34: Finding Support for Your Family
About the Guest
- Learn more about Gil and Brenda Stuart. https://gilandbrenda.com/
- Blended Family Ministry Map. https://www.familylife.com/blendedmap
- Learn more and register for the Summit on Stepfamily Ministry. https://www.summitonstepfamilies.com/
- How to Find a Competent Christian Stepfamily Therapist. https://www.smartstepfamilies.com/smart-help/learn/sharing-hope-finding-help/how-to-find-a-competent-christian-stepfamily-therapist
- Trusted Counselor List https://smartstepfamilies.com/smart-help/marriage-therapy-intensives
- Encouragement for the couples in a stepfamily. https://gilandbrenda.com/restored-remarried/
- Building Love Together in Blended Families by Dr. Gary Chapman and Ron Deal. https://shop.familylife.com/p-5763-building-love-together-in-blended-families.aspx
Do you have questions on where to go for help with stepfamily challenges? Ron Deal talks with Gil and Brenda Stuart on how to find a church that will support you, when to know if you need counseling and where to go, and your role in making it happen.
34: Finding Support for Your Family
Ron: A wedding makes it very, very real for everybody. Weddings make things permanent.
Ron: From the FamilyLife Podcast Network this is FamilyLife Blended. I’m Ron Deal.
This donor-supported podcast brings together timeless wisdom, practical help and hope to blended families, and those who love them.
And as it turns out, someone agrees with us. We do bring practical help and hope. One person posted this review: “Thoroughly enjoying this new podcast from FamilyLife. Ron Deal just has a unique way of making complex marriage concepts sound simple and approachable. Love the quality of the production”—that’s a nod to you Bruce—"not just for blended families. Five stars.” Well, thank you for that review and feedback. We do try to make the complexities of blended family living simpler to understand. I’m glad you’re with us.
Don’t forget this being podcast number 34, that we have dozens of other podcasts available—all on a variety of subjects about complex dynamics in stepfamily living. They’re all designed to help strengthen your home. I hope you’ll browse them and find the ones that speak to your family and subscribe to this podcast on Apple Podcast or wherever you get your podcasts. Just search, FamilyLife Blended with Ron Deal.
I get questions and emails every day from people who are asking for help and they’re not sure what kind of help they need sometimes. Today we’re going to talk around how you can find support for your family. How do you find a church who will support you? What do you do if you need counseling? How do you know if you need counseling? And what if not everyone is willing to go? That and much more.
Gil and Brenda Stuart are my guests. They live outside Portland, Oregon. They have seven adult children and seven grandchildren. Gil is a therapist and Brenda, a Life Coach. Their ministry is RestoredandRemarried.com. They have a video curriculum and a book for groups called Restored and Remarried, and their podcast, which I’ve had the privilege of being on, is called Restored and Remarried. They’ve spoken for FamilyLife Blended multiple times and are among my favorite trusted voices in the area of ministry.
By the way, they are on my list of recognized smart stepfamily therapy providers that can be found at SmartStepfamilies.com. That’s a list of people who are uniquely prepared, have done their homework, and are available to help couples and blended families, in particular, that are going through some difficulties. This means Gil and Brenda are among a very small number of people around the country who have actively sought out additional training in helping stepfamilies. Now, they actively coach and counsel blended families on a regular basis.
Now I’ve been doing therapy with stepfamilies for over 27 years, and I do professional training for counselors who want to become Smart Stepfamily therapy providers. So Gil and Brenda and I are going to put our heads together and we’re going to talk about finding the help you need for your family. Here’s my conversation with Gil and Brenda Stuart.
Ron: Well guys, like me, when people reach out to you on a regular basis asking for help, I’m curious, is there a typical question that you hear from blended families?
Gil: We’re confused, don’t know what to do, and we’re in a mess. How did we get here so quick? Help! [Laughter]
Ron: Confused and in a mess, how did we get here so quick? Is the emphasis on the “so quick”?
Gil: Yes; yes. It’s like “Wow! We’ve only been together for a couple of months;” or “Oh by the way, we’ve been together for a couple of years and this is just getting worse and this started and we’ve been trying to fix it, but it’s getting deeper rather than better.”
Brenda: I’ve been seeing a lot on like these Facebook groups and stuff people sharing that they just feel lonely in their marriage and feeling like the outsider. The terms I think we sometimes use.
Ron: Well to Gil’s point I just want to say many times on this podcast we have shared that it’s a pretty common experience in stepfamily situations to—with the dating and before the wedding stuff was really good and everybody felt very optimistic, and then within six months to a year after the wedding there’s this “Wow, reality has hit and the merger has begun and we’re having more difficulty with this than we thought.”
We’ve said that before on this program but I’m so glad you brought it up again, Gil, because it is such a common experience. I want people if you’re feeling that or you’re looking back and you’re going “Yes, we definitely hit that wall six months in,” that’s normal. It’s not necessarily good news that that’s normal but it’s good news that that’s normal.
Gil: I think it’s funny that you say six months; in our situation it was about two weeks. [Laughter] We got home from our honeymoon which we were really fortunate to have because most stepfamily couples don’t get that, but when we got home, we were already into it—two weeks.
I was just sitting with a guy yesterday getting ready to remarry and they’re already feeling the pinch because they’ve announced the commitment that they’re going to enter into marriage, and so pushback has begun even before they said the I do’s and the I don’ts. So it’s immediate sometimes.
Ron: Yes, a wedding makes it very, very real for everybody. As the wedding approaches it gets more real, but definitely the day of the wedding it is exceedingly real for everyone. I think couples sometimes who cohabit are really confused by this because they think “Well we’ve already been living together for a while, why would a wedding change? Well look, it’s not real until it’s real.
Ron: There’s a sense of permanence that’s built into a wedding—which by the way, is telling you something about what cohabitation did for you and did not do for you, right? It’s a commentary. Everybody gets it. Weddings make things permanent.
Brenda: And it’s a finality of the previous family, too. I think people are kind of surprised that they’re—they don’t know they’re grieving the loss of their last family, but they are.
Brenda: They don’t want to admit that because that would be wrong to do that, but that’s part of it.
Ron: Yes, for adults and in particular, for kids. I want my mom and dad back together again. I wish Dad was alive and not deceased—whatever that story is—this again is a reminder that’s not going to happen.
