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The Role of The Minister In a Church Member’s Divorce Process
For information about church leaders experiencing divorce, please click here: Ministers Going Through Divorce
 
As odd as it may seem to many ministers, the Church still has a role when reconciliation fails and a couple is headed to divorce.  The most frequent response of churches that we see is abdication.  When you abdicate, you turn the couple and their marriage over to Satan.  Christ did not abdicate his role in redemption, nor should you abdicate your role in your church member’s life and marriage.  So what should you do?
 
Remain neutral
Christ moved among sinners.  He ate at the homes of sinners.  He was neutral in as much as he loved the sinners and the righteous equally.  Note that this is very different from condoning the sin; rather it is equality of love.
 
About five years ago I talked with a gentleman in his sixties who had left his church.  He was not yet lost from Christ, but he was driving one hour each way every Sunday to attend a church that sponsored a support group for people going through divorce.  He related how he could not continue to attend his church because his pastor told him he was not welcome.  The gentleman’s wife had been anticipating divorcing him for a number of years.  One year earlier she began spending significant time counseling with the pastor of their church.  Over the year’s time, she related her view of how terrible the husband was.  When the husband finally realized that his wife intended to divorce him, he went to see the pastor.  The pastor had adopted the wife’s view of the husband and told him in no uncertain terms that he was not welcome in the church and that the church intended to support the wife.  There was however another side to the story that the pastor never had an opportunity to hear.  The Pastor had failed to remain neutral.
 
At Christian Divorce Services we take everything with a grain of salt.  We typically are contacted by one of the spouses first and then that spouse proceeds to tell us such horrible stories about the other.  Then when the second spouse contacts us, the second spouse wants to tell us how horrible the first person is.   The truth is that one does not need to believe or disbelieve either spouse.  The focus needs to be shifted to what is the right thing to do.  How are we going to solve the issues before us such as developing a “Parenting Plan” so that their children can have a better shot of growing into mature Christian adults despite their parents divorce?
 
Intervene to develop the parenting plan and other issues
This makes most Christians extremely uncomfortable because they fear that it means they condone divorce.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  There are two components to a divorce or dissolution and both cause uninformed ministers to flee at top speed.  The first is called a “Parenting Plan” and the second is called a “Separation Agreement”.  A Parenting Plan is an agreement or an order as to how the parents will raise the children after the divorce.  We believe that two Christian parents, no matter how embattled they are, know better what is important for raising their children than a secular court does.  It almost always requires the intervention of a third party to develop a parenting plan, simply because of the animosity that has led to the divorce.
 
A court will typically order “Local Rule” for the parenting plan.  This is a one size fits all preprinted parenting plan.  It fails to address any of the really important issues in raising good Christian children.  A well written parenting plan will address what religion the children will be brought up in, who will be responsible for their Bible Study, take them to Church and participate in activities with them.  It should also include issues of morality such as exposing the children to the parents’ new boyfriends/ girlfriends and address issues of such people spending the night at a parent’s house while the children are visiting.  How about discipline and rules?  The list of issues to be addressed is significantly longer than you can imagine and getting both parents to agree on how to handle such prospective issues is an art in itself.  At the same time, it is of paramount importance and should not be turned over to a overworked judge with a docket of 200 cases who is simply going to slap in place local rule and scoff at one parents request to hold the other spouse to a high moral standard.
 
The second item, the separation agreement, is often misunderstood.  It is not the separation of the spouses but rather the separation or delineation of how debts will be handled, if and how much support should be paid to ensure the children and spouse are able to sustain themselves, responsibilities of the parties, and much more.  Again, two Christians with the help of a neutral mediator can better determine than a court can, the answer to such questions as what is the fair thing to do with assets and debts, or what is the moral responsibility of how to support the other spouse.
 
None of this is passing judgment on the issue of should the parties be “granted” a divorce, or even if they “should” divorce in the first place, but rather, when reconciliation has failed, it is intervening to help apply Biblical principles of child rearing and equity.  Only the court can grant a divorce and issue a divorce decree.  You are not doing so by planning out how to raise the children.  You are helping the couple reduce conflict and answer the questions for themselves that a secular court would otherwise answer and force on them.  We do not believe it is your role to determine “if” a divorce should be granted.  That’s not what this is about.  It is your role to minister to the spiritual well being of the couple and their children, now and into the future despite the fact that they are divorcing.
 
Pray for wisdom/ guidance
Prayer for the couple to reconcile is obvious.  Prayer for yourself and for the couple to receive God’s Holy Spirit as a spirit of wisdom, and a spirit of guidance is often not thought about.  You need the Holy Spirit as a spirit of discernment and a spirit of wisdom in order to work with them, and they need the same to work through the plethora of issues confronting them.  God sends his Holy Spirit as a comforter and you will need that as you work with the couple.  So will the couple and their children.  Pray constantly for them, pray for God’s will to be achieved for them, but also pray for the Holy Spirit to descend upon them, for them to receive Him, and for the Spirit to provide them with the strength, wisdom, discernment and guidance to do God’s will.  Simply praying for God’s will is not enough.  God can offer them His will and they may reject it.  Remember, people looked Jesus in the eyeballs and outright rejected Him when he was on earth.
 
Formulate Apologies
When a spouse admits to sin there is a need for you to coach the person on formulating an apology, delivering the apology, asking for forgiveness, and seeking reconciliation.  Before someone apologizes however, you need to be actively coaching the other person on how to receive an apology, accept it, forgive, no longer dwell on the issue and then grant forgiveness.  This is a key underpinning to reconciliation; it is also a key underpinning to breaking an impasse in a negotiation over issues in the settlement of the parenting plan or separation agreement.
 
