Making religious institutions safe for the divorced 

Wednesday, July 27th, 2022 03:59 | By

Several studies globally suggest that spirituality plays a great role in mental well-being, especially when coping with life’s challenges. The belief in a supreme being, for example, encourages believers to relinquish their burdens to an all-powerful being better able to handle the issues than themselves. 

This provides them with space to release their pains even as they hope for things to turn around. Religious institutions are, therefore an important ally to the mental health profession. However, sometimes some of these religious institutions end up causing more harm than good when it comes to handling divorcing couples. 

“First and most common across various religions, is stigmatising men and women who are either divorced or are going through a divorce as sinners beyond redemption. Some religious institutions will not allow divorced members or their children to participate in some religious activities such as baptism or partaking of Holy Communion. It is important to note that some of these members are also victims — they were rejected by their former spouses and are now being rejected by the place they ran to believing it offers unconditional love and acceptance,” observes Faith Gichanga, a counselling and organisational psychologist at Bliss or Blisters.

Church in touch with reality

The other way faith-based institutions may cause harm is when religious leaders advise divorcing couples using one-size-fits-all solutions, yet may not have the professional expertise to handle the situation. For example, they may encourage a partner who is being physically or psychologically abused to stay and pray. 

Thankfully, more and more religious institutions are embracing professional counselling and are bringing in trained counsellors to address such issues. Churches such as Parklands Baptist, in Nairobi and Nairobi Chapel offer a special programme called Divorce Care specifically for anyone on this journey of divorce and separation. 

“We do our best to ensure that people are well equipped to handle life’s challenges. We offer support so that through these life challenges, each one can find a way to keep growing in the faith. Divorce is a reality of life and Nairobi Chapel wants to offer support and community to those going through this life challenge,” explains Muthei Mbevi, a marriage ministry pastor at Nairobi Chapel. 

The programme began in 2018 with three groups, but they presently cater to the groups on a need basis. The support group , Mbevi says, deals with a wide range of topics that those going through divorce face.  They are  encouraged to acknowledge their pain and how to deal with anger, bitterness and forgiveness. If the marriage bore children, the church offers strategies for estranged partners to build a relationship that creates a safe environment for co-parenting.

Faith notes that religious institutions need to realise the important role that they play in the emotional well-being of the population. 

“Church leaders and members need to embrace brothers and sisters who are going through or coming out of this traumatic divorce experience. They run to these institutions to find unconditional acceptance. Let us listen more empathetically and judge less. It may be helpful to have people in their teams trained in professional counselling, whether the religious leaders themselves or other members of the team. This would help better equip them handle the complexities of supporting individuals and families though divorce and separation,” recommends Faith. 

Another helpful intervention that the religious institutions can offer is engaging in conversations about divorce and separation, so that their support and guidance is from an informed position of what the reality of this process is in reality.

“This will attract more of those who may be suffering in silence in the midst of the marital breakdown, be able to come out and seek help,” Faith says. “Divorce can no longer stay a taboo word”.

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