what it's like…to get divorced in church

blog what its 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.

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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.

8 Comments

  • Thank you Johanna and Kathy. This is rich, sad, overwhelming and accurate.

    Kathy–you are spot on in picking up on the “do nothing” line, at least in my experience. Many believers have no idea how to respond so they settle for the sidelines. I found the most comfort from friends who would just be with me–a bit like Job’s friends who were very smart for the first week when they just sat with him. They are still my friends some 13 years later.

    Johanna–my prayers are with you that you would know the redeeming work of Jesus, more and more, in the midst of this. I would not want my worst enemy to go through what I went through but I am so grateful for what it has done in me now. Telling your story is a beautiful work of God.

    Keep going.

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    • thanks, jim. i do think of what my friend jo said in her interview. the next best thing to “me, too” is “i’m here.” presence means so much.

      Reply
  • Can i first of all say thank you for sharing this. It is helpful to know what difficulties have existed for Johanna and increasingly as I hears such stories I am more inclined to be alongside ladies in similar situations. I find this kind of honesty so much more helpful than turning to feminism which unfortunately often paints men in a bad light.

    I thought until fairly recently that it was only guys that were under pressure to be “nice” and reading “As a Christian woman, I tried so hard to always do the “right” thing.” and what Kathy has written similarly about the pressure to be a “good woman”. A friend of mine similarly has written abuot her church expereince as “killing my spirit”.

    i have not been throught a divorce, and wouldn’t want to attempt to make any comment about that out of not wanting to take the risk of being insensitive. I would say that as a human being havgin had church expereinces, what has been shared has not been dissimalr in the gravity of the difficulty I have expereinced and I know oithers have too.

    I identify with the not having a voice in a church situation and the extent of the difficulty with that. For me, God has worked powerfully in that and in creative ways. I now do stand up comedy. It seems in this case it has been something that what the enemy has intended for bad God has used for good. Bt having suffered i have an ability to connect with others in their suffering and, as my comedy tutor has said “comedy is about taking pain and alchemising it into a thing of great beauty”.

    I feel like I can breath, i am not out of the woods yet and still have some healing to go and issues to be resolved with acceptance of the imperfections church culture, having healthy boundaries in that etc. But I can see a light at the end of the tunnel now whereas before I didn’t even know where the tunnel was or if there was a tunnel.

    Please don’t give up but keep going Johanna – it is worth it :).

    Adam

    Reply
      • I am glad too. Hopefully good can come from it. The more i hear encouragement like yours Kathy with what you say about it being beautiful, the more I am enabled to keep on this path. Thank you.

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  • Thank you, Kathy, for what you are doing. Putting things like this into my face. Make me think of what is going on in my own mind and heart.

    Thank you, Johanna, for your story. I have been divorced, but it was not traumatic as yours. I can relate to friends turning their back. Mostly, I thought they were afraid that divorce was ‘catching’. I don’t think I’ve ever really recovered. My only friend is my husband. There
    are no women I know that I can really relate to. So sad.

    When I read things like this, I get sad, and I get angry. The anger I feel is at the church in general. We are never taught how to be disciples of Jesus. We are only taught the do’s and don’ts and the finger pointing. We put more weight on Paul’s letters than we do the words and actions of Jesus Christ. I think that is a foible of humans. We like rules. We like boundaries. Even though we break them at a moments notice and its okay for us but not others, those we point fingers at.

    Why are certain “sins” so catastrophic? But then the little white lies and gossip we all take part in are okay. If God were to judge only on actions, where would any of us be? All those ‘holy’ church people would be in the same boat as the rest of us.

    Reply
    • thanks so much for sharing so honestly. that loneliness and lack of support is so real and so painful. i really like this line: “we put more weight on paul’s letters than we do the word and actions of Jesus CHrist. i think that is a foible of humans…” i am so with you. peace and hope from afar.

      Reply
      • Can suggest there is nothing wrong with Pauls letters, and interpreted correctly they are consistent with the “word and actions of Jesus Christ”. Perhaps there has been some teaching and word and deed in the church experiences mentioned that has more to do with impure motives than the words of scripture?

        Reply

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