Family ministry is a term used to describe the many and diverse activities of religious congregations in support of family relationships. Although congregations of many different religious traditions worldwide have activities and programs for families, the term family ministry has been used predominantly in the Roman Catholic Church internationally and in other Christian churches in the United States, including mainline and evangelical Protestant denominations and their congregations, and congregations organized independently of any denomination.
Family ministry often takes the shape of family-targeted educational programs, such as parent and marriage education programs, support groups for families dealing with various life issues (illness, disability, divorce), and counseling services for families in crisis. Family ministry can also refer to all the programs and services that take place in a particular location; a congregation's Family Life Center can include a wide assortment of programs and services: exercise and fitness programs, sports activities, stress management seminars, childcare, and emergency assistance for families in crisis, for example. Finally, congregations collaborate to provide services to families through other agencies, supporting these agencies financially and with volunteers: community family and children's service agencies, residential treatment programs for children with mental illness or behavioral disorders, residential programs for older adults, counseling centers, community centers, agencies providing emergency assistance to families in need, foster care and adoption agencies, and so on.
Family ministry refers not only to family-targeted programs, however, but also to the ways congregations support and strengthen families simply by being a supportive community. Intergenerational friendships develop as people worship, share fellowship meals, serve others, do the business of the congregation, and play together. These friendships can encourage and sustain members of families in the celebrations, challenges, and crises that family living presents. Congregations often support families by providing celebrations of births and marriages, informal mentoring to new parents or spouses, friendly visiting to families in grief or crisis, meals and other tangible support in times of illness and death in the family, and the support of prayer and concern across many life circumstances.
Finally, family ministry targets not only families who are members of the congregation but also families in the larger community and world. Family ministry includes congregations volunteering to serve as mentors to families in their community seeking to escape poverty and welfare, providing after-school activity programs to keep neighborhood children safe and help them succeed in school while their parents are working, providing transportation and support to children of incarcerated parents who want to visit their parents in prison, or collecting funds and supplies to send to families in distant places who have been impoverished by war or natural disaster.
Why Congregations Do Family Ministry
Families are one of the most significant contexts in which people attempt to live the principles of their religious faith. The Roman Catholic Church officially declared at Vatican II, "The family is not merely like the Church, but is truly Church." Learning to live justly and lovingly with family members is a challenging daily discipline. When congregations provide education and support programs for families, they are, in essence, providing spiritual guidance. Learning to discipline children wisely, lovingly, and effectively is not simply a way that parents can be more effective parents, but is also an expression of their religious beliefs about what it means to be parents. In short, congregations do family ministry in order to help people live their faith, even and especially in their most intimate relationships.
Second, religious congregations have a mission of service. For Christians, serving people who live in poverty or are otherwise in need is one of the most significant ways of expressing love for God. In the words of Jesus Christ, "whoever welcomes a children like this in my name welcomes me" (Matthew 18:5 New International Version); those who welcome strangers, provide clothing and food to those in need, and visit the sick and imprisoned are doing these thing for Jesus himself (see Matthew 25:31–46).
For centuries, religious congregations were often the only places that families in poverty or in crisis could find help. Members of congregations often informally adopted children orphaned by war and disease. In the aftermath of the American Civil War, so many children were orphaned that individual families could not absorb them, and churches began opening children's homes, especially in the South.
In the early twentieth century, the social work profession began as middle-class women volunteers from congregations started to serve as friendly visitors, visiting poor women and their families, often immigrants, to offer encouragement and support. Many of the first settlement houses designed to serve as community centers in slums were staffed and supported by members of congregations who served as an expression of religious vocation. Although not called family ministry, all of these efforts, and many others, had the same purpose—to encourage and strengthen families, and to care for children when their families could not.
In the mid-twentieth century, a second impetus arose for the flurry of programs that came to be called family ministry, however. There has been increasing concern over the growing fragility of family relationships not only in the larger culture, but also within congregations. Since the 1940s, American congregational leaders have been sounding a warning. The Christian family magazine Home Life was first published in 1947 by the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention. In introducing this new publication, Clifton J. Allen, executive secretary of the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board, wrote:
Your heart beats with the conviction, "There's no place like home." But one out of five homes crashes on the rocks of divorce. Family life is being blighted by strong drink, lust, and worldly pleasure. Happiness is driven from literally millions of homes by misunderstanding, selfishness, irreligion, and ignorance. The home front is under siege. This peril is a call to action. Fathers and mother must awake to their God-given privilege and responsibility. Churches must grasp their supreme opportunity to help parents build virile Christian homes. . . . Our homes demand and deserve our best. They are at the center of God's plan. . . . They are the fountain of our nation's life. They are set to preserve the heritage of civilization and to perpetuate the ideals of godliness. (p. 1)
Similar alarms were sounded in other Christian denominations as well. In the mid-twentieth century, when the divorce rate rose to almost one out of two marriages, denominations and congregations began a number of initiatives to shore up family life: publications, marriage preparation, marriage enrichment, parent education programs, and family counseling.
