Coping With Divorce: Workshop Goes to the Heart of the Matter

Times Staff Writer

The brochure for the Divorce Recovery Workshop, sponsored by St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, features on its cover a diagonal line of three red hearts: the first is broken, in two separate parts; the second is broken but fitted together, like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle; the third is whole.

“I’ve never been divorced,” said the Rev. Bill Flanagan, looking out over the crowd of 250 divorced people gathered at the church. “I have to win the right to be heard every time I step up here.” So far, he estimates, more than 4,000 people have given him the benefit of the doubt.

Might Be Mall Shoppers

Except for their marriage history, the men and women of various ages attending the first of six weekly meetings last Thursday evening in Dierenfield Hall defied categorization. Most were white and few appeared destitute, but apart from that they might have been strolling any Orange County shopping mall.

The major prerequisite for admission, apart from the $20 fee, was that individuals--separated, divorcing or divorced--had “come to the point of recognition that the marriage is over,” said Flanagan, universally known as “Flan.” In some cases the time period was a matter of months, and in others, years.

Divorced people who have attended previous workshops speak in fervent tones of the experience, convinced that the series of plain-spoken lectures and small group meetings changed their lives.


For Helen Dudley, a dental hygienist from Irvine, the first workshop she attended provided “the turning point for me in coming to terms with myself” following a marriage of 14 years that included three children.

She found it so helpful, she said, that she came back for a second series--which included the same lectures--and has since become a volunteer lay-group leader in the seminars.

Another volunteer, Dwain Suiste, who manages a building supply store in Tustin, agreed, saying that the workshops have been “a tremendous healing force” in the lives of the participants. In the course of eight seminars, Suiste said, he has also developed what he called a “family of friends.”

Both Dudley and Suiste said that, as a result of serving as group leaders in recent seminars, they have become more sensitive to others at work and, on the whole, have become better listeners.

One of the hallmarks of Flanagan’s lectures is his no-nonsense, sometimes blunt approach to the topic. (He describes himself as “balding and somewhat paunchy.”)

In his introduction, the minister said that, under the circumstances, he was “glad you’re here, but not happy you’re here.

“Most of you here tonight are ‘dumpees,’ rather than ‘dumpers,’ ” he said, setting off a ripple of nervous laughter. “That’s all right. We’ve found that, in general, ‘dumpees’ pay now and ‘dumpers’ pay later.”

‘Endemic to Society’

And, although divorce is “endemic to our society,” Flanagan told the group, “we are not here to deal with divorce as a sociological phenomenon.”

The workshop, Flanagan was quick to volunteer in an interview, is neither the first nor the only such program in Orange County, although it is one of the largest.

“We’re not the only game in town,” the minister said, as final arrangements for the six-week seminar were being made. But with more than 28,000 people divorced in 1984 alone in the county, he said, “we’re not in competition.”

Concern with family and relationships is a high priority among Orange County churches and, understandably, the emphasis has been on keeping marriages together. Perhaps the best known of these programs is “Maximum Marriage,” developed by Tim Timmons, pastor of South Coast Community Church in Irvine. Increasingly, however, congregations are recognizing the needs of the formerly married as an identifiable group.

Orange County Visit

Flanagan, married for 22 years, first encountered the concepts of Divorce Recovery in 1977, shortly before traveling to Orange County from his church in Colorado Springs, Colo., for a conference sponsored by the Crystal Cathedral.

Inspired at the conference by Jim Smoke, author of “Growing Through Divorce” and, at the time, minister to single adults at the Crystal Cathedral, Flanagan returned to Colorado and began working with a dozen divorced and divorcing couples in his congregation. The group initially met in his living room, Flanagan said, where “I taught them about group dynamics and they sensitized me about divorce.”

Smoke’s book forms the basis of St. Andrew’s Divorce Recovery Workshop, Flanagan’s ninth since coming to the Newport Beach congregation in 1981. Although sponsored by the church, the series of six Thursday night meetings is nonsectarian and open to people of all religions, or of no religion at all.

Flanagan acknowledged at last Thursday’s meeting--the first in the series--that “the fact that this is being held in a church is somewhat intimidating.” He didn’t “apologize for being a Christian,” but assured them that he did not plan to “impose on you my value system.”

In the interview, Flanagan, who serves as minister to single adults at St. Andrew’s, explained that “it’s important that we don’t proselytize or exploit the vulnerability of people” who come to the seminar.

What Flanagan and the 62 group leaders were there for, he told them, was “to extend our hearts to you as a friend,” in order to “help you better understand the divorce experience.” The group leaders, each of whom has been divorced and has attended at least one previous workshop, meet in pairs with small groups of divorced people each week after Flanagan’s lecture.

Observers are permitted to attend the lectures but may not join the small groups, and new group members are not admitted after the second Thursday session. Free care is provided for preschool children, and group sessions for preteens and teen-agers take place on the last three Thursday evenings. There are also small groups for those without children or whose children are grown.

The ratio of women to men in the seminars, Flanagan said, ranges from 4 to 1 to 3 to 1, though he wryly adds that “the ratio of people who get divorced is a lot more even than that.” About 10% of those attending the seminars for the first time return to serve as group leaders, like Dudley and Suiste. In several cases, Flanagan said, participants have met future spouses at the seminars.

Some Continue Meeting

Occasionally, both partners from a broken marriage attend the same series, but leaders make certain that they are not assigned to the same small group. The series officially concludes with a potluck dinner at the church, but some of the small groups have continued to meet for up to two years, said Dudley, who is coordinating group leaders for this session.

Despite his refusal to deal with divorce as a phenomenon in his lectures, Flanagan does have some observations on the subject when asked in an interview.

In Orange County, he said, “there are ‘fast-lane divorces,’ but to characterize most of them that way would be a gross simplification.” The major causes of divorce, he said, were “mid-life crisis” and, more frequently, “conditional commitment.” That is, committing oneself to a partner “until someone better comes along.”

Dudley said that in the course of groups she has led, “the underlying factor is a lack of communication.” Suiste said that he has found alcoholism to be a significant factor in divorces.

Flanagan describes lay leaders like Dudley and Suiste as “wounded healers” and urges newcomers to become like them, “people who can use a tragedy in their lives as a redemptive experience.”