Book Review: Smart Step-Families (Sep-Dec 2005)

By Matt Dabbs

by Daniel Morehead
January – February, 2004

The Smart Step-Family,
by Ron Deal (Bethany House Press, 2002).

Books on healthy step families have been few, perhaps because Christians have been afraid of implications of saying anything related to divorce or something other than the “traditional” Christian familiy would work against a biblical view of what our families should be. This bold new book goes beyond that thinking, and we believe it should be read and discussed.

As a mental health professional, I was more than a little skeptical about reviewing a self-help book. Too often, these books pander easy catch phrases and enthusiastic cheerleading, leaving readers temporarily inspired but unable to make long-term changes or difficult sacrifices. They offer an effervescent ‘cheap thrill,’ rather than a call to long-term commitments and slow, painful growth. And Christian self-help books sometimes top this off with a naïve, oversimplified use of scripture which fails to deal with the complexity of real life or the subtlety of God’s Word. When I received Ron Deal’s The Smart Step-Family, I expected a sweet but under-nourishing dessert, not the substantial, meaty message that stepfamilies are likely to need.

Smart Step Families coverI happily confess that I could not have been more mistaken. The Smart Step-Family is a sophisticated, compassionate and sober work, fit for the difficult challenges that confront almost all stepfamilies. Ron Deal is a marital therapist and family life minister at a large Arkansas congregation, who has honed his approach through many hours of clinical and church work with troubled, sometimes desperate families. And he has crafted a conversational but tightly organized presentation style appropriate to his nationwide seminar ministry. This is a work which has emerged from the ‘trenches,’ one which remains true to the daily struggle stepfamily life, a struggle which Deal willingly embraces.

Deal argues that churches have tended to ignore stepfamilies at best, and exclude them at worst. Stepfamilies are often treated as the stepchildren of the church, but represent an important, unmet need for ministry and compassion. One-third of all children today live in a stepfamily home, and current projections indicate that by the year 2010 there will be more stepfamilies in the U.S. than any other type of family. Certainly, most stepfamilies carry a legacy of pain and loss, and the need for grace, healing, and wholeness within a supportive Christian community.

The Smart Step-Family is an effort to minister directly to such families, both existing stepfamilies and adults contemplating re-marriage. It is a ‘how-to’ book of stepfamily life, practical and solution-oriented. Each chapter contains examples and stories from step-family life, clear instructions for making positive changes, questions for further discussion, and assignments for promoting family understanding and healing. Throughout the book, Deal maintains a careful balance between empathy for the pain of family members and insistence that they make the difficult commitments necessary to foster stepfamily life. He advocates a ‘tough love’ approach in the best sense of the term: Heavy on love and acceptance, but never abandoning the demand for responsible, self-sacrificing family life.

The tone and overall approach of this work are best summed up in on of the many vignettes which pepper the work: “A man once drove six hours to talk with me about his stepchildren and marriage. He hoped that once I heard him describe the sea of oppositions he was facing, I would give him “permission” to leave the marriage. I did not (and he was terribly annoyed). … Avoiding divorce by tolerating a miserable marriage, I suggested, does not honor God. Commitment requires that you strive for a better life together, even when you don’t feel like putting forth your best effort or have convinced yourself the marriage should have never happened in the first place.” (p. 21)

Like most families, The Smart Step-Family possesses a normal share of imperfections. For instance, I found some of the chapter titles and summary phrases a bit too cute and catchy. But my complaints are only stylistic, and I doubt that Deal’s intended audience will care. They are likely to have more pressing problems and needs, needs which Deal addresses in direct and capable fashion. Deal has likened the journey of stepfamilies to Israel’s forty-year trip to the promised land. If this is an apt comparison, then stepfamily members are likely to feel that this book is something of an oasis in a dry and barren wilderness. I can heartily recommend it to them, as well as to pastors, other church leaders and Christian therapists.New Wineskins

Daniel Morehead is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist currently in private practice. He is the supervising psychiatrist for the Samaritan Center for Pastoral Counseling. He, his wife and three sons reside in Austin, Texas.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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