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What religion, divorce, and a cup of coffee have in common.

The Rev. James Neil Hollingsworth, Jr., better known as 'Dock,' is senior pastor at Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church. Second-Ponce is a traditional church in the heart of Buckhead, Atlanta, that serves a robust membership of 2,300 people.

Dock and I met in 2017 and became fast friends. While we don’t share the same religion, we share many of the same values, including a commitment to helping those who come to us in need. I learned an amazing amount about the role the church does and doesn’t play counseling its parishioners through divorce in this interview.

There are some great insights here for women regardless of their religious beliefs: how it’s so common for divorce to happen to families that seem “perfect” on the outside… that a place of worship can be a great (and cost effective!) resource for you and your kids during divorce… and yes, even couples in their 80’s get divorced! Read on for more good nuggets from a really inspiring man.


Q. First, this may be an obvious question, but are there divorces among your church members frequently?

A. Yes, there are. My church is in an affluent section of Atlanta. If you were an unknowing observer, you would think it was a church filled with happy, beautiful people. They come dressed in their Sunday best. But I know many of our members well. When I look out from the pulpit on Sunday, I see so many broken people. It’s sad because I know there are unhappy families that are trying their best not to appear that way.

Q. As a lawyer, what clients say to me is confidential. With few exceptions, your lawyer and your therapist can’t repeat what you tell them. Is that true for what people tell their pastors?

A. Mostly yes. Though your priest or pastor is a mandatory reporter and has a duty to report abuse. If you intend to harm yourself or someone else, they have to report that. Everything else that you ask to be kept in confidence is confidential.

Q. So the church is a good place to go for confidential support about your marriage - whether you’re thinking about separating or actually getting a divorce?

A. Yes, it can be a great place of support. It’s also free. If you need help and finances are an issue, you can speak to your clergy at no cost. But it needs to be differentiated from therapy. A good clergy person is going to listen, care, and pray, but he or she is not going to be a substitute for a marriage and family therapist.

Q. Explain that. I don’t know that our members all understand the difference. I know I didn’t.

A. Pastoral care is caring for emotional distress. When I go to the hospital to visit someone - like if they’re facing surgery the next day - I’m offering pastoral care. Pastoral care has value because the person trusts you, but it’s different from a counseling role like “here are the 6 steps you should consider doing to improve your marriage”. That’s not pastoral care. Counseling and therapy are specialties that most clergy are introduced to but not fully competent to practice. Go to your clergy person for a caring presence, but seek a professional for counseling.

Q. How else do you define the difference? Where’s the line between care you can provide and counseling you can’t?

A. It’s not clearly defined. But you know when it crosses over the line. I know as a lawyer you have that too - a lot of what you do crosses into the gray area of counseling, but you know when you need to tell someone to see a counselor instead.

Q. That’s true. As a family lawyer, I talk A LOT about emotions, but there are definitely times I’ve had to say - I’m not a licensed mental health professional and that’s what you really need. We encourage women at DIGC to find a good therapist. I’m a huge believer in it.

Back to the church, can you explain more about what women CAN get from their pastor as far as counseling?

A. Yes, so there’s pastoral care. Then there’s another toolbox which is coaching. That’s a skill set for asking the right questions to help the person figure out the answers. It’s not giving the answers; it’s asking the questions to guide them to it themselves. Like if a woman is trying to decide whether to stay in her marriage, we can ask questions to help her to explore the next steps of discernment. But, a competent minister is not going to tell a woman whether or not she should stay in her marriage.

Q. What about kids - is there a place for kids whose parents are separating to get help?

A. Yes, the children need a safe place to talk about what’s going on with them. It’s great if they have their own counselor but again that can be very expensive. The children’s minister at your church is a good place to go. Involving clergy in the family struggle will help them be sensitive to emotional and behavioral changes in the children. I strongly encourage this kind of ally.

Q. If you were to assign a percentage, how much does divorce affect your church as a whole?

A. It’s hard to say. Church folks are not immune to life’s pain. Divorce strikes the church like everywhere else but often one or both members of the couple leave the church during or after their divorce.

