What Pastors Need to Know about Premarital Education

Posted on October 24th, 2011
This article is featured in the Rites of Passage (Nov/Dec/Jan 2011-12) issue of Circuit Rider

“What did Jesus say about marriage?” a Sunday school teacher asked her students. Cindy, a third grader, raised her hand high and said, “Forgive them for they know not what they do!”

Silly as this old Sunday school joke may be, it is not far from the reality that couples who enter into marriage are often ill-prepared to deal with common but difficult challenges encountered in marital relationships. Our U.S. society requires a license to drive a car, rightly so, and encourages teenagers to take driver’s education because people’s lives are at stake. Marriage educators often bemoan that our society hands out marriage licenses without adequately preparing couples to meet difficult challenges in marital relationships.

Clergy are in a unique position to make significant contributions for their parishioners as they often take part in parishioners’ rites of passage, including marriage. Yet educating clergy to teach premarital education is often neglected in theological education. In this article, I will review several important issues about premarital education and what clergy can do to help couples better prepare for marriage.

What do we know about marriage, premarital education, and divorce?

There has been plethora of research about marriage, marriage education, and divorce in the past twenty years or so, and we know a lot about them. Even so, the national divorce rate in U.S. has remained steady at around 50 percent. Many researchers point out that negative effects of divorce are grave and wide-ranging and include an increased risk of psychopathology, increased rates of accidents, increased incidence of physical illness, violence, and homicide, decreased longevity, and more. Children may also suffer damaging effects, such as depression, health problems, poor academic performance, and poor social competence. The effects of divorce are not limited to the boundaries of the family, but also contribute to social, economic, and political problems.

Recognizing the deleterious social effects of failed marriage, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 has provided 150 million dollars each year for the last several years to many organizations across the country for healthy marriage promotion (and fatherhood). Such government funding helped promote many premarital education resources including David and Claudia Arp’s 10 Great Dates before You Say I Do, John Van Epp’s How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk (or Jerkette), and premarital inventories including FOCCUS Inc.’s FOCCUS (Facilitate Open Caring Communication Understanding and Study) and David and Karen Olson’s PREPARE/ENRICH. Excellent nonreligiousrelationship education resources for teenagers are also available at The Dibble Institute. Although we do not yet know whether the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 made a significant impact in reducing the national divorce rate, it is welcome news that many local churches have become more interested in relationship education in recent years.

Does marriage preparation or premarital education work?

It has been well-established that premarital education, when delivered properly, helps couples avert bad marriages and, once married, contributes to increased marital stability. One of the most significant research studies on this topic has been a national study conducted in 1995 by Creighton University’s Center for Marriage and Family. The study examined the efficacy of premarital education with 1300 married couples across the U.S. who received premarital education. According to the study, about two-thirds of the couples who were asked rated premarital education highly valuable. As a result of marital preparation programs, 3 to 5 percent of the couples cancelled their marriage plans because, presumably, they discovered that they were not ready for marriage or that they were not a good match for each other. Couples receiving premarital education four months or less before the wedding date do not cancel the marriage. For this reason, it is suggested that premarital education should be offered a minimum of six to eight months prior to the wedding. Canceling marriage was better facilitated by the use of a self-diagnostic tool such as FOCCUS.

What does good premarital education entail?

First, we need to understand that premarital education has a shelf life of about four years into marriage. This is an important finding in view of the fact that the divorce rate is highest during the first two to four years of marriage. This finding suggests that premarital education can potentially reduce the divorce rate significantly. It also suggests that different kinds of marriage education are in order after about four years into marriage. Second, couples experience premarital education as most valuable when offered by a team of clergy and laypersons and for a total of sixteen hours and seven-to-nine sessions. This is good news when one considers how busy clergy are. The responsibility of premarital education does not have to lie solely on clergy’s shoulders. It can be shared with willing laypersons with appropriate training. Premarital education that consists of much less or much more than sixteen hours is rated by couples not to be as effective. In other words, the premarital education should be sufficiently long and intense but not too long. Third, the most valued content of premarital education includes a combination of self-diagnostics and relationship skill-building components. Self-diagnostic tools can help couples assess themselves and their relationship more objectively.

FOCCUS is a good premarital self-diagnostic inventory, a widely used program that addresses religious and spiritual components of premarital education. It has 156 items, which can be grouped into more than a dozen categories (e.g., lifestyle expectations, personal issues, financial issues, family of origin, dual career, religion and values, key problem indicators, and so on). These categories represent empirically researched marital issues that are present in most marriages. FOCCUS is not a predictive test that determines whether the marriage will be a “success” or “failure.” The facilitator simply enables couples to develop better self-knowledge, knowledge about one’s partner, and to consider important relational issues.

 In addition to a self-diagnostic tool, relationship skill-building is crucial in premarital education. Skill-building resources include Relationship Enhancement, PREP, Getting the Love You Want, and Mastering the Mysteries of Love, to name a few. Most of these resources have shown to significantly improve relational satisfaction. The downside of these programs includes that participants must commit to a significant number of hours to complete these programs, typically sixteen hours. However, if any of these programs is funded by the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, participants’ financial burden will be minimal. Common to most of these relationship education resources are basic (and important but difficult to master!) communication skills such as turn-taking, listening, self-soothing, and conflict managing skills. Basic communication skills are not inherent in human intelligence; nor are they an automatic part of any formal education curriculum. These are painstakingly learned skills. Marriage based on solid communication skills is like a house built on a rock.

What are specifics of premarital education that clergy can implement?

First, clergy must educate themselves to be able to use a self-diagnostic tool and teach relationship skills. I suggest that clergy, with partners if available, recruit respected laypersons seasoned in marriage, and together participate in FOCCUS (or PREPARE/ENRICH) and one of the relationship education programs. If no training program is available in your location, consider organizing one. Second, consider establishing guidelines for mandatory premarital education for those you marry. Note that mandatory premarital education programs in general do not diminish the couples’ appreciation for them as long as the programs are of high quality. The local church’s mandatory premarital education policy would be most effective if you can communicate with all clergy in your area and agree upon a community-wide premarital education requirement. This prevents couples from “shopping around” for an easy wedding venue. Third, develop a sixteen-hours premarital education curriculum to be implemented with your laypersons. Clergy may meet with couples to become acquainted with them, review the theological meaning and implication of marriage and the wedding ceremony, address spiritual and relational issues that are within the purview of clergy-lay relationship, work out the necessary wedding arrangements, and encourage them work with laypersons with FOCCUS and to learn relational skills.

Creating a marriage mentor program can be also considered. Couples entering into marriage go through the premarital education program and are assigned to trained and mature lay couples as marriage mentors. Marriage mentors usually develop a life-long relationship with the newly wedded, although the formal mentoring relationship may end after about three to four years of marriage. The marriage mentors can be the FOCCUS facilitators and participate as teachers in the premarital education program. In local churches with effective marriage mentoring programs, the divorce rate is significantly curtailed even to the point of 0 percent during the first four years of marriage. Creating a marriage mentor program, however, requires significant time and financial resources for ongoing training and monitoring of lay leadership in the program.

What are other considerations?

Here are two.

Creating healthy and satisfying marriage is hard work, and, yes, work that is clearly worthy of the church’s investment. The commitment to healthier marriages should not, however, diminish the church’s ongoing commitment to other children of God who may not fit into the traditional family or marriage mold.

Clergy will be best advised to consider the question of how the church and its ministry can heal and hurt at the same time because in our local congregations are present the very diverse children of God, whose needs are not uniform.

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