If a church is going to support marriages, what should that marriage ministry look like?
When I give my Girl Talk, my evening event where I talk sex and marriage, one of the biggest applause lines I get is when I’m talking about how we need others to come alongside husbands who are watching porn and say, “this stops now.” I ask:
If the body of Christ can’t have your back, then what is the body of Christ for?
It’s amazing the outpouring that gets. People hunger for practical, authentic community.
And so today I thought I’d write a different kind of post. I’d like to sketch out what I think a church with a strong marriage ministry would look like, and then I’d invite you to share your thoughts, in the hope that this could be a resource page or a springboard for discussion for churches that want to be more intentional about supporting the marriages.
So let’s get started.
A Strong Marriage Ministry Will Identify and Train Marriage Mentors
Pastors should not be the main focus of a marriage ministry. First, a pastor may not be gifted at counselling, which is okay. Pastors were hired to primarily preach! Also, there’s only one (or a few) pastors. They can’t do all the work.
Thus, a strong marriage ministry will involve strong couples from the congregation. If a church is going to support marriages, then it needs to find a way to forge relationships between people where couples can talk about important issues. Mentorship, I believe, is the best vehicle for this.
Some general principles about marriage mentorship:
- A mentor couple should be a couple whose marriage is very strong and who has been married for at least ten years.
- Marriage mentors are often better equipped for pre-marital counselling than pastors, who may not have the time. It’s often better to talk to a couple, as well, than just a pastor.
- Mentors should be trained on how to ask questions that encourage discussion. Most breakthroughs will come not because the mentor teaches something but because the couple is able to talk through issues.
- Mentors are not counsellors. The role of a mentor is not to help couples solve problems but instead to raise important issues for discussion and to guide conversations and prayers. If counselling is necessary, the couple should then be referred to a trained, licensed counsellor.
- Mentors do not need to have all the answers; they need to be equipped to ask the right questions.
- The church should set up a system where it’s easy to get a mentor couple if you need one, and where it’s expected that a year after the wedding a couple should start seeing a marriage mentor for a time to redo some of the issues from pre-marital counselling (since after being married for a year new issues often pop up).
Some of the best marriage mentorship materials that I have seen have been made by FamilyLife Canada.
Marriage Mentors Will Be Chosen Based on Their Relationship Now, Not their Past
We have a tendency to promote leadership that looks one way–Christians their whole life; always chose well; never rebelled; still married to their first spouse. In many churches, the couples who are assumed to have the strongest marriages are those with the most children who have the most trappings of ardent faith–homeschoolers, ministry leaders, or family of other leaders.
However, the strongest marriages are not necessarily those that fit the “ideal” Christian mold. If congregation members are to relate to marriage mentors, then there should be some diversity in faith journeys among the mentor couples. While all should have rock solid marriages now, it’s okay if some people were not born in the church, and became Christians after a difficult faith journey. It’s even best if some marriage mentors are blended families. Let’s have the marriage mentors resemble the congregation, rather than assuming that those who “look” the most Christian automatically have the strongest marriages.
Check out these posts on safe versus unsafe counselling practices:
A Strong Marriage Ministry Emphasizes Accountability Where Appropriate
While marriage mentor couples are awesome, single-sex mentoring and accountability is also crucial, especially in the area of pornography (and not just for men! Let’s remember that 30% of porn users are female).
Churches should make it easy to get accountability partners, having an easy but anonymous place to sign up, and having it regularly advertised from the front and from small groups that accountability is available. The best accountability, though, is formed naturally, through friendships that are already there. Training people on how to be mentors for their friends is likely to work better than pairing up strangers.
A Strong Marriage Ministry Flows From an “Authenticity” Culture
The culture of a church is passed on, top down. At the church my daughters attend, the senior pastor is very open about some of the mental health battles his family has faced, so that the church family can pray for them. At the last song of the service, those who need extra prayer are always encouraged to come up to the front, without judgment. It’s never seen as a sign of weakness.
People will not open up to marriage mentors unless the church does not punish those who admit failings. One awesome man I know, for instance, was asked to serve on a leadership board and was asked for his testimony. In his testimony, he wrote about his battle with porn, which, after decades, he had won by joining Celebrate Recovery. And the church said he was no longer eligible for leadership because he had struggled with pornography.
My friend is very open and honest about his struggles, which is as it should be. By making sure that only “perfect” Christians who have never struggled (or at least have never admitted to struggling) fill leadership roles, we make confession and authenticity far too difficult.
If churches want to rescue marriages, then people need a safe place to admit when they’re starting to have problems. If they do not have that, then often no one says anything until the marriage implodes, when it could have been helped if people had felt safe to ask for help earlier.