Gil: I think the other thing too, Ron, about it is that when the ring goes on the finger the permanency—you just mentioned the kids start feeling it and noticing that there’s permanence—believe it or not because this is a remarriage, it ripples out, frankly, to your former spouse. They can either go “Okay, fine” because they’re into their own thing; or they—if they haven’t moved on emotionally—they may freak out on you all over again and it’s like “What in the world?”
So you have what I think we all call the ex-spouse in-law and even though they have nothing to do with it, they do have something to do with it because they’re connected because of those kids.
Ron: Yes, and there’s a phenomenon we call the remarriage activated dad or mom. So sometimes, as you said, it ripples to the other biological parent in the other home. Like it’s now real for them also that you’ve gotten married to somebody else and that there’s a stepparent in their kids lives. Sometimes that even activates them.
If there’s been a biological dad who’s kind of been disengaged and uninvolved in his kid’s lives and all of a sudden when his former wife gets married again, all of a sudden, he’s really involved and engaged and asking questions and wanting to be a part of decisions and she’s like “Whoa, things were better when you kind of ignored us.”
Now that you’re knocking on the door all the time, so to speak, it’s made life more complicated for my new marriage and for my husband, now the stepfather. All of that happens at weddings. It is a huge emotional rock being dropped in the ocean and there are ripples that move out from that.
Gil: Quickly. [Laughter]
Ron: Yes, quickly. Well one of the things I want us to eventually get to and I want our listeners to know that we are going to spend a little time talking about when you feel distressed in your marriage or your family, what do you do? How do you find support? How do you know when it’s time to reach out and find a helper? And what does a helper look like?
We’re going to come back to that in a minute, but I want us to just start by talking with people who are listening who maybe feel like they need a little support. They’re trying to get their head around that. What does that look like? What are the options? I know you guys feel the way I do and that is that blended family couples really need community. They need support. They need to walk with other people, and it is an amazing wonderful supportive environment when they do that for one another, right? We all agree to that.
Gil: Yes, agree.
Ron: What keeps couples from going to a small group on a Tuesday night in somebody’s home, a Sunday School class at their church, just even maybe getting together with one or two other couples and having coffee on a regular basis? What keeps people from actually doing that?
Gil: Yes, Brenda, what causes that? [Laughter]
Brenda: If I knew that!
Ron: We’d all be billionaires, right.
Brenda: Yes. It’s funny I was in an exercise class yesterday and talking to a gal who—she knows that I’m in a stepfamily and she’s probably a couple of years into it, but she’s sharing some of her struggles and it was like—and it was all textbook stuff and realizing that some of the issues they were having were challenges from her husband’s past relationship. She was just blown away that that would even impact their family. So I say that that if she was in community, she would realize that that’s—
Brenda: —normal. Not that it would make it easier, but I know when I find out that something’s normal then it’s like “Okay, I’m not alone.” I think sometimes people underestimate what they’re going through, and they think that obviously nobody else—
Gil: I’m all alone.
Brenda: Their experience is the same. I can’t tell you how many times people will tell us “Well I bet you never heard this one,” and it’s like “Well yes, we have.”
Ron: I hate to tell you but you’re not that special. [Laughter]
Brenda: Yes. Some of it is just—I don’t know if it’s just education. They don’t know that it’s okay to ask for help. I mean even in first time marriages, sometimes people—especially in the church—are supposed to keep their poser face on that everything’s okay. It’s sad because they’re living in marriages that aren’t what they could be.
That’s kind of what I told this girl yesterday. It’s like that’s what motivates Gil and I because we have such a good time and we’re friends and we want everybody to have that in their relationship.
Yes it takes work, but that’s what marriage is supposed to be about even in a remarriage. It’s hard, but yet we still have to be—have fun and be on the same team.
Gil: Agreed. I think some of the other practical obstacles of being in community is Johnny’s going left and Betty’s going right and my ex-wife is pulling on the other side of me and schedules—because when families are young and you’ve got teenagers or younger, everybody is now not only going in three different directions but maybe fifteen. Just the reality of their schedules—that in and of itself can be an obstacle to get to a small group or a community.
I think the other obstacle is, frankly, the availability of small groups within a community. Sometimes it might just be the willingness of somebody to start a small group, maybe in their home or if they could get a room there at the community center/at the church. It’s just the aspect of availability and someone having the burden to pick up the torch and say, “Let’s at least start some place,” and there’s a reluctance.
I think the other thing that causes what Brenda was referring to is they don’t know they don’t know that they need community—
Gil: —until they’re in a place where they are drowning and now, they’re panicking. That in and of itself causes emotional craziness.
Ron: And I know you guys feel the way I do that that causes me emotional craziness when I hear people say that because I know how much benefit they can get out of being in a group of people.
Gil and Brenda: Yes.
Ron: —out of reading a book together and “Let’s just talk about chapter five.” That does wonders for people when you all of a sudden have a constructive conversation around something. You feel connected. It’s feels like “Boy, this is not all about us.” Somehow the shame begins to dissipate a little bit about your circumstances, and you do feel more normal. You find out other people have similar sorts of journeys.
I don’t know—there’s something about being in isolation that just accentuates shame and self-pity. All of that gets stolen away when you begin to sit with somebody else and just open up your life a little bit.
Gil: Yes, I think—I reflect back on a small group that we did not long ago where—I think we had five or six couples and the very first night we said, “Hey, just share your story.” We gave each couple about ten minutes to share their story. So here we are about an hour and a half later talking about what I would refer to as all of the mess and the blood that was on the floor because of everybody’s—some of the stories were really heart wrenching.
So here I am as the facilitator and I’m thinking “O God, how do I follow up with that story and that story that’s just gut wrenching?” I really felt like the Lord said, “Ask them if they’ve been encouraged,” and I said “Okay.” [Laughter]
So I asked that question and they all started saying “Yes, I feel more encouraged,” and I’m going “Why?!” It was like “Well because your story’s worse than mine.” [Laughter] Or “Oh, you’re dealing with the same thing I am.” It was like “Aww, okay.” So that affinity; they became brothers and sisters within one evening.
Ron: So here’s the irony, I think, in what I’m hearing you say. Because I think one of the barriers for people is, they don’t want to go and admit they’re a failure. Like if I go and we talk about life, everybody’s going to look at us like we’re—we got a horn sticking out of our head and we’re complete failures. The reality is no, no, no; you’re not. Other people have similar journeys and you can’t experience that sort of—I’m going to say it—grace unless you stick your neck out a little bit and just open up.
