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Churches Trip On Rocky Marriages

TUESDAY, FEB. 14, 1995

What is the most important single step to cut the divorce rate? Pastors are likely to say it’s regular church attendance.

But statistics don’t support that belief. Gallup Polls report that weekly church attendance by Americans slipped “only” 15 percent from 1960 to 1993, to about 40 percent. Meanwhile, the number of divorces per year was tripling (from 390,000 to almost 1.2 million).

No, the nation’s houses of worship actually bear some responsibility for the increasing rate of marital dissolution. Three-quarters of Americans marry in church and two-thirds are members of a church or synagogue. Clergy clearly have access to most marriages. Yet more than half of marriages dissolve.

Why? To be honest, pastors are failing at three levels.

First, they are not preaching on these issues. When was the last time you heard a full sermon on how to make marriage work, or on the destructiveness of divorce or the futility of cohabitation?

Second, Gallup says fewer than a fifth of married couples had any premarital counseling. And what’s there is ineffectual. Those who got it are just as likely to divorce as those who didn’t.

Finally, pastors do little to strengthen existing marriages or save troubled ones. Many clergy try counseling troubled marriages. But they are not trained in the seminary to do so. So many send couples to counselors. Yet how well do either do as marriage savers?

“There are hardly any studies showing how effective marriage therapists are in reducing divorce,” says Dr. David Larson, a psychiatrist heading the National Institute of HealthCare Research.

Yet millions of marriages could be saved - by mentor couples.

The greatest untapped resources to save marriages are couples with a solid marriage willing to share their wisdom with others. That’s my most important finding in three decades as a journalist.

St. David’s Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, Fla., designated seven couples whose marriages had nearly failed to help those headed for divorce. Since 1987, out of 40 troubled marriages, none has divorced and only one has separated. That’s quite a success rate.

Also effective is Marriage Encounter, a weekend retreat program totally run by mentor couples who donate their time. Some 1.5 million couples have attended in a dozen denominations. Thirty academic studies prove that 80 to 90 percent of participating couples fall back in love with their mates. What’s more, their marriages are permanently improved.

Call 1-800-795-LOVE to register. Give your spouse a real Valentine. Go.

My wife and I have trained 30 couples married an average of 30 years to mentor seriously dating and engaged couples in our church. They do so by administering PREPARE, a premarital inventory which gives an X-ray of the couple’s strengths and growth areas.

The young man and woman respond to 125 statements: “We always agree on how to spend our money. We share the same religious values. My partner is always a good listener.” Mentors compare how each answered the items. And they teach 10 steps of conflict resolution. (PREPARE/ ENRICH Inc., Box 190, Minneapolis, MN 55440.)

Engaged couples love the experience. “The highlight of this course was the mentoring. Our (mentor) couple was fantastic. We heard their wisdom and saw how they functioned as a team,” said Roberto Anson.

Twenty-eight cities have created a Community Marriage Policy in which pastors of many churches pledge four months of marriage preparation involving a premarital inventory and “training leader/mentor couples in each church to work as role models.”

Yet churches in those cities haven’t really implemented the mentor couples. Pastors are taking the one-day training required by PREPARE/ENRICH, and are doing a better job counseling the engaged. But why aren’t they training couples with solid marriages, who can be found in pews of every church, to help?

Perhaps they don’t know that PREPARE/ ENRICH offers a kit ($30) that pastors can use to prepare such mentor couples. That would lighten a pastor’s load - while helping equip the engaged for a lifelong marriage.

“If you want to improve a lot of marriages, you need a lot of people to help - a grassroots movement like AA,” says Dr. Larson. “Also, mentoring is biblical (Titus 2:4). It’s been going on for two millennia.”

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