Seminaries and churches are not promoting the preparation for or enrichment of family life.

Are we neglecting the Christian family?

Norman Wright notes that of 2,500 professional family life educators and marriage counselors surveyed, almost all felt young people are “not receiving adequate preparation for marriage from their parents.” Two-thirds also said that “churches are not doing an adequate job of promoting and maintaining family life as a contemporary concept.” There seems to be a gap in education both in the seminaries and in the local churches.

To secure necessary changes we must identify the kind of help that is needed. Three definitions will make our discussion more precise.

Marriage preparation: By this we mean whatever paid and lay ministers can provide Christian young people on the meaning of Christian marriage and how to practice it. This assumes that the most critical and therefore the most logical time is prior to engagement and in the immediate period after the honeymoon.

For instance, Philip Yancey, executive editor of Campus Life magazine, suggests we need “a good book on how to know what you’re getting into.” He quotes one couple as saying, “I think we spent more time picking out our wedding bands than thinking about our compatability.” And preparation ideally includes a thorough mutual understanding and plan of action in many more areas of marriage than compatibility: How do husband and wife complement one another? How do they resolve conflicts? What is unique to an evangelical marriage?

Enrichment: This term places the emphasis on growth so that a normal marriage may become better. In his book Marriage and Family Enrichment, Herbert Otto recognizes that a large proportion of marriages and families are “sub-clinical in the sense that they have problems with which they need help and that they are functioning much below optimum despite the couple’s love and dedication to each other.… The vast majority of these families will not seek help, because the problems are of the low level debilitating kind, never severe enough to precipitate a major crisis for which help must be sought.” We must, however, distinguish enrichment from a third concept:

Remedial or crisis counseling: Terms like this describe the major professional response to problems in marriage. As a result, many think of them as synonyms for “marriage counseling.” David and Vera Mace, who are among the acknowledged founders of the marriage enrichment movement, do not question the value of crisis counseling. But often, they say, “marriage counseling has concentrated on removing pathology rather than promoting growth, and has been content with restoring the [former state of affairs]. The new emphasis on preventive counseling is therefore very welcome.”

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I will not quarrel with the use of the word “counseling” in connection with preparation for and enrichment of marriages so long as it is qualified as “preventive counseling” or “growth counseling.” Consider Norman Wright’s use of the word. He asserts that the purpose of his book, Premarital Counseling, is to build in-depth relationships and to provide information, correction, opportunity for Christian growth, and a framework in which to consider a final decision to marry. Moreover, he states that “probably more teaching occurs in this type of counseling than in any other.”

His title, however, may suggest crisis counseling. Further, the engagement period, charged as it is with emotional involvement, may be less appropriate for significant learning, except perhaps concerning a decision not to marry. (Such a decision in itself is significant and, according to Wright, occurs at the rate of between 35 and 45 percent of all engagements.)

In addition to counseling a couple, Wright advocates meeting with 4 to 15 couples in six weekly sessions of over two hours each in length. The scope of topics dealt with includes attitudes toward marriage, sexuality, role concepts, analysis of temperament, communication, finances, in-laws, child rearing and discipline, spiritual growth as a couple, and goals for one’s marriage.

In teaching a doctoral seminar, “Family Life Education,” I have noted that while pastors appear to see the need for such content in preparing couples for marriage, they still perceive such comprehensive coverage as an ideal not acceptable to many couples. (Perhaps the time when these sessions are conducted—the engagement period—causes part of the resistance.)

In a survey of 5,000 pastors, Larry Richards and his colleagues asked about churches’ greatest needs for strengthening. On a scale of 5 from a 25-item list, nearly 100 percent of the respondents gave a first or second priority to the following need: “Getting my lay people involved as ministering men and women.” Over 83 percent gave the same ranking to “developing the home as the center of Christian nurture.” Taken together these responses seem to say, “Develop parents to be ministers at home!”

Seminary Offerings

What is theological education in North America doing in the area of marriage preparation and enrichment? In the summer of 1979,I investigated this by analyzing 53 accredited Protestant American seminaries with enrollments from 129 to over 4,000.

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The findings as to courses were not surprising. Eighty-three percent offered electives in marriage or family counseling; however, to my knowledge only one seminary required marriage counseling of their M.Div. students!

Second in priority was an elective course offered by 51 percent and titled either “Family Life Education” or “Ministry with Families.” Twenty-eight percent offered a class in “Human Sexuality,” and 21 percent offered one in “Sociology” or “Trends and Issues in Family Life Today.”

Of the 53 seminaries explored, only 5 percent—McCormick, Talbot, and Fuller—provided Master of Divinity or pastoral students with a class in theological or biblical foundations of the family. (Other courses described above are no doubt also designed to integrate biblical data and principles.)

