National Edition

How divorce affects young adults' religiosity

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 16 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

"Don’t walk away from their concerns but honestly engage them," Denton urged. "Not all youth are interested in wrestling with hard questions. But if that disruption results in adolescents withdrawing from religion, you need to engage them in these conversations about religion."

She said that parents acknowledging they don't have answers is better than saying nothing.

"Just validate that it’s complicated," Root said. "It sounds superficial but I think it’s really powerful. ... We need to be honest with young people about where we are at and to say, 'I don’t know.'"

Research for the Families Shape Faith project found that both parents play a vital role in the religiosity of their children when they become adults, and that the father plays the most pivotal role in determining the religiosity of his children after divorce.

"What made the difference was whether a father had encouraged them to practice their faith and modeled that for them," Marquardt said. "So, what fathers are doing with kids on weekends matters."

Rachel credits her parents' religious fervor, although at opposite extremes, for helping her cling to her Mormon faith following the divorce. "Religion was such a big deal, and they became guideposts in a way," she said.

A year after she permanently moved out of her father's home, he called to ask if he could attend her orchestra performance, and he recently heard her speak at church. "He supports me and we both see each other's perspectives and enjoy each other's insights," she said.

Rachel also said the experience has taught her the power of a parent's influence and love. "Seeing my mom praying privately in her room was more of a testimony of prayer than any sermon in church," she said.

The church

Leach Misch was attending a parochial school and its affiliated church in Minnesota when her parents divorced. She can't recall any religious leader from the school or the church asking how she, at 13 years old, was managing. "It would have been up to me," she said. "Now, looking back, I wish the church would have reached out to me more. It wouldn't have changed things, as far as the divorce goes, but I think it would have helped me get through it a little bit better." For more than a decade, Leah drifted away from religion until the mother of a special needs child she was working with opened up to her about God and her own divorce. She gave Leah a Bible for a birthday present and invited her to a church that Leah now attends regularly.

Until Misch's "second mother" brought her back to church, the 26-year-old nurse had the same experience many other children of divorce have in their faith communities at the time of the breakup.

Marquardt's research found two-thirds of those who went through a divorce reported no one from their church reached out to them during that time, while only one-quarter remember someone doing so.

With one-quarter of the U.S. adult population being children of divorce and about one million children in the U.S. experiencing the divorce of their parents each year, stemming the membership decline in mainline Protestant churches could depend on how those churches respond to the religious consequences of divorce, according to the report.

"The health and future of congregations depends upon understanding, reaching out to, and welcoming and nurturing as potential leaders those who have come of age in an era of dramatic family changes," the report's executive summary states. "The suffering felt by children of divorce may actually offer a pathway toward healing and growth, not only for themselves, but for the churches."

Clergy don't disagree. Those surveyed by researchers say they are ready and willing to reach out, but they often find resistance from those who have abandoned their faith in the wake of divorce.

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