Ministry to couples and families composes a significant part of pastoral work. Most pastors spend a great deal of time dealing with interpersonal issues and family concerns among their congregants, indeed, more time than in dealing with theological or administrative issues. And yet many pastors lack adequate training or skills to help their members face challenges in marriage and family relationships. The purpose of this article is to provide resources that will assist pastors in their ministry to families.
To begin with, pastors need to know how to help couples planning to get married so that they understand what it takes to make a happy marriage. For many years, the North American Division’s Department of Family Ministries has encouraged pastors to be trained in the PREPARE/ENRICH program. Once trained, the pastor can lead premarital couples in a marriage-preparation program (PREPARE), and help married couples to enrich and improve their relationships (ENRICH). For information on training and resources, visit www .prepare-enrich.com.
In my premarital counseling experience, I found several informative and useful books. The Adventist Home by Ellen G. White is a good starter. While the book is a compilation, and therefore challenging for some to read, it is packed with practical advice for couples contemplating marriage as well as for those already married. Preparing for Marriage, edited by Dennis Rainey, is a hands-on workbook for premarital couples. To help you sharpen your premarital counseling skills, here are other helpful books: The Premarital Counseling Handbook by Christian psychologist H. Norman Wright; Counseling Couples in Conflict by Mark Yarhouse and James Sells; and Marriage Counseling by Everett Worthington.
In premarital counseling, I usually require the couple to read several books, such as So You’re Getting Married by H. Norman Wright, and Fit to Be Tied by Bill and Lynne Hybels. In addition, I recommend books on sexuality, such as Captivated by Love by Alberta Mazat, A Celebration of Sex by Douglas Rosenau, Intended for Pleasure by Ed and Gayle Wheat, The Gift of Sex by Clifford and Joyce Penner, and Sex Begins in the Kitchen by Kevin Leman. These books give a Christian perspective on sex within marriage and provide helpful information on sexual intimacy for those preparing for marriage as well as those who are already married who may be facing challenges in this area of their relationship.
Marriage: Beginning and early years
David Olson, author of the PREPARE/ENRICH program, cowrote the book Empowering Couples, which includes a number of quizzes and exercises to assess the condition of a couple’s marital relationship and to help them in those areas that need strengthening. Another resource from PREPARE/ENRICH is The Couple Checkup, which includes an online scoring questionnaire that a couple can take as an inventory of their relationship.1 Other books I have found helpful are The First Year of Marriage by Miriam Arond, and Why Marriages Succeed or Fail by John Gottman. Mark Gungor’s Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage is also a good source for understanding those early problems in marital life, and it comes with a video series that provides practical information for couples in a very humorous way. However, some of your more conservative members may not be comfortable with a few of Gungor’s illustrations and so you may want to view the series first. The series, priced fairly inexpensive, can also be purchased in a group version.
A successful marriage, like a good garden, requires adequate cultivation and pruning. To deal with habits, behaviors, or negative feelings that rob true intimacy from marriage, and to provide one-on-one counseling and help, the North American Division has established a Family Ministries Web site with a list of Adventist counselors. To visit, go to www.adventistfamilyministries .com/article/70/resources/directory -of-counselors. The Kettering Health Network provides confidential counseling to clergy and others at www. ketteringhealth.org/counseling/. The American Association of Christian Counselors also provides a list of counselors on their Web site at www.aacc.net /resources/find-a-counselor/.
As the family grows, there comes a time when pastors and church members reach or experience an empty-nest syndrome known as the time when children leave home for college, marriage, or simply for independence. This could be a critical time for marital relations. David Arp’s Empty Nesting guides through these challenging changes for middle-aged couples.
At some point, the unthinkable happens: a couple considers divorce. Before people plunge into this marriage- ending option, pastors can use, in their counseling process, the excellent DVD program Choosing Wisely: Before You Divorce. A very practical resource for those who have lost a spouse to death or divorce is Living Life After Divorce & Widowhood: Financial Planning, Skills, and Strategies for When the Unthinkable Happens by Maurcia DeLean Houck. These resource guides outline steps to be taken in case of a terminal illness and after the death of a spouse, so the death will not have devastating financial consequences. “Dealing With Divorce” from Seminars Unlimited is a seminar that can be used as a group program for the church and community or to help individuals going through this painful transition in their lives.