The first marriage enrichment and encounter programs began in Spain in the Roman Catholic Church and rapidly spread to the United States. From Rome, Catholic leaders began advocating taking a family perspective in planning, implementing, and evaluating policies, programs, ministries, and services of the church.
Finally, some congregations have used family ministry programs as marketing tools—a way of reaching out and bringing others into the congregation. People who will not come to a worship service will come to a course that addresses the stresses of living. People will come use the church gymnasium when they will not come to a Bible study.
Congregational Family Ministry and Public Family Service Programs
The community mental health center movement of the 1960s in the United States provided interesting parallels and opportunities for professional collaboration between congregational leaders developing family ministries and community social service professionals. Sometimes, the same people were involved in both movements. Community mental health was a new government initiative supported by the social service professions. The federal government provided major funding to develop centers whose purpose was to lower the incidence of mental illness in a community through prevention programs, and to treat those with mental illness and developmental disabilities in their own families and communities rather than in large state mental hospitals and institutions. Because theory of the day suggested that family processes caused or at least contributed to mental illness, developing healthy families was a significant focus of these centers. Both family ministry and the community mental health movement emphasized prevention of family problems when possible and crisis intervention to keep existing problems from worsening.
Government funding for community mental health centers was time-limited and never fully adequate, however. Increasingly, social service professionals looked to other institutions to provide prevention and family life education services. Both public schools and churches are located in virtually every community and touch the lives of many community families. Consequently, many community leaders, with the support of social service professionals, began to advocate for these institutions to take on responsibility for providing the prevention, education, and counseling services for families.
Who Leads Family Ministry?
The parallel developments of community mental health services and church family ministry programs have shaped the leadership of family ministry. During the 1960s and 1970s, research and theory in family sociology and psychology were mushrooming. Family therapy was developing into a profession. Seminary degree programs that educated church clergy were increasingly providing content in their basic ministry degree programs in pastoral care and family counseling. That content drew directly from the social sciences and the professional literature of psychology, psychiatry, social work, and family therapy. Larger seminaries began offering specialized degree programs in psychology, social work, and family therapy. Pastoral care was also becoming recognized as a ministry specialization, and many came to seminary to prepare for church positions as pastoral counselors. Grounded in the social science literature of research and professional practice, these new church leaders saw the significant role that congregations could play in providing professional services to families through premarital preparation, educational programs, and family counseling. Although churches had historically been involved in these activities, now professionally educated social workers, psychologists, and pastoral counselors were offering leadership and writing resources in family ministry for congregations.
Most congregations, however, have small professional staffs and cannot afford to have someone identified as the official family minister. Family ministry often is the responsibility of a congregation's clergy leaders who are not themselves family professionals or family ministry specialists. Family ministry is also often led by a committee of lay persons designated to be advocates for families in all the programs of the congregation. In some large congregations or congregations with a special emphasis in family ministry, family professionals serve as congregational leaders, whether as full-time, part-time, or volunteer staff in congregational life. At the end of the twentieth century, many congregations had begun employing family counselors or at least providing counselors with use of the congregations' buildings as places to conduct private counseling practices. These counselors were variously trained as social workers, pastoral counselors, psychologists, and marriage and family therapists.
In order to provide a resource to congregational leaders in family ministry, a group of family professionals began publishing The Journal of Family Ministry in 1987, later renamed Family Ministry: Empowering Through Faith. A second professional publication in family ministry was launched in 1999, the Audio-Magazine in Family Ministry (AM/FM). Many denominations publish guidebooks for congregations in doing annual program planning in family ministry, and such writers as Diana Garland, Don Hebbard, Ben Freudenberg and Rick Lawrence, and Merton Strommen and Richard Hardel are providing resources for congregations across denominations and Christian traditions.
Methods of Family Ministry
There are four methods of family ministry: (1) developing a congregational life that supports and nurtures all families; (2) organizing and facilitating support groups and networks; (3) providing educational resources and programs; and (4) counseling (Garland 1999).