Again, go and just listen if you would want to do that. You don’t even have to share, but it opens that door to that message that “No, you’re not a failure.” I think that’s so important. Men, in particular, need to hear that because we tend to be a little apprehensive about sitting down with other people and talking about life and relationships. [Laughter] But there’s so much blessing in it.
Brenda: I think another thing that may hold people back from joining a group would be because of all the moving parts you were talking about, Gil, with all schedules and stuff. Some of that to be able to keep their kids going is motivated by their guilt, so they put their kids before the marriage. I think sometimes, at some point, you need to draw a line in the sand and say “No, we’re going to take Tuesday nights to do this for us”—to go to a group or something.
Yes, we might miss Johnny’s basketball game once or a practice or something, but to really make that a priority. The marriage gets lost in, as you say, the stepfamily forest of trying to run kids all over for the sake of keeping them happy which once again, we’re talking out both sides of our mouth. Yes, it’s about the kids but yes, we’ve got to be investing in us.
Gil: Right; right because if we have a stronger us, then we will have a stronger family. Because this is the strongest bond for the entire thing because all the other bonds are unnatural. This is the bond and if we don’t take care of it and strengthen it, then we’re going to end up in a panic pretty quick.
Ron: Yes. What about mentoring relationships? You know that’s kind of a new thing. Last ten years has really come on strong. Lots of churches have marriage mentor couples. If somebody’s listening right now and they’re going “I don’t know, do we need that,” what would you say? How would you talk around that with somebody?
Brenda: The biggest challenge is finding a mentoring couple that’s in a stepfamily. Getting with a regular first-time married couple, I mean that’s great and if that’s all you’ve got, go for it. But it’s really hard to find people that are remarried that are mentoring. There’s so many different twists and turns that first time marriages don’t understand and sometimes they can do a disservice to a remarried couple. But if that’s all you’ve got, that’s better than—you can still get nuggets.
Gil: Yes, to back up what you’re saying Brenda, if you ‘ve got a mentor couple and they’re mentoring a stepfamily couple, then talk about marriage issues. So far as if you’ve got a remarried couple who’s willing and able and isn’t overwhelmed with their own stuff and have got a little wear on them and is willing to mentor, then boy, you’ve got a jewel. You’ve really got a jewel to be able to share their experience.
I think for us, we were very fortunate. We actually got on the phone with somebody who had been a remarried couple for years when we first got started. That really helped me be grounded even if we had the phone call with him saying “No, no; you’re not going crazy. This is normal.” And if it’s in that context, some form of encouragement is better than none at all.
Ron: Yes; yes. Absolutely. I think mentoring is a great way to go but again, I agree with you. You’ve got to find somebody who’s actually lived a little life in a blended family a little bit ahead of you. It doesn’t mean they’re experts. Nobody is asking mentors to be experts or have all the answers, but to just walk beside and go ahead of you a little bit.
I know you guys have resources that are available. I wrote a mentoring guide that goes along with my book The Smart Stepfamily which is a very simple tool that will allow a couple to walk through that book with another couple and just have conversation and dialogue. There are tools like that that are available that can help people.
By the way, if you are listening and you’re thinking “Maybe we could mentor somebody with a tool like that.” Or maybe you’re already a marriage mentor, you didn’t know that tool was available, go to the show notes and we’ll let you know how you can get that.
What about dating couples and engaged couples? Is any of this different? The small group thing—should they go to a small group even though they’re not married yet? Should they perhaps connect to a marriage mentor?
Brenda: Absolutely; yes.
Gil: Yes; actually, we love to talk to those that are contemplating remarriage because Brenda’s job is what, Brenda? [Laughter]
Brenda: I don’t say this in the first session because I’d scare them off, but our goal is to break them up.
Ron: What do you mean by that? Somebody just went “Wait, wait, you want to break us up?” What do you mean by that?
Brenda: “But we’re in love.” Well because so many times in remarriage you’re coming into it, you have found love again, so you are happy and hopeful which is great. But most of the time when you’re coming back together to create a stepfamily, there’s children involved.
We want to make sure that the marriage is solid. So we want to be tough and ask the tough questions of the couple to make sure that they can weather what’s coming ahead of them. Because they may not see it—
Gil: Would you please be honest? You make it really hard on them because you put it a lot stronger. “I want you to realize people [Laughter] that if you can get through me then you’re”—you give them a cold bucket of reality.
Brenda: Yes; they need it.
Gil: I mean you give them a cold bucket of water of reality because this isn’t going to be easy and if you think it is, it’s not a walk in the park. It doesn’t start out slow. It starts out at full steam.
Brenda: And it’s not just about the couple; it’s about the kids.
Gil: There’s far too many moving parts to dilly dally into this. I think that’s really an important part when we do—like when we do our seminars and workshops, we love it when couples who are contemplating remarriage or starting the remarriage thing is to have them come in and actually hear what’s out there, what’s this going to be like, and then to be able to hear other couples talk about it so that the environment is really one of “Okay, this is a real problem; what are you going to do?” Sometimes you don’t know what you are going to do until you are in the middle of it. Because you can prepare until the cows come home but you don’t know until you’re there.
Brenda: And we also invite singles to our seminars because some day they’re contemplating “If I do get remarried, what is this going to look like?” We don’t scare them as bad. [Laughter]
Ron: Just a little. Great idea.
Brenda: Just a little.
Ron: Believe me, I hear your heart and I hope our listeners hear your heart. What you’re wanting to do is help people open both eyes and see it for what it is, and count the cost well so that that decision is something that truly is a blessing for them and their children rather than they inadvertently walked into something and then find themselves in a hole they can’t climb out of.
Brenda: Right and for us it’s really important. We’ve worked with couples, premarital, that have broken up. We even say this in the beginning, to us that’s a win because we’ve stopped another divorce.
Brenda: It’s okay if that’s where we end up. It’s okay because through the journey you learn more about yourself, but you’ve saved your kids from a train wreck.
Ron: Let’s talk a little bit about churches. How does a stepfamily couple find a church that will be supportive to their life? Now, I know this is a big set up question. Like we have wrestled with this for years—the three of us have.