Church discipline
When one party admits to sin but will not stop or repent, it may be necessary to hold them accountable, even to the level of imposing Church discipline.  Church discipline may take many forms including asking the person temporarily to not return to the church until they cease the particular sin.  In divorce, it is important to advance to this step only when the individual admits the sin rather than based upon the accusation of the other spouse.  We have seen even “good” Christians falsely accuse the other of all manner of sin.  Some reasons include the need to justify their desire to divorce, to punish the other spouse, to make themselves look like the innocent party, to gain an edge in litigation, to gain control of the children, to extract a higher settlement amount, to reverse a previous agreement, and the list goes on.  Sometimes the stress and animosity of the divorce process can even lead the accuser to actually believe the things they are saying.  This causes them to be perceived as even more believable.  Needless to say, church discipline should be utilized judiciously.
 
Refer the couple to Christian Mediation
Working with a Christian organization that is specifically called to mediate divorce among Christians is paramount.  There are many Christians who want to be helpful.  They may run the gamut from friends to litigator “Christian” attorneys; but consider the example of Moses (Acts 7: 23-29 & Ex 2: 11-14).
 
Although he was a believing Israelite, Moses had not yet been called by God.  In fact 40 years before he was called, he came upon an Israelite and an Egyptian in conflict.  He intervened to mediate the conflict even though was not yet called by God.  He looked around to see that no one else was observing and then he murdered the Egyptian and hid the body.  On a later occasion, he came across two Israelite’s in conflict.  When he tried to intervene and mediate, he was rebuffed and questioned if he would kill one of them as he had done to the Egyptian.
 
There are a lot of mediators out there including Christian mediators and court appointed mediators.  Few Christians have been called, and also accepted the call, to the difficult field of divorce mediation.  We humbly believe that Christian Divorce Services has been called and equipped to intervene in the divorce process and we believe that makes us uniquely qualified to assist your church members.
 
Remember the link between Mediation and Reconciliation
The reconciliation rate after a litigated divorce is 0.03%.  The reconciliation rate after a mediated divorce is 10%.  While 10% is not high, it does tell us that sending your church members to an attorney for litigation, even a “Christian” attorney, costs us 10% of our "on the brink" marriages.  Why?  Mediation is non adversarial; litigation is adversarial.  Litigation is also compounding wrong.  We are specifically directed not to sue each other in court, and yet, ministers consistently refer their members to “Christian” attorneys so the person can sue for divorce.  If reconciliation has failed and divorce is the path, then the only hope of the prospect of reconciliation returning down the road is through a mediated divorce process. 
 
The Role of An Attorney
 There is one role required by the State, but there are two very different alternative roles for Christian attorneys. The State role is to "zealously advocate", where as, the Christian roles are either first to review or secondly to practice collaborative law.
 
The State’s role for the attorney:
Attorneys are trained in law school and required by their membership in the BAR Association to "zealously advocate" for their clients. Stated another way, they must attempt to gain as much as possible for their clients. To do this, the wife's attorney attempts to prove the husband is an awful person and that the children and money should be distributed in the wife’s favor. Concurrently, the role of the husband’s attorney is to prove the wife is an awful person and the bulk of the money and the children should be awarded to the husband. The process is purposefully designed to be an adversarial system and to tease out every shred of evidence, to manipulate, and use power to each client’s advantage. This is directly at odds with our directive in Corinthians. By BAR Association rules, an attorney can not "zealously advocate" and represent both the husband and wife at the same time since "zealously advocation” is mutually exclusive to helping the couple.  Christian attorney Ken Sande writes extensively on why this model is Biblically wrong.  For more information see Peacemaker Ministries or his book, The Peacemaker.
 
The first Christian role for an Attorney:
Collaborative law.  In collaborative law, a church has two Christian attorneys; one assigned to the wife and one assigned to the husband.  The attorneys agree to a flat fee and enter into a contract that agrees they will settle all issues in the case without going to court.  Attorneys who practice collaborative law agree to not accept their fee if they fail to settle the case and it ends up going to trial.  This keeps the Church, the clients and the attorneys truthful to 1 Corinthians 6:1-8. This structure also avoids conflict with BAR Association rules prohibiting one attorney from representing the couple.  This role can never be accomplished by referring a spouse to an attorney, even one who is a member of the church.  It requires the referral to two attorneys who can “collaboratively” practice collaborative law.  The field of collaborative law is small since it significantly reduces attorney income.
 
The second Christian role for an Attorney:
Unless you have two Christian attorneys who specifically practice collaborative law, the role of a Christian attorney should be limited to advising or reviewing agreements during Christian Mediation and then filing the final Parenting Plan & Separation Agreement with the court after the mediation is completed.  Never simply refer a spouse to an attorney, even one in your church, because it begins the adversarial process.  The first referral should always be to a Christian Mediator.  The attorney referral comes second because attorneys immediately begin with the “zealous advocation” model of adversarial divorce.  An attorney for one side can not also be the mediator by BAR Association rules, since zealous advocation is mutually exclusive to helping the couple.  
 
While Christian Divorce Services can provide your church members with both a Christian Mediator and a Christian attorney, we always begin with a mediator.  In almost every case, the mediator is able to bring the couple to complete agreement on all issues.  An attorney’s role then is to review, advise, and file the documents.