Churches with strong marriage ministries, then, likely also have strong Celebrate Recovery, DivorceCare, or mental illness ministries. The more we deal with the messiness of life, the more people can admit problems when things do get messy. If no one can dare admit an issue without appearing strange, then no amount of marriage programs will accomplish very much.
Leaders in a Church Emphasizing Marriage Must Have Strong Marriages Themselves
It’s a biblical principle that one shouldn’t serve on church leadership unless one has strong family relationships at home. If the church wants to send a message that marriage is important, then, it must choose leaders that also have good marriages. Even if those couples do not directly take part in marriage mentorship, the leadership of the church must still model good marriages.
- Leader couples should always speak well of each other
- The couples should have no whisperings of impropriety
- The couple should support one another in their giftings, rather than the wife seen as simply an appendage or servant of her husband. There must be a “team” feel to every ministry couple.
The latter point is especially important. In churches where women are seen more as servants of their husbands, the divorce rate is far higher than in churches where marriage is seen as more teamwork. Researchers have concluded that this is because women don’t feel entitled to speak up about marriage problems when they first occur, because they believe that to identify issues would be seen as unsubmissive. Then, after years of dysfunctional behaviour, the wives often throw in the towel. If leaders demonstrate grace and care for one another in a team framework, then congregation members are far more likely to feel free to raise issues when they crop up, rather than letting them fester.
A Church That Supports Marriage Does Not Overburden Those Who are Married
Quite frankly, those who are super involved in church as leaders are often burned out with no time for their families. If the leaders don’t have strong marriages, then they can’t support other people’s marriages.
My husband has been repeatedly asked to serve on a church board. He’s been told, “it’s only one meeting a month!” But then he would also be expected to belong to a small group. Now my husband is a physician who was often on call 8 or 9 nights a month with no actual schedule. Joining a small group has never been an option for us, because we never have a consistent night of the week free. In addition, leaders were expected to go to prayer meeting once a week. Then every leader also had to join a ministry to report back to the board. So in reality, to be a leader meant 10 nights a month outside of the house on church activities, plus his 8 or 9 hospital calls a month, leaving only 10 or 11 nights for the family.
That’s not sustainable.
It’s also true that too many ministries in churches require far too much of people in their 30s and 40s, as I wrote, rather exasperatingly, in this article about what would happen if women started saying no to all the church activities?
So, a church that values marriage will:
- Ensure that no one is expected to be at church activities more than one night a week (including pastors, if possible)
- Examine their ministries to make sure that they aren’t “make work” or “make busy” events. Choose only events that feed the community and that reach those outside the church. And lower the scope and expectations of some of those events so that people are not so burned out.
- Encourage those in their 50s and 60s to do more of the child care, Sunday school, and nursery ministry to give parents a break
- Host more adult mixer activities, like board game nights or movie nights, rather than always dividing by gender so that couples can do more things together (and so that singles can meet each other)
A Strong Marriage Ministry Practically Supports Couples
Sometimes churches shy away from offering couples’ events because we don’t want single people to feel left out. Yet marriage is the bedrock of families, and thus the bedrock of the community. It is not taking away from single people to sometimes offer something for couples. One person recently sent me this note:
Being married for 27 years and having 3 children I can remember the need for support during some seasons. Now looking back I want to bless other couples in a ministry way. However the churches seem to be heavy in the ministry of single moms and not in marriage. For instance, we have Saturday Big Brothers and Big Sisters, we have single mom groups with free lunch, and we have activities and topics for support for single mothers. Maybe three times a year marriage is honored, but it’s at a beach resort retreat that costs $800 or $75 Valentine’s Day dances. When my kids were little, we couldn’t afford much of anything. I asked the church to set up a babysitting service at the church once a month for married couples to have a date night out. Did not fly. I have found churches not interested in honoring marriages in practical ways because of not offending single parents.
I think she makes a good point. Our ministries should not compete with each other. Couples need help, too.
A Strong Marriage Ministry Addresses the Tough Topics
What is it that tends to rip apart marriages? Money and sex.
Yet few churches address either very well from the pulpit. Before we blame pastors for this, though, let me say, as someone who goes around speaking on sex at churches, that I don’t think much of this should be addressed from the pulpit. There are children and teens in church; single people; divorced people. While sex can be addressed in general ways, you can’t get nitty gritty on a Sunday morning, and, as a parent of two young women, I would have been extremely offended if the pastor had said anything resembling what I say at a Girl Talk from the pulpit when my girls were teenagers. There is a time and place, and that is neither the time, nor the place, for anything that explicit.
With the money issue, too, what people really need is practical help on managing debt and using credit cards, and those sorts of things aren’t handled well from the pulpit, either. You need a workshop.
What I would suggest, then, is that the church go out of its way to make resources available on tough topics, remembering that if the church doesn’t address them, the world will fill the void.
