Lutherans in the Twin Cities

When ‘one flesh’ becomes two again

A ministry of conflict mediation within marriage disputes

As the U.S. divorce rate remains near 50 percent, Lutheran pastor Dr. Jeffrey Dorman believes that a compassionate response to that reality is helping couples end broken marriages in the healthiest way possible.

In nearly 25 years serving congregations, including 16 years as assistant pastor at North Heights Lutheran Church (independent), North Heights, Minnesota, he saw the effects that a split can have on individuals, on children and extended family, and on a community. Sometimes one person feels they cannot remain in their church as long as their ex-spouse is also attending. Sometimes they both leave the congregation. And there are rituals to negotiate: Can divorced parents be civil to one another at their child’s confirmation or wedding?

The divorce process often exacerbates any antagonism already present between partners. “When a person goes into a litigation situation, in the old model, it’s all about preparing for battle and winning,” he says. “That’s damaging to humans, both to who wins and who loses. And it’s ultimately damaging to the kids, too. Kids shouldn’t have to take sides and choose between mommy and daddy.”

Jeffrey Dorman offers people experiencing marital crisis a compassionate space to work out issues regarding their divorce. Metro Lutheran photo: Bob Hulteen

Dorman mediates conflicts not only related to divorce proceedings but issues that might arise afterward around co-parenting or custody arrangements.

The newer model is the field of Alternative Dispute Resolution, resolving conflicts out of court. This process involves working with a trained mediator, a neutral facilitator who helps a couple examine their situation, look for shared concerns and interests, and aim for a settlement that meets everyone’s goals as fairly as possible. Dorman is now a professional mediator with his own firm, Dorman Mediation, in White Bear Township.

He mediates conflicts not only related to divorce proceedings but issues that might arise afterward around co-parenting or custody arrangements. He is also available for other family mediation, such as disputes between adult siblings and their aging parents, as well as situations affecting business, church, and community.

Dorman believes that mediation offers a healthier route to resolving conflict. “In Isaiah, the Lord says, ‘Come now, let us reason together.’ I think of that as the unspoken model for our business.”

What would Jesus do?

Reason, respect, and a willingness to look toward the future rather than dwell on the past are cornerstones of Dorman’s approach. He is not serving as a therapist or counselor in these situations.

“It’s none of my business [what broke up a marriage]. Mediation is future-focused. We don’t take time to go back and unpack the relationship.”

Instead, Dorman aims for those he mediates to be able to treat one another in a business-like manner, diminishing the emotional entanglements and dialing down the conflict levels. “Studies show that it’s ultimately in the best interest of the children when conflict dissipates.”

Dorman believes mediation also offers hope to couples who have felt hopeless, and empowers individuals to speak up for themselves and make their own decisions. This is crucial at a time when people feel they have lost control of their lives.

Some might find Dorman’s new profession seemingly at odds with his former one. As a pastor he joined couples in marriage, and counseled them when difficulties arose. And Jesus himself expressed some strong views on divorce in the gospels. But Dorman looks at those passages in the historic and cultural context of scripture.

“Jesus was teaching in a time and culture where women and children were often considered property of the men. So for him to come down strongly against divorce may have been warning men not to leave their responsibilities to care for their families. The women would often be left destitute without a man to care for them. Among my clients, that is certainly not the case. Most of the women I work with have a college education and an ability to provide for themselves. Also the Minnesota laws create a safety net of child support and spousal maintenance.”

But Dorman does believe that Jesus would have plenty to say about people’s hearts and the way they behave both in a marriage and when leaving one. “I would see him challenging the sins that lead people to hurt, use, or take advantage of one another as well as the sins of selfishness, arrogance, and inequality that can lead to an intolerable situation for a spouse.

“God’s goal is for the health and well being of individuals and communities, that love and grace might abound and bring hope and healing for all the broken people. Sometimes the redeeming work means taking steps toward a clean slate and a fresh start.”

Kimberly Burge is a freelance writer who splits time between Washington, D.C., and South Africa. She formerly was communications director for Bread for the World.

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