I just want to lead by saying one of the things at FamilyLife that we’re trying to do is make it possible for churches and couples to find each other, so we have a searchable map. If you the listener would just go to FamilyLife.com/Blended, click on events, you will find a map that you can search and find where maybe a church is hosting our annual livestream event Blended and Blessed. You can find a map where a small group is being offered in a church; or if Gil and Brenda are doing a conference at a church somewhere, that can be on the map. You can find something near you and go and get connected to where a stepfamily ministry already exists.
The reason that’s important is because so very, very, very few churches have anything specifically for blended families. We’re trying to change that here at FamilyLife Blended.
Ron: But you can find what’s available now. Now, the map of the US is not just loaded down with locations, right. It ebbs and flows through different seasons when churches start groups and then take a break or whatever. So I share that with our listener because I want you to know go to the map, check it out, see what you can find. If your church has a ministry, please add it to the map; it’s free, alright, it’s free for you to do that.
Now having said that, somebody goes to the map and low and behold there’s nothing within 200 miles of where they live, how do they think about church and where they go? What are they looking for in a church that would be supportive? What kinds of things could churches do that would go “Man, maybe we ought to go here”? Or even if they’re if they’re really plugged into a church and their church offers nothing, how would they start something? What are your thoughts around that?
Gil: Wow, that’s a loaded question because yes, we’ve been talking about this for what? About eight or nine, ten years, and the ground swell continues to build which is great. So yes, let’s say for instance you are in a church or a community and nothing’s around you for a couple hundred miles and you have a burden to begin something because not only do you want the support but you really have a call upon your heart to encourage others.
I would say a couple of things. Be willing to be the first boots on the ground in your area. You might be literally building a beachhead for something that might not take full fruition for a couple of years.
So get the blessing and allow pastoral staff and so forth to know what you’re doing to gain their awareness of what you’re doing. They may ask a few questions and, in that place, refer back to the materials and so forth that you would potentially use. Either something from FamilyLife or from what Brenda and I have put together. It’s theologically sound.
The pastoral staff doesn’t want you to be presenting something that for some reason they think is promoting divorce. I don’t know why they get that idea but for some reason there’s a hiccup there and it’s like no, we’re not doing that. We’re trying to support the people that are in the remarriage arena. They need support.
So be humble, but also be bold. If it means that you don’t get the blessing and so forth, then say “Okay, we’ll start off in our home” even if it’s with two or three couples. But be willing to start with whatever you’re allowed to start with. If you get a space at the church on Wednesday night, then count yourself blessed because that’s a really big deal. In different parts around the country, that happens, and sometimes it doesn’t.
I think the other thing that comes to my mind if you’re contemplating on starting a blended family ministry is, for whatever reason you can possibly make it possible, get to the annual blended family summit—the Summit on Stepfamily Ministry that FamilyLife has graced us with all around the country. I think this is year number seven or eight. It’s a great place to come and connect with others to get the training and information.
So, educate yourself and then just allow yourself to step into it; kind of get into the shallow water first. That’s my encouragement to those that are contemplating it is start someplace.
Ron: Brenda, have you seen that work where a couple, boots on the ground, they start something and it actually grows into something that’s really a blessing? If a couple is listening right now and they’re going “We’re so unprepared; we’re unequipped for this. Could we lead that group?”, what would you say?
Brenda: Yes. Well [Laughter] I say yes, but I guess I would make sure at some level their house is in order. It doesn’t have to be perfect by any means, but if they’re in the throw of court dates and really messy, messy stuff, they need to make sure that they’re at least on some kind of level footing themselves.
Ron: Yes, just in terms of health and their relationships, yes.
Brenda: Yes, it doesn’t have to be perfect, but they can’t be bleeding out everywhere because they’re going to bleeding out over everybody else.
Brenda: Another thing I think is the hardest thing is we know—we all know that there’s so many blended families and we do seminars—we think the room should be packed and they never are, for whatever reason.
I guess my charge to those boots on the ground is don’t look at the numbers. If we know that we can impact one family positively, that’s one legacy that we’ve helped strengthen and that’s it. You can’t look at “Oh, we have 20 couples coming” because that’s probably not going to happen.
Ron: Yes, it tends to start small. I tell people all the time. You cook your stepfamily with a crockpot. You cook your stepfamily ministry with a crockpot. Take who comes and just grow it. People on the outside need to watch and wait and learn if they can trust you/trust what’s happening there. Sometimes people have been bitten by the church in the past and they’re not exactly sure what they can trust. So, don’t worry about the numbers. I totally agree.
Brenda: Also, why keep it in the church? We’ve done small groups at the YMCA, or sometimes libraries offer a room free and that, you’re throwing the net wider where you can get people that have been burned by the church and don’t want to go to church but will go to a community center for discussion. So that’s an option.
Ron: I think maybe a practical tip if you’re feeling unprepared to lead a group is get a co-leader—a person or another couple. Sometimes that’s a—maybe a more mature marriage mentor couple and they work in marriage ministry. They’re not a blended family but they do know a lot about relationships and we’ll co-lead that together. Sit on opposite sides of the circle and let each of you play to one another’s strengths but together. Then all the burden is not on you. Find somebody to share that with.
I think that’s a great way to start and really, that’s the message we’d want to give people is just get started. Don’t sit back and wish and wish and wish that your church would do something. Honestly, we have a lot materials—between what you guys have created and what we’ve got at FamilyLife—to help you approach your church and your pastor and try to garner support and help show the case for why this is an important thing. Access some of that.
But at the end of the day they’re going to probably say “Hey, you’re the one that’s motivated. We’re going to turn you loose.” Support you but it’s on you. Now let me ask you this because I’ve run into people who go “Yes, we tried that. We’re really motivated. We came to the Summit on Stepfamily ministry. We got our stepfamily ministry one on one training. We bought resources. We prepared ourselves and our church won’t give us permission. They just will not bless it. Now what?
Gil: Well you take a step back and look at one another and basically go okay, if we’re not going to get that room on Thursday night at the church, then open your home. Start with one other couple who is saying “We really need to have a place.” That probably is where you start. We’re not doing anything illegal or immoral [Laughter] or false theological perspective.
My encouragement to a couple who might get that message, unfortunately, from leadership is please don’t be discouraged. This happens far more than we’d want to happen, but please don’t be discouraged. Go ahead and start small. If it’s one or two other couples, then that’s where you’re at. You need that encouragement as well. If it’s in your own home, there’s no harm, no foul.
