Write what you know.
That’s the advice Elizabeth Oates heard and took to heart. And that’s why her most recent book, “Mending Broken Branches: When God Reclaims Your Dysfunctional Family Tree,” is so personal. Oates reaches back to the childhood that she describes as “unstable” in order to tell others that “your past does not determine your future. Really, God can redeem anyone, and he can restore any family tree.”
Oates opens up about her life early in the book. In fact, the first paragraph talks about what was behind the public persona of being a cheerleader with straight-A report cards.
“No one would have believed me had I told them about the nights I awoke to shouts and screaming, the numerous police visits to our home, or the time I lived in a shelter for women and children.”
Oates’ parents divorced when she was 2, and her mom married and divorced again later, when the family was living in Kerrville. That’s when she first started attending church, at the prodding of her mother.
“I did not want to go to church at first because I was a straight-A student at school. I knew all the answers, or thought I did,” Oates said on a recent afternoon while sitting on the patio at Common Grounds Woodway. “When I went to church, everything was very foreign. I didn’t know any of the books of the Bible. I didn’t know where any of the stories were. I hadn’t heard any of the stories. So if the Sunday school teacher said, ‘Turn to Matthew, chapter 4,’ I didn’t know where that was. I felt very uncomfortable and light-years behind everyone. Being a straight-A student, I didn’t like that feeling.”
But she kept attending that church — Trinity Baptist, in Kerrville — listening to “the gospel over and over while sitting in that pew and realizing that this was something that my life was missing,” Oates said.
“I kind of let my defenses down after a while. It took about six months of me being there and kind of letting my guard down and realizing how lonely I was.”
Still, even after she began regularly attending church, Oates said she was surrounded by chaos and dysfunction.
“Just because you find a faith doesn’t mean your life is suddenly picture-perfect,” she said. “It’s not going to solve all your problems, but I think what happens is then you have sort of a solid foundation to weather more storms.”
After attending three high schools in three different cities, Oates graduated from Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio and continued her education at Baylor. She bounced from major to major, considering English, then trying out social work and elementary education, before finally graduating with a business degree. After graduating in 1999, she took a job in Dallas that involved fundraising for nonprofits. She then moved into an event-planning position at Dallas Theological Seminary. She eventually enrolled in the seminary and earned her master’s degree in Christian education with an emphasis on marriage and family studies.
Oates said that when she and her husband, Brandon — an attorney in Waco — were first married, many other couples “really poured into us and just gave us a great foundation for what we wanted our marriage to look like and gave me a great appreciation for what a strong Christian family looks like.”
And that’s the area of ministry that she and Brandon undertook. They taught Sunday school classes for young married couple for several years and for 11 years have volunteered with Legacy Family Ministries where they lead classes for engaged couples.
“Just knowing what kind of brokenness I came from, I want to help other people overcome that brokenness and create a healthier family,” she writes.
Elizabeth and Brandon have been married for 17 years. They have three biological children: Carter, 12; Clarey, 10; and Campbell, 8. They’ve also adopted two children, siblings CeCe, who is 3 1/2, and her brother Corbin, who is almost 2.
On her website, Oates lists her three passions: marriage, foster care and faith. Early in their marriage, Elizabeth and Brandon attended a church in Dallas that had ties with Buckner International, which emphasizes foster care and adoption as one of its ministries. The Buckner president at the time, Dr. Ken Hall, married the couple. They talked about adoption early in their marriage, “and then we had our biological children pretty quickly, and I just thought, ‘You know, we need to put the brakes on this,’” she said, laughing.
They visited the topic again as their children got older but at first didn’t consider foster care.
“We started looking into it and felt like it was something that we could do,” she said. “I know it’s hard. A lot of people get scared about the possibility of taking a child into their home and then having to watch that child leave. I think one thing we had to wrap our brains around is that none of our children belong to us, even our biological children. They all belong to God, and he can take any of our children away from us tomorrow. Once we came to terms with that, then I think the possibility of foster care and letting a child go became a lot easier.”
Oates discusses her family quite a bit in her book as well.
“We live in the suburbs, I am a cliché soccer mom and I drive a twelve-passenger van, which has lowered my street cred from hip mom to sellout.”
When Oates first submitted the manuscript for “Mending Broken Branches” to her publisher, she was told, “You’re going to need some major revisions here. You have to include some examples because your reader is not going to identify with you.”
Oates was mindful as she reworked the book. “I don’t mind sharing my story,” she said. “The tough part is honoring my family because I know they might want to be a little more private.”
So she added numerous personal examples and had her husband and a few trusted friends read over it, just to “make sure that I was being accurate and honoring my family,” she said.
“I think that’s the toughest part, just walking that fine line of being truthful yet gracious toward my family and being respectful.”
Oates admits that her past — troubled, dysfunctional, chaotic — was the total opposite of how she perceived the life her husband lived growing up. “They’re squeaky clean,” she said of Brandon’s family.
She wrote: “One of the things that attracted me to Brandon was his love for what I thought was his ideal family — no divorce, addictions, dysfunction or instability. But as time went on, I took off my rose-colored glasses.”
While “no major skeletons escaped from his family’s closet,” Oates acknowledges that every family, no matter how perfect they might seem to the world, “has a kooky cousin in an offshoot branch.”
Oates said she wrote “Mending Broken Branches” for married women who grew up in a dysfunctional family but who now want to be “equipped and encouraged to create a healthier, godly family.”
“Engaged women, single women, they can get some nuggets out of it that will definitely help them,” Oates said. “I wish I had a book like this when I was engaged and newly married. Women who come from a dysfunctional family tell me it’s almost like they’re making this up as they go along, marriage and motherhood. They haven’t had a role model, and so this book kind of stands in that gap, teaching them things that their mom, their dad, their family unit wasn’t able to teach them.”