a view from the margins: divorced & on the outs

if you’re just joining the conversation here, i am in the middle of posting a series of interviews with people i know both in and outside of the refuge who for all kinds of reasons live “on the margins.”  sometimes it’s the margins of society, other times it’s the margins of “the church.”  sometimes it’s both.  so far, we’ve touched on:

although i will never be able to hit all of the issues that people struggle with that somehow make them feel relegated to the margins, i do hope that we can somehow connect the dots to the parts that we or others might relate to. when i was reflecting on the last post about special needs kids, i was thinking that many of the same issues apply to parents of kids who are struggling with drugs, alcohol, depression, and a wide range of other issues that somehow edge them off to the fringes of the average church.   i am guessing that many parents can relate to christina’s feelings in that respect.

with that said, i wanted to give you entrance into an unfortunately very typical story of a dedicated christian leader who ended up getting a divorce and suddenly found himself on the “outs” of church.  yeah, i know many who can relate.   it is so sad for me to say this, but i really think the average suburban church is made for the average couple with a few well-behaved kids (note that i’m not saying all churches, just the average kind, i know there are many communities deeply dedicated to singles, etc.).   but what happens when marriages fall apart and all that was once shiny and happy is no more?

unfortunately, many times folks really just don’t do well with this kind of pain & those in the midst of it often end up feeling tossed aside, ignored, abandoned, ditched, or dismissed. here’s a look into one person’s story.  i met  “jake” this past year through another friend.  he lives across town & we hang out for coffee now and then. i love his heart, his honesty, his pursuit of healing. but i hate what happened to him when the fallout of his divorce ravaged his faith, his heart, his ministry:

share a little of your background, what your faith journey has sort of been like, and how you found yourself divorced after years of ministry?

I grew up in a fundamental type of church and “prayed” to receive Christ” at a young age, but it was not until I was in college that I really had a good handle on what it meant to be a follower of Christ at least as the Evangelical Church would describe it.  My wife and I were very involved in our church, teaching Sunday School, Deacon, Trustee, all different areas of leadership. We spent 10 years in Asia as Missionaries and then I spent 9 years leading a Faith Based Non Profit working around the globe. Being a guy and a workaholic, doing God’s work, I guess that I missed something along the way as far as taking care of my marriage:  two years ago my wife told me she was leaving me. I was in shock as she followed through with the divorce.

 

 

 

can you describe what the initial response was to you, a person in leadership, having a crumbling marriage?

Out of fear I kept it very secret as long as I could. I knew from past experience that this was not going to be a good thing. I have seen others marginalized and in many cases “put out” of the group because of divorce, it was like they suddenly came down with a disease.  I only shared the issue with a couple of people and when things finally came to the point of needing to be public a lot of people told me that “they would be praying for us” but very few took any time to go further than that.  I also began to get the feeling that I was now somehow on the outside or at least looked at as having “an issue” that they did not know what to do with, secretly hoping that maybe it will somehow just go away.  I think that the initial response was one of fear. I had a couple of people who said “if this could happen to you, what could happen to us?”

 

 

 

how did your divorce throw you into the category of being “marginalized”?

First off I lost my job, the Board of Directors did not see how they could have a leader who was divorced or at that time going through a divorce. At that point I was out of a job and not sure exactly where I fit in the Christian culture.

 

 

what were some of the places that you have found relief during your healing journey post-divorce?

Truthfully, I found most of my relief in 3 places.  My patio and front porch, where I would sit and smoke a cigar (I know, really nasty) and either listen for God to speak or often shout at him about my situation.  Second was with a couple of good friends who would just sit and allow me to talk. Third was with a Divorce Recovery Group that I joined. Honestly, it was a lot of time alone and just allowing God to talk to me and me to him.

 

 

 

what have been some of the greatest sources of pain in the process?

 

Besides the actual divorce and the pain of the rejection, it has been the rejection that I have felt from the “Christian” friends that I thought I had and people in general who just do not know how to come alongside another person in pain.    It is the judgment that I have felt from the evangelical world–not the church as an organism but the church as an organization.

 

where was God in all of this, what were some of the things you would cry out to him?

