Question (from Facebook community): “What should it look like for church leadership to walk a woman through her difficult marriage, and then, if applicable, through a separation and/or divorce?” I have been at the same church for nineteen years this week, my entire adult life. I started attending there two weeks after I got married. We didn’t church-shop; we just knew for some reason. My church has been intertwined in my family life, the community I have attempted to become more like Jesus in. It’s been gorgeous at times, messy at others. But one thing is for certain, I wouldn’t be who I am without my church.
I’m not going to touch on the first sixteen years of my church’s involvement in my marriage, but rather focus on the painfully beautiful process that unfolded during the past three or so years.
One night something very bad happened in my relationship. The repercussions were rippling days later and I found myself having literally no idea what step to take next. I contacted someone from church who had the expertise in the specific area I was stumped in and he rightfully pointed out to me that to fix this one small thing would be putting a band-aid on a broken, falling-apart situation. He handed our situation off to another couple, and I am so very grateful to him to this day for deciding to do that. I wasn’t grateful at the time; at the time, I was very upset. I wanted an answer, a quick fix. I was no longer interested in trying to fix the whole of my marriage; I had been down that road a thousand times and had come to realize there was no fixing the whole. But he persisted, and we moved onto the next step.
We met with this new couple and everything changed. You see, during those days and weeks between that one horrible night and that meeting, I had been seeing a counselor. That counselor helped me see that our relationship had been characterized by myriad forms of abuse. I went after that truth like an investigative journalist, combing fifteen years of journals, gathering evidence. And as it turned out, she was right. I had been chronicling incidents of abuse all along but had no idea that’s what was going on (and I was even a Psych major, which goes to show how it can happen to anyone and it can be so insidious you don’t even know it’s happening to you). When we met with that new couple, I brought along a list of abuse incidents and said this, “I am not sinless and I am not claiming to be. The following must come out into the light as we can only move forward with full truth. I know full well that there are three sides to every story – mine, his, and God’s…so I’m aware that this could be skewed, and yet, there wouldn’t have been any point for me to lie in my journals…each thing I listed off are things I recounted from journal entries, and my journal is my way of working through things with Jesus.” They listened and I felt fully heard and understood by my church for the very first time. I knew that things were going to change, that this couple wouldn’t just walk away and assume things were getting better on their own. I had finally found help.
We moved forward with what turned out to be a fifteen-month attempt at reconciliation. We were assigned to meet with this couple, together and individually. We were assigned a new counselor. We met regularly with our pastor and our elder couple. We were each told to be a part of a twelve-step recovery group. We were given lists of things to work on. On my end, it was things like stop record-keeping, accept the efforts that you see happening, stop criticizing, “trust but verify”, stop yelling, forgive, and much more. Most of the advice I agreed with, some I did not. All of it was hard. And I did it all. And then some, adding on my own to-do’s. We were prayed over, even anointed with oil. I have just recapped fifteen months in one hundred and twenty-seven words. These typed words cannot possibly describe fully the hell that this fifteen months was for me. It was an uphill climb in inclement weather while emotionally and physically exhausted during which I was being watched and judged with the finish line continually moved farther away by someone other than me. Oh, all the while not knowing what was waiting for me at the top of the mountain. I would never, ever want to go through something like that again; and yet, it was probably the most necessary season of my life.
And then came a point when this large group looked at the two of us, looked at our fragile relationship hanging by shards of threads, and they proclaimed that I had done what I was told to do but my husband had not. They then told me that the burden of reconciliation was no longer on my shoulders – that I could rest – and it was one hundred percent on my husband’s. And then they said words that changed my life forever, that brought relief to my soul like nothing else had ever been said to me before that day. They told me they were releasing me to legally separate, and the next day, I did.
My church did not handle this perfectly. No church can. (But they were close.) And Iabsolutely did not handle myself perfectly through this entire thing. But I will be grateful to the people in that group for the rest of my life for hearing me, for understanding me, for asking the very difficult questions, for believing me, for rescuing me, for helping me.
So here is what I think a woman in a difficult marriage should be able to expect from a healthy church:
1) To find someone you trust. If your church is filled with people you cannot trust (and I’ve heard someone say this), there’s something wrong.
2) That though everyone is busy, if you call to make an appointment with a pastor, they will fit you in.
3) That not everyone will know how to handle a marriage that has abuse or addiction in it; an affair, yes; abandonment, yes; the other things, not always so much.
4) That you have the right to keep looking for someone who gets it until you find that person.
5) That it might take talking to more than one person.
6) That every person on staff at a church is just a person, flawed, struggling, full lives. Do not be discouraged if a call or email falls through the cracks. Give people the benefit of the doubt that they’re doing the best they can.
7) That both sides will more than likely asked to be heard, as it should be. This part can be scary, but it’s necessary.
8) That splaying your marriage out in front of church leadership will be messy and hard and scary.
9) That you will more than likely be asked to do things you don’t want to do.
10) That if you are truly in an abusive or addiction-laden relationship, they will not be okay with leaving things as is.
If you are not in a church that listens to your cries for help, and I don’t say this lightly, it may be time to find another church. But if you are, then attempt to do what they recommend, putting your whole heart into the process. Trust that they can see the path ahead of you when to you it seems unclear. Will they mess up along the way? Yes, they are only human. But if they are truly trying to follow God, they are using Scripture as their source of wisdom, you know they are praying for you, and you trust them, God can use the Church in mighty ways to support and help women who are hurting.