When Just One Believes
How can we support families when only one parent is an Adventist?
By Karen Holford
Jason married Jenny after he left the church during his college years. Ten years later he came back. Jenny, however, doesn’t believe in God, and she’s very worried about what Jason’s rediscovery of his faith will mean for their marriage.
Rachel joined her local Adventist church after a short, intensive evangelistic campaign. Her husband, Tom, was working night shifts at the time and couldn’t join her. He’s now very confused by her new faith and her “strange,” restricted lifestyle. He’s also concerned about the effect it’s having on his home life.
Pippa’s ex-husband has the children every other weekend. He takes them to his large and lively church on Sundays, and she takes them to her tiny, rural church on Sabbaths when they’re at home. Pippa tries to make Sabbaths special, but she knows the children prefer their dad’s church.
Ian and Helen married after graduating from their Adventist college. Helen’s faith wavered when her father was fired from his ministerial position for sexual misconduct. She was horrified at his behavior and embarrassed to face other church members. Her trust in the church evaporated. Although Ian attends church regularly, Helen hasn’t been to church for more than eight years.
Four different families in which only one partner or parent is an Adventist. Four families struggling with the spiritual division in their home. How can we listen to their hopes and concerns and find ways to support them?
Those who are “spiritually single” (Adventists married to partners who have a different faith or no faith at all) contend with a number of concerns:
♦ They feel spiritually isolated because it’s difficult to be involved in church activities apart from Sabbath mornings.
♦ Getting to church on Sabbath morning is also sometimes difficult, because of the needs and wishes of the other family members.
♦ They often feel guilty for not being more involved, but attending numerous church events distresses their partners and sometimes leads to arguments and resentment.
♦ Other church members are sometimes critical of the difficult decisions they have to make in order to balance church and family, and they feel judged, criticized, and misunderstood.
♦ They want to invite their spouses and children to church activities and social events, but embarrassing and painful past experiences make them afraid to bring their family members along.
♦ They hope and pray that their partners and children will eventually come to church and choose to follow Jesus.
♦ They hope that church leaders will plan events at which their whole family will feel comfortable.
♦ They hope that church members will be more understanding, accepting, and sensitive to their unique situations and needs.
The Non-Adventist Partner
In order to minister to the whole family, we need to understand the struggles and hopes of the non-Adventists too:
♦ Maybe their diet has suddenly changed, and they don’t like being vegetarian.
♦ Saturdays used to be family time, and now they spend it apart because they can’t find acceptable things to do together.
♦ They no longer feel like they are the most important person in their partner’s life.
♦ Church absorbs so much of their spouse’s time, money, and energy that they sometimes feel as if their spouse is having an affair with the church!
♦ Things that seemed normal before—such as taking their children to ball games or shopping in the mall on Saturdays—now upset their partner or cause an argument.
♦ They feel resentful and defensive when their lifestyle choices are judged and criticized by others.
What Can You Do?
There are spiritually single people in all our churches, so how can we determine their needs and ways to support them? And how might we reach out sensitively to their spouses and children? Here are a few ideas:
Nurture understanding. Invite spiritually single people to help other church members understand their issues. Ask them to talk about what life is like for them as well as their specific concerns, hopes, and prayer requests. Or they could compose a written list and share it anonymously with the pastor, leadership team, or wider congregation.
Listen. Be supportive and nonjudgmental. Spiritually single spouses are often managing a complicated balancing act between their loyalty to their partners and to their church. Respect the challenges they face, trust their judgment, and accept them wholeheartedly, even when you don’t totally understand the choices they make.
Consider the children. Imagine what it’s like for the children as they try to obey God as well as love, support, and respect two parents with very different beliefs, values, and lifestyles. They feel incredibly torn. They need love, understanding, and support. Don’t make them feel guilty for spending Sabbath with their non-Adventist parent from time to time.
Keep responsibilities minimal. Be careful not to place too many responsibilities or stress on spiritually single members. Their partners may become resentful if they’re involved in too many church activities. Be understanding if they turn down a request to help.
Offer practical help. Along with praying for them, also offer practical help, such as financial assistance with enrolling their children in Adventist schools or sending them to summer camp. Provide help during times of personal crises, such as home damage following a storm, a car breakdown, illness, or unemployment.
Encourage group meetings. The spiritually single members in your church might like to get together once a month to talk, pray, and offer one another emotional and spiritual support.
Create visitor-friendly events. Ask the Adventist spouses what activities would attract their partners. Possibilities include sports days, hikes, camping trips, picnics, marriage seminars, and community service work. Provide social events at which non-Adventists will feel comfortable and accepted.
Practice hospitality. Encourage members to invite these families into their homes for a meal, or plan an outing together. When people know we care for them, it’s easier for them to understand that God cares for them too.
Consider changes at church. Ask spiritually single members what might make church attendance attractive to their spouses, and be open to new ideas. What we learn from these families can help us become more welcoming to everyone in our communities.
Plan visitor programs. Make them interesting, welcoming, and jargon-free. Every church needs to look at its local church culture, traditions, and style of language from an outside perspective. We easily forget how strange some of our words and practices can seem to others. Some visitors feel very uncomfortable when there are public welcomes, very long prayers, heavy theological sermons, and hymns with archaic words.
Learn the interests and skills of the spouses and find creative ways to involve them in church projects. Perhaps they enjoy carpentry, cooking, or gardening. Maybe they have hobbies they could teach to Pathfinders. Or perhaps they could help with a special outreach or mission project. Find ways to help them feel appreciated, valued, and needed.
Finally, we all need to remember Peter’s advice to wives married to non-Christian husbands in 1 Peter 3:1-6. There he counsels to win them with kindness, gentleness, and loving characters, not by words and arguments. There’s no greater welcome and witness than helping someone feel loved, accepted, and wanted.
Karen Holford is a family therapist and freelance writer living in Auchtermuchty, Scotland, where her husband is president of the Scottish Mission.