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First Person: The 'nontraditional family' is not served by statements that everything is OK

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

By Nancy Cochran

I am moderator of the Pittsburgh Presbytery, the highest elected position among Allegheny County's 50,000 Presbyterians and 157 churches. Recently, I was one of 550 commissioners to the highest governing body of our church, the General Assembly, which met in Denver late last month. We had responsibility and power to set priorities for the work of the church for the next year and to guide the church at every level of its life. This is no small task.

Nancy Cochran is president of Cochran and Associates, a marketing and fund-raising firm focusing on nonprofits and churches (Nlcochran@aol.com).

Like Episcopalians, United Methodists, the United Church of Christ and other "mainline" denominations in the United States, Presbyterians are facing challenges. In 30 years, the Presbyterian Church has lost more than one-third of its membership.

For me, the church lives on the edge of social change, welcoming and loving all, but remaining true to God's word. I have a passion to serve the poor, particularly vulnerable women and children. I was extremely interested in one of the major presentations under consideration at the General Assembly called "Living Faithfully with Families in Transition." It was a very serious report about a very important constituency: the nontraditional family.

For me, the report preached inclusiveness of all people and all family forms. What really counts, the report contended, is how the family forms function and the quality of their communications. It encouraged that all family forms should be accepted and treated with dignity. As a single parent, I agree with that.

But it hardly mentioned the word marriage. It acknowledged that intimacy is "better if expressed in committed relationships." The report failed to lift up a loving, committed marriage as the family form given in the Bible. In contrast, "Families in Transition" suggested that Scripture is untrustworthy because it celebrates a societal structure "that contemporary women and men would judge as no longer adequate for the values of equality and inclusiveness we now see as God's intention for us." The report noted that the family is not a gift of God but rather a "creation of culture."

Here we go again. For me, this was another "make-them-feel-good" answer to society's ills and pain. I believe strongly that the disintegration of the family is the principal domestic problem of our time. I teach divorce recovery classes and know too well that half of all marriages end in divorce. Cohabitation has soared to 5 million couples. Society's most difficult problems of poverty, abuse of alcohol and other drugs, suicide and teenage crime occur with much greater frequency among those who live outside the traditional family. However, these are not major problems, according to the report.

My belief is that the nontraditional family is not served by statements that everything is OK and that our goal should be to make them feel OK and not "stigmatized."

This flawed report was sent back to a committee for further study. But I can't let the story end there.

I am divorced. I know the pain and the losses that are inherent in nontraditional families. Using a visual of a large letter "D" -- the scarlet D stood for "Divorced" -- I spoke passionately to the entire assembly about this issue.

Divorce, cohabitation and single parenthood are not equal to the family maintained by a loving father and mother, married and living together. Marriage is a valued institution. It should be upheld and encouraged.

However, all cannot attain or maintain a loving traditional family. When that occurs, the church and the community should give priority to providing teaching, counseling, mentoring and other supports to nontraditional families. Sometimes these are single- parent families or grandmother-headed families; sometimes they are never-marrieds. Far too often, they are poor or thrown into poverty, crises and confusion when the marriage vows dissolve. Children too often are the victims of such arrangements.

I encourage all of us to pray for families in transition and then to act to serve, love and support them. Rather than calling the nontraditional family good or OK, we should recognize its needs and should offer care and nurture of children and love, practical help and encouragement to the caregivers.

With vigor, I call Christians to love their particular families in the context of a higher love for God.

At the Assembly, the Pittsburgh Presbytery held a memorial service in celebration of the life of the Rev. Fred Rogers, the beloved Mister Rogers, who was a Presbyterian minister. Mister Rogers broke down barriers, boundaries and borders through his unconditional love of all people. I noted that Mister Rogers didn't ask, "Who is my neighbor?" Rather, his question was "Won't you be my neighbor?"

Noting that Mr. Rogers was a giant of the Christian faith, I asked during prayer for those present to shout names of other giants of the faith. I heard people shouting names such as John Calvin, Mother Teresa, and the Apostle Paul. But I cried unashamedly as I heard people shout out "my mother" or "my father" or "my grandmother." In remembering the life and work of Mister Rogers, we also celebrated the influence of family members on our lives. Fred Rogers must have smiled.

Will you be a neighbor to those in need? May all of us who have lived, worked and grown in positive family structures celebrate our blessings by reaching out to families in need who are experiencing difficult, trying situations. Please join me in prayer and support for all families, with special emphasis on those in transition.

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