Culture Shock: The Need to Develop Relationships
This series is co-written by Linda Ranson Jacobs and Wayne Stocks. Linda has drawn on her years of experience working with children of divorce in a childcare setting, in churches and in developing the Divorce Care for Kids (“DC4K”) curriculum for churches to identify and explain some major issues when it comes to ministering to children of divorce and to explain how those issues were addressed in the DC4K curriculum. Wayne has drawn on his years volunteering in children’s ministry and his work with children of divorce to provide some practical advice on how these issues can be addressed in a weekly children’s ministry environment. Together, we hope that this series will help children’s ministry workers better minister to children of divorce and help those who volunteer in divorce ministries like DC4K to better anticipate and deal with issues unique to children of divorce.
The Need for Relationships
As people who work with children we understand it is important to connect with the children in our care. By connecting with the children we build relationships with them. As adults in the religious realm we know the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We build relationships with the parents in our ministry. We work on our relationships with our family, with neighbors and with other children’s ministers. I think we can agree that healthy relationships are important in our world today.
For some children though, relationships with those they love have been destroyed or marred. These are the children of divorce and/or separation. The very people they trust the most have hurt them deeply. The people they desire to have a relationship with the most, their parents, have bitterly disappointed many of them. When these kids come to church, it is so very important to work on rebuilding that trust and forming relationships with them.
Let me give you an example. Currently I’m working with a couple that is reconciling. They have been separated and are in the process of rebuilding their relationship and their marriage. The wife has an elementary age child by a different father. The daughter seems to be fairly well adjusted. She gets along well with her step dad. Every time the parents see me they hug me. I can read children pretty well, and I have noticed this young girl hangs back when all this hugging is going on. Her parents really want her to hug me, but she has problems hugging me because she and I don’t have a relationship. It will take time for us to form this relationship. And. it will take longer than it otherwise might, because I only get to see her every other weekend.
Most children are eager to reach out to anyone they consider a “teacher”. They laugh and squeal and want to show you something or share what has happened since the last time they saw you. When my (Wayne) son started playing T-ball at age five, he called all of the coaches and the mother who ran the dugout “teacher” and treated them the same way. As a children’s minister, you likely know how eager these kids are for your time, for your attention, and to develop a relationship with you.
However, the culture shock some of you may experience with the child of divorce is the difficulty you will have in actually forming those relationships. These children hang back and can be resistant to forming relationships. You may have to “work harder” to demonstrate that you are worthy of forming a relationship with. Remember, they are still coming to grips with the fact that their deepest and most trusted relationships (those with mom and dad) have been forever altered.
For children of divorce, when you can provide a healthy demonstration of care and love, then you can move them toward a trusting relationship with you. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to cultivate these relationships but they are so worth it. Let’s face it; many of these kids face really crazy relationships outside the walls of your church. Many times they face an ever-changing landscape when it comes to relationships with the adults in their lives. We have to make a conscious effort to reach them inside the church, and we must stay dedicated enough to stick it out for the long haul. Never assume that a relationship is impossible just because a child is resistant to forming a relationship with. Continue to love on that child and put in the hard work, and you will be amazed at the lasting relationship which can form between you.
How We Build Relationships in DC4K
When I train leaders for DC4K [DivorceCare for Kids] I tell them the three most important words for having a successful DC4K are
“Relationship, Relationship, Relationship!”
Some of things leaders do to help build strong relationships in DC4K are:
- Always have friendly warm expressions and smiling faces when children enter the room. Kids can “catch” your feel good expressions through mirror neurons in the brain.
- Provide connecting rituals such as hello rituals and special goodbye handshakes.
- Use the games and activities suggested in the Leader’s Manual that help build relationships with other children in the group.
- The adults take part in the relationship building games in the kid’s Activity Books.
