When life isn’t going according to plan, where do you turn to gain perspective into the problems you are facing and the spiritual journey you are on? Today, my guest is the Reverend Dr. Andy Stoker. He is the senior minister at First United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas, and is married to Megan, and together they have two sons. Last year, he also joined forces with a psychologist and a pediatrician to launch the Parenting for the Present podcast, where they provide important resources for families navigating these challenging times.
And it was while I was a guest on the podcast I learned he, in fact, had been trained in the collaborative divorce process. So I thought it would be helpful to invite him to sit down with me today and talk about the spiritual journey of life and how it can help people through times of upheaval and loss. It is wonderful to have him on the show.
Watch the whole presentation below, or use the links to find selected areas of the transcript, lightly edited for easier reading.
- How is the spiritual life a resource for people in times of difficulty?
- As a pastor, how do you help people move through moments of disorder in a healthy way?
- What do you say to people who pull away from their faith community when facing shame from their divorce?
- How do we anchor into the knowledge that we are enough?
- What are some good resources for meditation and journaling practices?
- Have you had the opportunity to see people through the collaborative divorce process while on the other side?
- A message of hope for anybody who’s in that period of the disordered box. What words of wisdom do you have for them?
- Why did you go through collaborative divorce training and what did you learn?
How is the spiritual life a resource for people in times of difficulty?
So often, I think people of faith believe that they have to graduate to a certain level in order to have a spiritual life. When actually spirituality is a lifelong process. It’s a continuous unfolding of what’s going on, not only within you but also around you. No matter your interaction with the divine, transcendent, however, you want to encapsulate that, we still are discovering who we are within ourselves. And then coming to understand that with every life’s transition, there’s something new to discover about ‘Who I am’ and ‘Whatever is leading me to that next step in my life.’
Our faith plays an important role because, I think in so many ways, faith is like a mirror being held up. “Is this who you really are?” “Is this who you want to be?” If so, wonderful. Let’s lean into that. If not, how can we shine that mirror up a little bit and maybe even prepare yourself to face that next time you have to see your reflection.
That’s really powerful. I’m just thinking back to what you just said in terms of we oftentimes think that the spiritual life is something you have to graduate into. In other words, you are saying that there’s not really a destination. It’s not like you get to that place where you are the almighty spiritual beings, but it’s the journey through life and the spiritual aspects of life that can help us become better people and improve what we see in the mirror, that reflection.
To add to that, what’s interesting to me is the more I study spirituality, the more I gain perspective on my own life. It’s not the larger I become, but the smaller I become. And that is the nature of any spirituality. My very closest friends are Jewish rabbis. And we have such a great time together. I was in youth ministry for 15 years, and in the United Methodist Faith tradition, we have the rite of confirmation, which at 12 or 13 you ‘graduate’ from Christianity.
Well, my perspective is whether it’s a bar or bat mitzvah, whether it’s the rite of confirmation, I believe faith communities would do a better job of saying, “All right, this is not the end, but the beginning.” “What more can you discover about who you are and who the divine is for your life?” Because we know after 13, all kinds of things can unfold.
It’s so true. It’s such a poignant period of time. Being a mother, my youngest just turned 14. It is the throes of the teenage years and all the blessings that come with that. It is a time of self-discovery for sure.
You spoke about the idea of perspective. I can relate to it because I know those moments in my own life where I feel like the world is just weighing me down, and it’s so heavy, like being at the center of the universe. And yet, if I can go to the beach and stand at the shore and feel small or go to the mountains and feel small, something happens. Something also happens with a faith community and my own spiritual journey too. Coming to church helps to broaden that perspective where it isn’t all on my shoulders. That’s such an important resource I think that people of faith, especially, can really tap into — that realignment of the perspective.