God was there and he showed up in many different ways, through people and phone calls at just the right time, by talking to me while I was on the patio or porch, by allowing me to vent my feelings, frustrations, pain, fear and just making me feel like I was not being judged like I felt from church people.

 

 

what has it felt like for you, to become an “outsider” after so many years as an “insider”?

The worst feeling is that I no longer have a place at the table, I know that I have almost 40 years of experience both in churches, on the mission field, in organizational leadership, but I am no longer welcome. I no longer have a voice in any of the circles I used to be in. I feel like it is a waste of me and what I really do have to offer.

 

 

what are some of the things that have shifted in your faith post-divorce?

God has become more real to me, personally.  I must have time now in silence and sitting with him.  It is no longer about “doing more” for God but “allowing my being” to be attached to him.  I want to believe that I am no longer as judgmental as I once was.  I am learning it is about journeying with others where they are not where I think they should be in their faith/life journey.

 

 

 

what are some of the things that have shifted in your relationship with “the church” post-divorce?

I am no longer attending an evangelical church. I have no plans on moving back into that world unless there is a bolt of lightning or direct message from God.  I do attend on an irregular basis services at an Anglican church close to my home but the Priest and I have a deal:  I am just there to hide and meet God in a formal way.   My new church is a small group us who get together once a month for poker and fun. We do more “church” in that setting than I have done in years.

can you describe what you have lost.

First and foremost, I lost my identity.  I also lost what I thought was my family (the church), people I thought were friends and colleagues.

 

 

can you describe what you have gained?

A clearer picture of what the “body”, “the organism” of Christ should look like. It is about loving each other as we want and need to be loved.  It is about journeying with people right where they are today, not where we think they should be to fit our ideal or the groups’ ideal. I have a freedom to journey with God in new and fun ways that has become deep and rich in ways I hadn’t imagined.

 

 

are there any really stupid things christians have said to you along the way that made you want to scream?

 

“As a divorced person you no longer fit the description of a Christian leader…”

“It scares me to be around you now.”

“I don’t understand why you are blaming the church for your problem.”

“Your situation has brought shame on the church”

“We might lose money and people because of our status…” (not said but implied, no guts to come out and say it directly.)

  

 

 

 

what are some of the ways people have helped you the most?

Listen and sit on the garbage heap with me, not comment or try and fix, just sit and listen.

 

 

 

what are some of the things you cry out to God in the middle of the night?

Why!!!

Why won’t you just fix this so I can get on with life.

Why!!

 

what have you learned about yourself, about God as you have struggled and scraped to heal & rebuild?

I have learned that I am going to be ok. God spoke to me one day and said, “I will not guarantee your marriage, your job or your life circumstance, but I will tell you that YOU will be ok.” God has not abandoned me, he still loves and cares very deeply not only about me but those who have hurt me and those I have hurt.

 

 

what scares you the most about opening up your heart to christian community again?

Not going to happen in the traditional circle, there is absolutely no trust on my part that they can or will try and understand. Bottom line, I do not want to be rejected again and have a deep sense that I would be.

 

 

what words do you have for someone who is in the midst of a christian divorce, especially when they are in leadership/ministry?

You will be ok, the core you, not your perceived you.  Please get in touch with me and we will have coffee and I will listen, without judgment and allow you to tell your story.  It is important to tell it out loud to people who will truly listen.

 

 

what words do you have for “the church” when it comes to journeying alongside men & women in this same situation, what would you like them to know?

Learn to follow Jesus and his example, not a cultural façade that has been given to you that in no way exemplifies Christ, no matter what you have been taught by the “church”.  Jesus did not throw Peter away even after he had denied him 3 times; he met him where he was and restored him to an even greater ministry.  People who have gone through tough times may need a time out but they can and will come back strong.  Allow them to lead the way.

 

thank you, jake, for sharing a piece of your story with us.  i know many men & women who found more meaningful & rich relationship with God through their divorce but lost their communities, ministries, and all that they had once known–and unfortunately had no one to sit on the garbage heap with them.   i do hope and pray that we as Christ-followers continue to learn grace & mercy & restoration & long-haul-unconditional-love-where-there’s-no-more-“outs” when our brothers & sisters walk through the dark valleys of real life.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

13 Comments

  • Okay Kathy this is getting redundant!