These findings seem to bear out Kenneth Gangel’s assertion that “looking for a required Christian family life course in the evangelical seminary would be just slightly more difficult than finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. But don’t worry, friends, we are still very strong on Church History and the writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers.”

What should be required in the curriculum for Master of Divinity or pastoral seminary students? Does today’s fractured family call for courses on marriage preparation and enrichment? If so, think what help seminarians trained in such courses could offer to local churches after their graduation.

Laying Plans

To improve marriage education we need to answer two questions: What outcomes or changes will be the hoped-for results of learning? What formal design of courses or informal experience should be provided for all ministerial students?

I hope the concept of prevention will be embraced. Training in ways to handle crises is crucial, but we must increase the number of courses that teach how to prevent problems, how to help avoid the crises. We see the idea of prevention widely accepted in the form of insurance policies, medical and dental checkups, and car inspections. Are our marriages less valuable to us than our automobiles or teeth? To join in marriage appears easier than to join a secret society such as the Masons, or the Order of the Arrow in Boy Scouts.

Before pastors and paid ministers agree to conduct a wedding, they should require couples to take a minimum number of assessment and teaching sessions. Some pastors use the traditional wedding vows (“To have and to hold …”) as a reference for five or six sessions on such topics as communication, planning for personal growth, money and other problems, love and sexuality, and spiritual heirship.

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What is the appropriate content for seminary courses in marriage preparation and enrichment? Possibilities might include the biblical purposes of marriage in addition to cohabitation and procreation, as well as how to prevent problems. The one-flesh unity of Genesis 2; Matthew 19, and Ephesians 5 is significant. Partnership, equality, mutual submission, and joint heirship of the grace of God (1 Peter 3) are crucial biblical themes to understand and apply. The reconciling skills of listening, affirming, empathizing compassionately, forgiving, and loving (agape love) must be inwardly experienced in a Christian lifestyle.

Not least is what James Olthius describes as “troth” education. The heart of his book, I Pledge You My Troth, is a well-reasoned plea for a recovery of this factor in marriages. “Our churches … need troth education.… Troth is not an act which occurs now and then; rather marriage is a state in which troth ought to characterize all its many aspects.… Troth is an Old English word for truth, faithfulness, loyalty, and honesty. The single word troth captures the nuances of trust, reliability, stability, scrupulousness, ingenuousness, authenticity, integrity, and fidelity.”

Also supporting the scriptural approach is what Dale Doty of the Christian Family Institute of Tulsa calls “primary coping systems.” He considers these to be processes or skills more important than specific content or solutions related to such “secondary adjustment issues” as parenting, sex, money, and in-laws. The primary coping systems emphasize marital learning in the following areas: the couple’s intentional commitment to growth, an effective communication system, and a creative view of resolving conflict—plus acquiring the necessary tools to achieve it.

A recent Moody Monthly survey of parents reflects a concern for both primary and secondary issues. These parents wanted help most in three areas: family communication, teaching Christian values to children, and discipline of children. To meet these needs a church might make an excellent beginning by showing films such as the seven-part series by Dr. James Dobson, Focus on the Family. Also, members of a church can indicate interest for “in-house” opportunities, such as elective seminars, retreats, or workshops. Or they may request specific sermon topics like “Why Godly Parents Have Rebellious Children.”

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Marriage preparation prior to engagement would consider the obvious subjects of dating, sex, engagement, love versus infatuation, selection of a wife or husband, marital expectations, and the uniqueness of Christian marriage. An excellent guide for leading discussions on these subjects is Norman Wright’s Preparing Youth for Dating, Courtship and Marriage.

It is clear that couples within the church and students in seminary need education on intimacy that goes beyond understanding physical relationships to learning the ability for each to disclose his deepest feelings and thoughts to the other. They need to be educated in a lifestyle of troth and reconciling relationships as well as taught practical answers in such problem areas as children, in-laws, and possessions.

Achieving this is no small task. Most seminary students have taken few courses forcefully related to this subject. Yet, according to a number of evangelical authorities, learning and understanding in this area will be an extreme necessity in the local churches of the 1980s. In a recent issue of its periodical, Theology News and Notes, Fuller Theological Seminary formulated several assumptions from a survey of reputable opinions:

1. The church of the 1980s must develop a priority ministry to the family.

2. The church of the 1980s must address the issues of marriage, divorce, and singleness.

3. The home must be trained to be the center of Christian education.

Commenting on this, Dr. Lester Hamish, of Third Baptist Church, Saint Louis, says, “The local church ought to place top priority upon ministry to youth in the area of the Bible and complete sex education; the lordship of Christ in love and courtship; premarital counseling; marriage enrichment and remedial family relations.”

Dr. Roger Frederickson of Third Baptist Church in Wichita also notes, “I believe if we are going to survive, the home and the family must become more and more a spiritual unit. Here is where we must consciously expect most of the teaching and Christian formation to take place. We are not now equipped at all as we should be to do that. So here we will have to learn from one another and help one another discover the way an institutional church helps the family really be the major source of spiritual guidance.”

