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Marriage Support and the Church’s Mission: Marriage Education Programs and Resources

Adult Sunday School presentation by John Crouch, Feb. 19, 2012


  • Why marriage still matters
  • What is marriage, today & historically?
  • Marriage & church’s mission
  • Is it mission/outreach, or pastoral care?
  • What is marriage education?
  • Various programs available that we might consider
  • How does it fit into what’s happening now in the Church?
  • Marriage Education Programs and Resources

Why marriage still matters

In case any of you don't know me, I’m John Crouch. I've been going to the 9:00 service since 2002.  What I know about marriage started from my work as  a divorce lawyer. I call what I do "family law" because it also includes work with intact families, wills, trusts, adoptions, naming guardians, but in fact most of what I do is divorce and everything that comes before, during, or for decades after it.

Before I started working with divorce, I thought marriage was irrelevant, if I thought about it at all. Back in the 60s and 70s, we thought we were moving pretty fast to a world where the government and big corporations would take care of everything in our economic lives, and the raising of children. That would leave marriage merely a personal, recreational, emotional activity. But that’s not how it turned out at all. 

Seeing what people lost when they lost their marriages, and working to make arrangements that would do some of what marriage had done in their families, I quickly learned that marriage was still important. Many of my clients lost any real role in their children’s lives. They were unable to carry out their basic responsibilities to raise the children they had brought into the world. Many were economically ruined – they went from taking care of other people to depending on other people. Many felt that they had lost their place and identity in their communities.

In short, marriage still matters, a lot. Even though marriage is not the basic unit of economic production as it was in biblical times, it’s still the most efficient unit of economic consumption, and of economic activity that’s internally produced and consumed within the household. (Yet another factor that experts in the 1960s and 70s ignored and assumed would become extinct.) It's still the most important social security system and economic safety net. And it is still the only way to be reasonably sure that you can take part in guiding your children through childhood to adulthood -- i.e., parent like a mammal, not a reptile. Yes, we’ve been working for my whole lifetime to improve models of divorced parenting, and it works well for a lot of people, but staggering numbers of children of divorce lose all contact with one parent.

What is marriage, historically and in the Bible?

Marriage is a social and economic institution that’s far older than religion or government. Moses and Jesus made somewhat different rules about divorce, but in the big picture, here is what they have in common: They did not invent or redefine marriage. They accepted this institution as  society had made it. It evolved so that polygamy disappeared at some point, but religion does not appear to have been concerned with that.  Instead, both the Old and New Testaments are concerned that people in marriage treat each other ethically, be there for each other, and that no one should be left without a place in society.

Marriage & church’s mission

But the church’s modern role in marriage should be even more than that. Robert Pierson, a United Methodist pastor in Tulsa, points out that the first words we have from Jesus’s public ministry, in Luke 4:18-21, define his mission as filling both secular needs and spiritual needs, as a single package. Jesus read from Isaiah, “He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the opposed go free;” and added, “Today this scripture is fulfilled.”  Pierson says that in today’s society, this “ litany of human needs”, would include not just hunger and disease, but also that people don’t know how to get along with people. In fact today that’s more often the root cause of their poverty. People don’t know how to communicate, to cooperate, to commit. Especially now that we don’t have the old social structures that made those things less of an issue. Modern life demands that everyone negotiate his place in society, give his partner a worthwhile relationship, be a good parent. Pierson says people are hungry for those skills and knowledge, and if a church wants to be relevant, it should help them.

Pierson’s article has a lot more about reintegrating evangelism with social and charity work, and how much mainline churches could learn from evangelicals about this. My handout has a link to the article, and to an article by Brad WIlcox on how mainline and evangelical churches differ when it comes to marriage and divorce, in their congregations and in their ministries.

What Are Episcopal Churches Doing?

The Episcopal Church's Canons have some requirements for counseling before marriage, and before remarriage by divorced people, and, most importantly, provide for clergy to impose additional requirements. Canons I.18 -- 19 (2009). It seems common to require preparation time and at least three counseling sessions with clergy. In my marriage preparation at another Church, we had the three counseling sessions, plus three classes, including one on communication skills and one on finances. I know of at least one Episcopal organization that opens these classes to non-Episcopals – Episcopal Social Services in New York City. Here at St. Peter's, Father Craig teaches the material from the classes in additional counseling sessions, gives the couple the Myers-Briggs test, and works with them to ensure that each of them really knows themselves and knows the other person, and wants to marry the other person as they are, not just in hopes of changing them. And judging by countless stories I've heard from new divorce clients, I think that's a really good thing and  should prevent a lot of divorces. For remarriage of someone who is already divorced, our Diocese's canons also have 15 questions the couple must discuss with the priest and answer to the satisfaction of the priest and the bishop.

But what about in between the wedding ,and the divorce and remarriage?

We do have a General Convention resolution saying: “All congregations are urged to support and develop ways to encourage and maintain healthy marriages, including marriage retreats such as Marriage Encounter.” (1997 Resolution D071:)

And there are many Episcopal churches that do have classes or enrichment groups for married people. Many are versions of curricula used in many different denominations – one developed by the Church of England (The Marriage Course)  and others developed by other denominations or secular sources, such as Marriage Encounter and Marriage Enrichment.

All these programs are essentially something called Marriage Education. The handout lists some programs used in Episcopal and mainline churches, and other programs that our church might look into using, or that people may want to refer individual couples to.

What is Marriage Education?