Absolutely. And I know we’re going to lean into this in just a few minutes. Let me go ahead and maybe set the stage for what I think may be important for people, especially those on a spiritual journey who will be viewing or listening to this. Father Richard Rohr has this beautiful way of understanding our faith development throughout our lifespan. He talks about it in three particular ways, and we go through these stages over and over and over again, maybe even in our conversation today, we’ll discover it.
Richard Rohr indicates that we move through order, disorder, and reorder. That somehow, we’re given this morsel of who we are, and our world is in this box. And along the way, that box gets overturned, kicked over. There’s chaos, destruction, deconstruction of what that order once was. And then somehow, either the divine or we together with the divine, we reorder our world. And when we reorder our world, it doesn’t necessarily look like the box that we were given at the very beginning. Order, disorder, reorder may frame for us our present circumstance in a global pandemic. Or, as we’re going to talk about, when it comes to relationships, hen disorder is it the end, or is it the beginning?
That is really significant. My middle son is getting ready to graduate from high school. So at this stage, they get to make life plans. They are planning the college they’re going to go to and all of their career goals because they’re supposed to know where they’re going by the time they are 17. We grow up in a culture that tells us that we’re supposed to make goals.
We’re supposed to know who we’re going to be and we move towards that and life isn’t supposed to be messy. And when something messy happens, a lot of shame, a lot of fear, a lot happens. But what you’re saying is that we really need to be prepared because disorder is part of our human journey. It’s part of what happens.
As a pastor, how do you help people move through moments of disorder in a healthy way?
So if we can step maybe to the 10,000-foot view, I promise not to stay there too long. When I am working with families, I often invite them to consider how they learned how to handle stress, anxiety, fear, anger and shame from your parents? From a family system’s perspective, we look at what we were given in our order box, from our parents. Oftentimes, we try to carry that on into our own life circumstances. But our own life circumstances don’t have us growing up into adulthood 30 years earlier or having the same kind of job, passion, or personality that our parents did. And so that disorder happens.
So what are the things that we want to retain from the box our parents gave us, and what are the things we can let go of? And when people can see that objectively and without judgment, without anxiety with all compassion saying that “My box was good for a time.” And “Not everything in the box is going to serve me in this time of disorder, moving into reordering.”
And so how can we look objectively at what we’ve received from our parents, from our mentors, and lean into our next best step for our life. Because we are going to have the opportunity to do something totally different than what our parents would have. Because of where we are with research or technology or how we’ve interacted with those that are in our midst, that maybe aren’t our family of origin, but maybe our family of choice.
There are so many things that I’m thinking of. Of course, in that box, there are things that you question, “Does this have use to me now?” And some things will. I mean, there are certainly some things that are wonderful, but the act of asking the question is what is so important because those things that you’re going to hold on to, you get to make them your own.
And I’m thinking of me growing up in the church, that was something that my parents handed down. It was an expectation, especially as clergy care, that we were going to go to church. And I remember coming into young adulthood and thinking, “Is this what I want for my life?” And fortunately, I was given that wide bandwidth to question it, and I did question it. But then, to be able to step into faith, my own faith as an adult is such an incredibly powerful thing. And so, I think that that’s true. That looking at the box, there are some really good things in the box. And then there are some not-so-good things in the box, and we can let go of those. It’s really a powerful coping mechanism.
In my study over this last week, I was reminded of this quote from Confucius where he says, “We all have two lives, the second one starts when we realize we only have one.” I’m still using Father Rohr’s box metaphor here or the order metaphor. If this is it and when life falls apart, when tumult happens, when everything gets turned over, and we go back into that ordering of our lives, the sequence is not: order, disorder, order. The sequence is: order, disorder, reorder.
And every step of the way takes courage. Someone has instilled in you that this is the life I expect of you. “Thanks, mom and dad.” “Thanks, dad and dad, mom and mom.” However, your family of origin was oriented. And then there’s something that occurs in your life that you’re going to take on to that 10,000-foot view. “Can we see this subjectively?” “Can we navigate through this?” “What am I going to take?”. “What am I going to leave behind?” “And with what I’m going to take, can I then reorder my life?”. And that’s when your second life begins.
