Ask any pastor, and they’ll you the key to a strong congregation is strong families. It’s one of the reasons we approach marriage with such joy. When a couple sharing a belief in Christ’s love unites in matrimony, the church grows in size and impact. We celebrate their union and wish them a storybook life together.

We do that even though we know marriage is never a storybook. It can be a struggle. It can be noisy battles or retreats into resentful silence. It’s a constant stream of decisions and differing viewpoints, any of which can exert a lasting effect. In short, it’s hard.

If churches are going to encourage couples to say vows, don’t we owe it to them to provide real support to guide them through the less magical moments? As we’re helping them prepare for a meaningful ceremony, shouldn’t we also prepare them for what to expect? There are several ways churches and church leaders can turn their vocal support for marriage into a real investment in healthy, resilient families.

A great starter is true premarital counseling. Many pastors will sit down with couples and offer advice, but that isn’t as effective as a formal program. In fact, studies have found that effective premarital counseling can reduce divorce rates by as much as 30 percent. Care to Change uses the Prepare/Enrich assessment to help couples obtain an unbiased view of key areas of their relationship. After taking the assessment, the couple sits down with a professional counselor to review the results, help them understand potential relationship issues, and offer strategies to improve the likelihood their marriage will succeed.

Once couples are married, their need for support and advice doesn’t end. Just as churches develop special ministries for teens and singles, creating a marriage ministry can strengthen couples’ connections to the church and each other. In addition to building friendships among married couples, the ministry provides opportunities to share targeted messages about Christian marriage, advice about common issues, and a source for marriage counseling.

Access to counseling is also important. Whether the pastors or other staff are qualified, or whether the church turns to an outside Christian counseling center, making counseling easy to access can overcome resistance to seeking help, keeping families intact and stronger.

When couples are close to calling it quits, pastoral counseling may not be enough. That’s why Care to Change now offers a Marriage Intensive program to help couples work through particularly challenging issues. Instead of the traditional weekly sessions, an Intensive involves a concentrated effort over three to five days with a specially trained professional counselor in a retreat setting. The longer, uninterrupted sessions allow deeper discussions and can lead to significant progress in a shorter time.

Finally, one of the most important things pastors and church leaders can do is model healthy marriages. No marriage is perfect, but church members watch pastors and other leaders closely, learning from their actions and behavior. When they see genuine partnerships built on devotion, respect, and Christ’s love, they’ll see that as attainable. When they watch pastors balance their own families’ needs with those of the congregation, they’ll be more inclined to do the same within their own families.

Care to Change can offer a variety of workshops and other strategies churches can use to support marriages and couples who are preparing for marriage. We’ll be happy to discuss what’s available with you and your leadership team.

Mike Spencer is one of Care to Change’s counselors, who specialize I children/parenting, marriage, and church leadership

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