Ron: Yes, I agree with that. I think you could just get started. Often that’s the case, I think. The pastoral team just doesn’t quite fully understand the need or what you’re doing, and they just don’t get it.
I have run into some situations where I think the pastoral team was truly against it. They understood what was being asked and they were not in favor of it. So that’s discouraging. I would say in extreme circumstances like that, you might need to find another church. I mean what is that telling you about the theology of the leadership and how they feel about people who don’t quite measure up to the standards?—whatever that means. Maybe that is a big reason to consider going somewhere else, but that would be kind of an extreme posture, I think.
Gil: Thank you for saying that.
Ron: You kind of wanted that because—
Gil: Well it’s your show so I thought I’d let you say it. [Laughter]
I just want to back up to the listener. The ground is level at the foot of the cross and if you are getting a message that you are less than, that’s not the right message of the gospel. God has redeemed you; He has not condemned you. Because you have gone through a divorce or a remarriage does not make you a second-class Christian. There isn’t—as you said Ron, there isn’t such a thing as a first-class Christian.
Gil: We are all at the foot of the cross and if you’re feeling condemned, then please hear this message: God’s grace sees through that as well and you are not condemned.
Ron: Let’s move on to one more thing. It occurs to me in this day and age with all the digital options that we have available to us, there are ways to stay connected and find support not in a local church/not in a small group. You can do this on social media.
You’re listening to a podcast right now. There’s a way to stay connected to something that’s feeding your heart, your mind, and your soul. Blended and Blessed events is our livestream event where you just bring a few people together and spend a day going through an event. There’s weekend retreats sometimes. There’s community socials and opportunities to have a few people over once a month.
It doesn’t have to be a formal thing. There’s lots of ways. I’m curious; have you guys ever accessed any of those just in your own personal journey or seen it work well for somebody else?
Brenda: I think like the Blended and Blessed event is incredible because they can do it in their home. It doesn’t have to be at a church. It can be a very casual inviting, “Hey, come on over. You could even come for part of it.” It kind of gets that momentum going that sometimes we need to like “Oh, this could work.” We could meet even once a month. It doesn’t have to be hard core every week; just something to stay in touch.
Gil: Right. I think that we’ve interacted with couples who do the once a week/once a month. In our region of the country, which is up in the northwest part of the country, we put the invitation out to people that “Hey, once a year we’re going to have what we call the Restored and Remarried Barbeque.” In jest, we have people come, literally, from, sometimes, a couple hundred miles away just to hang out for the day.
Ron: Wow! Wow!
Gil: It’s crazy. So people are hungry for it. If the platform is there, they’ll come. What was that old line? If you build it, they will come. [Laughter]
Ron: And if the barbeque is good, they will come. [Laughter]
Brenda: And once again, don’t count the numbers. Don’t look at the numbers.
Ron: Okay, let’s shift our conversation a little bit to somebody who is listening right now and they’re just not needing support, they’re in pain a little bit. Something’s not going well. They’re hurting over how their family or marriage is going.
People ask: “How do I know if I need to go to a counselor? Is this a support group problem? Is this a go to a therapist sort of problem? Should I just go to a pastor?” There’s a lot of different options to people in terms of who they seek out. Do you have some thoughts on guiding people through that decision process?
Gil: I just think how you even laid it out there, Ron, is maybe start with the mentor. If they’ve got some experience, going “Hey is this normal?” “Whoa, you’ve got some normal, but you’ve got some disfunction there.” Then maybe take it to the next step and say “Hey, pastor” and the pastor may go “Whoa, this is above my head, but here’s some resources. Here’s some things you can do.”
But truly if there is a breakdown in communication, it’s dysfunctional, there are attachment wounds and really some destructive behaviors or complete confusion, then, at that point in time, you need to seek out a counselor. In that case, being able to find a counselor who specializes in stepfamilies, that’s a pretty rare bird in most communities.
Ron: Yes, let’s come back to that one because I think that’s worth unpacking, but what I hear you saying is—it’s kind of like an analogy I’ve used before. Sometimes you get a cold, but you don’t know if it’s the flu or the cold, right? You’re not really sure what to do with that.
You just feel kind of cruddy and you blow your nose a lot. If it’s a cold, it’s going to go away in five to seven days. If it doesn’t go away, that’s the first indication, maybe, I’ve got the flu; or I’ve got a fever. Okay, so there’s another thing here that’s indicating this is more than just something small. I probably should go see a doctor now.
I’ve often said to people, it’s not rocket science. Nobody can tell you exactly how to know, but if this thing lingers, if it’s not passing, if you find yourself stuck over and over and over or something is sort of escalating around this, it’s time to stop talking to Brother Joe at church and it’s time to go to somebody who can really give you some guidance.
Gil: Yes. I think to your analogy of the cold to the flu, I think as a counselor it’s the ability to determine with people: is this truly an attachment wound that’s something that is in a relational problem that stems not just in the remarriage but it might stem further back? Potentially, is there trauma? Is there something there that is really a very deep matter that is your issue that seems to somehow keep showing up and throwing the family and the marriage system into convulsions and you just can’t get any traction? It could be a pretty serious problem.
In that case, yes, being able to go in and sit down with a counselor to comb through that and have a safe environment, and then bring the other spouse in potentially to do some couple’s work. Being able to understand that the emotions are something that have to be trained just like your muscles sometimes.
The ability to train your emotions to not run away with you and slow down, or find out what is it that’s causing that emotion to run away with me is understanding potentially cycles of emotion that not only set me off but everybody around me because they got their cycle too.
It gets pretty technical but when you’re sitting with somebody who can walk that through with you, they can break it down and help you get control of your emotions and then help the relationship.
Ron: Yes. That’s good. Okay, I want us to walk through the options people have if they’re going to go see a professional because I find people are often confused about this. There’s a psychiatrist. There’s a psychologist. There’s a psychotherapist. There’s a licensed therapist. You’ll hear that sometimes. There’s pastoral counselors or ministers.
There’s marriage mentors which we’ve talked a little bit about. Those are like couples that just have some life experience and wisdom and they’re trying to encourage and come alongside. Then there’s even this distance coaching and therapy option that’s available in this technological age.
Let’s just talk around for a minute. Psychiatrist versus psychologist versus therapist, what are your thoughts around that? A psychiatrist is a medical doctor, right?
