Warren and Shelly Mayer
Once while manning the sign-up table for a Divorce Care class at church, Warren and Shelly Mayer were horsing around, being playful, teasing each other as they tend to do. And when a woman who observed their back-and-forth banter approached the table, she skeptically asked, “Soooooo… a happy, married couple is going to facilitate a class for divorced people?” They pulled her aside and with great transparency, shared highlights of their “happy” family’s journey. And just like everyone else who hears their story, the lady responded, “I can listen to what you have to say,” because what Warren and Shelly Mayer have to say has been forged in the fires of their own brokenness. They often begin each new Divorce Care class at The Crossing Church with a confession. “We’ve made absolutely every mistake you’ll ever hear!”
Shelly Mayer, now 50, was a divorced mother raising three kids when she took the bait from a cousin to check out an online dating site on Valentine’s Day in 2004. With a bottle of wine in hand and an evening with nothing better to do, she took advantage of the Christian dating site’s “Try Before You Buy” offer and began a seven-day-free-trial with no expectation of actually meeting someone worth her time. During this season of her life, her number one priority was “to be a single mom to my three kiddos for however long, maybe forever, if I didn’t find someone to be real with,” she says.
Her cousin, a serial internet dater who met one “loser” after another online, challenged Shelly to, at least, check out the site just to see what Christian guys look like. Her cousin’s online dating experience seemed to validate a funny Pinterest meme: “I love online dating! – Said No One Ever!”
Shelly Mayer’s first and only online dating experience was entirely different from what most encounter when looking for love online. “I met one man the entire week [Warren Mayer] and married him!” she boasts.” The site proudly claims, “25,000 marriages have resulted!”
Fifty-five-year-old Warren Mayer, IT-Net administrator for the University of Missouri School of Journalism, was also taking advantage of the “Try Before You Buy” offer that same week when he met Shelly. When the trial period ended, the two began talking on the phone, emailing, exchanging photos and finally agreed to meet up in person.
Shelly thought she’d met a strong Christian man, but was still somewhat skeptical and remembers telling her mom, “He’s funny, he’s a great writer, really sharp…he must be four feet tall.” She insisted that their first meeting take place somewhere public – at a Cracker Barrel Restaurant. When Warren immerged from his truck wearing a black leather jacket and sunglasses, she gushed, “Oh my…he looks good too!” Looks aside, she was still cautious and immediately warned, “My mother and my cousin know where I am, so if they don’t hear from me within the next hour, they’re going to call the police.”
While suspicion may have offended some, Warren had grown up in Detroit, was street-wise and appreciated her caution. “I’ve always been a locked-down kind of guy and don’t like leaving things to chance,” he says. To him, she was simply crossing her t’s and dotting her i’s.
One thing she learned during their whirlwind romance was that neither of them wanted a relationship built on pretense. On that first date, she made it clear that she was only interested in dating in a way that would honor God, especially with her sexuality. “Something I had never done before,” she admits. “I don’t know if I can do it,” she told him. “But I want to try, and he said that’s what he wanted too.” They spent the next 12 weeks discussing their past checkered histories: failed marriages, painful divorces, broken relationships, blunders and plenty of what Shelly calls “nonsense.”
“I had dated two guys after my divorce the way any other 30-something would, and neither went terribly well,” Shelly says. She was more than ready for a no-nonsense kind of relationship. Between them, they had five children, ages 4 to 13 and they had a sixth child four years after marrying. From the very beginning, Warren told her that one of his daughters was actually a stepdaughter whom he had chosen to raise. “It was pretty easy for me to see the kind of character he had when he told me that, ” she remembers.
From that point forward, the relationship was on the fast track – a very fast track! Within six weeks, Warren began having a custom ring made, in spite of cautions offered by friends and relatives. Those concerns had nothing to do with any red flags they saw in either of them. “It had more to do with how little we knew each other and how little time had passed,” Shelly explains. The only person who gave them a green light to go ahead and marry was one of their pastors, Dave Cover. He is the same pastor who asked them to start a divorce recovery ministry for The Crossing Church years later.
On Marriage And Children
The pair married exactly 12 weeks after meeting online and that’s when their intensive, hands-on “training” to help divorced people began. “We both finally and fully healed from our divorces after we were married,” Warren explains.
Their kids got along well at first, but the difficulty began when they moved under the same roof. “There was a honeymoon period when we really enjoyed getting to know each other, but within a year, we started to see resistance to our authority in the lives of each other’s kids,” Shelly recalls. She sincerely believed that because the kids got along so well while they were dating, it would be easy to weave their lives together. “That was naïve,” she admits. “There were plenty of times when a seemingly simple struggle, like what sports activities the kids could participate in, became a tug of war.” And sometimes plans were further muddled when decisions had to include input from the kids’ other parents. “Looking back,” Shelly says, “I can see a lot of things I could have done differently to make the transition easier for all of us.”
