3 Ways to Connect with the Largest Underserved Demographic in Your Community
Guest Blog Post by Rev. Jay S. Daughtry, MMFT from CoParenting International
If we have done our work as church leaders, we should have a pretty good idea of who we are trying to reach in our community. Certainly, knowing the level of education, socio-economic statistics, preferences, trends, and general mindset will direct our outreach efforts, events, and programming. If you are like me, when you poured over the reams of information, you had a keen interest in how many families lived in your area and how many children they had; after all, that is the future of the church. Growing, thriving, healthy families are the lifeblood of the church and community.
What I did not recognize when I was doing church work was, on paper, those families all looked the same, but in reality, more than half of those families were complex families- co-parents, stepparents, and never-married parents who have unique family dynamics and needs. They certainly have more in common with first-time intact families than they don’t, yet the differences that are present are significant and need to be recognized and understood for us to minister to them effectively.
1. Setting the tone for compassion, understanding, and support from the pulpit.
The ministry to post-divorce families my wife and I started right here in the “buckle of the Bible belt” has had a good bit of pushback over the years. Phrases like, “we don’t have that here,” “our wives are uncomfortable with young single mothers being around their husbands,” and “we don’t want to endorse divorce at our church” were quite often fallback positions for not serving these families. Yet, it would seem these same churches were “endorsing” things like drug and alcohol use with their Celebrate Recovery programs. That’s like saying because we compassionately and fervently offer people a path to redemption, we are somehow endorsing sin by providing its remedy. As representatives of Jesus Christ in our communities, I believe we are called to facilitate the “healing of broken hearts” as we engage in a “ministry of reconciliation.”
There is no doubt that God hates divorce, but He doesn’t hate those who have experienced it. God hates the pain, hurt, and ongoing chaos that it can produce, but His compassion for the parents and children overwhelmed by the fallout of marital dissolution is ever-present. As pastors and church leaders, we have the opportunity to dispel the stigma associated with divorce in the church. Our words, attitudes, and ministry efforts provide a baseline for our staff and congregation in how we respond to families affected by the brokenness of divorce. Those same attitudes are also recognized within the community.
When we look around our church, we should understand that the absence of any demographic is because those people/families do not feel welcome or comfortable here. Either by intention or default, we let our community know who “fits in.” Something as simple as acknowledging single parents and stepparents with all the other moms and dads standing for recognition on Mother’s/Father’s Day sends a subtle but clear signal that your church recognizes and appreciates all families in your community.
I know a pastor who was raised in a stepfamily, yet for almost 15 years of ministry, had never shared that from the pulpit. When he finally did, his intentional transparency opened a door to members of his own congregation as well as the community. It was a turning point in how they approached family ministry, and it helped redefine their church in the eyes of their community in a positive way.
2. Be intentionally inclusive of complex families.
Integrate complex family issues into the training and development of staff and lay leaders, as well as event planning and programming choices. As a ministry team having an awareness of just the rudimentary challenges present in complex families will prepare us to minister to their needs. For instance, Youth/Children pastors knowing that some of their kids/students are only with them every other week can prepare them to find helpful and creative ways to stay connected with those kids/students and to foster their sense of belonging when they can’t be there. Also, making sure that we have addresses for both households to be sure that all parents are in the loop when it comes to trips, events, and general ministry information will take the burden off the child to keep everyone informed.
Family, Couples, and counseling ministries can benefit greatly from in-depth training that provides practical insights into complex family dynamics. Knowing how to help empowers us to lean into their needs. Many times, we are afraid to step into those hard places with couples and families because we just aren’t confident in our ability to help them navigate their divided family challenges.
Our biggest enemy in ministry is not complacency. It’s uncertainty. Understanding what these families are trying to manage will fuel the empathy we need to respond from a place of authentic practical compassion. That compassion will not go unnoticed. Before we know it, our church becomes the church that generates discussions in the local restaurants and coffee shops because we are meeting relevant felt needs that have mostly been ignored in the past.
3. Acknowledging and including single parents and stepparents in church leadership and planning.
Effective ministry to addicts is generally not carried out by teetotalers. Not because they aren’t willing, but many times the connection that comes from a former addict resonates with those who are struggling with drugs and alcohol. A former addict can speak to the pain and struggle with a clarity, empathy, and directness that many of us cannot. Those who have experienced divorce and/or walked a path of singleness will have unique perspectives on how the church’s mission and function are being carried out. They know the touchpoints that will get the attention of the complex families. They are also a wealth of knowledge regarding specific practical needs.
Until I ended up being a single father of three, I never realized how expensive it is to keep kiddos involved in the ministries of the church, especially during camp season. Without solicitation, the Youth Pastor of our church brought our needs to staff meetings. Together with the other ministry leaders, they provided groceries, camp fees, and other practical help. Many times, that support came in the form of side jobs and projects my children were asked to help with, which was credited to camp and retreat accounts. Their ministry awareness started with complex families in their church leadership, knowing the inherent stresses my family was facing. This same church started a once-a-month Single Parents Luncheon. The Married Couple Sunday school class would bring double what they needed to share with all the single-parent families. As the meal was wrapping up, a church leader would bring all the single parents together for some table talk about issues that were relevant to us while some adults and youth attended to our kids. For me, it was an oasis in the desert of my single-parent experience, for which I am still deeply grateful.
As I wrap up, I want to be sure to point out that the size of a church should not determine their ability to address needs with practicality and compassion, even if that help is indirect. Develop a resource list that targets whatever needs you and your church are unable to address. Get to know the people and organizations in your community who have the resources and desire to serve. Let those relationships open up possibilities to cooperatively target needs and collaborate to ease the burden on those who are struggling.
In some ways, this issue is already yesterday’s news. In 2015 the stepfamily became the #1 family type in America. That statistic doesn’t include the never-married parents whose families have divided. I believe that the Church’s future viability is intricately linked to its ability to recognize, assess, and engage their communities at their point of need with compassion and understanding. “God didn’t tell the world to go to church; He told the church to go to the world,” an axiom proving to be true more now than ever.
JAY S. DAUGHTRY, from CoParenting International, has as a pastoral background of over twenty years and a personal encounter with life-altering grief, having lost his first wife in a car accident. His passion for hurting families comes authentically as he is also an adult child of divorce and was a widower and single father for over three years before remarrying. Jay co-produced the resource, “One Heart, Two Homes: Co-parenting Kids of Divorce to a Positive Future,” with his wife, Tammy Daughtry, that is being used around the globe to give voice to kids and help single and step-parents with a Godly roadmap as they navigate complex families. Jay has called Nashville, TN, home since 2006. He also is a proud grandfather enjoying the love and wonder of four grandchildren. He is a creative soul with a long history in leading worship, songwriting, and sharing the joy of music through playing guitar and singing. He and Tammy lead trainings around the country and are honored to serve churches, military leaders, counseling centers, and universities who are intentionally reaching today’s complex families.
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