In our Real Ministries for Real Marriages series, we look at how churches across the country are thinking up ways to meet the needs of couples in their congregations—from those anticipating a wedding, to those seeking to strengthen a healthy marriage, to those grieving a divorce.
Twenty-five years ago, Ralph Delgado’s wife had an affair, which resulted in their divorce. It was “an excruciatingly painful time,” recalls Delgado. “I felt so alone.” But today, Delgado, a pastor of community life at Christian Assembly in Eagle Rock, California, serves those going through similar situations by way of the church’s Divorce Care ministry.
Created in 1994 by Church Initiative, a nondenominational, nonprofit ministry that creates video-based curriculum to help churches minister to people facing life crises, Divorce Care is a 13-week course designed to help men and women process, heal and move on from divorce. Christian Assembly launched their recovery ministries (now called Thrive) in 2001, with Divorce Care as one of its core classes.
“Today, nearly everyone who comes to church comes with baggage, pain, hurt or difficulties,” says Jim Cosby, who, at the request of Lead Pastor Mark Pickerill, helped create and start Christian Assembly’s Thrive classes, including Divorce Care. Cosby explains that the church’s leadership categorized the common issues people struggle with and researched Christian resources to help. “Then we added to that a safe, small group process where people could express themselves without fear of being fixed, analyzed or advised,” says Cosby.
Christian Assembly—which has an average weekend attendance of 2,800—offers Divorce Care twice a year, with each session drawing about 20 participants, either from the church, friends of church members or even pastors from other local churches who need an anonymous setting to process their own pain. Each class in the 13-week course includes a video teaching and a time for small group discussion and personal response based on the curriculum. Classes cover a range of topics, from facing anger and depression to financial survival, single parenting, new relationships and forgiveness.
For Delgado, who now leads the Thrive ministries at Christian Assembly, the Divorce Care curriculum is important in helping participants understand what they are feeling; but just as significant is the safe space the course provides for people to share what they are going through. “The group becomes a support system and a space where they feel safe sharing their pain,” says Delgado. “Additionally, hearing others’ stories lets them know they are not alone.”
Children of divorce need a safe space to process and share, as well. They can often feel anger, confusion and even guilt over their parents’ separation. A few years after launching Divorce Care, Christian Assembly began offering DC4K, Church Initiative’s Divorce Care program for children ages 5 to 12. Parents attending Divorce Care classes at the church can bring their kids with them to participate in their own class; sometimes parents who don’t participate in Divorce Care still enroll their children in DC4K. Session topics include “God’s Plan for Me,” “What’s Happening to My Family?” and “Telling My Parents How I Feel.” The gospel message is also clearly presented in each DC4K course.
“The most heartrending stories have come from those kids,” says Cosby, “ … the children discovering that the divorce and actions of parents are not their own fault.”
For churches looking to start their own ministry for those going through divorce, Cosby notes that the effort must start with the church’s senior leadership. “They must be willing to not only work with the issues of life in their own congregation, but within themselves in an authentic and transparent way,” he explains. “At Christian Assembly, that’s not only true of [Pastor] Mark Pickerill, but of the entire leadership team.”
Further, Delgado points out the importance of choosing the right leaders when launching a Divorce Care ministry. It’s best, if possible, to have a leader who has been through a divorce, according to Delgado. “This really goes a long way for those attending,” he says, “and even gives them a measure of hope to see someone like them—divorced—but healed from the pain and living life again.” He emphasizes the proper training of leaders, as well, “to ensure that they do not inflict more damage by being codependent or a person who needs to ‘fix’ everyone.”
The church has a responsibility to care for those going through divorce, Delgado believes. “If the local church isn’t going to support these folks, then where should they go?” he asks. “Offering support to people who have had their lives turned upside down is in complete alignment with the heart of the Father.”