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Church program helps people cope with end of relationship

Church program helps people cope with end of relationship

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Church program helps people cope with end of relationship

By Jenna De Marco | July 11, 2009 {1045}

NOTE: Headshots of Sheila Francisco, Orlando Avila and Sheryl Koller are available at

Sheila Francisco says going through a divorce ranks “right up there with death.”

Sheila Francisco

Many health professionals agree. Divorce ranked as a top stressor second only to the death of a spouse on the Holmes and Rahe Scale, developed by two psychiatrists after examining the records of more than 5,000 medical patients to determine what life events contributed to illness.

“The unfortunate part is that society doesn’t see it that way, and our jobs don’t see it that way,” Francisco said.

That’s one reason Suntree United Methodist Church in Melbourne and First United Methodist Church in Orlando offer the one-year “Divorce and Recovery Workshop.” The program provides a place of encouragement, healing and community support for people trying to cope in the wake of a divorce or the loss of a significant relationship.
“The program has affected and saved so many lives that I just can’t say enough about it, and I feel so privileged and blessed to sit in a room of people who will share their heart and their hurts with me,” said Francisco, who directs the program and has experienced it for almost 10 years as a participant and facilitator.

The workshop is nearly 20 years old at the Melbourne church; the program in Orlando is an offshoot that began more than year ago. The Florida Conference Leadership Connection gave the program a $1,500 grant in 2007 and 2008 to fund its expansion.

“The initial grant was the seed money to get it started at a local church,” said Rocky Goins, chairman of the Leadership Connection. “We recognize that this ministry has a great potential of reaching out to those who are rebuilding their lives and their children’s lives after a separation through the love of God.”
Francisco envisions all churches being able to offer this type of sensitive assistance.
Recovery one phase at a time

The workshop is a support group format divided into four 12-week phases, each with its particular emphasis. A participant may begin phase one at any time, since the topics are cyclical and in a stand-alone format. Every week covers a different lesson, focusing on such subjects as forgiveness, dealing with ex-spouses and sexuality. Sessions are confidential, and ex-spouses cannot participate at the same time.
“Phase one is called the trauma unit,” Francisco said. “It’s where we stop the bleeding. It could be the ending of a significant relationship. It could be the death of a spouse and the end of a relationship. What we found is that people are dealing with so much emotion way before they get their divorce papers.”
In phase two participants work on letting go of the past, rebuilding their lives and cultivating interests.
“They do a kind of ‘letting go’ ceremony,” Francisco said. “They have an actual burning of something that represents their loss. … (It says) ‘I’m ready to go on and … now how do I take my first step forward?’ ”
In phase three, participants talk about personal growth and future healthy relationships. Elements of forgiveness also come up for discussion.
Orlando Avila, a former participant, facilitates the program’s last phase.
“I separated in 2005, and soon after that I joined divorce recovery as a participant and went to the program for a year and found it to be extremely helpful,” he said. “(I) turned the divorce recovery into a tremendous growth experience for me personally. I really wanted to stay on as a facilitator and give back to the program the way I was helped, and I’ve been a facilitator for almost two years now.”
Avila says his professional background as a neurologist gave him many of the skills needed to facilitate groups.

Orlando Avila
“One of the things I loved about practicing medicine is I got to help people,” he said. “I left my practice, and I became a full-time dad in 2001. I have a form of muscular dystrophy, and I come from a helping profession. It’s really a way to give back and practice my gifts in another way than seeing patients as a neurologist.”
Avila says his most significant personal growth as a participant was in the area of forgiveness.
“The biggest breakthrough was … forgiving (myself) and my former spouse and also acknowledging my role in the breakup,” he said.
Learning to forgive ex-spouses is one of the most challenging steps for many participants, Avila said, and the process takes time.
“Usually we present forgiveness in phase one, and that’s more to plant the seed because a lot of people are not ready for it at that stage,” he said.
Radical hospitality

The program’s curriculum is based on Christian principles, although participants of all beliefs are welcome.
“It’s not a Bible study, and we do not say you have to be a Christian to come. Every walk (of people from) every area of life have come to the program. …” Francisco said. “Here’s the cool thing — we’ve had lots of people come to the Lord as a result of the program.”
Between 80 and 120 people attend the program on Tuesday nights in Melbourne, and about 15 people attend on Wednesday nights in Orlando. A children’s version is also available for 6- to 12-year-olds in Melbourne.

Twenty-five people facilitate the program, and its board of directors includes Francisco and Avila, as well as the Rev. Melissa Delker, associate pastor at the Melbourne church.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people come from counselor referrals, as well as lawyers,” Francisco said. “My dream and my hope is to get this in as many places as possible.”
Both Francisco and Avila say the role of The United Methodist Church in providing this type of support should not be underestimated.
“A lot of people, when they go through a breakup of a relationship, they lose their church. Some people are searching because they have lost that in their church,” Francisco said.
The acceptance the church offers is very much appreciated, Avila said.
“You get divorced, and all of a sudden, people who you thought were your friends are no longer,” he said. “Those (were) in association with the marriage, the church where you worshipped.”
Sheryl Koller, a participant, facilitator and member of the program’s board, said the group helped her recover most in meeting new people.
“I think one of the biggest things with me was that I had a lot of couple friends, and when I went through the divorce, it’s like I lost all my friends,” she said. “Then, (I got) to meet new friends, and we had a common bond. … I wasn’t the only person going through those times.”

Sheryl Koller
Koller hopes the expanded program in Orlando continues to grow and that the entire program can find ways to assist its participants with financial problems, as well as regaining their lost sense of “being.” Francisco said the slow economy has affected many couples, especially those with unemployed, stay-at-home spouses.
“It’s really been difficult,” she said. “What I see more and more is people who are divorcing and staying in the same household because they cannot afford to separate. The other part of the economic times is if you are going through a divorce and there is no job market out there. It’s really difficult to find a job.”
With the spiritual, emotional and financial challenges that occur with divorce, many professional counselors have recommended the program to their clients for the support system it provides.
“There is something powerful that happens in a group of people who are going through similar circumstances,” Francisco said.
The program costs $25 for each 12-week session, and there are one-week breaks between sessions for facilitator training. More information about the program is available by contacting Francisco at 321-302-0717 or visiting the group’s Web site at

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.