And what a gift that second life is for people who are going through periods of immense transition, something they didn’t want– it wasn’t like they went out and said, “This is going to make my life better. I’m going to have total upheaval. I’m going to empty everything out of the box.” Right? But, when you lean into those moments that God’s grace – if that’s your belief system – is there present with you, the human experience allows us to really grow deeper and have an amazing next chapter.
I’m a divorce attorney, so we help families transition through the divorce process. And one of the greatest privileges is seeing people at one of the worst times in their lives – because divorce is not fun. I don’t recommend it if you don’t have to do it – but walking through the process and then on the other side, seeing their lives lived with amazing abundance and so forth. Not that I sell divorce, but when you need it, you need it. But one of the things I noticed with people is that they often feel a lot of shame in divorce. They feel like they need to pull away maybe from their faith community, that they’re not living right by the set of rules.
What say to people who pull away from their faith community when facing shame from their divorce?
Re-engage. Try it on. Let me first critique my own experience of the faith communities that I’ve been a part of. Faith communities don’t always have a great understanding of what happens in divorce. They don’t have a great understanding when tumult happens when there’s this terrible upheaval in a family. Oftentimes the faith community withdraws, or the faith community shames.
So my word to those in faith communities, or clergy people watching this, is it possible for us to be far more compassionate with people whose lives are disordered? I was trained to visit hospitals. I was trained to sit with people in times of birth and death and all of those sorts of seasons. And yet there are so many other ways to bring a pastoral presence when life isn’t all that smooth when there are rough places in life.
So how can we as a faith community surround and nurture those people and recognize what’s going on within them and not put on them our own virtues and values that we got from our parents or from another set of rules? Instead, how can we bring our most compassionate non-judgemental selves? Let’s pick on me to Andy and Megan; how can we surround you at this moment? How can we help and affirm you as individuals?
Yes, your marriage may be breaking apart, but that doesn’t mean you’re losing your individuality. We love you for who you are, and we loved you when you were together. Now it’s our job as a faith community to help you nurture and see who you really are. For persons experiencing divorce, separation, re-engage in some spaces that you have grown comfortable with your soon-to-be former spouse. Call those friends, break the taboo as much as you can. Because, in a way, you may be helping that person that you’re with, that you still can live a life of service to someone else because you’re going through something so incredible. They have something to learn from you.
So challenging that church member or that former church member who had a relationship with your former spouse to show up as, “This is me, Andy, without my spouse. Now, are you going to take me for who I am? And I want to show you who I am.”
It’s almost like helping someone see a new reflection of you and trying that on. If faith communities were compassionate, if faith communities were nonjudgmental, I think folks would feel like those were safe places to re-engage. So not only does it take a lot on the individual who’s separating, but it also, in my opinion, will take a lot for the faith community to be in that healing moment.
I love the challenge that you’ve given to faith communities because it is so important to find ways to meet people where they’re at. And certainly, divorce is a time when people need that love and support. I’ve often recognized times of my own life where my box has been disordered. Whatever that disorder is, most recently, with the loss of my mom, one of the things that I can do is help teach people how to respond to me in those times of need.
Because we often don’t have conversations about ‘what do I need in this time?’. That it is okay that you’re still friends with my ex-spouse. That you still love our family, and that’s okay. There are just a lot of conversations that aren’t had, and we make assumptions. And I think putting those things out on the table is really important.
I love this conversation. I feel like you and I are not hanging a virtue or a value on marriage only. As if ‘you’re not a whole person if you’re not married. What if listeners and viewers could take on that kind of attitude just for a week, to see people as individuals and become surprised, “Oh, you’re married. Well, tell me, what is your perception of your spouse?” “How does your spouse help you to show up as you show up because I want to affirm how you’re showing up as an individual.” Not “Here we are together, and we are one person.”
