CHILDREN—the Forgotten Victims

In the past 25 years, the two largest Sabbatarian organizations in America—the Seventh Day Adventists and the Worldwide Church of God—have experienced a lot of turmoil. Many members and ministers felt they had to leave these organizations—or found themselves expelled involuntarily. Such folks have often found themselves ostracized by their former "brothers and sisters" still in the organization. Some have remained "unattached" to any organization after their experience, others have joined "off-shoots" which reorganized outside the "parent" organization. For most, this has been a traumatic time in their lives. They had often built their whole life-style around their church and its activities.

While dealing with their own pain and confusion, both doctrinally and socially, many have forgotten to look closely within their own family to observe how all this has affected their children. Children are often the forgotten victims in all this. They probably do not understand all the doctrinal issues at hand that brought about the turmoil—but their lives are just as disrupted. They may have lost contact with many of their friends whose families are still in the organization. Their sense of security and order in their lives can suffer greatly. They may feel they have no one to talk to in order to "work through" their own confusion and grief.

If you have gone through one or more of these times of organizational turmoil, we urge you to take time to sit down with your children, listen to their thoughts and feelings about the situation, and reassure them as much as you are able.

We have one daughter, Ramona Leiter, age 25. She was only 7 years old when we were "disfellowshipped" from the Worldwide Church of God over issues of loyalty to church government. As a home-schooled child, all of her friends were in that organization except for a few neighborhood playmates. She lost all of those church friends. Ten years later, at age 17, it happened again, as we left the Church of God International. This time we weren't formally "disfellowshipped", but the effect was just the same. Those still in the organization wanted nothing to do with us if we were not going to remain loyal to it. So once again she was estranged from many friends.

Only recently did we think to talk to her in depth about her feelings during those difficult times. We asked her to write down some thoughts on her church experiences to share with parents and children who have been through the same experience—or are just now at that very point. Her whole story is posted on our Internet website (Worldwide Web address: ). Here are excerpts of two revealing comments she made about the events immediately surrounding our departure from the two organizations. Perhaps her feelings may reflect those of other children who have been through this trauma.

"As far as the events surrounding my parents leaving Worldwide [in 1978], I remember distinctly how it affected them emotionally (especially how depressed my mom was) and I remember listening to the phone conversations that provided behind-the scenes information of what was going on at the headquarters at Pasadena—at age seven I could practically quote the latest scuttlebutt. And frankly I cannot say the actual leaving of the church distressed me personally, but the events leading up to it and the emotional drain on the family that lasted well over a year was certainly enough to bring an end to my innocence—this was nobody's fault for other things going on in my life (extended family and playmate problems) were also turning my little world upside down as well—not a happy time!

"...My feelings towards leaving [the CGI in 1988] were ones of relief. The previous few years had been filled with disappointments and politics and backstabbing. To finally be rid of all that was very liberating. I also felt more free in my relationship with the Lord- and perhaps held myself accountable for my walk with the Lord."

In Matthew 18:6, Jesus spoke to His disciples about the small child He sat in their midst:

"But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and that he were drowned in the depths of the sea."

The word translated "offend" here implies the act of causing a person "to distrust and desert one whom he ought to trust and obey." Unfortunately, many children and teens are so traumatized by the confusion in many of the Churches of God in recent years that they are turned off—not only to "organized religion," but to the idea of even caring about God and the way of life of the Bible. Leaders of church organizations may have much more to answer for in the judgement than they know! Let's be sure as parents we do not offend our little ones during these times of trial. We can't shield them from disappointments, but we can help them understand that their pain is not caused by God but by human decisions and fallibility.

If you realize that you have not really done all you could to understand how the events in your life may have affected your children, take time right now to begin talking—and really listening—to them about these issues. And don't make it a one-time thing. A child going through a death in the family or a divorce needs a lot of emotional support. Leaving a church organization can be almost as traumatic as these life stresses, for both children and adults. Keep the lines of communication about these issues open to your children until you are sure their healing is complete.

Here is how Ramona now feels about her childhood and teenage experiences with changing churches:

"One of the main things I have learned is that if things go wrong at your church and you leave it, to not leave God in the process. Often our relationship with God consists of going to services, and maybe a little prayer and/or Bible study. So if we give up on church, we think it's a package deal, and give up on God (this is a problem for people of all ages). Well, God is not religion. He is all-powerful, He sent His son to die for us, and wants to be Lord of our life. He doesn't want just one day a week, He wants all of it. That's when the changes for the better can begin to happen in us.

If you have been hurt by your experiences, why not pray to God. He can help you begin to heal. Ask Him for guidance as to what scriptures in the Bible might be helpful to you. Most of all, realize you are not alone in what you have been through."

All children are different, and deal with stress and grief and confusion in different ways. But adults and children can grow spiritually strong through adversity. Beyond talking with their children, if there is one hint I would give to parents about how to help their children "come out the other side" of this experience spiritually healed it is this: Your children will very likely mirror how you ultimately deal with this time in your life. If you remain bitter, they likely will also. If you wallow in depression indefinitely, they may also. If you are permanently fearful of further rejection, and avoid finding new fellowship opportunities among believers, they may become "hermits," too. But if you allow the Lord to heal your hurts, your children will likely receive healing also. And if you trust Him to lead you into His perfect will for your life as an active member in His true Body... there is a good chance your children will be there with you, serving Him.

Let's not let our children be the "forgotten victims! "

—Pam Dewey

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