By Eileen Drennen

Dr. Charles Qualls leads sessions at Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church.

The worst advice divorced men and women ever get, says Dr. Charles Qualls, associate pastor of Second-Ponce de Leon Church, often comes from the very people who love them most.

Friends and family typically say “just get back out there, try again – the right person is out there just waiting for them,” said Qualls, 46, who has led divorce recovery groups in church settings for 15 years.

Good intentions maybe, but rotten advice.

Until divorcees go through a process Qualls calls “unpacking” – looking back at a failed relationship to figure out what went wrong – they are liable to repeat all the same mistakes. Since we learn through patterns, we can’t fix the broken ones until we name them.

Twice a year, a massive white banner in front of the 150-year-old Peachtree Road church advertises its well-known Divorce Recovery Group. When the familiar sign goes back up after the holidays, it will signal a new eight-week session of the Buckhead church’s popular ministry – for “all faith backgrounds or no faith” – starts on Feb. 2.

Real estate agent Carol Cahill heard about the program four years ago at a meeting of the Buckhead Business Association, where she and Qualls were board members. Newly divorced, Cahill wanted to examine the end of her marriage, but wasn’t quite sure where to begin.

“I knew that it was a common mistake to ‘marry the same person’ and I didn’t want to do that,” Cahill said. “I wanted to understand why I married the person I did and not find myself in the same role in my next relationship.”

Qualls’ class was a revelation, she said. It renewed her faith in romance and helped her make different choices the next time. Two added bonuses were the friendships she made and the program’s “incredible value,” especially when compared to individual therapy.

Qualls, who got his Doctor of Ministry degree from Mercer in 2008, is quick to add that he’s not a therapist by training and will refer anyone who needs more intensive help to someone who is. Adult Christian education and marriage enrichment were his specialties when he arrived at a Greensboro, N.C., church as an education minister 15 years ago. He inherited a well-attended divorce recovery group, which he says was one of the first of its kind, which drew participants from two neighboring cities.

Counting his decade of work at Second-Ponce, Qualls estimates he’s counseled 1,400 divorcees, most of whom were women between 30 and 55. He calls them the healthy ones, and notes, “the people who need it the most are often unwilling to take the first step.”

In the process of guiding divorced men and women through the stages of recovery, rebuilding and reconnecting, the first things the minister wants them to know are Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief. Getting over the death of a relationship is a lot like getting over the death of someone you loved.

It didn’t take Qualls long to see the benefit of ministering to couples before and after marriage. “Listening to divorcees alerts me to the skill set needed [for healthy marriages] when I talk to couples,” says Qualls. “Likewise, I’m better at my divorce work because of the marriage enrichment work. There’s a dialogue of materials.”

“If the marriage is right, you are willing to work at it. Beware of the marriage you’re not willing to work at.”
– Dr. Charles Qualls

You might say he picked up enough wisdom to fill a book – or several. His latest, “Divorce Recovery Ministry: A Guidebook,” will be published by Smyth & Hewys Books next spring. The same press issued his “Marriage Ministry: A Guidebook” in 2004. Excerpts on both topics are on the church website at www.spdl.org/marriagehelp.php .

Divorce recovery
An eight-week seminar on healing from divorce. Sessions meet Wednesdays from 6:30-8 p.m. Open to all members of the community who are divorced or separated. $50 fee includes class materials. Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church, 2715 Peachtree Road, Atlanta. Call 404-591-4341 to register.

At first, Qualls admits, he had a sliver of apprehension about claiming expertise in divorce because it is something he doesn’t know firsthand.

He and wife Elizabeth, a librarian, have been happily married for 20 years. They recently co-founded a Sunday morning Bible study group for divorced persons and single parents. In the end, he joked, he decided he was like his father’s cardiologist, who didn’t have to experience a heart attack herself to take good care of someone who has had one.

Qualls said that if you want to understand what makes a good marriage, don’t look to pop romance movies or reality shows like “The Bachelor.” Qualls thinks they foster a low relationship IQ and don’t teach anything about real communication, active listening or problem-solving skills.

The prime reason couples split, Qualls says, is they failed to learn how to negotiate with one another.

“One of the biggest myths is that if it’s right, you don’t have to work at it,” he said. “I tell them no, if the marriage is right, you are willing to work at it. Beware of the marriage you’re not willing to work at.”