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8 Keys to Reaching Military Stepfamilies

Updated: Dec 10, 2019

learning How to become a more step-friendly chapel

Stepfamilies are the quickest growing family type in the military. I just read a recent study that put it this way “Military couples marry, divorce, and remarry at a younger age and more frequently than their civilian counterparts” Many (over 60%) of those couples will have children that either live with them or have visitation which means they form stepfamilies. Lynn Hall in her fantastic book “Counseling Military Families” says “The rate of remarried couples and stepfamilies in the military is significantly larger than in the general U.S. population.” Bottom line is that you as a chaplain or lay leader must have a better understanding of these unique families if you are to reach, teach, and counsel them. Currently many military and civilian stepfamilies simply do not attend a chapel of church service because of their past hurts and the shame they carry. Many have told us that they feel that the church simply has nothing for them and does not understand their situation, and they are right. We can change that perception.

I have listed below 8 key steps you can make to begin to see stepfamilies walk through your doors every Sunday. Read on and let’s get STEP-FRIENDLY!

I. Require all chaplains, pastors and lay leaders, to have a thorough understanding of stepfamily life and the dynamics that make it different than first marriages.

There are several ways to get stepfamily smart. One is to read the other blogs on our website that are listed under the step parenting and co-parenting, Military Stepfamily Life, Deployments, and Remarriage categories. The other is to read through Ron Deals “The Smart Stepfamily”. He has also published books focusing on stepdads (The Smart Stepdad) and stepmoms (The Smart Stepmom).

II. Become familiar with the stepfamily statistics in your church and local area.

Unfortunately, there are precious few statistics kept by the military on stepfamilies in any of the yearly surveys of family life. However, in 2010, the Defense Manpower Data Center conducted the 2010 Military Family Life Project which did ask if a military family was a stepfamily as part of their marital questions. I have added the results from that survey for you below.

The problem with these numbers is found in the way the question was asked. Stepfamilies are not simply defined as remarriages with resident children. Many stepfamilies have non-residential children that come to visit. That does not make them any less a stepfamily or cause any less stress to the marriage. If we add these families back in, we would have to add an additional 27% of all remarried service members. But what about your specific service? Well the best way to find out is to ask. Take a little time one Sunday and ask for a show of hands of all those who grew up in or are currently in a stepfamily situation or conduct a family survey (I have a great one I have used many times available, just email or call me) of your chapel or church and make sure that “stepfamily” is listed as a family type they can select on the questionnaire. You will be surprised!

III. Recognize that a healthy, dynamic stepfamily ministry is a strong form of outreach for your church.

Given that over half of the current weddings in the US are remarriages for one or both individuals and the high divorce and remarriage rate in the military, a strong stepfamily ministry is becoming an essential ingredient for a healthy and growing chapel.

IV. Be willing to embrace Stepfamily small groups or home groups as a great way to reach blended families outside your church and bring them in to your congregation at their own speed.

Unfortunately, many of us simply are not reaching out to these families either for theological reasons (Am I supporting divorce by reaching out to stepfamilies?) or because we simply do not understand how to reach stepfamilies. On the theological side, which would be a whole separate blog in itself, I would simply ask you this question, if we support hospital ministry, and most of us do, does that mean that we support cancer? No! What stepfamilies are really looking for is a place of acceptance where their guilt and shame and all the stress that comes with stepfamily life is understood and ministered to. Let me share one sure fired way to quickly let stepfamilies know you accept them. The next time you say the word “family” in a sermon or Sunday school lesson, stop and add to that “by family I mean biological families, stepfamilies, blended families, adopted families, all families.” That will take the stress and the shame right out of a stepparent and let them know that they are welcome in your chapel! To show how well this works, we took a survey of a large (over 1,000 members) church before and after the pastor began this redefining of family and the difference was clear. The families within the church who had previously said the church did not care about their stepfamily (rated below a 3 on the first survey) now rated the church at an 8 or above for caring. All because of a simple change in the pastor and his stopping to clarify his definition of family. Now that is being step-friendly!

V. Refrain as much as possible from placing stepfamilies into first-time marriage or newly married Sunday school classes.

The differences between stepfamilies and newlyweds is so great that trying to put the two together will lead to issues in both marriages. The newlyweds will grow tired of hearing how nothing they are learning really works from the stepfamilies who have been through a first marriage that ended badly, and the stepfamilies will walk out since nothing you are saying applies to their unique situation. Stepfamilies are also famous for liking to bash their exes any chance they get, which is not exactly encouraging to first time married couples. Instead of a first-time married class, try having a separate class for re-marriages that deals with their unique situation such as handling ex-spouses who are less than hospitable or how to raise children who are not biologically theirs. We can help you with some great curriculum if you need it, just go to our contact page.

VI. Specifically include step parents on parenting holidays such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

This is going back to some of the advice given in step IV and how critical it is for steps to be recognized and accepted in your service. It is amazing to see the look on a stepmom’s face when a chaplain or lay leader, from the pulpit includes them intentionally into their Mother’s Day message! I have literally seen the dynamic in a church change in a matter of months when this one step was implemented on Mother’s and Father’s Day.

VII. Host some type of workshop or seminar for stepfamilies each year or at least every other year, the same as you would a marriage conference or seminar.

This is the easiest part of becoming a Step-friendly chapel and no, I am not going to give you some lengthy sales pitch here. I will say that we have a military focused seminar which, if you want, you can go read more about by clicking here. There are several great stepfamily ministries and we are here and ready to help you find one that can help you with whatever problem you are facing. The critical step here is to seek the help and training you need to reach these families. The same study that I quoted above also said this “The service members least satisfied with military life were remarried with children (stepfamilies) since they tended to perceive more family problems and felt less satisfaction with military life in general.” That is telling and we as chaplains and lay leaders can make an impact on that perception if we reach out.

VIII. Set a goal to prevent serial re-divorce by strengthening the stepfamilies in your chapel.

Here the key focuses not as much on the damage done to the adults, but the incredible scars we are leaving on our children when we put them through the emotional trauma of multiple divorces. This is where we need to draw a line in the sand and say, “Not in this chapel, not while they are on my base!” You can make a difference! You can become a Step-Friendly Chapel! We are here to team with you to make that happen in any way possible. Please contact us if you need any help, anytime. (256) 665-4232 or email us.

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