How can a church help families if pastors have not learned these things in seminary? Let me venture a proposal. Pastors will need to augment the seminary learning they received a decade or two ago by setting a deliberate goal to improve their understanding of family ministry. They might take courses from seminaries or other institutions, passing from learner-participant to disciple or coleader, and then going solo. In turn, the pastor later can select elders, deacons, or other lay Christians as trainees in this ministry.

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Classes and seminars on marriage preparation and enrichment use a variety of teaching techniques today. Even the “givens” are streamlined with overhead projectors, visuals, and videotapes. Formal teaching is supplemented with discussion of cases and structured experiences for individuals and couples. Some use the approach of sharing by the entire group, while others avoid requiring disclosure to anyone other than one’s own spouse. I have been personally excited by seminary students who have transported the case-teaching method “back home” and used it with groups of elders or deacons, Sunday school classes, or even with an entire Sunday evening’s congregation.

Norman Wright, a leading scholar in marriage enrichment, advocated an ideal at the Continental Congress on the Family in 1975. He proposed that every seminary offer a major or concentration in family education within the master of divinity degree program; minimally, he said, all who are headed for pastoral work should be required to take two courses, one in marriage and family counseling, and the other in church ministry with families. For pastors able to return for such additional seminary training, these two courses would seem to be minimal.

Wright’s ideal apparently had not been realized as of July 1979. At that time a study showed that his own seminary, Talbot, provided five two-hour electives in Marriage and Family, but did not yet have a major. Of the 53 seminaries investigated in this study, only two had majors in family ministry. According to its brochure, Lincoln Seminary of Illinois offered “both the Master of Religious Education degree and the Master of Divinity degree in Family Life Ministry.” It is a major containing nine two-credit courses, one four-credit course, and one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. Eight of these courses are specifically family life classes.

But even more appealing to this author is a newly structured two-year major in marriage and family ministries at Fuller Theological Seminary. Sources there say the program “affirms the importance of the institution of the family in the Kingdom of God and commits itself to a ministry of building the church through strengthening its families. Consonant with this concern, the primary focus of the program is upon the preventive dimension of ministry to families which is shaped by the authority of God’s Word and the richness of the social and behavioral sciences.”

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The appeal of Fuller personally is its relatively more balanced approach to preventive and corrective ministry to marriage partners and families. Five courses on preventing problems and five on corrective measures are required, plus a research course, practice, and much Bible and theology.

The Pastor Is the Key

We have all heard that the pastor’s stance is usually the standard of a local church, and that his leadership reflects his seminary training. Few pastors, however, are conducting “in-house” family ministries. One may find only Mother’s and Father’s Day sermons or an infrequent Sunday school elective study of a book other than the Bible. The pastor or church board may also endorse imported programs or retreats, such as Family Affair or Christian Marriage Encounter.

However, better results will occur when a seminary student acquires the strategy and resources necessary if he is to become a catalyst, a trainer, an enabler of indigenous lay resource people. As a pastor, he can perhaps even be an authority, biblically strengthening Christian families through formal preaching and with methods that involve both dialogue and lay involvement.

The pastor can take advantage of significant opportunities for “retooling” in marriage preparation and enrichment skills. Several evangelical seminaries offer busy pastors courses toward a professional doctor of ministry degree with a focus in this area. My own seminary has recently provided a master’s level concentration of 18 semester hours in Family and Adult Ministries, with a balance of electives for ministry to preengaged, engaged, childless, and parenting couples, as well as to singles, grandparents, and the aging. A required course in theology of the family will be foundational.

It appears that it is possible for a pastor to disciple elders, deacons, and Sunday school superintendents so that they can lead in marriage and family growth. This will happen when we get a clergy renewed in their own priorities, in attitudes of pastoral care, and in the requisite knowledge, skills, and resources.

Seminary leaders, students, and pastors must rethink the importance of the place of training for strengthening Christian families in their basic degree programs and in their continuing theological education. They must give greater priority to preengagement preparation and post-honeymoon enrichment, while maintaining a commitment to repair and reconstruction through crisis counseling. Seminary catalogs reveal that most schools now neglect preparation and enrichment, and give only modest attention to repair.

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Three questions deserve serious consideration. First: What emphasis will seminary educators in the future give the two sides of the following statement: “It is better to prepare than to repair”? Second: what marriage and family courses should be required of every pastoral student? Third: How can local churches make use of lay resources and pastoral leadership to strengthen Christian families, without resorting to imported experts?

To paraphrase the words of our Lord, “What shall it profit an elder if he gain the whole world and lose his own spouse?”

“What shall it profit a pastor if he excel in exegesis, and lose his church families?”

“What shall it profit a seminary student if he gain straight A’s and lose his own wife?”

Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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