    I won’t say as much, but I have a kind of similar story myself to this as well. Matter of fact if you care to you and others might go to my blog at ReligionFreeJesus.com and click on the link near the top of the page and click on the link that says “The Story.”

    Thank you again! I truly hope we meet one day in the not to distant future.

    Reply
  • Kathy,
    This is a great series. It is so terrible that Christians more often define themselves by who they discard and reject rather than who they accept and are willing to lovingly embrace

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  • Thanks “jake” for sharing your story.

    From another perspective, I was a person on the other end of the marriage who was ignored in favor of the church. My ex-husband continued to find more meaning in one of the activities that divided us the most. Youth Work.

    While perhaps he is to be commended for this, it was very painful for me. I couldn’t even stand a church service for over a year, because I was so angry at the church for taking my husband from me. He eventually categorized me as “un-godly” and was unable to understand his part in my inability to go to church. And just because I didn’t go to church did not mean I was un-godly.

    I too faced many betrayals from friends and former family members. I only have a few friends left from my former life. Not once did anyone from the church we attended reach out to me. I don’t know the reason, but it’s kind of disappointing considering there are 7,000 people there.

    I’m really happy that I found the refuge and a few other friend communities where people are not looking to hear the “right” answers, but rather want to hear about each other’s true lives.

    Reply
  • Thanks for posting this story. I crave reading others’ experiences that are similar to mine, because I personally don’t know many ex-pastors that are divorced.

    Incredibly, the loss of identity has been harder to recover from than the loss of the marriage. There is an internal voice that won’t shut up; constantly badgering me with doubts, questions and shame that daily threaten to silence me when I step out to minister to others.

    Funny thing is, I believe the things I have experienced have actually made me a more compassionate and safer leader. I can relate to others’ brokenness and struggles in a real way that I never could before.

    Reply
  • Hey!!

    I am sorry I haven’t commented recently. God is just moving so much in my life right now!!

    Thanks so much for this series Kathy. It’s gut-checking… heart-touching…

    In each one of these in the series… I thought about the elderly and what so many in the oldest old category are going through right now. Their plight includes almost all these struggles listed….. yet sickness & age are not caused by any mistake and it’s a path we will all travel if we stay on thsi earth long enough… it’s something almost every single one of us will encounter one day. They are a people the church & country (government too) has all but given up on and turned their back seeing no hope there. It’s not ‘cool or popular’ at all to help the elderly especially those sick & alone…. and it’s heartbraeking to see them tossed aside. Nobody is willing to take care of people who aren’t going to get better and who can’t pay us back…. so do we truly have a haert of service if we always choose to help people who have high probability of change. Who have possibility to pay us back. Who will give us ego points when they get better and tell others all we did.

    I know that i’m not saying this correctly and I’m sorry. I’m just trying to get this all out real quick,.

    ANYWAY!! about this specific post — this reminded me so so so so much about this book I just finished, Church Picnic… by shelby humphreys —- is she your friend!? Oh man if you don’t know her story or haven’t read this book, you should!! 🙂 It impacted me a lot.

    anyway – that’s all I wanted to say right now. Love you all! 🙂

    Reply
  • I too am part of the “pastoral family casualty group”. When I was divorced the world went silent. There were few people who reached to me when I was in a state of emotional collapse and unable to reach to anyone. I spent 6 months alone in a cabin where God began to recreate my broken soul. I eventually visited 8 churches, not too eager to stick around too long and let anyone close enough to hear my story. Too many questions, too much shame. Although there will always be those people who just don’t know what to do with divorced people in the church, I also found that the opposite is true. I withdrew because of my own shame and my own assumptions and fear of being rejected. When I found the courage to face family and old friends and my former church, I found love. Acceptance. I found Christ. And yes, I also found rejection. But I know now that my continued healing depends on my willingness to face more of those people and let them wrestle with how to love and accept me.

    Reply
  • Man, there’s nothing that brings out the condescension and self-righteousness in my church people than a ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ who gets divorced.

    “Jake,” thanks for sharing your story. I grew up in church and saw a lot of ugliness. I am so sorry you were treated the way you were. I’m with you. I don’t know if I will ever be able to be part of the ‘church as I knew it’ scene again. To much pain.