  • Training in communication, listening, understanding, follow-through, cooperation, and commitment
  • Classes, not therapy
  • Teaches skills, attitudes, behaviors.
  • Does not diagnose or treat individual disorders or dysfunctions
  • Couples don't share private details with other couples (except mentors) – NOT group therapy
  • Developed by mental health experts, delivered by trained lay people or professionals.
  • Programs come in many specialized varieties: for various religious groups, demographic & ethnic groups, military, various life situations.
  • But all programs teach same secular skills, based on same secular research
  • “Like different kinds of hamburgers”, says Diane Sollee of Smart Marriages coalition of marriage education providers
  • Studies show that it substantially reduces divorce and improves marriage quality – including large long-term studies with control groups
  • Basically skills-based, but often has something about WHY marriage is important, WHY avoid divorce, WHAT is commitment, what is LOVE.

Various programs available that we might consider

A few of the hundreds of available programs are listed on the handout [below], along with links to where many more programs are listed.  One of the main differences between them is timing -- what point in the life cycle are they designed for? 

Some say premarital is too late, in many ways.

  • Some try to do programs for people at the beginning of the process of getting engaged.
  • There are also Singles programs like “Don’t Marry a Jerk” or “PICK a Partner” - - which are what they sound like, but they also include helping people make themselves into better marriage material, and teaching relationship skills. In the black and evangelical churches in our area, programs like these are part of singles ministries that are a huge draw for church growth. I don't know about our church, but maybe some Episcopal churches could benefit from their example.
  • There are also many programs designed for secondary school, to try to reach teens right at the point where they are starting to form relationships for the first time – to teach them the skills they’ll need for healthy marriages, in the context of teaching them what are healthy and unhealthy patterns in dating relationships.

         One the other hand, some family therapists caution that premarital is too early, and couples won’t really be ready for help until the honeymoon is over and they are starting to grapple with tough issues, or having their first child. They suggest a “One Year Tuneup”.

Some responses to this concern are programs like the Becoming Parents program, which combines parenting and marriage education, and the Marriage Savers program, where an older Mentor Couple works with a couple before marriage but also meets with them in the early years of the marriage. The mentors don’t just pass on what they’ve learned from their own lives: they get some training, and they give the young couple a long questionnaire called an inventory, of questions that people should think about and talk about before getting married; and when it’s completed the mentors discuss the results with the younger couple. This inventory is called by the acronym PREPARE/ENRICH, and it’s also used by clergy and therapists. If there is interest in doing one of these mentor programs, marriagesavers is doing an online training for mentors next month.

The handout lists many available programs, including general marriage education courses, and ones for various situations such as school and youth programs, premarital, newlyweds, stepfamilies, retired couples, and various kinds of troubled couples.

How does it fit into Operation Dayspring?

I drove by Truro Church in Fairfax recently and they had two flags flying in front, right out on the road. One said “Marriage” and the other said “Parenting.” If I had been looking for a church at the time, I’d have been very motivated to go to Truro and see what it could do for my family and for the other families that build a community.

Our Episcopal church has “captured” Truro and other great church buildings in the courtroom recently. But will we capture those flags, along with the buildings? Bishop Johnston is launching Operation Dayspring, to try to fill those empty buildings with new converts. That probably means doing something very new for Episcopals – conceiving and communicating what it means to be Episcopal, making it mean something relevant to modern life. I hope we will attract not just people who enjoy fighting about who should be able to get married, but people who understand that the wedding is just the beginning, who thirst to learn, and to work together to make their relationships and families work better. 

Marriage Education Programs and Resources

By John Crouch, Arlington, Virginia

February, 2012

The items in the chart are selected based on quality but also on proximity and availability here in the Washington area, but most are national or international. It includes programs our Episcopal church might consider doing, and others that people might want to refer individual couples to. 



 School/ Youth Programs

Various programs via The Dibble Instititue 


“Don’t Marry a Jerk”





The Marriage Preparation Course


Engaged Encounter


many others

-counseling / mentoring 

Marriage Savers / Community Marriage Policies



All-purpose marriage education

Relationship Enhancement


many others

-Online Inventory 

The Couple Checkup

Pre/Post Marriage Mentoring

Marriage Savers / Community Marriage Policies

Early in marriage

The Becoming Parents Program (Marriage and Parenting Skills)

Blended families

Various programs via Smartmarriages site

During Marriage

Episcopal Marriage Encounter


The Marriage Course (used at some local Episcopal, Anglican, Lutheran & Presbyterian churches)


Marriage Enrichment


many others via Smartmarriages Directory

Older & retired couples

The Second Half

Troubled or Challenging Marriages

 - Courses

PAIRS – Practical Application of Inerpersonal Relationship Skills



-Various formats 

Other programs via Smartmarriages site

-Marriage Counseling 

National Registry of Marriage Friendly Therapists

-Adultery recovery 

Various programs via Smartmarriages site

Marriage mediation

No one web site covering our area, but see this article

Structured trial separation

Healing separations


Controlled Separation


Regional/ ecumenical Coalitions

Community Marriage Policies



First Things First (Virginia)

Web Resources


“What is marriage education and why does it work?”

By Theo Ooms


Episcopal Church USA Canons (2009) - see Last 3 pages only


Pierson, “Needs-based evangelism”


Article on marriage and divorce in mainline churches: “Churches’ Witness on the Family” by W. Bradford Wilcox



This chart and presentation






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