Troubled Marriages in the Church—How to Respond

September 28, 2011


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When I became a pastor (some 27 years ago), I was untested by the realities that come with years of experience. Entering ministry, I looked forward to sharing the life-changing truths of Scripture with a congregation eager to learn. Thoughts of leading a church into spiritual growth filled my heart and mind, but my awareness of the complicated lives I would encounter was limited. Ignorance was bliss — until reality became unavoidable!

The most challenging and unexpected experience of ministry has been the front row seat I’ve had to martial crisis. I have learned how complicated and painful life can be for those who endure failing marriages. When a marriage relationship deteriorates, it becomes a context for anger, selfishness, manipulation, immaturity, irrationality, foolishness, dishonesty, betrayal, hatred and bitterness. Making matters worse (and more painfully complicated), children are often caught in the mix of these behaviors. Helping a failing marriage is one thing; leading a family through it with the aim of protecting children is another.

Many who endure the unhappiness of a failing marriage see divorce as their only option. Yet while obtaining a legal divorce is relatively easy, it almost always results in an emotional bombshell. No matter how much anticipated or planned, divorce is more painful than imagined.

On a personal level, it often rouses guilt, anger and insecurity while shattering self-confidence. Socially, it complicates interpersonal relationships — especially when children are involved. Financially, it is usually a lose-lose arrangement. Don’t be fooled. Divorce is never an easy solution to a troubled marriage. But, if divorce is difficult for marriage partners, it is far worse for children caught in the middle.

I believe that in some cases marital separation is necessary. This is especially the case when a clear pattern of abuse exists. I have observed this in relation to substance abuse, severe financial irresponsibility, unending emotional and/or verbal abuse, psychological breakdown and abrogation of marital commitments. Each case has its own set of circumstances and level of severity.

For church leaders, it is often tedious and time consuming to discern the whole truth about the condition of a marriage. In most cases, meetings with both parties separately and together are essential for complete assessment. This takes time—something those in crisis don’t feel they have. But marital demise usually involves extended patterns of neglect and alienation intertwined with self-deception and selfish behavior. This fact, along with the high levels of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion, makes the road to reconciliation difficult.

Leaders must be aware of patterns of deceit and selfishness that often color individual perspectives on failing marriages. Seeking the truth requires time, patience and wisdom. When Couples are in crisis mode, they often expect help and answers immediately. Sometimes crisis intervention must come first. But leaders must not be drawn into hasty reactions or conclusions based on the desperate state of the marriage.

In our culture, marital  failure will occur within churches. People often turn to Churches and pastors for help when life falls apart. When marriages fail in the Church, a pastor must resist the temptation of reacting in a way that is more concerned with his own image in the eyes of the congregation.

When trying to help troubled marriages in the Church family, misunderstandings will occur. Church members must be encouraged to respect the thoughtful process pastors apply when trying to handle matters wisely. Church members should pray for their leaders and avoid jumping to conclusions about the marriage. Hard and fast conclusions will not always be immediately available. Conclusions based merely on appearance or Church talk should be avoided. The Church must also realize that while pastors help troubled marriages, they carry many other responsibilities which cannot be neglected. Pastors are also limited on what they can ethically share with other members of the congregation.

Sometimes when marriages reach a crisis level, martial separation becomes necessary. I prefer to call this structured separation. This type of separation should involve at least seven components.

Structured separation:

  1. A specific purpose statement for the separation (developed in relation to the problems in the marriage). This could also include a signed covenant.
  2. A set of specific and measurable goals.
  3. A projected time frame that does not allow for indefinite separation.
  4. A study on biblical themes of forgiveness and reconciliation (see my booklet).
  5. A reading assignment of “Hope for the Separated” by Gary Chapman
  6. A built in accountability with Church leaders and/or a counselor/mentor.
  7. A small support team to pray for the marriage and offer tangible help.

Steve Cornell
Senior Pastor
Millersville Bible Church
58 West Frederick Street
Millersville, PA. 17551