On a hot summer day, a young couple knocked on the pastor’s door and asked, “How long will it take for you to marry us? We already have our license.” A bit surprised, the pastor replied, “The actual wedding service takes about ten minutes, but first we need to talk about your expectations and preparation for marriage.” Turning to his intended bride, the young man said, “I guess I need to turn off the car engine. Looks like we may be here a while.”
Your church probably already has a wedding policy stating the fee for use of the church building and providing guidelines for selection of music, decorations, and other details. Do you also have a marriage preparation policy? As many marriage education programs state, “a wedding is for a day, but marriage is for a lifetime.” Although the wedding is a very special event for the couple, their families and friends, and the communities to which they belong, we should give as much attention – if not more – to marriage preparation as we do to planning the wedding.
The first step for a couple considering marriage is usually to contact a pastor or staff person to set a date for a wedding in the church facility. Often they will ask the pastor to conduct the ceremony, but sometimes they will want a guest minister not on the church staff to officiate. In that case, the pastor, if willing, invites the guest minister to officiate or share in the ceremony in some way. Sometimes the couple will ask the pastor to officiate at a wedding located somewhere other than in the church facility. In any case, this initial contact provides an opportunity for the pastor to state clear expectations – not only for the ceremony itself, but also for marriage preparation. If your church has developed a policy, it will be easier to encourage participation in a minimum number of sessions with the pastor, with a mentor couple, and/or with a group of other couples. A marriage preparation policy may also specify resources to be used, books to be read, or other activities, such as church attendance or Engaged Encounter. Hopefully, however, the policy will be flexible enough to meet the needs of individual couples. (See “Sample Wedding/Marriage Preparation Policies” at www.marriagelovepower.net.)
Perhaps you think your church is “too small” to have a marriage program/policy. Perhaps no one in your congregation has requested a wedding in recent years. Rather than assume that situation will continue, your church can join with other churches in your area – of the same or different denomination– to create a marriage ministry program, including a marriage preparation policy. The Marriage Savers website, www.marriagesavers.org, offers help for structuring a Community Marriage Policy®, stating common expectations and guidelines for weddings within an entire community.
Marriage Preparation as Outreach
Invitations to officiate at a wedding and requests for use of your church facility for a ceremony provide vital opportunities to minister with couples and families. If your church building is known as a “photo-op” church because it offers an attractive setting for the wedding, you will have even more opportunities to connect with couples as they begin their marriage journey. Seek to involve these couples in the life of your church – or of a congregation wherever they may live. A thoughtfully developed and well-publicized marriage preparation policy and marriage ministry program may attract new members. Your current members can invite engaged couples they know with confidence that they will be well served. Since some churches with strong mentoring programs receive requests for mentors from non-members, the church policy should clarify expectations for participation in such programs. Church members, of course, would not be expected to pay, except possibly for some resources they may need to purchase. Non-members might be treated as guests, charged a nominal fee, or invited to make an offering.
How to Start a Marriage Preparation Program
If your church does not already have a marriage preparation policy and program, start by learning about what other churches are doing and what resources they recommend. Visit GBOD.org/marriage for numerous resources. Download “Best Practices in Marriage Preparation” (under the Marriage Preparation section) and the relevant resource lists posted there as well. The “Best Practices” article describes the basic resources, including Growing Love in Christian Marriage Couple’s Edition and Pastor’s Manual. Other documents describe a variety of resources that can expand and strengthen your premarital ministry and address specific concerns, such as cohabitation, interfaith marriage, and second marriages. You will find a list of books and materials couples can use on their own as well as other resources you can use in your counseling with individual couples or as the basis for a group study.
Effective marriage preparation programs may include an inventory of the couple’s strengths (areas in which they have a similar background and hold similar values) and areas of potential conflict, an inevitable part of any intimate relationship. You will want to give them tools for communication (speaking clearly and listening in order to understand) and for identifying values and coping with conflict, even if they cannot imagine having disagreements. You can encourage them to intentionally nurture their relationship through the years and inform them of resources to support them as they experience normal transitions and encounter unexpected challenges. (See documents posted under Marriage Education and Enrichment and Crisis and Transition sections at the aforementioned website.
Part of a Comprehensive Family Ministry
Marriage Preparation is only one component of a comprehensive marriage and family ministry, which should also offer relationship education for all ages; marriage education and enrichment; and supports for those in crisis, transition, and special situations. Parenting classes, support groups, and/or parenting mentor programs can help couples deal with the sometimes overwhelming demands of parenthood. Couples with healthy, happy marriages are a very important component of such ministries. Singles are important too and should be affirmed and included as a vital part of the church’s extended family. Although some singles appreciate special activities geared toward their interests, others prefer to be fully integrated into the worship, study, and mission of the church. Some may welcome opportunities to serve as surrogate aunts and uncles to children in the congregation.
Marriage and family ministries must have the warm support of the pastor and should also involve a strong team of lay persons, including - but not limited to – trained counselors. If you do not find such persons in your congregation or community, recruit potential leaders to send for training.
Some Factors to Consider
1. Does your state offer a marriage license discount for couples who participate in an accredited marriage preparation program? Does your church’s program meet those requirements? Among states that offer marriage license fee discounts are Texas, Florida, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. You may be able to verify your state’s law at http://www.usmarriagelaws.com/.
2. Do you have on your church website a description of your basic marriage preparation policy and program and how it may be adapted to the needs of each couple? Is it clear how to contact someone for more information?
3. Do you or could you offer a sponsor/support/mentor/host couple program? Research validates the value of trained support couples as an essential part of a church’s ministry to couples (see Wages & Darling, 2004). Mentoring couples may provide support for marriage preparation, post-wedding follow up, and special situations (parenting, eldercare, marital conflict, bereavement). See the “Mentor Couples” chapter in the Growing Love in Christian Marriage Pastor’s Manual and #4 below for more information.
4. Download the PDF “Marriage Preparation Resources for Pastors and Mentor Couples.” Which of these could you integrate into a more effective program? For example, if you are already using PREPARE/ENRICH, you could blend its profile and feedback report with the topics covered in Growing Love in Christian Marriage.
Add to Our Network of Information
If your church now offers some form of marriage and family ministry, please complete the Survey at www.marriagelovepower.net and send it to Jane Ives (JaneIves@aol.com, 10 Quaker Lane, Portland, ME 04103) for inclusion in web documents listing churches that provide effective marriage support services. You may also use the survey to assess how to expand and enhance your own marriage and family ministry.