Developing a congregational life that supports and nurtures all family relationships. The fundamental and essential method of family ministry is congregational development as a supportive and nurturing community. The other three methods of family ministry, which are more overtly focused specifically on family issues, depend on the existence of this supportive congregational life. Community life is particularly important as a context for helping families deal with specific life stressors and situations, whether they are common to all kinds of families or are characteristic of particular kinds of family structures and experiences.
Some faith groups become havens, communities that counter the values of mainstream society. They may have ways of living designed to protect members from negative cultural influences. The Amish continue to live a lifestyle that sets them apart from the surrounding social world. Less radically, some congregations choose to provide their children with day care and schools as a means of controlling what they are taught and protecting them from unwanted influences. Others provide support to parents who choose to homeschool their children.
A few communities of faith may use communal principles, sharing cars and other expensive items, making it less necessary for so many family members to work outside their homes or to make choices about fewer work hours and less demanding careers. In one congregation, a number of families have intentionally bought homes in the same block of an inner-city community, using their presence to bring new stability and safety to the neighborhood. They share evening meals, each household taking a turn in feeding the others. The church may be intentional in guiding and supporting families in making these choices and in using their presence as a means of creating positive social change.
Even congregations that do not go so far as to develop physical communities still often serve as significant social communities in the lives of families. There families find others who share and support their values and family culture, who provide advice and resources for family living, and who help them with life challenges.
Being an advocate for families is an essential part of being a supportive and nurturing community. Congregations have voices that need to be used in behalf of the needs not only of their own members, but also of their neighbors, whomever and wherever they may be. A congregation can be the leaven that raises the consciousness of the whole community about needs and vulnerabilities of families. Advocacy can range from encouraging members to run for posts on the local school board to contacting national government representatives concerning government policies that affect families. It can be as simple as writing letters to the local television stations applauding their family programming and discouraging the broadcasting of shows with violent content. Or it can be much more hands-on, such as organizing families in a poor community to find ways to clean their neighborhoods of gang violence and drugs.
Organizing and facilitating support groups and networks. Supporting and advocating for families is the foundation for family ministry. In addition, congregations may develop specific programs and services to address particular issues in family life. These programs and services can be conceptualized as a continuum from the most general to more specialized forms of family ministry. Families are helped by being with other families who share their life situations—parents of teenagers, care-givers of people with Alzheimer's disease, mentors of single parents, parents of young adults who are troubled by substance addiction, grandparents raising their grandchildren. Together, families learn from and support one another. This support may be formalized in a group, or it may be a more loosely structured network of families who are in touch with one another as they choose. The role of the church leader is primarily helping families find and become linked with one another, and helping them, if needed, to identify resources that can be helpful to them. The families themselves provide any leadership needed for their group or network, although professional staff persons can help equip them and support them in this role.
Providing educational programs and resources. Some families want or need to learn new information or skills that will help them with their particular situation in life. Educational groups or seminars such as parent education or premarital education are common in congregations. Congregational leaders take more visible leadership roles in providing this kind of ministry, either providing the educational content themselves or securing other knowledgeable educators. Congregational leaders may also provide families with educational resources such as books or videotapes for families to use individually.
Counseling. Finally, some families have barriers to learning information or skills they need. These barriers need to be addressed in individual, family, or group counseling. For example, a marital couple may be so angry with one another that they cannot learn in a group setting about anger and conflict management until they have been guided through their current crisis. Families face a variety of crises that need the individual attention provided in a counseling relationship. Congregational leaders may either provide this counseling or refer to community professionals who can do so.
Family counseling thus plays a supportive, not a central, role to the family ministries of congregations. Counseling is like tutoring, preparing people who need help in overcoming obstacles to their full participation in the mutual relationships of a community. Some families are dealing with crises beyond the capabilities of the congregation to respond. They need the loving support of the congregation, but they may also need a professional counselor to help them deal with such issues as post-traumatic stress syndrome after the death of a family member, a deep disappointment in life, and other difficult life circumstances.
am/fm: audio-magazine in family ministry. waco, tx:baylor university center for family and community ministries.
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lyon, k. b., and smith, a., jr., eds. (1998). tending theflock: congregations and family ministry. louisville, ky: westminster john knox press.
strommen, m. p., and hardel, r. a. (2000). passing on the faith: a radical new model for youth and family ministry. winona, mn: saint mary's press.
diana r. garland