There is never a time in ministry when I am not directly or indirectly involved with at least five to ten marriages in crisis.
When the bottom falls out, people often turn to the Lord and His Church for help. Marital crisis is a primary example of this truth. When marriage relationships become deeply troubled, many realize how much they need God’s help. But how well equipped is your Church for ministry to troubled marriages?
A mentor from my early days in ministry once said, “I really feel for pastors today. Times are far more complicated than when I was in ministry.”
He was speaking in the context of response to marital crises. There is nothing simple about helping troubled marriages. And approaching severely broken relationships too simplistically will usually lead to more damage.
Younger leaders going into ministry will quickly face this reality and feel inadequately equipped to address it. Rarely does a seminary program equip you for this part of ministry. And you can’t just hand a book or an article to people in crisis and hope it works out as you pray for them. If you choose to refer them to a counseling agency (and you’re serious about being the Church instead of just playing Church), you’ll have to be connected to the process in some way. When we work with outside agencies we ask the person or couple to sign a release form for us to communicate directly with the counselor. This is a team approach and is especially important if the individuals are continuing in fellowship with your Church.
If the couple has children who are in your ministry, special concerns and ministries must be considered for them. We team up with our children’s ministry and youth staff. If your Church doesn’t have this kind of staff available, team up with a godly family in the Church.
When working with marriages in crisis, among other things, you’ll need to think through what you believe about temporary separation, child custody issues, utilizing legal procedures to protect one party from the other, appropriate benevolence from the Church and your beliefs about divorce and remarriage. Meanwhile, you must not allow crisis intervention to mitigate prevention ministries like premarital counseling.
In his book, The Four Seasons of Marriage, Gary Chapman observed that, “…marriage between a man and a woman is the central, social building block in every human society, without exception.” Quoting a recent poll of never-married singles ages twenty to thirty, Chapman wrote, “eighty-seven percent planned to marry only once.”
Many of these singles want lifelong marriages because they had a front row seat to their parents’ divorce. But if we do not provide marital preparation for these couples, the cycle of demise will likely continue.
What does your Church require for premarital preparation?
If you’re working with singles who have experienced their parents’ divorce, special focus must be given to the way that experience affected them. You must provide insights into some of the possible ways a marriage will be affected by their painful experience. This will help them understand the potential land mines they’ll face in marriage.
In “Breaking the Cycle of Divorce: How your marriage can succeed even if your parents’ didn’t,” John Trent suggests that adult children of divorce (ACOD) face daunting challenges in both life and marriage.
“Statistically, studies have shown that children of divorce suffer from more depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, feelings of rejection, drug and alcohol abuse, delinquency, poor inter-personal relationships, and criminality than children from intact homes. Sixty-five percent of children from divorced families will never build a good post-divorce relationship with their fathers. Thirty percent will be unable to build a good post divorce relationship with their mothers” ( Trent).
Dr. Trent knows from experience the pain and challenges of ACOD.
“To say I was a mess growing up,” he wrote, “would be putting it mildly. As a young boy and then a teen, I longed for my dad’s presence in my life. I was painfully aware –especially in my high school years—that other guys had dads who played catch with them, helped them with their homework, attended ball games to cheer them on, and then took them out for burgers afterward. “
“Am I really such a rotten kid, I wondered, that my dad couldn’t stand to be here and do those things for me (and my brothers)? Like any child of divorce, I grew up asking all the ‘why’ questions.” (Trent)
Divorce is painful for all who are affected by it. I know people who are divorced but never thought that it would be part of their story. Many of them worked hard to save their marriages and did as much as they could to minimize the effects on their children.
Whatever your situation, it’s wise to be honest about the effects of divorce. If you’re a parent to adult children of divorce, get a copy of Dr. Trent’s book. Read it for yourself and pass it on to your children along with a personal note expressing your hopes for them.
After each chapter, Dr. Trent includes helpful questions for reflection and application. I pray that what he has written will help break the cycle of divorce. If you’re currently separated, Dr. Gary Chapman has a helpful little book titled, “Hope for the Separated.” The chapters are short and meaningful each with thought provoking questions.
If you’re considering divorce, go to http://www.beforeyoudivorce.org . Here you can order a copy of the DVD series, “Choosing wisely about divorce.” This is a powerful presentation of the painful complications of divorce. (You can also get this series by calling 1-800-489-7778).
Sometimes it seems like the odds are stacked against lifelong marriage. We need a renewed resolve to stand against the forces that work to destroy our homes.
Always remember the wise counsel, “A rope made up of three cords is hard to break” (Ecclesiastes 4:12). The “third cord” of a meaningful and lasting marriage is God. As husbands and wives cultivate their personal relationship with God, they strengthen their marriages. This happens when we consistently turn to Scripture to get God’s perspective on life (Psalm 1:1-3; II Corinthians 4:16-18).
Word to pastors:
There is simply no way for you to do it all. Preparing sermons and other normal parts of ministry will suffer if you become consumed with crisis intervention. Too many leaders operate with a messiah complex and end up hurting themselves and their own families while “saving” others.
Burnout is a very real threat in ministry!
We must be honest about what we are able and not able to do. In ministry, you will inevitably encounter troubled marriages. It’s important not to feel that you have to be the answer person to all matters related to a crisis. This is especially hard when you’re working with one party that genuinely desires counsel when the other has hardened his heart. These individuals must understand that they can only bring change to their own lives. But (as a pastor) you must offer help and guidance in a way that does not assume ownership of the responsibilities others have for resolving their problems.
Although often only one member of a troubled marriage is coming for help, if possible, you need to hear from both parties. Remember the proverb about the first one sounding good until the second speaks.
I also recommend that you strategically connect with the most untapped resource for addressing this challenge: the good marriages in the Church.
Consider equipping some of these people with counseling training so that they can serve as mentor couples to troubled marriages. Organizations like Biblical Counseling Coalition can help you learn how to equip your Church for this purpose.