what it’s like…to get divorced in church
* this is part of a recent series called what it’s like. each person sharing in these interviews have unique experiences but so many of the themes are similar; it’s a chance to learn and consider what some of these circumstances really feel like.
in the 22 years i have been married and in the church i have seen a lot of my friends go through the gut-wrenching reality of getting divorced. it’s such a painful thing for any person to go through. in the church, it can be even harder because some of the God stuff attached to it. regardless, one thing i have learned is that we need to better understand what it feels like for those who go through this traumatic loss. unless we’ve been there, we really can’t speak into it. listen into my friend johanna*, a dear and faithful woman who was in ministry all of her life and found herself divorced, alone, and a single mom.
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describe a little bit about your background, faith experience, and how you found yourself at the end of your marriage?
I grew up in a home that was very broken – violence, abuse, alcoholism, divorce. We “went to church” – I was a sophomore in college when I came to know Jesus. I did not want to repeat the issues of the family I grew up in. I married a man who grew up in the church, was from the “perfect family” and was a pastor himself. Our marriage was very broken as well–full of rage, control, shame, lack of true intimacy. By the end of the marriage I had almost disappeared; I was lost and bruised almost beyond recognition in my heart and in my soul. Shame was overwhelming. As a Christian, and as a pastor’s wife , I felt as though I had been branded with the scarlet “D” for life.
it’s all so traumatic, the loss of any marriage, but a christian one that’s in the public eye makes it even harder. what are some of the raw feelings you experienced during this season?
Shock–that no one in leadership in our church was standing for truth; no one would challenge my husband in the abusive behavior, or call him to healing and wholeness. Isolated. Betrayed. Abandonded. The church does not know how to walk with couples, especially if one of them is the pastor. People were so afraid of painful and difficult issues so they refused to try to discover what was going on underneath. Friends whom I had cried with and rejoiced with, given wedding showers and baby showers for, men and women who I had loved and served with walked away and closed their hearts and their doors to my relationship with them and their families. Stunned–that the “good ol’ boys club” and their wives still rule and hide and cover up sin and abuse going on in families. Grieved in ways I still do not have words for.
what did you want to scream out to church leaders? to God? to anyone who would listen?
To be honest, I had so lost my “voice” that I never thought of screaming. All I could do was weep. To God, to the few true friends who were not afraid to enter in. The betrayal of family and friends was so unbelievable that I lost words how to express the loss I was experiencing. After months and months of prayer I decided to seek wisdom and guidance from one of the elders and his wife in our church. When I shared the abuse and rage that was happening in our home, I was told by both of them that my husband’s anger was my fault. I needed to submit and remain quiet. The writing was on the wall. I walked away in disbelief.
what are some things that safe people did or said that have really helped you keep moving forward?
They believed me; they shared several books on abusive relationships and patterns of behaviour that helped me know that I was not crazy! They did not judge or shame. They loved and listened. They wept and prayed with me.
what are some things that people said or did that hurt, that you’d put in the category of “these kinds of things really harm souls so don’t do or say it”?
People would quote scirpture verses, but refuse to even acknowledge the reality of our situation. They judged and blamed and shamed in a self righteous superiority. Once divorced, people often do not invite the divorced woman over any more. I was no longer included in parties that I had gone to for years. People often do not know what to do, so they do nothing, adding to the already isolating and painful circumstances.
help others understand how shame plays into all of this.
As a Christian woman, I tried so hard to always do the “right” thing. To please God. To respect and submit to my husband. To trust those in authority in the church. The Lord has often shown me that I gave away my power to those who did not earn it or treat it with honor. To feel like the “scapegoat” caused me more shame that I know how to explain. There must be something wrong with me. I must be in disobedience to God. I must be “bad.” People fear what they do not understand and what they cannot control.
how has your relationship with God, others, yourself changed over these past season?
My separation and divorce has been well over 9 years now. My relationship with God is the most precious and beautful gift that I have. For the first chunk of years I lived in so much shame, grief and loss; everything I had known in my life was gone, much like death. In the past year quite a bit of healing is taking place. I am getting stronger and finding my voice again; peace comes more often. Both men and women have come to me asking forgiveness for the way the church treated me, for their own silence, and for how they judged me. I am seeing more healing in my children’s lives. I am more cautious with entrusting my heart and my story to those in church leadership. I count as treasured gifts the friends who walked with journey with me.
what is one advice you have for “the church” when it comes to journeying alongside men and women who find themselves in the midst of a divorce?
Love both people. Don’t be afraid of the truth. Do not judge. Do not ever throw the first stone. Love their children well. Do not be afraid of what you do not understand. Call sin what it is. Rejoice and forgive when there is true repentance. Be gentle and patient and kind. Pray always.
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thank you johanna for your honesty and story. each person who gets divorced in the church has a different story but the threads tend to be the same–the deep loss & shame & need for safe community in the midst, i think this truth is so compelling: ”people often do not know what to do, so they do nothing, adding to the already isolating and painful circumstances.” this happens so often when people are hurting; we are afraid of not knowing what to say so we just carry on, leaving the hurting person abandoned and alone. i hope we can all become more and more brave to engage with the painful reality of divorce and do whatever we can to break shame’s hold on behalf of our friends. that’s being Jesus with skin on.