July 31, 2022 | Silver Spring, Maryland, United States | Marcos Paseggi, Adventist Review
A keynote presentation at “Life in the Blender,” the Adventist Conference on Family Research and Practice held July 21-23, 2022, highlighted challenges and resources to help blended families at the local church level.
The online event, organized by the Family Ministries Department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, in partnership with Andrews University, sought to discuss current issues affecting families at Adventist congregations and provide tools to promote and cultivate resilience.
“Driving a biological family is like driving a Volvo,” Christian family ministry consultant Ron L. Deal said during one of his presentations on the first day of the event. “It is built really well, in a way that can be a safe place even in the case of an accident.” Deal, who is president of Smart Stepfamilies and director of FamilyLife Blended (a division of FamilyLife), explained that single-parent homes or blended families are like driving a three-wheel car. “You become more susceptible to side impacts,” he said.
In his presentation, Deal said that no matter the make-up of families in a local church, congregations can do certain things to support blended families if they have the will to do so. In his hour of speaking, Deal set out to define and provide examples of what local congregations can do to support blended families.
In the following days, other presenters such as Loma Linda University epidemiologist Rhonda Spencer-Hwang and Jesus 101 Biblical Institute speaker/director Elizabeth Talbot covered health-related and spiritual aspects of resilience.
The Issues with Blended Families
Blended families consist of a couple and their children from the current and all previous relationships. It is a situation, Deal explained, that is fraught with difficulties and chances of conflict and failure.
“When you replace the missing person, you are not giving your children a biological parent,” Deal said. “It’s not the same.”
For Deal, a blended family is also like driving a motorcycle. “It can become something very susceptible to accidents, to stress. It is a huge balancing act,” he said. “If one person decides to get off that arrangement, it affects the whole.”
Deal explained that many family authors write from the biological family standpoint. “They assume in their writings that you have the authority to be a parent,” he said. But it is not always so easy. “Remember: you connect before you correct,” he said.
A mother, for instance, can put in a new person as a dad. That person might think that he now needs to be in charge and be the man of the house. But it doesn’t usually work that way, Deal explained. “People around him are not ready,” he said. “It usually takes five to seven years. You cannot force a relationship with kids. But a little bit of love, care, and kindness can go a long way.”
On the other hand, Deal explained, when you make a blended family work, it’s wonderful but requires a lot of effort. “Remember that blended families are born into ambiguity,” he said.
Strategies to Minister to Blended Families
Besides giving definitions, Deal spent much of his presentation sharing strategies local congregations can implement to support blended families.
First, Deal said, it is important to acknowledge blended families as part of their local congregation, so as to build a bridge to connect with them. “Blended families tend to have a lot of shame, to hide their past. We must help them to go past that shame,” he said.
At the local church level, there is high need but low demand for blended-family ministries, he said. “There is not a market demographic for the group. It does not exist; we are trying to create it,” Deal explained.
In that sense, Deal said, it is important to create awareness in local leadership. “You have to first educate your own leaders. If they don’t see the big picture, they won’t give their time or effort.”
He suggested, among other things, acknowledging blended families in church, especially at dates such as Fathers Day or Mothers Day. “Acknowledge them from the pulpit,” he advised, “and let a blended couple share their story.”
Deal shared that it is also key to educate church members about blended families. “Talk to members about foster parents, stepparents, and step-grandparents,” he advised.
Education and Connection
Blended Family Ministries can be part of youth ministries, small groups, or another church department, Deal added. “Find a home for your ministry. Find who is motivated, who will get it going. When you find a fit, you can develop leaders.”
It is also important working to create connections, “getting blended couples together and forming affinity groups that include blended families,” he said.
Among other tips, Deal suggested “creating a continuum of care” that includes and embraces blended families at every stage. According to him, it can include a divorce recovery ministry, a single parenting ministry, and preparation for remarriage. “If [those people] marry again, they will have an easier time; it will be an easier transition when the single parent has been doing his job,” he said.
Deal explained that recovery ministries work because every person shares their struggles. “When you bring people together, it is something powerful,” he said.
Addressing the Issues
Advice to blended-family parents can include tips to deal with the unavoidable loyalty battles when there are biological parents and stepparents present in the life of a child, Deal said. “Children don’t want adults to be fighting, and things get upside down when kids start taking care of their parents,” he explained. “Children must be taken out of the tug of war.”
This is the reason, Deal said, that simple tips can help blended families to find their footing and support their children. “Imagine a stepfather that tells his stepchild, ‘Have a good time at your mom’s house this weekend,’ ” he said. “Those little pieces of parenting are significant for children and for the whole family. It is a liberating thing for the child,” he said.
Overall, Deal said, the local congregation leader can be instrumental in addressing issues that blended families in their congregations might be facing. And it’s not complicated to start bringing those issues to the forefront. “You can just start by throwing out little tips, like in a sidebar,” he said. “Talk about conflict in marriage. In an illustration, you can mention a parent and a stepparent, and a conflict they have when, for instance, you get a call from the kid’s other biological parent.”
Deal also suggested speaking directly to the blended couples in the room. When you do that, he said, “you open a door; you build a bridge. You don’t need to change your entire curriculum. Keep doing what you are doing, but include small tidbits.”
Not every church can do everything, Deal explained. “But when you find something that adapts to your situation, focus on that and start with the easy next step.”