Some people will choose, or have the opportunity, to marry again. Two resources can prove very helpful to them. The Remarriage Checkup by David Olson and Ron Deal includes an online scoring questionnaire and helps the couple deal with issues that may have affected previous relationships, thus preventing recurrences. For individuals who have children and are contemplating entering marriage and forming a blended family, Ron Deal’s The Smart Step-Family is a valuable resource.
One of the growing problems facing families today is pornography. There are several resources that can assist in dealing with this threat to a successful and happy married life.
Douglas Weiss, a Christian counselor and national leader in the field of sexual addiction, has written several books on the issue of intimacy and pornography. I recommend The Final Freedom: Pioneering Sexual Addiction Recovery; Intimacy Anorexia: The Hidden Addiction in Your Marriage; and for children of sexual addicts, Beyond the Bedroom: Healing for Adult Children of Sex Addicts. Pat Springle’s Freedom Begins Here combines a devotional with a DVD program that can help those struggling with pornography.2
The experience of parenting can be the most fulfilling and exciting but also the most challenging to a couple and their marriage. Just as adequate premarital preparation can be very beneficial for a successful marriage, pre-parenting preparation can help make this experience less stressful and more joyful. One of the premier books on parenting is Child Guidance by Ellen G. White. As with The Adventist Home, this is also a compilation and contains very valuable insights on parenting from a biblical point of view. Kay Kuzma’s The First 7 Years, Sally Hohnberger’s Parenting by the Spirit, and George Barna’s Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions are very insightful books relating to spiritual parenting. To help prepare children ages 8–12 for baptism, my wife and I wrote the book Making Jesus My Best Friend (also available in Spanish).
Several other resources can be very helpful for parents:
- North American Division Children’s Ministries: www.childmin.com/eng/index.php
- North American Division Family Ministries (Parenting): www.helpimaparent.com
- Young Child Ministries: www.youngchildministries.com
- Adventist Parenting E-newsletter: www.adventistparenting.org
When death comes
Ministry puts pastors at the center of the lives of their church members. One crucial moment calling for pastoral concern is during a terminal illness or death, and pastors need to be well prepared to be of spiritual and supportive sustenance to the families involved. During my ten years as a hospice chaplain, I recommended to the families of patients the book Final Gifts by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley. Although their theology may be at variance with yours, the insights these hospice nurses offer on ministry to those going through such difficulties are quite helpful. Two other books also provide valuable insights: Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s classic book on the stages of the dying process, On Death and Dying, is very enlightening and can help us understand why those who have been diagnosed with a serious and, in particular, terminal disease act or react the way they do as the disease progresses. Another classic reading on the subject of death and tragedy is Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Writing from his own experience after the death of his son from the rare genetic condition known as progeria—rapid aging in children—Kushner does not offer an answer to why bad things happen but rather a positive option when bad things happen.
In dealing with death, two books have proved particularly helpful as I help people through their journey of grief, bereavement, and recovery: Grief Recovery by Larry Yeagley, and Beyond Grief by Carol Staudacher.
Toward happy families
Good marriages and healthy families are not accidents or happenstance. American entrepreneur, author, and motivational speaker Jim Rohn once said, “Your family and your love must be cultivated like a garden. Time, effort, and imagination must be summoned constantly to keep any relationship flourishing and growing.”
As pastors, we have the distinct honor and privilege to help the families in our churches live out heaven on earth. Sometimes teaching families a simple skill, helping them look at their relationships from a different point of view, suggesting materials to read, or walking with them through some of the difficult times in their lives can make a world of difference to them. The most important thing we can do is to make sure our own marriages are healthy and strong and our family relations are positive, even if not perfect. Then we can move on to helping the families in our church and community, and we can move on—in the strength of God and our own healthy family relationships!
1 Visit the Web site www.couplecheckup.com for more information. Couples will receive a report based on their answers, along with a discussion guide on proven relationship skills. There is a fee involved.
2 For more information, contact AdventSource at their Web site: www.adventsource.org.