The weekly newspaper listed 54 churches in and around the village of Carrollton, Ohio, where I pastored a small congregation before moving to my present church. With a low crime rate and a stable population, it should have been an ideal place to marry, settle down, and raise children. Yet a recent year's statistic showed 234 marriages recorded and 231 dissolutions filed.
Ours was a conservative, evangelical church, yet about one-third of the young people in our youth group—many whose parents were not affiliated with our congregation—came from broken homes. Some had adjusted remarkably well; others had serious emotional and social problems. Would the same pattern be repeated when they grew up and married? Would the quarreling couples or the divorced people who had dropped out of Christian fellowship ever return?
We talked about the problem in the ministerium. "There is at least one thing we can do," suggested one young pastor. "We can exchange ideas about how we conduct premarital counseling. Maybe we could learn from each other."
I was mildly skeptical. From my experience, most couples about to be married endured premarital counseling as a necessary evil—like waiting in line for the blood test. In my 30 years of counseling, few couples had ever volunteered questions or opinions. I usually ended up lecturing as they sat in stony silence.
Yet, my colleagues were convinced that premarital counseling was worthwhile. One of the biggest surprises came from a friend who said he required couples to attend no less than five sessions. He had made this vow in the wake of a tragedy: a couple he had married deteriorated to the point the husband shot his wife and himself. My friend had arrived in time to see the blood and gore.
When most of the other ministers shared counseling approaches and techniques more interesting than mine, I realized I was giving premarital counseling less thought than I should.
Soon after that when I helped reunite a divorced couple, the thought struck me: What will prevent a recurrence of their problems? What can I offer them? I came up with several simple tools.
Marriage Counseling Cards
A Lutheran pastor recommended a counseling kit that has two duplicate sets of 85 cards. A statement such as "A year is long enough to know a person before marriage" is printed on the front of each card. I have each person sort the cards into three stacks: Agree, Disagree, and Not Sure. When they finish, we go through the piles together, concentrating on the statements where there were differences of opinion. I ask them why they responded as they did, and we discuss their reasons.
On the back of each card is a professional marriage counselor's opinion about which pile he chose for the card. After we have considered the couple's responses, we read together his opinion, and then I include my own reaction. When I differ with the expert, I use the occasion to explore scriptural passages with the couple.
I use the card kit in my first session with a couple, since it resembles a nonthreatening, fun-to-play parlor game. In a painless way, it necessitates the expression of opinion. Inevitably, surprise results when the prospective bride and groom discover they do not see eye to eye on every subject. They begin to concede that discussing important issues is perhaps a good idea after all.
The card set I use, "The Marriage Counseling Kit" by James R. Hine, is either no longer available or very hard to find, but there are many similar products that can serve this same purpose.
You Are the Counselor
If there is time, I follow up the sorting game with a "You are the counselor" exercise. I describe troubled marriage situations, sometimes using actual case histories from previous pastorates (camouflaging them, of course, so confidentiality is maintained). "In such a situation," I ask, "what would you suggest to the couple? What do you think is the basic, underlying problem here?" Usually one or the other will come up with a sensible solution. But often I say, "Good advice. And to go deeper, you might have suggested ..."
That usually is plenty for the first session. I give them literature to read at home between sessions, including a list of pertinent Scriptures. But I have learned not to overwhelm nonreaders with too much reading material.
I devised another tool for a second session. In the left column of a sheet of paper, I listed hypothetical problems of a typical marriage. In the right column, across from each situation, I provided a possible response. Here is an example:
You go bowling together. Your spouse meets an old flame and spends most of the evening talking and laughing with their ex, ignoring you and leaving you out of the conversation.
There are various ways to handle this situation. First, one could try gracefully to enter the conversation. Relax and take any note of tension out of your voice and mannerisms. If the rudeness continues, express your honest feelings to your spouse—privately and calmly. Courtesy combined with honesty is the key. Frankly tell your spouse you would appreciate it if this kind of behavior were not repeated in the future. In such hurtful situations, it's good to express your true feelings while not overreacting. Above all, Christians must avoid unfounded suspicions and jealousies. (Read 1 Corinthians 13:5 in any modern-language translation.)
I set up 23 situations on three legal-size pages and made two sets of copies: one with the right column blank and one with the responses written in.
I seat the prospective bride and groom at opposite ends of a small table and have each write a response to the circumstances. When they are finished, they read each other's responses. Then I give each a copy containing the possible Christian responses, and we discuss a few of the situations. This usually takes an entire evening.
In the third session, I give the couple another sheet listing 26 potential causes of marriage failure. I ask the couple to rate the factors for prevalence and seriousness. For each item they check one of three columns: Frequently a cause of marriage failure, Sometimes a cause of marriage failure, and Seldom a cause of marriage failure. Then we discuss their ratings together.
Next I usually ask, "In your opinion, which three factors are the most serious?" Common responses include: adultery, inability or unwillingness to express one's true feelings, too much time spent away from home, and not enough time spent together. Other responses appear frequently: an increasing use of alcohol, deviousness and dishonesty, jealousy, and quarrels over money matters.
But I have another reason for this exercise. I go on to say, "I believe the single most serious and frequent 'failure factor' for marriages—although hard to define—is the lack of a spiritual dimension in the home." I explain what I mean by a spiritual dimension, how this can be cultivated, and why it is urgently important.
Next, I give them another list, this one concerning positive factors. Again they rate themselves separately, responding to 23 personal characteristics and relational factors. For instance, under the subheading skills, they rate themselves on the ability to control anger and manage conflict, the capacity to adjust to changing situations, and other interpersonal skills. Under relationships are statements like "We share a number of common interests and activities." Under personality characteristics are statements such as "I am trustworthy and dependable" and "I am generous and unselfish."
This self-analysis sheet intentionally helps both persons see their own strengths and weaknesses as well as the dangers and possibilities in their relationship. As we work through this sheet together, they begin to see themselves as others see them and perhaps to see their intended spouse in a new light.
Finally, I give them still another sheet listing the various steps, including optional ones, in a typical wedding ceremony. It begins with the organ prelude and concludes with the formation of the reception line. I instruct them to discuss this privately, pencil in desired revisions or additions, and cross out unwanted portions. I go into an adjacent office while they do this, and I wait for their knock.
We then review the special or unusual items they want to include or the normal procedures they want to change. I brief them on some of the ceremonial problems that could arise (such as a flower girl becoming too frightened to function) and how to handle those problems. We sometimes discuss other customary procedures, although receptions and photographs are not my primary concern. I regularly get a list of the names of the wedding party, since I learned that calling them by name has an amazing effect on their cooperativeness.
My counseling procedure and techniques aren't perfected yet. I have other ideas up my sleeve that keep my methods flexible. I'm still working on better ways to involve couples in meaningful and habitual prayer and Bible study. I keep trying to bring those not fully committed to Christ to a lifetime allegiance to the Lord, explaining why it is especially dangerous for a Christian to marry one who is not.
But even at this intermediate point, I'm finding new excitement in premarital counseling. At last I am making an impact!
I've also discovered that newly married couples who participate in the counseling sessions make some of the best prospects for church membership. They have already begun to understand that the spiritual dimension is important.