Gil: Correct; correct. The psychiatrist has the ability to—in his case because he’s a medical doctor, he can actually prescribe medications. If he feels as though there’s something emotionally that really is in need of medication, he can do that. He’s the one with the credential.
The psychologist on the other hand isn’t going to maybe issue meds because he’s not qualified, but he can definitely get into the technical diagnostics of what is the pathology?, What is the problem?, What’s mixed up in your head or maybe in your heart? He’s a professional that is really going to dial it down into here is the real issue, and then maybe be able to work with you from there.
As a counselor—because as a licensed counselor here in the state of Washington—I have the right to, because of my credentials, be able to maybe, give a diagnosis that the insurance company wants or something. But my job as a counselor is to help you find the journey through that.
I’m not going to issue you meds. I’m going to issue “Let’s get to the heart of the issue” and sometimes that needs a helper. I mean I have some colleagues that refer to themselves as therapists. I refer to myself as a counselor. I have the credential, but I want to be seen as your advocate. I want to be seen as your helper to get through the dark night of the soul.
A mentor or a biblical counselor, they may be very biblically sound, but they may not have the psychological training that the other three have. It really is what fits you and what are you comfortable with. I think the other thing too is that what fits you but also, what’s effective?
Gil: Because not everybody needs to take Prozac because Prozac masks the problem. You don’t get down to the root and some psychologists won’t do that.
Ron: Yes, so that’s really good—what’s effective? I think sometimes we go to a family doctor and he tries to deal with something and then they’ll say, “You know what? I think maybe you need to go see the specialist for this particular aspect of that.”
Within the mental health field there are people that have specializations in certain things. There are people that are more generalists and so sometimes you do have to move from one to the next to kind of find the right fit the right person to help with that.
But to just sum up—I think it’s important—psychiatrists are medical doctors/MDs. They treat, basically, the body the way a medical doctor would treat other things, but they’re going to treat mental disorders, as that’s labeled, with medication more often than not. They don’t do a lot of talk there. They do a lot of medication therapy.
Psychologists, psychotherapist is another label, licensed therapist could be doctor’s level/could be master’s level, but they have a license in their state to practice the art of counseling if you will. They’ve been trained specifically in sitting down and working through situations with people in relationships and they have expertise in that area.
Now before we come back to this issue of finding a good stepfamily therapist, a word about marriage intensives because that’s something that has come on the scene the last ten years. You’re seeing more and more Christian organizations and even individual practice doing marriage intensives. I’ve done those for I guess 12 years or so. You also do marriage intensives where a couple will come and spend three days or four days sitting with you working through it.
So instead of one hour at a time which personally I’ve just done away with that model. That’s based on money and the economics of the business has nothing to do with helping people, in my opinion, but now we have an extended period of time with an intensive. You’re going to spend three or four days; you’re going to spend 24 to 30 hours working on something. You can really dig in deep. You guys have had good experience doing intensives, right?
Brenda: Yes, and what we love about it is, like you said, you don’t have to stop at an hour and say, “Okay, we’re done!” We might have to go an hour and a half/two hours to get to the nitty gritty of something to have a breakthrough, and that has just been powerful, I think. When we do a three-day intensive, that’s worth six months of counseling if you were to go one hour a week.
It just gives some couples some traction and more than anything, it gives them hope because they have some time where they can talk together without being interrupted and have some guidance.
Gil: Along with that, Brenda, I think they are able to stay in context because they don’t have the interruption of “Oh, we’ll see you next week.” They can actually stay within the context and they don’t have to take that interruption to come back to get “Where did we leave off?” But again, I think that, as you said Ron, it’s that ability to press through the issue.
I think a quick story is a particular couple we were working with—we were at hour two and a half and it was like “Hey, I think we need to take a break not only because this is getting intense but you know, I need to go to the bathroom.” [Laughter]
In all reality, the lady—I just love her—she looked across the table at me and went—and she gently not pounded but she gently hit the table and said “No! This is why we’re here.” [Laughter] And I went “Okay, you’re on,” and I loved her heart. I love her heart because, literally, about a half an hour later there was the breakthrough. That was the beauty. Then we took the break.
Brenda: And when you say breakthrough, Gil, I think what we’re really big on is people connecting. A lot of times people will come to us and say, “We have a communication problem,” and it’s not communication, it’s connection.
Gil: And the breakthrough is really an amazing thing because the Holy Spirit breaks through in a hard place in that person’s heart and it is stalling out the marriage. Now it could be kid related. It could be stepfamily related. It could be all kinds of issues related, but that’s the breakthrough is when the heart softens, and they begin to turn toward one another and then connect with one another and then begin that dance of resonation. That’s beautiful because now you know God is working in their heart and that’s where the change takes place.
Ron: Yes, I agree. I think intensives are a great model, not necessarily for everybody. It requires a lot of time and it’s expensive because as you said you’re getting six months’ worth in, in three or four days rather than doing six months one hour a week in a process.
It’s not for everybody but what I often tell people is if you’ve tried the outpatient counseling thing and it really hasn’t worked for you, it just might be time to consider the intensive.
One of the things I want our listeners to know is that I’m trying to build a network of recognized smart stepfamily therapy providers. People that have done their homework/gone through some additional training which I am beginning to ramp up to do. If you’re a therapist and you want to know more about this, you’re going to go to my personal website SmartStepfamilies.com and learn how to do that.
Gil and Brenda’s name is already among the list of people that I recommend that are available around the country. You can find that information again on SmartStepfamilies.com. Also on my website—we’ll put this in the show notes as well—an article on how to find a competent Christian stepfamily therapist.
Sometimes you don’t have the option of doing an intensive, going to where Gil and Brenda live, or wherever. You don’t have anybody in your neighborhood that you know of that is qualified, so how do you go about it?
Just a quick thought for our listener and then we’ll move on, but it’s as simple as—and the article kind of walks you through—say your pastor recommends a therapist and you call them and you just ask this question: “What do you do differently when working with blended families than you do when working with maybe a first marriage situation?”
If they don’t have an answer to that question, then they’re probably not going to be a good fit for you. You need to move on to the next one. If they can give you “Well typically this is different and that’s different and sometimes we have to deal with this and here’s why we would have to deal with it,” yes, that’s somebody who’s done their homework and you might feel a little more confident about going and hanging out with them.
