When couples come to Care to Change for marriage counseling, we always ask about their support systems. Typically, they’ll mention a best friend and their church. We ask if they’re in a life group at their church, and they nearly always smile, nod, and tell us how much they enjoy those groups. But when we ask them how much their life group knows about the problems or issues they’re bringing to counseling, they’ll respond, “Oh, we haven’t said anything to them about it.”
Pastors typically sigh in frustration upon hearing this. After all, the very point of a life group is for the participants to be authentic and share intimate details of their lives. Still, couple after couple looks at us and says, “Oh, we love our life group, but we’re not about to tell them that we’re not having sex” or whatever the problem is.
Faith is the bedrock of any church, but congregations are built with families, and the key to strong and healthy families is successful marriages. We can say the same about our communities. The healthier marriages and families are in a given community, the fewer problems the community is likely to encounter.
And yet, few churches really talk about marriage. Oh, they celebrate weddings. They talk about the importance and sanctity of marriage. They even expect pastors and lay leaders to have examples of what are seen as model marriages (which is why it can be so devastating when those marriages fail).
So churches are great when it comes to marriage at a conceptual level. But when it comes to the often-messy realities couples face, they don’t do as good a job. Effective communications, mental health issues, infidelity, parenting problems, abusive behavior, financial stress, intimacy issues (and sex is just one part of intimacy) … there’s a long list of items most churches would rather avoid than tackle head-on. Think about the congregations that have developed successful ministries for divorced individuals. How many of them put the same amount of effort into preserving marriages in the first place?
Far too often, churches shy away from issues that are difficult or unpleasant. Shouldn’t those be the issues churches should embrace? If we truly want marriages to be strong and healthy, shouldn’t we create an environment that helps couples when their relationships are most in danger? Shouldn’t our churches and our life groups become places where members can bring their deepest fears and thorniest problems? When a couple shares a critical challenge with their life group, not only will they benefit from support and advice … they’re also helping their fellow group members see and solve potential problems within their own marriages.
In addition, pastors should not be afraid to address issues such as these from the pulpit. On Sunday morning, there are couples who are desperate for guidance with problems. There are singles who hope to marry one day and need to know what they may encounter. Members need to know their challenges are being recognized, the existence of those challenges doesn’t lessen God’s love for them, and their church home wants to help them. Honesty and authenticity will always be more meaningful than platitudes.
Looking for help in tackling tough topics such as marriage? The Care to Change team can work with your church to present workshops and staff in-services. Whether you have a need to educate your pastoral team or would like to host sessions for your members, we can work with you to develop programming that’s effective and consistent with your beliefs. We’d be happy to talk with you about marriage … or any number of other tough topics. If you’d like to join us for our Prepare/Enrich workshop, register here.
Mike Spencer is one of Care to Change’s professional counselors. He has combined ministry with counseling for families, couples, and individuals of all ages.