Of course, there are families who do have great marriages, right? But a lot of times, people feel the pressure to have a picture-perfect family. So it’s Christmas card season, right? And as I have stressed over the past year, I have no perfect pictures of my family. They’re all messy, but there’s that pressure and that facade. And so, we only see each other in terms of how we think we should be seen. And that’s not how relationships are formed, right? That’s not how a real community is built. A real community is built because we have a trusting place where we can be vulnerable with each other and we can share the real ups and downs.
So, I don’t know how you’re going to feel about this line of conversation, but what if we had mystical relationships? I’ve been dabbling a little bit over the last couple of years; it sort of has felt like during the pandemic, I’ve been in a hermitage; I’ve got a little bit more time to read. I haven’t been sleeping all that well. So I’m in my hermitage reading. I’ve been reading mostly the mystics, starting with the desert mothers, the desert fathers, and moving through.
You’ve inspired me here to think about mystical relationships. What if we could drop all of the facades, and social media is a great proponent of this: “I’m going to show you who I really am.” And then it’s a wonderful glossy picture. It’s a wonderful pose. “Am I in focus?” “Am I not?” “Am I adjusted right?” “Does my body look okay?”
A mystical relationship does something to the divine; a mystical relationship does something to you and I. If we’re in an authentic relationship with one another, and if we move to mysticism, we try to peel back all of the false self, all of the egos in order to get to the true self, get to the essence of who you really are because that’s what I want to fall in love with. That’s what I want to build our relationship on.
It’s this commonality, this core mutuality, this beauty that we share, not from the facade because that can fall away. Things get disordered quickly when you only lean into the facade. But the true self, the essence of who you are, the core of who you are, never goes away. So my challenge is let’s make every Christmas card messy.
Amen. Yeah, I think it’s great. Like it’s December the 5th. What would happen if you knew, I only have half of a tree up right now, right? What if you knew about all the messiness in my life? Then, then you wouldn’t like that. And so we, we create all these barriers in our life to really sharing who we are.
The façade is so unnecessary because who you are within you is absolutely enough I have a secular Ph.D. in family science, and so, in my opinion, I believe a good marriage is all about the partners maintaining their individuality. So when they join together, they became interdependent. They’re not dependent or codependent, but they’re interdependent. When I’m apart from my spouse, I can still be Andy. And when I’m with my spouse, I can still be Andy. Now the work that happens is all of the stuff that our culture has tried to order about marriage. It’s the Jerry Maguire ” You complete me.” Because you are complete just as you are. You are good, and you are enough, and your presence matters just by you showing up, period.
And imagine if you are in a marriage right now, and you’re feeling like you’re not enough, I want you to just hold that thought for a moment and imagine how you would show up in your relationship if you really, really believe that you are enough. I mean, that is such a challenging belief these days in the world that we live in because everywhere we’re told we’re not enough, right? But when you know that you are enough at your core, it changes everything.
To be human is to recognize that you are a part of something bigger. To be human is to recognize the transcendence, not just around you, but to recognize the truth that you can even transcend yourself. That there is a future that we can imagine tomorrow. The squirrels running around in my front yard this morning don’t imagine tomorrow, but we can. And so when we think about transcendence when we think about that next step that we take in reordering our lives, in recognizing that we are enough or for those who are listening and watching that you are enough. Imagine taking that enoughness, that beingness into tomorrow; how much more of who you are can show up today and tomorrow?
That’s really great. How do we do this practically when we live in a world that tells you’re not enough, right? And even a lot of times in faith communities, we certainly feel we’re not enough. And the mirror that’s being held back to us in our faith communities can be one telling you that you’re falling short, you’re falling short, you’re falling short.
How do we practically develop so that we really can anchor into that knowledge that we are enough?
