10 Best Practices for Marriage Ministry
Over the last several years, Watermark Resources has helped hundreds of churches across the country launch thriving marriage ministries with re|engage, Merge, and Foundation Groups. During that time, we’ve made plenty of mistakes, but also paid close attention to what works and what doesn’t work. Throughout it all, we’ve seen God transforming marriages in our communities and now have the pleasure to coach others along the way. So, here are 10 of best practices we see in churches committed to helping marriages thrive.
#1 – Focusing on Discipleship Rather than Tips and Tricks
Many couples enter marriage ministry believing they have a “marriage problem,” that something must be wrong with their marriage. When they show up at your door, they are going to look to you to fix their marriage problems. However, this usually only lasts until they see they actually have a “Jesus problem.” That’s why marriage ministry ultimately needs to be about more than getting along. It needs to be about discipleship. It will be in discipleship to Jesus that marriages are truly healed. We cannot make the mistake of focusing more on tips and tricks than discipleship.
#2 – Getting Buy-in from Senior Leaders
One of the most frequent mistakes we see marriage ministries make is trying to make ministry happen without buy-in from the senior leaders or elders. Any marriage ministry needs to fit your church’s vision and mission. Ideally, it becomes partnership of those involved in the ministry and those in authority over the church. So, when you come alongside your senior leadership to start a marriage ministry, remember to be respectful and share ownership. Learn what motivates and scares your senior leaders and adjust your goals accordingly. For example, your senior leaders may really want the marriage ministry to function in cooperation with existing small groups. Take steps to understand this desire and plan how you might help marriage ministry enhance the small groups at your church.
#3 – Encouraging Authenticity in Leadership
When couples start to be vulnerable with one another, it creates an environment where progress and life change is possible. In order for that to happen, someone needs to go first. That someone is you; vulnerability has to start at the top. Passages like 1 Thessalonians 2:8 tells us we should desire not just to share the gospel in marriage ministry but our lives as well. When couples see their leaders being authentic, they will feel more comfortable being authentic themselves. For example, if conflict, adultery, abuse, or addiction are a part of your story and you’ve seen the Lord bring about restoration in your marriage, share that! Let couples in your marriage ministry see that its leaders are just as in need of Jesus as they are.
#4 – Believing Change Can Happen
Matthew 16:18 tells us that nothing, hell included, will prevail against Jesus’ church. That means we should be confident that we can see actual change happen. Doubting your impact can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Resist the urge to make outsourced counseling or marriage programs your first resort for discipleship. Trust that your church has the power to transform marriages. 2 Peter 1:3 encourages us that we have everything we need to live a godly life and encourage others to do the same.
#5 – Taking a Stand on the Tough Issues
Divorce, re-marriage, pre-marital sex, co-habitation, separation, same-sex marriage, and pornography are all difficult topics that the church too often remains silent about. If you are aiming to have a faithful marriage ministry, your couples need to know what to believe on these topics. Spend time with your senior leadership in prayer and study to determine what God would have you believe. Your church should have the hard conversations, gain alignment, and the make your positions clear. For example, at Watermark we realized the importance of clearly anticipating what we believe about marriage. After hours of study, prayer, and conversation, we crafted a Pastoral Statement on Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage. Now anyone in our ministry has one place to look when wondering about our expectations for these controversial subjects.
#6 – Not Forgetting What Year It Is
Most churches try to create the marriage ministry they wish they had 20 years ago, rather than create the one they need right now. Remember that marriage demographics look very different today than they did in past decades. Rather than assuming nothing has changed, you will need to adapt to the new challenges. For example, the number of couples who cohabitate before they marry is higher than ever. 90-95% of people will not be virgins when they tie the knot. An unbiblical view of sex and marriage is communicated almost constantly in the media. Marriage ministry needs to know how to respond to all of this with grace and truth.
#7 - Normalizing Pain and Struggle
The Bible is clear that marriage is hard (1 Corinthians 7:28). This should encourage us more than it discourages us, and because marriage is hard, we should be clear with those we lead and be honest with our struggles. Communicate often how normal it is for marriage to be difficult. Even when a couple is completely surrendered to Jesus, there will still be pain and struggle. Don’t let couples in your marriage ministry feel alone by communicating the goal is perfection or an absence of conflict. The goal of marriage ministry needs to be full devotion to Jesus Christ. We are not here to make life perfect.
#8 – Leveraging Stories
Life change is the mission of the church, so don’t just have a marriage ministry perspective. Remember that the stories of life transformation and hope in your ministry need to be shared. Your whole church will only benefit from hearing what God is doing. Encourage couples who find healing in your ministry to share their stories often, both in the marriage ministry and outside of it. Equip your church leadership with where you are seeing change. We often see that the life-transformation in marriage ministry tends to spread to every area of the church. At Watermark, we make it a point to occasionally share stories of restored marriages at our Sunday services. This not only encourages our body, but let’s attendees know that marriage ministry is a place they too could find help.
#9 – Sharing the Burden of Leadership
Unfortunately, too many marriage ministries build the ministry around a singular couple. This does everyone involved a disservice. Not only does it place a burden on the couple in leadership, but it also sets the ministry up for failure if that couple needs to step away for any reason. Work to create a plurality of leadership and disciple new leaders so that you can confidently replace yourself someday. That way, no one shoulders the whole ministry, and you can gift others with the joy ministry offers.
#10 – Reaching Out for Help
Lastly, many churches begin marriage ministry with the lofty goal of doing everything from scratch, including writing their own content and curriculum. While this ambition is not a bad thing by any means, it can take precious time that could be spent in implementation and leader training. Your ministry may be served initially by taking content off the shelf. This gives you time and resources to work out issues and understand how you want to eventually communicate concepts in your own words.
This list of best practices is not exhaustive. You can get all these right and still run into problems. However, as you move forward in marriage ministry, work to glorify God in your efforts. He is able to take even our worst attempts and use them for His purposes.
After considering these best practices, are you interested in resources and tools for starting or improving your church's marriage ministry? Register now for our online Marriage Ministry Training Conference. On February 17th and 18th, you and your team will get an in-depth look into Watermark's premarital, newly-married, and marriage enrichment ministries. Come join us!