A Holistic Marriage-Keeping Strategy
by David Gushee
I have spoken with many pastors and other church leaders who are tempted to despair in the face of the constant collapse of marriages in their congregations. They just begin to stanch one wound when a new one is inflicted. They know that slapping bandages on the wounds is not enough, but they do not know what to do instead. They are simply perplexed.
A comprehensive strategy is needed. Church leaders can begin by declaring their intent to make their congregations oases of healthy lifetime covenant marriage. Governors of three states have made cutting the divorce rate a central goal of their administrations. Certainly if secular leaders can proclaim and work toward such goals, church leaders can do the same thing – and better.
A wise strategy will begin with four assumptions.
First, congregants have already been taught something about marriage, for good or ill, mainly the latter. Disastrous patterns of thinking and living characterize many couples, even those who make their way into church. Thus the church will need to undertake a considerable project of resocialization – identifying untruthful and damaging approaches while instilling and incarnating a new vision of marriage (and life).
Second, a holistic strategy will require creative and committed employment of all that is known about how behavior and thinking are changed. Various learning theories are helpful here in identifying ways that different kinds of people learn, change, and grow. Motivation, reward, correction, modeling, and apprenticing all need to be carefully considered.
Third, the church's instructional ministry must be complemented by ongoing pastoral care and recovery ministries. It's like trying to teach a teenager to drive while the car is still moving and accident victims litter the roadways. We have to tend to the wounded while we try to prevent further wrecks, which is no mean feat.
Finally, the church will not be able to address marriage and divorce in an adequate manner without clarifying the relation of the individual congregant to the community. The church and all its members must be clear concerning whether accountability and correction are a part of the church's repertoire of resocialization tools, or whether church leadership is confined to instructional and therapeutic ways of ministering. It must be determined whether the church is a purely voluntary community, in which congregants sift through teachings and partake of ministries they perceive as beneficial, or instead a community in which the member is covenantally bound to accept direction, correction, and discipline.
In light of these assumptions, if a minister or church wants to declare marriage-keeping a central goal for the congregation, the strategy for getting there should involve the twelve elements below, encompassing a mix of proclamation, education, pastoral care, church policies, and congregational polity. Consider advocating or implementing elements of this strategy in your congregation.
- Preach, teach, and model with the goal of nurturing whole, healthy, morally sound, committed Christian disciples.
- Preach, teach, and model a reoriented moral vision related to the nature and purposes of marriage.
- Preach and teach a biblically sound approach to divorce and remarriage.
- Employ the resources of the youth, college, and singles ministries to offer sound instruction related to dating, sex, and courtship.
- Require premarital testing and counseling before participating in any wedding or permitting any wedding to be performed in your church.
- Offer marriage enrichment, instruction, and mentoring programs.
- Offer crisis counseling ministries and a network of referral services for some of the most serious cases.
- Offer a divorce recovery ministry or information about how to find one in the community.
- Establish and maintain the kind of faith community in which relationships of intimacy, trust, and accountability can grow.
- Establish clear policies and practices related to confrontation of sin, accountability, restoration, and church discipline.
- Find ways to honor successful models of healthy marriage.
- Nurture a radically counter-cultural church ethos in which congregants are accustomed to doing things differently than the world.
The above is excerpted from David P. Gushee's Getting Marriage Right: Realistic Counsel for Saving and Strengthening Relationships (Baker Books, 2004).