- Encourage Bible study groups to do a study on a tough topic (I have a FREE 6-week Bible study course for a women’s Bible study group on my book The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex)
- Host events like my Girl Talk, where I talk to women about sex, intimacy and marriage, or our couples’ night, where Keith and I talk about sex together
- Encourage membership to sites like Covenant Eyes, which allows accountability and filtering for computers, phones and tablets to help prevent porn addictions
- Download Covenant Eyes’ book Fight Porn in Your Church, and have all leaders read it
- Share through social media, Pinterest boards, men’s and women’s Facebook ministry pages, or newsletter lists great articles about sex, marriage, money, and other issues
- Host financial planning seminars and good financial management seminars, and have debt counsellors available for couples who need help
A Strong Marriage Ministry Is Focused on Wholeness, Not Marriage
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a strong marriage ministry is focused on God’s heart for us: that we all be transformed into the likeness of His Son (Romans 8:29).
A strong marriage ministry is not focused on making sure that all marriages stay intact.
That may seem like a very loaded statement, but where I see churches err most often is that they are so scared that a marriage will fall apart that they fail to call people to wholeness.
For instance, if a woman comes to the church leadership saying that her husband has been using porn for years, and has promised to stop but never has, this is the scenario I often see unfold: The husband promises the leadership that he has stopped, and the wife is lectured that she must forgive, because Christ forgave 70 times 7. Now the church leadership has likely shortcircuited the work that God was trying to do in that man’s life.
He has a porn problem and a repentance problem. Quick forgiveness will not solve it, but it will make church leadership feel better because, “now we saved another marriage!” God is interested in changed hearts, not shells of marriages.
A strong marriage ministry is not focused on making sure that all marriages stay intact.
Churches must be able to identify toxic things that will destroy a marriage–porn use, addictions, emotional, verbal, physical, or sexual abuse–and when these things pop up, the emphasis must be on healing these issues, not healing the marriage. True relational healing can only happen once the underlying toxic things have been properly dealt with. But we’re often too scared to deal with toxic issues because they’re so huge and they threaten the marriage. Instead we try to paper over them.
Churches must be better at supporting those in difficult marriages and calling sinners to repentance. Not every marriage problem is a communication problem, and yet we often treat them as such, telling people to learn each other’s love language or to learn to talk more. Some problems are caused by a huge sin, and those problems are often one-sided. Not every marriage issue has two parties at blame. Until churches can start calling a spade a spade and calling people to something more, while supporting the hurting spouse, no marriage ministry will ever be effective because you will be undermining the authenticity of your witness.
I’d point you to this excellent article on “burning down the house” to learn more.
The Wrap-Up: Where Does Your Church Fit on the Strong Marriage Ministry Scale?
If you’re talking about this article as a leadership community, here are some questions to ask. Rate each question on a scale of 1-5, which will give your church a score out of 75. This may provide some insight on where your efforts should first focus as you grow a strong marriage ministry.
- Does our church have “marriage mentors”?
- Do the couples that we believe have strong marriages all fit that “ideal Christian” mold? Could we be missing some strong marriages because we have preconceived notions of what a strong marriage will look like?
- Is the weight of marriage ministry resting primarily on our pastor?
- Do those struggling with pornography in our church have an obvious, well-advertised place to get help?
- If a couple needed marriage help, or a person wanted an accountability partner, is there an easy way to access that help?
- Looking at our church leadership, including the board(s), paid staff, and ministry coordinators, how overburdened are they? How are their marriages?
- Is teamwork a hallmark of the marriages among our church leadership?
- Do leaders in our church regularly speak well of their spouses and encourage their spouses’ spiritual giftings?
- Looking at those aged 25-45 in our church, how much of the practical, hands on responsibility for ministries falls on their shoulders? How much falls on those aged 45-65? Is this a healthy balance?
- Do we have a culture where people can safely admit that they are struggling without judgment?
- Does our church handle sex in a healthy way? Do our small groups, couples’ ministries, or single-sex study groups feel comfortable talking about it?
- If couples are having major debt issues, do they know where to go for help?
- Have we had low-cost, affordable marriage events (either couple events or single-sex teaching events) at our church in the last year?
- Do we have a network of trained Christian counsellors to whom we can refer couples in trouble?
- Do we regularly refer couples who are dealing with toxic issues, rather than trying to deal with issues of that magnitude when we may not be trained for it?
Remember: You can Download a .PDF of this post to take with you to a meeting at your church and start talking about this!
Now let’s talk in the comments: Have I left anything out? What works at your church with marriage ministry? What doesn’t? Let me know, and we can help each other!
And can you help me by sharing this post? I’m really passionate about building marriage ministry in actual congregations, rather than just online. I think we all need face-to-face community. So share this on Facebook and Pinterest so more people will see, and hopefully more churches will feel called to minister to the couples in their congregation!