Ron: Sometimes people wonder if their kids should go to counseling. I’m an advocate that you get as many people in the room as you can when the timing is right. That’s up to the counselor to help you decide, but kids, the older they are the more of an opinion they have about what’s going on in their family and their life, and the more they need somebody to hear them, too.
Intensives tend to be centered around just the couple because it’s hard to bring six people on an airplane to the Pacific Northwest, and that adds to the expense of the whole experience. But you can get a lot done just working with one couple because, as you guys say, if they don’t have the marriage, they’ve got nothing. But for people who have outpatient therapy, it’s a good idea for them to get their kids involved. Is that what you think?
Gil: Yes, and I liked what you said, Ron, in that the timing is important because the preparation is very important. One of the modalities that I kind of work from is a thing called Internal family systems which has a lot to do with trauma. Because going through a divorce potentially and a remarriage is on the aces scale which is the adverse childhood experiences research. Divorce is one of among ten particular things considered traumatic.
So the systems within the family are actually working from and trying to recover from trauma which is “how do we do this?” and “what did it do to me emotionally that could potentially throw me off?” So yes that kiddo comes in and they may need some free space to themselves to have the freedom to speak up and say how they’re really feeling before you bring mom and dad in or vice versa. So that’s a really important thing.
I think the other thing, too, is the issue of coaching over the video. Just to put a word in for that—sometimes somebody thinks they’re in crisis but in reality they just needed somebody that knew what they were talking about that they can’t get to and the video conferencing or the video coaching is adequate. We’ve had that happen a couple of times.
So just to kind of put a word in for that, but back to that place when you’re able to bring the whole family in, get to hearing and then bring it all together. That’s fantastic because then you can begin to have some common ground to work on.
Ron: Yes, that’s good.
What if you want to go to counseling but your spouse or your child or somebody that’s connected to the situation won’t go, are you stuck? Is it hopeless? Should you go anyway?
Brenda: I’d go anyway because so many times in a family situation it’s easy to blame everybody else because your needs aren’t being met. So that might be a great growing opportunity for you to explore what’s going on in your own heart because you can’t control what’s going on in anybody else’s, right? That could be a great opportunity for you to understand where you’re at or your pain is, how to better support your family, have empathy. I think it’s better to do that/to go yourself than not do anything at all.
Gil: I have a couple of clients right now that are in stepfamily situations and only one of the couple—usually in this case it’s the ladies—who are willing to come in, and because of what they’re learning and gaining information they actually then start acting differently. They start talking differently. They start regulating their emotions differently.
Then, all of a sudden, I have the husband sitting in my office because it’s like “What did you do to my wife? [Laughter] I was like “Well she had a safe place to talk. Would you like to learn how to do that?”
It’s an amazing thing that if you can’t get buy in, there might be some fear. There might be some “I don’t know about this,” or “I’m not going to go to a shrink; you know, I’ve got to lay down on the couch and be all—.” So, don’t let your other half, so to say, create the obstacle. Go ahead and get what you can and eventually, maybe they’ll come along with.
Ron: If there’s anything Romans 12 teaches us is that we have a lot of power in relationships just by managing our self. You can overcome evil with good. You can’t stop somebody from being evil, but you can make it really hard for them to continue acting that way by changing who you are and managing yourself/regulating yourself within the context of the relationship.
So yes, go and get support and learn what you can do to be a better you. That will make a difference. Will it fix everything? Will it make the other people perfect the way you think they should be? Probably not, but it will ripple some change so there’s definitely hope in that situation.
Well while people are looking for support or going to counseling, I’ve got a list of attitudes here that I think will help sustain them when they’re in the process of working through some changes. Let’s just talk around them a little bit.
In love, have empathy for other people and in humility, change yourself. We just talked a little bit about that changing yourself piece and how powerful it ultimately is and that’s always a place where we start. What’s about this having empathy for others especially in a blended family situation? Why is it important to have empathy for others?
Gil: Well my definition of empathy is really the act of feeling with someone else, but deeper than that I’m actually suffering with them. I’m feeling what they’re feeling.
Actually, what’s unique about this is when I’m in a conversation with a couple, I refer to an old love song called When I Fall in Love. It’s a sappy romantic song, but there’s a line in there that is true empathy. That when I feel that you feel the way I feel that’s when I fall in love with you, but in reality, when I feel that you feel that I feel the same way I do that’s when I forgive you. That’s when I understand you. That’s when I connect with you, and not a moment sooner. That’s empathy.
Ron: And the reason that’s really helpful—one reason it’s helpful, I think in blended families is because people have had such diverse experiences merging into this family. You have children that lost a parent to death. You have another child whose parents divorced. You have one adult who’s been through that divorce and knows a whole lot more than the child knows about what happened behind the scenes. You have one adult who was widowed and had a great marriage and they don’t know what a bad marriage would be like. They never experienced that. Now they’re married to somebody who definitely knows what a bad marriage looks like.
Those are four different emotional states standing in the same living room. To be able to look across and go “Huh, what’s it like to be that person dealing with me? I wonder what they experience when we have these conversations or conflicts?” That begins to help move your heart a little bit closer to theirs.
Gil: Right because the entry way into the remarried stepfamily world is always through the doorway of pain. Always. You don’t get there because you were invited or “Oh, I’m going to go do that.” [Laughter] “Well that looks like fun.” No it’s through a doorway of pain.
Brenda: Yes, I always—especially the ladies but this could go to the guys, too—I always ask, “Would you come home to you?”
Ron: Ooh, wow! What a good question.
Brenda: I usually say, “Don’t answer, but just think about it for a minute.” [Laughter] Because that would be evoking empathy. It’s like “Wow! What am I projecting?”
Gil: Because from that place you can now tap into your levels of humility which means I’ve taken a really good stock of my strengths and my weaknesses. I don’t take myself too seriously, but I can humble myself for the sake of the other.
When I begin to understand my humility, there’s a weight to who you are as a person that’s approachable, is trusted, and now we’re really cooking with some good stuff there at that point because if I can enter into a relationship with somebody who understands empathy and has a humble spirit, then we’re well on our way to some strength.
Ron: Let’s just do one more. Counseling is a process. Going to a small group is a process. I think people need to be really committed to the process, right?
Brenda: Yes, I think sometimes if they have a little bit of being uncomfortable in those situations, they say “Oh, it’s not for me.” So many times I think it’s important for them to give it a chance. You know if that first time is like “Oh, I’m not ever going back.” Well maybe that’s the point that you do need to go back and kind of push through a little bit.
