A few months back, Jeff and I came across a highly successful model of pre-marital preparation at a church in a small town in Michigan; after seventeen years, among couples who were getting married for the first time, not one had since gotten divorced. And even when one or both spouses were on their second marriage, only a tiny fraction of those marriages had ended in divorce. And this was after marrying more than 200 couples! I was intrigued enough that I asked Dave Carleton, the church’s director of marriage ministry, to write a guest article explaining how the church handles its premarital counseling. His testimony of how this little church went from something basic to brilliant in its pre-marital ministry – and how it wasn’t a matter of sticking to a specific program but to specific principles — is something I really wanted to share, in case any churches or couples find it helpful. Enjoy!
Does Preparation in Marriage Matter? Seventeen years ago my pastor, Jim Wiegand, woke up to a startling realization: Half of the marriages he had performed over the past several years had turned into disaster – either through serious marriage problems or outright divorce. Maybe, he thought, we are not truly preparing couples for marriage. Clearly, wanting to get married and having a few meetings ahead of time was not quite enough. Question for pastors out there: does your marriage preparation consist of a few sessions to meet the couple, much of which is consumed by talk of the wedding ceremony? My guess is that you wish you could do more, but the in-depth pre-marriage courses you’ve heard about frankly may seem beyond your budget or capacity. You might be surprised to learn that you don’t have to have a fancy program, a large staff, or any additional money to create something that truly works; you personally don’t even have to add any more meeting time.
What you do need is a vision for some specific preparation the couple needs to do, in order for you to be willing to marry them. It amazes me how easy it is to get married compared to how much preparation we require for other things. Some spend weeks or months doing research to buy a car. Young adults take classes and road tests to get a driver’s license. And maybe a little closer to the subject, how many man-hours goes into the planning for a great wedding day and honeymoon? Yet, often, a few advance meetings with a pastor feel like nearly an afterthought. Or worse, a huge inconvenience. In my home state of Michigan, getting married requires three things: a blood test, filling out an application, and handing over $20 for the fee. Is any of this true preparation for “til death do you part?” My pastor realized it was time for a new strategy. He asked my wife and I if we would like to put together and teach a marriage class to engaged couples. At the time we had been married decades and decades (an inside joke) and on the surface we were the most unlikely couple in the church to take on the job.
You see, the pastor knew our testimony. We had a marriage that in the past had been filled with activities that kill most marriages. When we ourselves married, we were about as ill-prepared as possible and learned everything the hard way. Yet in our pastor’s eyes, all of that made us the perfect couple. Our experiences made us aware of some of the most sobering realities of marriage, what it would take to truly prepare for them, and how to commit to marriage in spite of them. So we found a general pre-marital course that we decided to take each engaged couple through and ventured out into the unknown.
We found things in that program we didn’t like and other things we did, and we began to develop something that seemed a bit more robust to us. But we also began to realize that there were many good ways to do pre-marital counseling; there was no one “best” assessment, book, or DVD course that would guarantee success. What seemed to matter most was a few non-negotiable principles. Today, seventeen years and more than 200 weddings later, what started out as an experiment has become a core fabric of our body of believers. In that time, our church has grown, my wife and I have moved out of state and back in again, and other couples continued and changed the program – but through it all, a few principles have been constant. And it is those principles that I want to share.
The Key Principles
1. It is not the pastor’s responsibility to marry every couple that darkens his door – only the ones that are “right.”
As our church has grown, so has the number of pastors. And none of them can marry a couple unless that couple has been through the pre-marital program.
2. Be purposeful to DO SOMETHING to identify whether it is “right” or not.
If you’re a pastor or church staff, don’t just fly by the seat of your pants. If you’re a couple, seek out real pre-marital preparation. If you’re a pastor, you, especially, must recognize when you are unable to do a “real” job of helping the couple prepare and appoint others to do so. You may want to meet with the couple yourself a few times, and that is great; but recognize that God has almost certainly placed others in your church who could spend the necessary time with the engaged couple in a way that you almost certainly can’t. As we said, there’s no one ‘best’ program. Our class has looked different over the last seventeen years. It has sometimes been taught by us and sometimes by other couples, but there has always been a purposeful class, guided by these principles.
3. Part of that “something” that you do must be to investigate every reason why this engaged couple shouldn’t get married to each other.
Some of the 200+ couples who have gone through our class were extremely young, starry-eyed, love-struck kids. Some were more mature and had thought things through. Some were couples getting married for the second or third time. But regardless of the couple, the starting-point intent of the class has never wavered. Every class starts out with the same statement: “Our job is to talk you out of getting married to each other.” It sounds harsh, but we believe that helping the couple investigate all the potential issues is our responsibility – and we take it seriously.
It also is not received very well, especially by the women! But trust me when I say that we have saved some heartache and pain by helping couples understand they are not ready, or maybe not even right for each other. Recently one of our newer couples came up to me at church and confessed, “At the start of the class I was coming only because it was mandatory if we wanted to get married here. But as the class went on I realized: we were not prepared. We began to work on the areas that would have caused us issues or left us short of God’s design. We thought we were ready to get married because we were in love. Now we realize our commitment must be deeper than that.”
4. Preparation Matters
Of course, we are not just investigating the reasons why a couple shouldn’t get married in order to catch the potential problems – but to address them. The more we dig out, the more a couple can prepare. Does a couple have completely different expectations about finances, sex, children, and in-laws? This is the chance to discuss how they will handle those issues. Do they understand what will most hurt their future husband or wife? If not, this is their chance to have their eyes opened. Do they have two completely different temperaments and ways of relating? Is one a shouter and one a stuffer? Were they both headstrong eldest children? Whatever their makeup, now is the time to develop healthy ways of responding to each other, rather than trying to solve heartache later on.
5. Be prayed up, and be prepared to make tough decisions.
It can be very, very tough to make the hard call that this particular marriage is not a good idea – at least not right now. Which is why the leaders and the couple must always pray for discernment and wisdom. We have a responsibility with the lives put before us. And if we take this responsibility seriously, God will honor that. In fact, after time, some people have come back to thank us for stopping them from taking the path they were about to take. And of course, there is great joy in watching those whom we have married build a life together and raise their children. We joyfully look forward to hundreds of virtual grandchildren!
6. Make marriage a priority
The host of this blog, Shaunti Feldhahn, has done amazing research to dispel the myth that the divorce rate in the church is the same as among non-churchgoers. Well, if we in the church are doing our duty, preparing couples properly for marriage can make a major impact on lowering those numbers even more. Why can I say that with confidence? After seventeen years, the divorce rate among couples who have gone through our class and who are both getting married for the first time is ZERO. The rate for couples in which one or the other had been married before is less than 10%. But preparation is not the only reason for that amazing track record.
We prepare the couple before marriage and then support and encourage them after marriage. Our church, The Freedom Center, has committed to making strong marriages a priority. We have implemented a comprehensive strategy that includes an annual marriage retreat, two-weekend marriage conferences per year, small groups so married couples can make friends with each other, weekly topical marriage classes (Sunday School and the like), crisis counseling, and what we believe to be the secret sauce, focused mentoring. In my book, Marriage Is Not Hard, I make the case that three elements are necessary to make marriage as glorious as God designed. One of those elements is knowledge, and we take the responsibility to impart as much as we can before the marriage even begins. Invest in marriages, and it will bear fruit in every ministry in your church. But how we do all of this isn’t really that important: it is how you do it, in your particular church and your particular culture that matters.
Don't give up on your marriage. It is worth the effort and investment. If you feel like your marriage is struggling, or even failing, there is hope. There is healing.