    Having never been married, I haven’t been the direct target of the divorce police, but my parents were. And a very close friend. And I gave up a leadership position in my church – gave up my church – in favor of truth and walking along side a friend that the church abandoned. And it’s funny. None of our fellow leaders ever contacted us to find out what was wrong or if we were okay. But God has walked us through a heck-of-a-lot and He is not done. I’m glad you have connected with Kathy. connections with people who are willing to be real make all the difference in the world.

    Reply
  • Thanks for sharing, “Jake.” This is the first post in this series where I found my blood boiling.

    I’m not one that’s given to anger much, but as I read your story swear words were just bubbling up in me at how you were treated. I hate injustice and hypocrisy with a passion. I hate people being treated with gross unfairness. I hate judgment being dumped on people who need love and acceptance. My husband and I both used to be “in the ministry” (we left all that behind 11 years ago and now just meet with a small group in homes) so I know full well that what you are saying here is the truth–it is exactly what happens over and over again. I have this strange division going on in me right now–wanting to cry over your pain that has been caused so needlessly and then wanting to yell obscenities at the institution that has so perverted the gospel that it can let this very thing be played out day after day, year after year, in thousands of peoples lives. I’m just so sad that you had to go through such a painful thing and on top of it to have to face abandonment by the “christians” in your life at that time.

    If you’re ever in Vermont, do look us up: My husband loves a good cigar on our front porch as well and would welcome the company any time!

    Reply
  • “Jake”, thank you for sharing your story…I can sure relate to the “WHYS!” in the middle of the night. It’s neat seeing the compassion that you are extending to others that are experiencing the hurt you know so well.

    Kathy, thanks again for posting this series! I was telling my husband about it and he wants to read it. His first wife left him with their 2 young children & the church they had belonged to asked him to leave and not bring the kids back…his ex had sin cooties & they didn’t want the germs in their midst. He still hurts from that & was encouraged to know that you were posting stories from other men with similar stories.

    Reply
  • tom – thanks for sharing & i will go over there and take a look. i remember stumbling on your blog a while back before you posted here & so i need to go check it out finally!

    christine – so nice to hear from you & yes, it makes me sad. i think i have had a lot of my hope restored in the past few years in the wider community out here, especially in blog-land, where i know that there really is a sincere desire on the part of so many Christ-followers to redeem so much of our bad reputation…

    lisa – thanks for sharing & adding another perspective, too, from your journey. definitely another side to the ravages of divorce & you know the feeling well of being on the “outs”

    beth – thanks so much for sharing! i love your honesty here: “Incredibly, the loss of identity has been harder to recover from than the loss of the marriage. There is an internal voice that won’t shut up; constantly badgering me with doubts, questions and shame that daily threaten to silence me when I step out to minister to others.” that’s the part i hate the most, the insidious-ness of shame & that icky voice that can be so loud. and in terms of brokenness, i really do believe that we comfort others with the comfort we’ve received & that the more we are in touch with our pain & the depths of our heart, the safer we can become. peace to you..

    randi – so great to hear from you and i’m glad your new community is going well, so fun! your passion for the elderly is so beautiful and it is so true, we will all be one day, won’t we? and talk about how easily marginalized and cast aside and having no voice. keep raising the banner!!!

    katherine – “divorce police” okay that cracked me up. but not really because it can be so real. so interesting how we respond when pain hits, eh? i also i wonder how much hurt could be healed for people if someone at least called when they left and just at least had closure instead of just never been heard from again…

    tracy – oh how i love you! enough said.

    donna – see you tomorrow, can’t wait. i’d love to hear your husband’s perspective.

    phyllis – thanks for introducing me to jake…hope we can all get together for breakfast soon. so much to laugh (or cry, hahah) about.

    Reply
  • mary – somehow i missed responding when i posted the last comment. thanks so much for your honesty. you are very courageous and i love what you said here: “But I know now that my continued healing depends on my willingness to face more of those people and let them wrestle with how to love and accept me.” this takes a lot of guts but i know that amazing things can come of it and that both you & others will learn a lot in the process…thanks for sharing a piece of your journey with us!

    Reply

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