Phil Altmeyer devotes his career to picking up the hurting human fragments of blown-up marriages.
But he’d rather prevent these social disasters. Last night, he and thousands of others gathered in the Spokane Arena to begin the work of strengthening marriages.
Altmeyer is executive director of the Union Gospel Mission. Family breakups, he says, are “the No. 1 cause of homelessness.” The alcohol and drug abuse he encounters is often just a means to cope with the deeper pain of rejection, abuse, failure and fragmentation within the family.
Altmeyer is not alone in this discovery. From Juvenile Court to welfare offices to women’s shelters to professional counselors, our society invests a tremendous amount of money and effort picking up the pieces of families that failed.
But what if our society could make its marriages stronger from the start? That’s the goal of the Greater Spokane Marriage Covenant, unveiled last night at the Arena.
This new effort will begin, logically enough, where 77 percent of marriages begin: in church.
Pastors who sign this covenant will help establish guidelines for marriage. The guidelines are voluntary but they will give pastors a helpful community standard to point to when couples come looking for a quick, easy and perhaps ill-advised union.
The covenant calls for at least a four-month period of preparation that includes four one-hour counseling sessions and instruction in everything from finance to conflict resolution.
Beyond the effort to prepare couples for marriage, the covenant also commits churches to provide retreats, classes and mentor couples, to help people after they’re married with the challenges of keeping their relationships healthy.
Doug Engberg of the sponsoring Washington Family Council says his organization can link participating churches to strategies, materials and speakers with a successful track record. As relationships among local churches grow, he hopes for a sharing of ideas and resources. That will be crucial. Smaller churches have a limited capacity to stage elaborate marriage programs and may need resources from beyond their walls.
Will it work? In Modesto, Calif., Engberg says, churches embraced a similar marriage covenant a decade ago and believe their efforts contributed to a 35 percent drop in the divorce rate.
Spokane is the first community in Washington to give this praiseworthy concept a try. Interested pastors may contact Altmeyer at the mission, 535-8510. What do we have to lose - other than the stability of our families and of the children who depend on them?
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