Family Ministries: A Comprehensive Guide (a book review)

Family Ministry A Comprehensive Guide, second edition by Diana R. Garland

Our families are either a source of great joy or great pain for us. Probably both. Families are the context in which we learn to trust and love and grow and where we learn to be human. Churches and family ministry are resources for families which help nurture families and help them grow. But what is the purpose of family ministry? What is the nature of family and how do churches support families and help them fulfill their calling?

Diana R. Garland, dean of the Baylor School of Social Work, wrote Family Ministry: A Comprehensive Guide to help family ministries support Christians as they live out their faith through their families. She draws on her own experience as a social work educator, researcher, family ministry consultant, congregant and family member (17).  The  first edition of this book won the 1999 Academy of Parish Clergy book of the year to Family Ministry. This edition substantially reorganizes the original material, integrating the biblical content with the social sciences and the theoretical with the practical (this edition also provides indexes which were missing). These changes make this book slightly longer than the first edition (656 pages). Having not read the first edition, I can’t say whether this edition improves upon Garland’s earlier  effort. However I can tell you that this is hands down the  most helpful book on ministry to families. Period.

Family Ministry is divided into four sections. In the first section Garland sketches the American concept of family in history and the current forms of family. She relates that to the history of Christian thought and biblical teaching on family. The sociological, historical and biblical data demonstrate that family is a fluid concept which has changed over time, often taking different forms. The ‘traditional’ family consisting of a breadwinner father, homemaker mother and dependent children has not been the reality for ‘more than 5% of Christian history'(40).  Within the current American context, families are increasing defined by persons choosing to be family, the purpose of family is no longer birthing and raising children and marriage is’ no longer the exclusive social location for sexual partnering (48).’  The Christian and Biblical understanding of family affirms monogamous marriage is the proper context for sex but also challenges  the ‘traditional’  definition of family. Jesus relativizes commitment to families of origin and recasts family as the community of faith. In light of this, Garland proposes:

The church is community on mission , a community that attempts to embody the characteristics of Jesus Christ. With that community on mission as the context, family ministry is any activity that directly or indirectly (1) forms families in the congregational community; (2) increases the Christlikeness of the family  relationships of Christians; or (3) equips and supports families for the work to which they are called together (120).

These three prongs of Family ministry provide the structure for the rest of the book.

In section two, Garland probes family formation and how the congregational community can support families. She discusses how families relate to one another,  how families develop, how physical and social spaces nurture individuals and families, the impact of stress, crises and castastrophe on family life and how cultural and ethnic identity inform our understanding of ‘family’ and our expectations. Garland  begins this section by telling the story of one group of individuals who become family for one another and discusses how the concept of Christian family  both builds on cultural definitions of family while remaining distinct (15).  She presses the notion that families develop in stages (linearly) and suggests that families develop cyclically (as phases of relationship).  Her exploration of how culture shapes our understanding and expectations of family also reveal the way in which rituals, culture and shared stories nurture give families their identity and nurture them. This has implications for congregational life.

Section three is about interpersonal dynamics within the family and how family ministry can help families become more Christlike.  Garland talks about the dynamics of communication, conflict and anger, forgiveness and repentance and intimacy. She explores the nature of power and roles, arguing for a more egalitarian approach to family relationships. She also discusses the appropriate and most effective forms of discipline and the problem of family violence and how ministers should address the issue of abuse

Section four is where Garland explores how families fit within the mission of the church and how families and churches mutually support one another in extending God’s kingdom. Congregations support family life when they have hospitable worship services which welcomes and includes every member of the family, nurtures their formation, offers pastoral care and leadership. Garland also provides a template for assessing congregations, neighborhoods and evaluating family ministries. She concludes by providing a number of examples where congregations have provided programs and ministries which nurture neighbors and families and invites families into the work of ministry.

Generally I find that certain words in a book title over promise. When a book says it is a ‘comprehensive guide’ I wonder if it can possibly deliver on its promise to say everything that needs to be said about its topic. However Garland largely succeeds.  She has written a book which is practical, theologically astute, makes good use of sociological research and addresses many of the dynamics of family life. Not everyone will agree with her conclusions (i.e. my complementarian friends would likely be unconvinced by her biblical defense of egalitarianism), but she is a great dialogue partner and she weds insights from the social sciences with a keen understanding of the mission of the church. Much of the research which this book builds on is summarized in these pages but an extensive bibliography points readers to other resources where they could dig deeper into the topic in a more focused way. If anything is left out of this ‘comprehensive guide’ it is the way technology is re-shaping family life.  The internet, the ubiquity of  smartphones and other devices have impacted our relationships with one another. Perhaps in a third edition.

I think this is hands down the best and most comprehensive book on family ministry. I highly recommend to all those who minister to families. That includes more than family ministers, children’s ministers, Christian ed directors, and youth pastors. Everyone doing the work of the ministry needs to have an understanding of how families fit within the mission of the church and what the church can do to support them.  I found this book to be tremendously helpful and their are sections which I plan on revisiting.  It assumes basic knowledge of sociology of marriage and family relationships but is written in an engaging and accessible way.  This is a great resource and I am grateful for Garland’s insights and thoughtfulness.

Thank you to IVP Academic for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

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