacob’s third child with his mom in Seattle. The non-biological connections include  Barbara and her relationship with Jacob’s three kids, and  Jacob’s connection with Barbara’s children. The last set of connections  is between the children who have yet to meet one another.
Every one of these separate relationships is poised at any moment to threaten the stability of Barbara and Jacob. Barbara and Jacob must identify and satisfy each individual relationship for their marriage to remain peaceful.
Second, once Barbara and Jacob identify family relationships, these relationships become individual targets for Barbara and Jacob to accept — not oppose. Barbara and Jacob must not resist or fight against any of these relationships. And they must set the example by honoring and supporting every connection and relationship in and around the stepfamily.
By accepting bonds and step-connections, this means the parents and stepparents allow the other parents and stepparents the full rights and privileges due them. Acceptance means they allow the other adults to live their own lives in the way they see fit. Acceptance does not mean approval. This does not mean one set of parents needs to approve the lifestyle of the other set of parents or their method of child raising. But they and their children must respect and honor the position of biological parent and stepparent and your children, whether earned or not. Every parent and every stepparent is to be considered important and vital to the emotional well-being of your children.
Whether or not you like the people in your children’s other family, every bond and every step-connection are key elements in promoting your children’s well being, as well as your own stepfamily happiness.
Peter writes: “Be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:8,9, NKJV).2 The Bible is telling Barbara and Jacob to be kind, considerate, and helpful — and to instruct their children to behave in the same way.
By the way, this author’s own stepfamily has 23 separate relationships compared with Barbara and Jacob’s nine. When we say that identifying and accepting every single relationship is important, we are not kidding.
Family members in a first marriage share the same mind-set — they all are members of the same family.
Those in single-parent households and in stepfamilies do not share the same mind-set. Even parents and their own children think differently. The single mother does not recognize her former husband as a part of her life, but her son gives him full recognition as his father. The remarried father recognizes his new wife as part of the family, but his daughter thinks, That woman is not my mother.
These mind-sets define behavior (Proverbs 23:7). How children think and how parents think is how they are going to behave. Yet, as parents, it is not in our nature to have our children think and behave differently from us. We want our children to share our values and beliefs. When they do not, we object. Even Paul the apostle told one of his churches, “I have begotten you through the gospel. Therefore I urge you, imitate me” (1 Corinthians 4:15,16).
This is the problem between Jesus and His mother and father in Luke 2. Without Mary or Joseph’s knowledge, the young Jesus stayed behind and spent several days in the temple until His parents finally found Him. Do not miss the wording: When they discovered Jesus, Mary said to Him, “ ‘Son, why have you done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.’ And He said to them, ‘Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?’ ” (verses 48,49, NKJV).
See the mind-sets? And, see the differences in behaviors? Mary said, “Your father and I. …”
Jesus said, “I was about My Father’s business.” Between Jesus and His mother there were differences in the usage of the term father. Mary was referring to Joseph; Jesus, to His Father in heaven.
If Jesus’ family was disrupted by different mind-sets and behaviors, it is easy to imagine the problems that can arise in single-parent households and stepfamilies.
These differences in mind-sets are seriously affecting Barbara and Jacob’s stepfamily. Look at the high number of mind-sets in opposition to one another: parents opposing parents, former spouses opposing each other, children in conflict with parents. Such tension-filled situations are catastrophic to the emotional health of everyone, especially of children.
What’s the solution?
Identify and respect mind-sets. List how everyone in the stepfamily needs to respond to other family members. Then the adults must honor and work with these mind-sets. This is more difficult than anyone would think.
For example, Barbara and Jacob will recognize that Barbara’s children need to love both father and mother, but must also respect and be kind to Jacob. Then they are to do everything possible to support this mind-set. Barbara will certainly attempt to strengthen her own relationship with her daughters but must also support the daughters’ relationship with their father. Jacob will do all he can to help Barbara and her daughters regain their former closeness. He will also try to enhance his stepdaughters’ relationship with their father. And with Barbara’s guidance and Jacob’s servant behavior, the daughters may then be willing to accept Jacob as part of the family.
Barbara must see herself as a servant of Jacob and his children and their mind-sets. She must do what she can to help heal the division and animosity between Jacob and his children. She must support his desire to travel to New York and Seattle to see his children. She can also help begin the long process of bringing restoration to the relationship between Jacob and his ex-wives, possibly trying to get to know them.
Even two excellent parents can ruin a good stepfamily. The lack of agreement between spouses on how to parent will likely bring down a good stepfamily.
Parents are notorious for letting discipline slide; stepparents, for being too demanding. Right or wrong, the child’s parent must ultimately control how he/she will raise his/her child. If one parent’s parenting level is low and the parent refuses to budge, the stepparent has no recourse but to de-parent to that level. De-parenting means to back off and allow the child’s parent full control over his/her own children.
De-parenting is a huge issue among stepparents. Time and time again we have seen stepparents ruin great marriages because they did not know how to be flexible and could not learn to de-parent.
Jesus set the example of this type of flexibility. Jesus is Messiah and King; yet, when He came to earth, He did not exercise the rights of Messiah or King. In fact, He did the opposite. Paul says Jesus made himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. He would not even so much as figuratively break a bruised reed or quench a smoking flax (Matthew 12:20; Philippians 2:7).
Can stepparents follow this example? Can a stepparent surrender lawful parenting rights and take on the form of a bondservant, submitting to the parenting level of the spouse? Can a stepparent win over the stepchildren through self-sacrifice and service rather than through requirement and force?
Barbara and Jacob find themselves in this quandary. Barbara has established the level of parenting. Can Jacob de-parent to Barbara’s level? What is the solution for Jacob?
The model Jacob will need to follow is the grandparent model — where the parent does all the required work and the grandparent gets to enjoy the children. Jacob can become like a grandparent figure, free from the weight of parenting. This will allow Barbara to do her parenting without interference. If any difficulties arise with the kids, everything falls back on Barbara. Jacob, on the other hand, can learn to enjoy his stepdaughters. He can learn to care for them and accept them as they are, with the good and bad. He can be one of Barbara’s best sources of encouragement.
Following Jesus’ example and the idea of taking on the grandparent model, Jacob must accentuate the positive, bringing into the new family healing and grace.
Sin is wreaking havoc among families in our communities, with the result that single parent and stepfamilies are now a significant part of your congregations. You must re-educate yourself to deal constructively and helpfully with these growing family systems.
Knowledgeable care and wise support are critically needed. These families are brokenhearted; they are continually being bruised. They are prime candidates for those on whom Christ wants to bestow mercy and not sacrifice. This field of ministry is ripe and ready for harvest. The laborers are few.
Let us go into the highways and byways that His church might be filled.
1. Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard BibleÂ®, Copyright Â© 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission (www.Lockman.org).
2. Scripture quotations marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright Â© 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.