“If you’re entering into a blended family, you’d better be ready to be a selfless servant,” Warren insists. Before marrying Shelly and merging the two families, he’d only been a part-time parent. After they married, he had to adjust to having children underfoot 24-hours-a-day. “Not having any quiet times wore him down,” Shelly says. They would both agree that the difficulty they experienced in the first few years of marriage nurtured in them the wisdom, humility and compassion needed to help others recovering from divorce.
“Almost everybody says, ‘I didn’t think it would be that hard,’” Warren shares. For the Mayers, the process was a refining and spiritually invigorating one. “It really is the grace of God that we made it past the first few years. If we’d been pursuing our own agendas, we would not be together,” adds Shelly. Though they sometimes disagreed on how to best handle problems during those early years, Shelly always felt that her husband was on her side and was still committed to pursuing Christ together as they worked to make their blended family a happy and healthy one.
According to Warren, “Healing takes far longer than we think it does. You think you are dropping a stick of dynamite on a relationship, but you’re really dropping an atomic bomb.” He surmises that at least a hundred people are affected when a couple divorces. “It’s going to rip a whole community apart,” he warns. “The in-laws, the soccer coaches, the kids, your employers…people grossly underestimate the amount of pain they’re going to go through, and they grossly underestimate the amount of pain they’re going to cause others.”
Warren and Shelly Mayer not only lived through that pain, but most people who know this couple saw them blossom in the process. Shelly’s 20-year-old daughter, Claire Herndon, was only 8 years old when they moved from Kansas City to Columbia to start their new life. She remembers being excited to meet the man her mom was dating, but after they married, found it difficult to have so many people living in one house. Shelly’s three kids and Warren’s two little girls came every other day. Herndon had a front row seat to watch her parents, step-by-step, iron out problems during those early “dysfunctional” years. “People have a hard time making other marriages work,” Herndon says. “I think that they are proof that God can do incredible things, especially with a second marriage.”
“People are encouraged that we’ve made it through,” says Shelly. “I am thankful that God has found a way to redeem my own foolishness and rebellion…past, present and future.”
Long-time family friend, Linda Lademann, also observed the transformation of the Mayer family. “I’ve seen them go through those rough times,” she says. “They’ve been there and have such a desire to see God work in people’s lives – people whose lives have been destroyed by divorce.”
On Teaching Divorce Classes
In Divorce Care classes, the Mayers always stress the importance of being transparent and accountable to avoid those “common traps” that sometimes ensnare the newly divorced: dating too soon, bad-mouthing the ex wife or husband, and becoming a “de-facto spouse” i.e., maintaining a co-dependent relationship. “Guilt over the divorce often keeps people’s feelings enmeshed,” Warren explains. They both have a deep passion for people to understand that divorce, though painful, does not relegate anyone to second-class citizenship – not in life, not in church and not in God’s eyes.
Dale Wilcox, a retired University of Missouri administrator, met Warren Mayer in 2010 when his life was in shambles. Wilcox’s marriage of 25 years had just ended and he was trying his best to navigate the murky waters of divorce when someone suggested that he meet Warren Mayer, who later invited him to a Divorce Care class. Divorce Care is an international, nondenominational organization that offers help and healing for the pain of separation and divorce. There are 14,000 Divorce Care support groups worldwide.
As Wilcox nervously pulled into the church parking lot that first night, he thought, “I know I need to do this.” That first step was a difficult one for him, but life changing. “What a difference that first night made!” he says. “Warren shoots straight as an arrow and I liked that. I had never been through a divorce, so I had a lot of questions.” He was strengthened by the weekly video lessons taught by experts – mostly PhDs and medical doctors. He was further encouraged by the break-out group discussions and his one-on-one meetings with Warren, savoring every chance to talk to someone who understood. He said Warren was full of compassion but would “call him out” when he needed it. “He was very understanding and not judgmental,” Wilcox says. “He helped so much with all the emotions that one goes through in divorce, whether you’re married two months or decades,” he shares. “I learned a lot from just listening and observing those two in action; I had no one else to talk to that I trusted the way I trusted Warren.”
Wilcox was impressed by the ease with which both Warren and Shelly could personally connect with each person in the group. “I learned in a very personal, hands-on way; theory is good, but I have to be able to apply it to my life.” Warren explains that the 13-week-long sessions are not a “follow these steps and you’ll be healed kind of ministry.” Anyone at any level of faith, or no faith at all, can attend and pick up practical helps for healing. They just want to see people get the support they need after a family falls apart. And that’s the kind of help that stitched Dale Wilcox’s once-fractured life back together.
“I felt like I hit the gold mine in getting to know those two,” Wilcox says. “They helped me so much and I try to pay that forward. They are the most genuine and honest people I know and that’s what resonated with me when I had lunch with Warren that first day.”
Wilcox is now one of the ministry’s facilitators. “Any person I come in contact with, regardless of where they are in life or what church they go to, I try to give them what Warren and Shelly gave to me,” he says. The couple gives a whole lot of TLC after divorce.