So faith communities and faiths all over the world have a multiplicity of practices that folks can engage in to discover their core self. Over the last four years, I had a pretty transformative experience with a contemplative prayer that led me to become a certified teacher in mindfulness meditation. And what I’ve discovered for myself as an extrovert all the time, 24/7, is that the more I was extroverted, the more I wasn’t filling the cup that was out there.
The more I was making sure everyone was having a good time, making sure everybody was engaged in a certain way, I was missing something from who I was essentially. So I delved very deeply into mindfulness meditation. What this practice does for some, not for all, is by sitting quietly for five minutes, 10 minutes. If you can push yourself to 15 or 20 minutes every day and just concentrate on your breath.
And then, almost automatically, thoughts and feelings and the to-do list come to mind and in your heart. And all of those things are swirling around. And it’s an opportunity for you then to see those thoughts, feelings, and perceptions just as they are and find your breath again. You’re going to have them. Your mind is only doing what it’s supposed to do, think. Your heart is only doing what it’s supposed to do, feel. Your life is unfolding, so it’s doing what it’s supposed to do, perceive.
So what if you just were able to sit and be. That’s one practice. The second practice is, is it possible for you to set a timer for three minutes in the morning and three minutes at night before bed, and simply just write? There are all kinds of wonderful journaling practices out there where you’re able to just write.
Maybe you need a prompt. Highs and lows, maybe that’s your prompt. Or your favorite color is a good prompt, or things to be grateful or things to be upset about. Whatever the prompt is, just allow yourself to write and then close it up. You don’t have to read it; it’s just part of the process. One of my closest friends has been delving very deeply into journaling practice. And what this has done for him in his medical practice is help him to concentrate exactly on what he’s doing with the patient, be it in his office or in surgery.
That by becoming aware of all of the inner thoughts and feelings going on and holding them, not necessarily at bay, but just allowing them to be and focus on your task, he’s been able to connect in a real way, in a deeper way, not just with his patients, but with himself and the practice and art of medicine.
I love that. I’m just thinking the next time, before I go under the knife, I need to make sure that my surgeon has a journaling practice. It seems like that might be an important question to ask now. And I think it’s so important for wherever that box of disorder has been knocked over. And I love that we’re not going back to the same box. We’re reordering; we’re moving into a new box. It’s filled with all kinds of blessings of its own.
And we need tools. We need tools to reorder.
We need tools. Yeah, I love the meditation.
What are some good resources for meditation and journaling practices?
To reorder our box, we need tools, like meditation and journaling. Can we find out more about that on your website?
Yes. You can find out about those on my website. Absolutely.
Why did you go through collaborative divorce training and what did you learn?
I took a course in my Ph.D. work on conflict mediation, and, you know, you do the role plays and those kinds of things. So I did my Ph.D. program as a pastor at a church. And I began to see that things were shifting and changing in the 2000s with married couples. And as a youth minister, I was always kind of on that front line with a student trying to navigate “I think my parents are about to get a divorce or they’re separating,” or whatever’s occurring.
So I learned the collaborative divorce process right after conflict mediation as a help to the students I was serving, thinking that maybe, just maybe, I could participate collaboratively and be a voice in the room for children. I’m not saying that every divorce proceeding forgets children, that’s not what I’m saying at all. What I’m saying is: is there an advocate in the room for those young people who oftentimes will get the report from their parents about the divorce? So I took the collaborative divorce training and discovered that it sort of goes back to our mystical relationship.
When we see each partner as their own individual person, as an independent person, and that the interdependence they created in their marriage, had started to erode, and they’re finding their way back as independent people without the marriage. How can we do that well? The collaborative process, in my opinion, does that well in a compassionate and nonjudgmental way. And it takes a lot of time and a lot of energy. It also lowers the anxiety, in my opinion, and begins to shape an understanding of seeing your former spouse in a new and more generous light.
