By Amy Simon
Marriages fail every day. Christian and non-Christian couples struggle to keep their commitments to stay together until separated by death. Dysfunctional and broken marriages cause untold heartache not only for the adults involved, but also for children.
Christians know the institution of marriage is ordained by God (Genesis 2:24) and “should be honored by all” (Hebrews 13:4). So how can the church help build, support, and strengthen marriages?
Since 1999, Trent and Toni Schwartz from West Bend, Wisconsin have been involved in a ministry called Marriage Encounter. When I asked them if churches do enough to support marriages, they said they feel there’s room for improvement.
Being a Couple in the Church
Trent and Toni offered many suggestions for improvement. They suggested creating opportunities for couples to serve together in the church. “What’s the biggest ministry you see in churches?” Toni asked. “They have a women’s group. They have a men’s group. They might have a seniors’ group. They don’t [offer much] to do together. You can, but people generally don’t.”
Trent says, “We need to be able to share our ‘couple-ness’ within the church. We’re too busy being single in all we do. Except Sunday mornings when we sit together—if we’re not going in different directions serving in different ministries.”
Maybe the men’s ministry and the women’s ministry could do a service project or a social event together. Toni suggested couples “find something they’re passionate about, whether it’s gardening or ushering or something else, and do it together. Find ways to minister together in the church.” Trent added, “There’s a lot couples can offer.”
Because couples generally aren’t encouraged to minister together, it limits the chances others have to see what marriage can be like. Toni said, “There aren’t enough mentors. We’re so busy being single that nobody gets to see what marriage could be.” When people see healthy marriages functioning within the church, it gives them a model to follow. Many couples and singles have never seen a healthy marriage, especially if they come from broken homes. The church can show them what healthy marriages look like.
Vulnerability and Transparency
One obstacle churches face when trying to minister to married couples is that many couples refuse to admit they need help until it’s too late. Trent observed, “Frequently, the only time someone comes to the church [for help] is when something is broken. It shouldn’t be that way.”
The church needs to be more involved in maintaining and encouraging good relationships instead of just fixing broken ones. By that time, many couples don’t really want to fix it, anyway. Many married couples wear masks when they go to church. They say their marriage is just fine until it gets to the point where they’ll admit it’s not. The other challenge is that people don’t want to admit that something’s not working in their marriage. They’re not happy. But they say they’re just fine until a bump comes in the road. It’s like getting a flat tire and then realizing you have no spare. They’re not prepared for the rough weather when it comes because their house is built on a sandy foundation.
Toni agreed. “We all walk around with masks on our faces. We’re not transparent. We don’t want to admit there’s something wrong.”
It’s a challenge to be open and honest in appropriate venues and to admit our marriages aren’t perfect. We’ve never seen a truly happy marriage “close up,” so we don’t know what a good marriage looks like. The church should be a place where we can be honest with each other before we’ve given up on our marriages.
We can’t force others to be honest about the struggles they’re facing, but we can set an example of transparency. Take that step of faith yourself to admit your marriage isn’t perfect. You don’t have to wear your problems on your sleeve, but be willing to open up when it’s appropriate. Your courage to do so may help others to do the same.
Starting a Marriage Ministry
Perhaps the most important qualification for starting a marriage ministry in your church is to be willing to work on your own marriage. No one has a perfect marriage and yours certainly doesn’t need to be perfect in order to help other couples.
You will need the full support of your minister. Share your passion with him. Let him know you’re not asking him to do more work—he’s probably got a very full schedule already. You just need his support and approval.
Gather resources. Take advantage of the multitude of great marriage programs and ministries already available (see sidebar).
Although Trent and Toni are involved with Marriage Encounter, they believe multiple programs should be made available through the local church. Make information about several programs available so couples can access them as they’re interested. “The church can be a valuable resource center for married couples. We need to make opportunities available all the time so couples can work on their marriages throughout the year and not just during an annual retreat,” said Trent.
“Connect with people involved in other programs.” Toni added. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. A church can’t be everything to everybody, but it can make resources available.”
Trent says a successful marriage ministry “shouldn’t focus on just one thing. Do them all! It’s a matter of continuously working on your marriage, not doing one thing and thinking you’re fixed.”
We talked about how certain marriage ministries might fit one couple in one season of life, while another ministry might be better for another couple. Making resources and information available from a variety of solid marriage ministries would be the most helpful to the largest number of couples in your congregation.
If your church doesn’t provide a designated section on marriage in its library, create one. Stock the shelves with quality marriage books. Make brochures and descriptions of various marriage ministries available at your church’s information center. Perhaps you could highlight a different marriage ministry each month in your church bulletin or on your website.
When couples in your church attend a marriage conference, ask them to share their experience with the congregation. Look for ways to promote a variety of resources to help couples grow in their relationships with others. Sunday school classes, small group Bible studies, or book studies for couples also can help. If something is always available, there will always be something for couples to plug into.
Marriage can be messy and painful. It isn’t easy for two sinful people to try to merge their lives—but it’s worth it in the long run. Toni says, “People don’t realize that when they have struggles and go through those struggles together, it draws them closer to each other and closer to God. Our society has taught us to expect instant results. So what do you do when things get difficult? Often you think, ‘I want something better. The next one that comes along will be better.’ Sadly, that philosophy has crept into the church.”
Let’s counter that philosophy and help build marriages that last.
Amy Simon is a freelance writer in Jackson, Wisconsin.
Resources for Ministers and Small Group Leaders
The Mingling of Souls DVD Curriculum: A Study of Love, Marriage & Redemption
by Matt Chandler
(The Hub, 2011)
Boundaries in Marriage DVD Curriculum
by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend
Intimate Marriage Curriculum Kit
by Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman III
Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts DVD Curriculum
by Drs. Les & Leslie Parrott
A Biblical Marriage in a Broken World: Building a Relationship that Will Go the Distance, DVD Curriculum
by Danny Akin
(Sampson Resources, 2012)
Effective Marriage Counseling: The His Needs, Her Needs Guide to Helping Couples
by Willard F. Harley Jr.
Hope-Focused Marriage Counseling: A Guide to Brief Therapy
by Everett L. Worthington Jr.
(IVP Academic, 2005)
Couples in Conflict: A Family Systems Approach to Marriage Counseling
by Ronald Richardson
(Fortress Press, 2010)