As a young laywoman, I remember hearing that in a divorce, some member of a couple always loses custody of the church. In a congregation where appearances mean a lot, it might be both of them. But does it have to be that way? The Matriarchs weigh in on this week’s question below.

Dearest Matriarchs,

I had just been called to a new church when I was asked to officiate – along with the interim Pastor – in a wedding between two older, long-time and active church members. She had been divorced for many years and he, after being married for 47 years – was a widower for a little less than a year. Well, you can probably guess what’s happened, right? After a month shy of a year of marriage– they are heading for divorce court. I have been a supportive ear to the both of them but how do I keep this from dividing the church into two camps? In the process of splitting things up who “gets custody” of the church?

Pastor Just Wondering

Dear Wondering-

swiss flagYou may recognize that this is the national flag of Switzerland. It is not always appropriate for the pastor to “play Switzerland” but this sounds like a good time to adopt their historically neutral attitude towards conflict.

If they are willing, your members can share life in the congregation even after their divorce, but the success of that is dependent on their behavior. Are they willing to do that? Can they help their friends not take sides? I am guessing that since you have been a supportive listener to both of them, there isn’t an issue of abuse or victimization. If so, I would find a short pat answer when anyone fishes or looks to stir something up, “It has been a difficult decision for Bob and Sue. Please keep them both in your prayers.”

Good luck with this one. I know it can be done and your non-anxious, unbiased presence can help make the difference.


Dear Just,

Please share your concerns with each of the people. Express your concern for each one of them, and awssure them of your prayers.
While it’s not the norm that folks going through a divorce stay in the same congregation, I’ve seen it happen, and always when folks are talked with transparently and honestly.

Share that you hope they won’t ask people to take sides. Speak with your concerned church members, too. How can the congregation serve as a place of hope, healing, forgiveness and grace for people they love? May you and they model something rich and meaningful as the body of Christ.


Dear Pastor Just Wondering,

Continue to love the couple and assume they will work out their problems. You are prayer support for them and a sympathetic ear without taking sides. If your church members want to engage you in conversation about the couple, smile blandly and tell them you are sure the couple will work out their problems then change the subject. Your involvement as a calm observer without getting in the couples’ business is a good model for the congregation.

The good news is that the couple will sort out who stays in the church and who leaves. The bad news is that one will leave and maybe both. Don’t sweat this. Your ministry is to be kind and listen to them. You are not their lawyer or therapist or their family member. Your unique role is to see beyond the current dust-up and to see a future where they are learning from this late-in-life romance drama.

There are pastors who get their jollies from being in the middle of drama. I’m sure you aren’t one of these so breathe, step back, remain calm and let the couple do what they need to do. Surround them with prayer and turn your attention elsewhere.

St. Casserole

Readers, what is your experience? Please share your thoughts in the comments. And if you have a question for our panel of wise women, please send it to ask the matriarch at gmail dot com.

One thought on “Ask the Matriarch: When a Marriage Dissolves, Who Gets Custody…of the Church?

  1. St. Casserole’s observation that some pastor’s like to be in the middle of the drama rings true. My predecessor announced, from the pulpit, about the divorce of a couple in the church, without their permission. And the church continues to wonder why one of the families refuses to step foot in the church. You can’t always make these things up….


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