Gil: I like the concept of process, but I would like to encourage another concept to the listener. Processing is indeed a process; it takes time. But the ultimate is not to get lost in the cycle of the process, but eventually after you’ve kind of flushed things out and whirled it around and okay good. You eventually do a little thing that I refer to as digest which means flush. We have to flush some of those things out but sometimes you don’t know how to do it and you need someone to help you. That’s the ultimate.
We process together and now we are like the band of brothers. We’ve lived through a war zone and now I’ve got a friend, but they have helped me digest. They’ve helped me not just process it but actually get it out and have some closure.
Brenda: and get unstuck.
Ron: Yes, get unstuck. Eventually you’re going to get to some change. That’s the whole point.
You’ve been listening to my conversation with Gil and Brenda Stuart. I'm Ron Deal and this is FamilyLife Blended. We’ll hear one last thought from Gil and Brenda in just a minute, but while we get ready to do that would you review the podcast. Maybe a rating too. It really does help others find us and we’d appreciate that.
Speaking of reviews, Gil and Brenda Stuart endorsed my new book with Dr. Gary Chapman. They say stepfamilies need a common language to build trust, connection, and new attachments. Building Love Together in Blended Families, the name of the book, provides a path to speak love mutually so each family member can accept the love they need to grow closer. This is a wonderful hands-on resource. Well I appreciate them saying that. You can get your copy at shop.familylife.com.
I want to revisit something Gil and Brenda and I talked about. We were talking about how helpful it is for blended family couples to get together with other couples in their local church or a small group or a study group of some kind but let me tell you the reality. Many couples just won’t go, or they go inconsistently. I want to speak to this for just a minute.
Let me ask you: why don’t you go? Listen, in our world today, we think pretty highly of ourselves being tech savvy and we can stay connected with tons of people all the time, right?
Well actually, no, wrong. We say we’re connected but really, we’re just surface connected. What we really seem to value is light connections to be honest. That allows us to stay emotionally closed off and distant and disconnected and hidden.
We can control the level of vulnerability that we have with others. We control our exposure. We control the narrative about what people know about us, right? That’s what Fakebook is really all about. We socially distance on a regular basis under the guise of being real, but that self-deception doesn’t really pay off. It’s just pseudo connection and leaves us lonely and wondering why we can’t break out of our ruts.
You can’t grow without connection with others. I really believe that. Without vulnerability, when you refuse to go or start a small group, if that’s what it takes for you to be involved in, you leave money on the table. I mean there’s opportunity here that we just don’t take advantage of.
Listen, this podcast, I believe in it. It’s designed to encourage and inspire you, but if you really want to grow, you need to get beyond just data in—just taking in information. You need to interact with others who are on a similar journey so you can help each other, so you can encourage each other, so you can grow.
By the way, we at FamilyLife Blended and at FamilyLife have lots of resources that you can study with others. We even have a searchable map so you can find an existing group in your area or if you have a group you can post it so other people can find you. Just go to FamilyLife.com/Blended and click “view events” in order to find that map. Let me encourage you become a part of a group. It will help change your life.
If you’d like more information about our guests, you can find it in our show notes. Or you can just check it out on the FamilyLife Blended podcast page. That’s at FamilyLife.com/podcasts.
While you’re there, check out everything FamilyLife has to offer for marriage and family. We’re an international organization providing practical marriage and family help for your life and those you care about. Our division, FamilyLife Blended, has the largest collection of articles, videos, resources, and books for blended families in the world. Check us out at FamilyLife.com.
One of our annual events is called The Summit on Stepfamily Ministry. That’s an equipping event for laycouples like you, for ministry leaders, for people who care about others/counselors and so on. This year it’s going to be October 1-2, 2020. Just go to SummitonStepfamilies.com to get all the information you need about that.
Well, we’ve got one last word from Gil and Brenda. I asked them about helping others when you feel unprepared to do so.
What if a friend comes to somebody who’s listening right now or someone asks you to lead that small group like we were talking about earlier and something rises up and says, “Man, I am not equipped. I’m not ready for that. I don’t—who am I to be able to sit and have coffee with somebody and try to listen to their situation”?
I think people underestimate the power of the living God in them for those moments. I think people—I think we all underestimate the power of presence—that showing up is half the battle and no, you don’t always know what to do or say. By the way, here’s a big secret about us therapists: we don’t either. [Laughter]
Ron: But it’s true; it’s true. We don’t have all the answers for life. Sometimes we just need to trust that being a friend is a valuable thing to do.
Gil: I couldn’t agree more. Every day that I drive into my office I really pray that this particular prayer: “Lord, I’ve got nothing to offer other than You.” Yes, I’ve got this education and this experience and these grey hairs, but unless the Holy Spirit shows up with His presence, then it really isn’t going to be effective and that’s the difference.
So, if you feel like “I’m not qualified,” well okay, there were a few other people that didn’t feel qualified—like Moses for instance. “Hey, who am I to do this?” The qualification is willingness. If you’re willingly going to step into that, then the Holy Spirit will show up. The materials will show up and you begin to understand presence that really is just right on point. It’s the willingness to step into it and trust God with the rest.
Brenda: And what a gift to a friend, because I think especially in culture today, we’re so all self-absorbed. We don’t take the time to step back to offer that cold cup of water to somebody. No, we don’t have the answers, but I can sit here in this with you and that’s part of empathy.
Gil: Yes, I think one thing is that sometimes we feel like we have to carry the load and that’s not what is being asked of you. You’re being asked to hold someone else’s pain for a moment, not to carry it for them—just hold the load for a moment. Give them a moment to take a breath and if that’s just for 15 or 20 minutes, or 45 minutes in that small group setting, then you’ve done your job and then they can go on their way.
Ron: Next time, we’re going to hear from Lore Ferguson Wilbert about being first in your husband’s heart when you’re his second wife.
Lore: You know in the church in particular I think there are some unfortunate narratives around divorce and remarriage and I think I feel acutely aware of being a second wife depending on who I am around and what their thoughts about it are or what they suspect to be my husband’s story but don’t know to be true.
Ron: That’s Lore Ferguson Wilbert. Next time on FamilyLife Blended.
I’m Ron Deal, thanks for listening. Thanks to our FamilyLife Legacy Partners for making this podcast possible.
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