I think that is such a beautiful summation of the collaborative divorce process. And, you know, one of the things I’m aware of when we move into the divorce process,is the protection that we were talking about, right? The ego, the fear, people come into it with all kinds of protections, and we forget sometimes who we are in the process, and we can forget who our soon-to-be ex-partner is in the process.
The collaborative divorce process really does allow us to lower the protections. Because one of the things people don’t realize is that when we’re in that protective mode, when we are in that fear-driven mode, that just fuels the conflict. And the moment we’re feeling conflict, that’s when the divorce costs escalate, and that’s how lawyers make their money. And so, if we can always remind people to come back to the table, connect with who you are and your own value, right? And for some people, this may be the beginning of a conversation that they really haven’t had before, just not being aware. So I love that you did the training.
Have you had the opportunity to see people through the collaborative divorce process while on the other side?
As a United Methodist minister, you’re moved, right? So before I itinerated, I was able to participate in three cases. So as you know, there’s a mental health professional in the collaborative process, so it was a privilege for me to be that person. It’s like being a chaplain in a way where you’re trying to help people navigate who they are and what their tomorrow looks like.
As a chaplain in the hospital, oftentimes, you pray with someone who was on hospice, for example. And oftentimes, the conversation is “who are you now?” and “what does your tomorrow look like?” And allowing that imagination and to wrap around them. Likewise, as a mental health professional in the room, how can you help people understand who they are and what their tomorrow might look like in this reordering process?
That is so great. And I do want to touch on the fact that in the collaborative process, they have a role called a child specialist who will meet with the children and actually be a voice because parents often think, “we need to bring the children into the divorce process.” And that’s not always the best, but if we can invite them to have a voice in a very protected way, in a very appropriate way so that they don’t feel like they’re being put in the middle. So one thing we don’t want is the kids to feel like they’re stuck in a tug of war match between their parents.
Absolutely. I think what I was indicating is other divorce proceedings outside of collaborative, oftentimes, there isn’t that child specialist, there isn’t that advocate for the child in the room.
That’s exactly right. There is a process by which the child could be interviewed by the judge if they’re of a certain age. And so people often think, “well, we’ll just have the kids interviewed by the judge”. They don’t know that fFirst of all, the judge really doesn’t want to be interviewing your child in most cases. And second, that just puts such pressure on the kids and in such a destructive way. Divorce itself is a period of transition. It doesn’t have to have a negative impact on the kids. If the parents can both step up, minimize the conflict, and protect the children, kids can come through it just fine. And in some cases, you know, the kids will say, why didn’t you do this earlier? ‘Cause the conflict in the home can be so destructive for kids.
I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. This has been really, really fun. There are so many takeaways that I’m going to be thinking about all day. So I thank you for being here and bringing your insight and wisdom.
Do you have a message of hope for anybody who’s in a disordered period right now? What words of wisdom do you have for them?
Yeah, so we’re coming out of Hanukkah, and we just finished the second Sunday of advent. It’s a season where we’re reminded that there is great hope and light in the world and that hope and light emanate from each of us. And a spiritual practice, a faith community can help us to engage and discover that hope and light that is within us, that we can offer the world.
And maybe, just maybe along the way, discover all over again how precious we really are not only to ourselves but to the world around us. That people are enough that you are enough, Jennifer, just by showing up. Even, I pray, with your messy Christmas card that it’s going to be enough. You’ve had a year. And along the way, the messiness and the disorder of it all, somehow you reordered everybody with cowlicks and sweaters askew, and maybe makeup not right that day. Somehow you reordered everything to take that picture and to be together and be reminded what a precious moment it is to just be reordered in this brand new way.
I can’t think of a better way to end today. Thank you so much. This has been amazing. If you want to learn more about Andy Stoker, about his ministry, about the resources that he has available, we invite you to check out his website at https://www.revdrandystoker.com/
And if you’ve enjoyed our conversation, please feel free to share this post so that others can benefit from the words of wisdom and love.