After 26 years of ministering to married couples (and 25 years of marriage), I am convinced that premarital training not only gives a marriage a fighting chance at survival and longevity, but it is a secret outreach tool that many churches overlook.
Providing premarital training can be a good outreach tool for pastors because it has the potential to attract young families to your congregation. Working with engaged couples gives them a great experience at your church, exposes them to necessary relational skills and may even pair them with mentor couples. These experiences also seed the importance of marriage enrichment and increase the likelihood that couples will reach out to your congregation when they inevitably face hard times.
My wife, Erin, and I just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. One of our biggest regrets is that we didn’t do more premarital training. I was so arrogant at 23. I assumed that because I grew up in the home of Gary Smalley, renowned Christian speaker and best-selling author, and I was getting my master’s degree in counseling, that we didn’t need any marital prep. Boy, was I wrong!
Erin and I really struggled during the first three years of marriage because we didn’t have the right skills to manage our conflict. Now when I look back on the relationship assessment that we took before our wedding, I’m reminded that the report “strongly suggested” we could struggle working through conflict. I’m confident that some premarital counsel would have made a huge difference in our early years of marriage.
Research shows that couples who succeed in marriage gain the skills they need before they settle into destructive patterns that often lead to divorce. In fact, the Oklahoma Healthy Marriage Initiative found that couples are 31 percent less likely to get divorced if they get some sort of premarital training before they marry.
So, what’s the secret to a thriving premarital ministry and what skills are essential for couples to learn?
Four keys to a great premarital program
Don’t discourage engaged couples. We often give newly engaged couples a confusing message. On one hand, we are excited and congratulate them, but then we inject a sense of reality into their idealistic outlook by saying things like: “Marriage is really hard work” and “Things will change after you get married.” No wonder couples can feel ambivalent.
Yes, we need to be honest in preparing couples for a lifelong marriage, but we don’t need to discourage them in the process. Stay positive as you teach them the skills needed for a successful marriage.
The better message to share with couples is: “Marriage is an amazing journey.” They need to know that they will have incredible times together—moments filled with love, friendship, passion, laughter, fun, unity, joy and security. But they will also face hardships, disappointment, hurt, anger, disconnectedness, frustration and loneliness. Although they may experience many of the highs and lows, this can be a great thing because God can use every season of marriage for His glory and for their benefit.
Understand God’s purpose for marriage. As paraphrased in The Message, Malachi 2:15 says, “God, not you, made marriage. His Spirit inhabits even the smallest details of marriage…so guard the spirit of marriage within you.” Marriage was God’s idea, and He expects us to honor it (Hebrews 13:4).
Marriage is a lifelong covenant with God (Matthew 19:6). So when hard times hit, challenge couples to remove the word divorce from their vocabulary. In his excellent book Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas offers another perspective when he asks the question, “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?” God’s true purpose in marriage is to mold both husband and wife into the image of Jesus Christ.
Invest in marriage. One of the most common factors people cite as a reason for divorce is what they refer to as a “slow fade.” There wasn’t an obvious problem—their love simply grew cold and they grew apart. French author André Maurois wrote, “A successful marriage is an edifice that must be rebuilt every day.” He was right on the mark. Marriage is a lifelong process to which husbands and wives must commit again and again. The key is to teach engaged couples the value of continuing to invest in their marriage, and to equip them with practical ways to make daily investments in each other.
Protect unity. I’ve heard that it takes the average couple nine to 14 years to stop thinking about themselves as individuals and to start thinking about themselves as one entity—to go from “me” to “we.” It should be no surprise, then, that the average length of a marriage that ends in divorce is eight years. I imagine these divorcing couples didn’t understand that unity is the superpower in marriage—God unites couples to do together what they could never do alone.
Engaged couples also need to understand that the sign of a healthy marriage is not the absence of conflict, but the management of conflict. They need to be reminded of the admonition in James 1:2, “Count it all joy…when you meet trials of various kinds.” Conflict (trials) is always an opportunity to learn something about each other and about marriage, so view it as a gift rather than as something to avoid.
Additional features of a great premarital program
Consider including the following topics:
How to leave and cleave
How to deal with family-of-origin issues
How to negotiate finances
How to create realistic expectations
How to live according to biblical roles in marriage
Ideally, premarital training should be broken into a 10-session format lasting one to two hours each session. This could be accomplished by using an individual or a group (five couples max) format. The training should also include an assessment similar to the Couple Checkup that Erin and I took before our wedding.
As you equip engaged couples for success in marriage, remember that you are investing in their future marriage as well as in the future of your congregation.