Q. Why is that?

A. I can tell you what I’ve experienced. In a church, people look around and see that everyone’s dressed up, everyone appears put together. It gives this sense of “am I the only one going through this?” which they aren’t but they think they are. And there’s a belief that people who are of faith may have greater guilt that their marriage is failing. They think - “this is wrong,” “this is against my church,” or “this isn’t what I was brought up to believe is supposed to happen.” And particularly if the underlying cause is an affair, people think they can’t go through that and stay with their church.

Q. I know you, so I know you’re an open person. But there are churches that do preach that divorce is wrong.

A. It’s true. Not every church is going to be a place you’ll feel safe going to about your marriage problems. Some clergy are far more judgmental than loving. I think you will know in your gut if your minister is someone who can care for you. Unfortunately, sometimes churches hurt more than help when people are broken.

Q. That’s so sad. Divorce is hard enough without having this feeling that you can’t stay at a place that you’ve chosen to go for worship and community.

If I’m a woman attending church and I want to talk to you about my marriage - and I feel like I’m at a church where it’s ok to do that - how do I go about doing that? Do I just call you, send you an email? I wouldn’t think I’d just walk up to you at the end of service, especially if my family is there. It feels like reaching out might be awkward.

A. Usually they’ll call and ask to go to lunch to talk about a committee they’re on or to talk about the children’s ministry. A woman can tell her spouse she’s meeting the pastor for a cup of coffee, and that usually isn’t unusual. And once we’re together, they’ll say “ok we need to talk about the committee for 5 minutes, but here’s why I really wanted to meet,” and get into it. Email is always a good way to start the conversation.

Q. Are you ever surprised when you hear about a couple divorcing, like you see them every week in church and had no idea? Also, what’s the oldest couple you’ve seen in your church divorce?

A. Yes, definitely. I’ve had families who I think everyone was shocked when they found out. You look around the church congregation and you don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors. As far as oldest, we’ve had more than one couple in their 80's this year!

Q. Well, divorce is immune to age, right?

I know you’re a mandatory reporter, so you have to report if someone tells you they’re planning to harm themselves or someone else. But what if a woman comes to you and tells you that she’s been a victim of abuse or that she’s afraid she’s going to be harmed? Do you have to report that?

A. I don’t have to report something that happened in the past, or if someone says she thinks she’s going to be hurt (as opposed to she’s going to do the hurting). But I do have a moral obligation for intervention. So I’d say, we need to take steps to get you out of there. I’d work with her on a plan to do that - or get her to help if it wasn’t something I could handle.

[A note to our community: if you are experiencing violence and need help but don’t feel comfortable talking to someone you know, two of the top resources available for victims of domestic violence are:

Q. In some ways, you and I both have a lot of weight on our shoulders. You’re a trusted advisor when someone comes to you and that can be hard. Do you feel that way?

A. Sure, you’re trying to figure out the right way to steer them. I want our members to feel supported and to know they’re in a safe loving place. But in almost every case I’ve had one or both of the partners in the marriage leave the church. So, their pastor knows they feel like they’re broken and tries his or her best to help, knowing they’re probably going to end up leaving.

Q. Do you think leaving the church is a product of being in a big city? I mean, where you work there are so many options. But that’s not true everywhere.

A. Yes, definitely true. I’ll see people say it’s time for a new start and I need to meet new people and most often they’ll move to a larger church than ours where they can be more anonymous. Which sadly doesn’t help, if you think about getting a sense of community from your church, but they feel like a fresh start is a good idea. But in a small town where the families have been involved with the church for generations and there’s a divorce, there may be nowhere else to go.

Q. If you could tell women who are experiencing divorce about that, what would you want to say?

A. I’d say lean into your faith community. This happens to so many of us. Let your community love you and lift you up. If you decide you want to make a change after, ok. But don’t leave your community during the time that you need them the most.

Thank you so much, Dock!


The Rev. James Neil Hollingsworth, Jr., better known as 'Dock,' is senior pastor at Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church. Second-Ponce is a traditional church in the heart of Buckhead, Atlanta, that serves a robust membership of 2,300 people.


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