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How divorce affects young adults' religiosity

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

A teen boy and girl sing hymns in church.

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Elizabeth Marquardt still hasn't found a congregation where she fits in.

The 42-year-old married mother of two, whose parents divorced when she was a toddler, could be ministering over a congregation. She holds a divinity degree, reads the Bible every day, believes in God and as a researcher, has surveyed thousands of youth and adults whose faith was either shaken or steeled by their parents splitting up.

But Marquardt hasn't found a faith community that responds to the profound impact divorce has on the faith of children raised in broken homes. And her research has convinced her she's not alone.

"When death happens, people gather in support," she said. "When divorce happens, people flee. These aren't bad people, but people who don’t know what to say or what to do, and so they don’t say or do anything."

Such a response can have long-lasting consequences on the faith of people whose parents divorce. A national survey of 1,500 young adults, conducted for Marquardt's book "Between Two Worlds," found two-thirds of people from married-parent families said they were very or fairly religious, compared to just over half of the children of divorce. More than a third of those from married-parent families attended religious services almost every week compared with just a quarter of people from divorced families.

These children of divorce make up the leading edge — or what she calls the "broken leading edge" — of a growing number of adults who say they are spiritual, but don't affiliate with a particular religion. And with evidence confirming the greatest predictor of the religious lives of children are the religious lives of their parents, a report released Wednesday, "Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? Challenging the Churches to Confront the Impact of Family Change," says this cohort of the religiously unaffiliated could have serious implications for the health of churches, both in terms of membership and contributions to churches.

Marquardt, who directs the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values and is the principal investigator for the Families Shape Faith project, said the report is a call to churches to recognize and respond to the impact divorce has had and will have on religion. More than 20 scholars contributed to the research, funded by the Lilly Endowment, with papers that address how divorce impacts the faith of youth, how parents influence the faith of their children and how churches can respond to keep their youth's faith intact while restoring the faith of adults.

"We have a couple of generations today who grew up amid profound family change, and if churches aren't connecting with their experiences they are losing them," Marquardt said. "It's not just about helping children who are hurt, but welcoming in adults."

The Children

Within nine months of their engagement, Andrew Root and his fiancee each experienced the divorce of their parents. "That was our introduction into marriage. It was like, 'good luck,'" he recalled. At a deeper level, his parents breaking up after more than 20 years of marriage prompted some spiritual questions that Root struggled to answer. He recalled hearing his mother express relief that the marriage would soon be over and regret that she ever married his father. "It became an untenable situation for me. ... I am in the world because these two people got together and now they regret that they were ever together, ending this community that brought me into the world."

Root, an associate professor of youth and family ministry at Lutheran Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., said shoring up the structural support for children of divorce through child support and visitation schedules is important. But he believes divorce exposes other profound spiritual needs of youth that are often misunderstood or sometimes ignored.

"They question their own being because they lose a primary community — the marriage that brought them into this life," said Root, who wrote a book about his struggles, "Children of Divorce: The Loss of Family as the Loss of Being." "It’s philosophical, but it resonates at a practical level for many people."

How deeply it resonates depends on the spiritual state of the youth before the divorce, according to research by Clemson University sociologist Melinda Denton, who has developed a typology that identifies five areas of an individual's religious engagement ranging from "abiders" (youth who are very religious) to "atheists." (See the accompanying chart for a description of each type.)

Her research, published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and included in the Families Shape Faith project, found that divorce causes youth to shift from one level of religiosity to another. In particular, one pattern Denton noticed was that highly religious teens were more likely to become less religious due to divorce, while youth who are marginally religious can become more religious in the wake of divorce.

Reasons for these changes range from the profound to the practical. Denton explained that some teens may withdraw from religion because it doesn't answer their questions triggered by divorce, while others seek it out as a way to cope with feelings of loss. For other teens, weekend visitation schedules with each parent may be the reason their religious participation declines.

Whitney, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her parents, changed from an involved churchgoer to a bystander in a congregation that took sides in her parents' breakup. A distrust of adults developed within the 15-year-old as she saw people draw conclusions about a situation they knew little about.

"I appreciated adults who would just listen instead of coming in with an assumption of what went on," she said. "I felt a lack of concern for myself."

The Families Shape Faith report describes Whitney's experience as a "second silent schism" that children can experience through divorce. The first "schism" occurs when the breakup ruptures what one scholar called the "domestic church" at home. The second connection to break is with a congregation and even a life of faith itself.

Root said that happens when clergy and a congregation fail to recognize church as a place where youth expect to find answers and solace at a time of family crisis.

"Churches have the potential to be places of healing for young people because they are fundamentally and theologically communities that children of divorce need where they can tell their stories of pain and be embraced with a feeling of hope and healing," he said.

For Whitney, that second schism closed four years after her parents separated, when a friend reached out and brought her to a new congregation that she said didn't judge her by her family background.

"I felt needed and around others in the same situation, and I felt like I fit better," she said. "I was put to work and felt my bishop cared about me and could answers my questions."

The parents

Rachel's birthday is on New Year's Day. But when she turned 18, she found no cause to celebrate her adulthood or the new year. She and her father had reached an impasse: Either she abandon her Mormon faith or she could no longer live with him. Religious differences played a role in her parents' divorce five years earlier and it pained her father to see his oldest daughter stay involved in a faith he vehemently opposed. Rachel was hurting, too, as she packed her things at her father's home and wondered if she would ever see or hear from him again. "It was heart wrenching," she recalls seven years later. "There was nothing more important at that point in my life than to please my father ... my inability to please God and him was difficult." But Rachel chose God and left.

Rachel, who also asked that her last name remain confidential, is among the exceptions to Denton's research, which found most highly religious youth withdrew from religion because of their parents' divorce. The reasons for withdrawing vary, but among them is that their parents dodged religious doubts, questions and concerns raised by the divorce.

"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.

“It’s just really hard to minister to them in meaningful ways because in lots of ways, they’ve checked out of the community,” one Protestant pastor told a sociologist who produced one of the 13 papers cited in the report.

Root, Marquardt, Denton and other scholars say their research shows that while special programs and support groups help, they aren't enough to address the dilemma of advocating for strong marriages while at the same time not alienating children and adults who have experienced divorce and don't fit the model of the ideal family.

Marquardt said clergy need to learn a dual approach that tells congregants strong marriages matter, but at the same time recognizes that those with broken marriages can enrich the congregation as well.

An occasional sermon from the perspective of healing a broken family can resonate with those who feel out of place or without hope. "The Bible is full of stories of messed up families and out of them came great leaders," she said.

When it comes to youth, Denton said pastors can't effectively address practical needs or answer difficult questions in times of family crisis unless they know where their youth stand on spiritual matters and understand how a divorce can throw up barriers to participation.

Steve Morris, who serves as a bishop for a congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Boulder City, Nev., said spending time with youth is the most effective way to know their spiritual maturity.

"I have learned more about our individual youth during activities such as Scout camp, girls camp, or even our weekly youth activities than I have in our regular interviews," he wrote in an email. "The most important element in understanding youth is time. You must spend time with them in order to truly understand their challenges and desires."

Root said his own marriage became the community that helped him and his wife cope with their parents' divorces. He said the church should serve that same purpose for others who feel pain from divorce.

"We ignore this at our own peril because these people are out there, and I would make a further argument that the church needs these people," he said. "Their perspective is a rich one."

That's the type of faith community Marquardt is looking for.

"I am looking for that authenticity and ability to say, 'Here we are in all of our brokenness striving toward what we think God’s calling us to, and trying to help each other.' I am looking for that."

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