- Provide activities where kids can role play talking to their parents about the divorce and consequently help them deepen their relationships with each parent
- Set up a “relational environment” where children can connect to the church environment. These are caring spaces, caring places, and small areas that promote connections with other children. In these spaces kids feel safe, comfortable and nurtured.
- Leaders learn each child’s first and last name. Even if siblings have different last names, each child’s last name is used. Leader’s use kid’s names often.
- Share stories from the Bible that teach children about trust, connections and relationship building with God and Christ.
How to Build Relationships with Children of Divorce in a Traditional Children’s Ministry Setting
Relationship is not a new concept to children’s ministers and pastors. It is our bread and butter. We strive to build relationship. We want relationship between leaders and children in our churches. We want to help the kids in our churches to build relationships with one another. And, more important than either of those, we want the children in our ministry to develop a life-long relationship with their God and Savior. None of that changes when we start to talk about, children of divorce, but our methods might need some tweaking.
As we discussed earlier in this article, children of divorce will not form new relationships as easily as other kids. They are understandably gun shy about letting someone else into their hearts. Their innocence when it comes to loving relationships has been shattered. Their parents – the primary models for what a loving relationship should be – have called it quits. In their minds, and in their hearts, all relationships are suspect. Given that our principal goal in children’s ministry should revolve around a child’s relationship with Christ, we must give special attention to helping children of divorce to regain a trust in forming relationships. If they have trouble entering into a new relationship with you (a seen and known entity), how much more will they struggle to form a relationship with their Heavenly Father? So, what can those of us in a traditional children’s ministry setting do to foster these relationships?
1. Know your kids. If you don’t know what the kids in your group, or your ministry, are going through, you may not know that a child is struggling to form relationships because they are dealing with their parents’ divorce. You have to take the time to get to know the kids in your ministry well. If you have “too many” kids or think “there’s no way I can get to know them all well,” then you’re probably right. If you have so many kids that you personally can’t form a deep bond with each one, that just means you need more volunteers so that each leader can develop that sort of deep relationships with the kids they are discipling.
2. Make a long-term commitment. In many children’s ministries, kids are passed from leader to leader on weekly basis, or as kids move up in years, they get new leaders. Make a commitment to stick with and disciple a group of kids for the long-term. For children of divorce, it can take months or more before they even begin to think about building a relationship. This, of course, takes leaders and volunteers who are willing to make a long-term commitment to the ministry. The investment, in terms of time, is steep, but the payoff is worth it as you watch these kids bond with their leaders and form life-long friendships.
3. Foster an environment that champions and celebrates relationship. Which is more important to you in your ministry: That you have a vibrant program in which kids memorize scripture and they all seem to really be writing God’s Word on their hearts? or That you have an environment where kids and leaders speak into one another’s hearts and share the love of Christ with one another?
Both are, of course, critically important, but in the end, knowledge which cannot be lived out in relationship to other Christians and in relationship to God is useless. Relationships give us an opportunity to practice biblical love, and as 1 Corinthians 13 is very clear, without love the rest of it is useless!
Preaching the Word to kids is, of course, vitally important, but build in time to your lesson for relationships to form naturally. Play games and plan activities that encourage kids to work together with each other, and with their leaders, to allow opportunities for relationships to blossom. Don’t cram Sunday morning so full of “activities” that there is no time to talk about what is going on in a child’s life.
4. Above all else, point every child, and particularly the child of divorce, to the one relationship in their life that they can count on no matter what else happens – their relationship with God. God, our Heavenly Father, is the same yesterday, today and always. He does not change. His love for us does not rise and fall like the tide. He loves us in spite of all of our shortcomings and always will. He will never forsake us and never leave us. Children of divorce, in particular, need to understand that unlike human relationships which can fail, our relationship with God can never fail because God has promised it won’t and God always keeps His promises.
For more resources and information on divorce, family disruption and modern families please visit our Hope 4 Hurting Kids Divorce and Modern Family Help Center.
This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on Divorce Ministry 4 Kids on August 31, 2012.